Friday, July 4, 2014

Friday BookReview: rediscovering Aquinas on the emotions

[first published February 1, 2013]

“The nature of our passions is to buttress the soul in knowing and loving God.”

In the Logic of Desire: Aquinas on Emotion, a young Dominican priest, Fr. Nicholas Lombardo, O.P. turns his STL (licentiate of sacred theology.) into a book. This is usually a very bad idea--but not this time. He is an heir and contributor to a century of intellectual ferment in Catholic moral theology. "Virtue Ethics" is a tradition found in Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas and revived in notable works by Joseph Pieper (1939), Servais Pinckaers (1964), Elizabeth Anscombe (1958) and Alistair Macintyre (1971).
"For Aquinas, ethics involves more than the analysis of discrete choices: it is concerned with persons more than their actions. The virtuous life is about the cultivation of a fully human personality...virtue is the expansion of the self to its fullest potential for greatness, happiness and creativity. The parameters of virtue are determined by the teleology of human nature not by rules or conventions." (p 242)
What Fr. Lombardo brings to this project of his elders is a sustained explication of Thomas Aquinas on emotions. He argues one cannot really understand an ethical system based on virtues unless he fully understands an anthropology based on natural appetites, passions, and affectivity. Those are the categories of Aquinas, which Lombardo fully draws out before he suggests how to apply the multivalent word of "emotion." It is a testament to his insight that Fr. Lombardo won the John Templeton Award for Theological Promise by suggesting that Aquinas is an indispensable teacher on the emotions-a category he never mentioned by name. Passions, natural, sensitive and intellectual appetites, inclinations, affectus, and habitus: ---so many terms--so much reality. They help scaffold the metaphysical "cathedral" of Aquinas's mature thought. It is the singular achievement of the author that he shows and reshows us how these different phenomena fit together in the emotional life of humans. And he is certainly right that an appreciation of passions, affections and appetites gives us a much sharper focus on the targets of different virtues and the integrative actions of grace.
The book begins, "Aquinas's account of the emotions centers on his account of desire". The account of man and his desires is set in a grand narrative of exitus-reditus--of God's desire to create and our desires to return to Him. Aquinas explained the perfection of different emotions with specific virtues inside the larger context of a "metaphysics of appetite". "Aquinas view of passion and telos does not derive from philosophical reflection alone. There is a massive theological premise that is never explicitly stated because it is so obvious: the passions carry us toward our telos because they were created by God and thus they are trustworthy. God is the guarantor of desire. In Him there is a metaphysical basis for welcoming and trusting the passions."(p43).
"The inner logic of Aquinas on emotions is difficult to penetrate." says the author for "Aquinas can be maddenly discreet about his theological agenda".
Aquinas is "discreet" about theology the way fish are discreet about water. The Angelic Doctor swam in a sea drenched in God's living presence. When he spoke of natural law he could not imagine such a notion divorced from Divine Law. He lived within a different set of unspoken givens. So for him, man is made for friendship with God and all his passions and appetites are ordered to that end. The unplugging of man from his constitutive relationship with God crisscrossed his circuits and thus the passions can often be chaotically arrayed against man's "telos." But it was not so in the beginning and it is not so in man's fundamental nature. Aquinas understands original sin and the consequent loss of sanctifying grace as a disruption of man's NATURAL STATE -- being in obedient love with God.
"One of the most crucial elements of Aquinas's account of the emotions is the premise that the passions naturally obey reason and naturally tend toward reason. Everything hangs on whether he is right on this premise. If he is not, the passions cannot be the seat of virtue... The natural obedience of passion to reason is the foundation of Aquinas's account of how virtue and grace perfect human affectivity."(p238-9) "The human appetite remains fundamentally oriented toward the authentic telos of the human person even after the fall. However the more fundamental challenge to his positive evaluation of human appetite remains: the fact that the experience of disordered desire is inextricably part of our fallen experience of desire." (p231) While Lombardo and Aquinas grant the reality of deeply disordered appetites (and they use just that language to describe certain proclivities) they insist that the nature of our passions is to buttress the soul in knowing and loving God. We often think of disordered passions in terms of too much intensity. Actually the source of disorder is more often either a deficit of intensity toward a proper object or an emotion falsely directed to an improper object.
There are many rewards in letting this scholar show us the picture that Thomas sketched of the desires and affections of man. Thomas drew a multi-dimensional man with a coherence of passions and soul because he drew him against the backdrop of the whole story of creation and Scripture. This is no journey into archaic language but a profound description of men who live today. The categories of this explanation provide a looking glass for self-reflection. Consider love and hate, desire and revulsion, joy and sorrow as fundamental emotions. Serving these basic desires and affections are hope and desire, daring and fear, and anger. These passions are not to be suppressed by a bludgeoning Will. They are here to help the Will to desire and love God more intensely. So let us add to the examination of conscience an examen of emotions. What are the proper objects for my emotions? How puny or robust is their expression?
I don't desire God enough. I don't hate the devil with near the emotion he deserves. I am angered by slights to myself but tepid in rousing ire at injustice to others. I have adjusted my emotions in synchrony with the worldly lesson not to feel revulsion at repulsive evil actions. I smirk when I should cringe. I tolerate what I should abhor. Somehow I consider fear of hell a relic of an earlier age or a deficit of less perfect contrition. Examining the emotions can redirect the examination of conscience. This practical fruit of virtue ethics, only partially realized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, comes to greater maturation as specific virtues are more explicitly evaluated in terms of corresponding emotions. The discussions of justice and charity were particularly profound and practical. (Readers will sense a special joy when Fr. Lombardo's footnotes credit not a book he has read but a spiritual conference he attended in the course of his everyday life as a Dominican. Alistair Mcintyre predicted the penetrative power of such words coming from a man being forged by communal life. It was a Dominic though, not a Benedict, responsible for the formative polis.)
This book (like Aquinas) treats Sanctifying Grace and the gifts of the Holy Spirit as fundamental to man's flourishing. There was no attempt here to squeeze man's soul into the narrow linguistic confines of an honors course at a secular University. Grace and the Holy Spirit were not considered embarrassing ancient relatives who the young intellectual must hide away while trying to win his place among modern scholars. How refreshing to see a scholar unafraid of the sacred. How right to see a priest propose the efficacy of sacraments.
The Dominican godfather of the revival of virtue ethics was Rev. Servais Pinckaers (1925-2008). In 1952 he wrote his STL thesis on Le "Surnaturel" by Henri de Lubac,S.J. The theological project of deLubac was to reunify the constitutive relationship of man's nature and God's grace. He thought this had been torn asunder not by atheists but Catholic "manual theology". Today we see a peculiar version of this same tendency in civic discourse among Catholic "public intellectuals." Armed with an inflated view of their impeccable reason, they leave Scripture and God at the city gate and think they will explain natural law, the rights of the unborn or the purpose of national life stripped of spiritual telos. Fr. Lombardo counters the practical atheism of our day and the still present stultifying naturalism of Catholic intellectual life. His book is a tribute to Fathers De Lubac and Pinckaers and should have many edifying ramifications in Catholic psychology, preaching and public rhetoric. He shows us in the most striking way that nature desires grace and grace fortifies nature. That desire is especially engraved in the emotions of man who can neither live nor flourish without the God who made him.

Check out this earlier post with its link to a videotaped talk by Father Lombardo.

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