An Unfair Reputation
Why have the emotions earned such a poor reputation? Perhaps, the reason is that the emotions are always present in our vices, and, because of this, we most highly associate emotion with sin. Hatred can lead one to commit sins like racism and prejudice. Anger can lead one to commit sins like murder and road-rage. Despair can lead one to commit sins like suicide and self-loathing. Because some emotions tend to be present while we sin, we sometimes subconsciously (or even consciously) think that the emotions must be dramatically suppressed.
Stoicism and Hedonism
This is not a new question, however, as the problem of the emotions were first discussed by Pre-Christian philosophers. The general history of the “problem” of the emotions can be summarized by two extreme schools of thought: the stoics and the hedonists.
We commonly use the word “stoic” as an expression of a person who is without emotions. But, stoicism gets its name from its founder, Zeno, in 336 B.C. who would sit on a porch or “stoa” and discuss his ideas. Consequently, Zeno’s followers would be called “stoics” or “philosopher of the porch.” Stoicism is inherently materialistic, the soul exists, but in a material way. The emotions are held as false judgments and so one should spend their life dispelling such false judgments. Emotions interfere with one’s ability to be free, and they are contrary to human nature. As a result, if one wanted to be virtuous, they must be machine-like – cold and mechanical, in a word – emotionless.
The doctrine that pleasure is the goal of life and is man’s highest good. By pleasure, true hedonists understand the admittedly imperfect enjoyments of this life only.
It was first formulated by the Greek philosopher Aristippus (c. 435-360 B.C.). Misinterpreting the teaching of Socrates (470-399 B.C.), who said that happiness is the end of life, Aristippus identified happiness with pleasure. He held that intellectual pleasures are higher than sense pleasures, but what matters is the pleasure here and now available. An act is good, and therefore virtuous, insofar as it gives present satisfaction. (John A. Hardon, S.J., Modern Catholic Dictionary, page 245)
Hedonism is encapsulated by Nike’s slogan: “Just Do It!” One should not attempt to try to control their emotions, rather, they should let their emotions have full control and full freedom to do as they like.
The consequences of each school of thought speak for themselves. Stoicism leads to a rigorism and puritanicalism when applied to sexuality. The pleasure one experiences in the sexual act is an evil that is only tolerated for the sake of procreation. Likewise, in psychology, a stoic outlook can lead to the dangerous repression of emotions. In certain times and places, this excessive hatred toward the emotions has crept into the Church and caused some to have a disdain for anything related to the body.
On the other extreme, hedonism has led to an excessive love of the emotions leading to a morality which is pleasure-based. In an attempt to make sense of the sexual revolution which is a consequence of hedonism, some Catholic moralists have even attempted to suggest that perhaps there are no sexual sins at all. In terms of the consequences which hedonism has had on the world itself, the effects are dizzyingly straightforward and unfortunately common (i.e. sexual sins, an unhinged pursuit of wealth, etc.).
An Authentic Understanding of the Emotions
Sometimes one’s health can only be appreciated when they have experienced sickness, now that we have experienced sickness in the emotional life, let’s take a look at health.
Classical theology and philosophy have used the term “passions” as opposed to “emotions or feelings.” In treating this topic, the Catechism begins:
The term “passions” belongs to the Christian patrimony. Feelings or passions are emotions or movements of the sensitive appetite that incline us to act or not to act in regard to something felt or imagined to be good or evil. (CCC 1763).
Aristotle defined 11 passions which are broken down into two categories. “Concupiscible” passions are related (by attraction or repulsion) to simple goods and evils, they are love and hate, desire and aversion, joy and sorrow. “Irascible” passions are related (by attraction or repulsion) to difficult goods and evils, they are fear and courage, hope and despair, and anger. These emotions are called “ira” because they use the emotion of anger to overcome difficult situations.
Of these 11 passions, the Catechism lists love and hatred, desire and fear, joy, sadness, and anger as the principal ones (CCC 1772). Of these 7 primary passions, love remains the most fundamental.
It is important to recall that the human person, fundamentally, is a composite of body and soul. The passions, however, do not properly belong to either the body or the soul (though they do participate in both). Animals, for example, do have passions, but we experience our passions differently than animals because of the presence of reason in the human person.
The most important point to understand with regards to the passions is that they are neither good nor evil in themselves. Stoics saw the emotions as evil, hedonists saw them as good, the Church sees them as neither. The “goodness” or “evil” of an emotion relates to how that emotion contributes to a good or evil action. This is why it is so important to form proper emotions; well-formed emotions lead to spontaneity in virtuous choices, whereas ill-formed emotions lead to spontaneity in evil choices.
So, the passions must neither be repressed nor allowed to run freely. Rather, the emotions must be lovingly governed by the highest power of the human person – the intellect. “It belongs to the perfection of the moral or human good that the passions be governed by reason” (St. Thomas Aquinas, STh I-II, 24, 3). Importantly, Aristotle points out that the relationship of reason to the passions is not like a master to a slave (where the slave has no choice but to follow the command), but that of a king to a free man (where the free man has the right and capacity to resist or freely follow the commands of the king).
Catholic psychiatrist Dr. Conrad Baars effectively describes the proper relationship to our emotions in his “horse and rider” analogy. A horse and rider must establish a rapport in order to get where they are going. If the rider allows the horse to go where it pleases, the horse can lead the rider to his death. Conversely, if the rider beats the horse into submission, the horse may become weak or die and the rider would have to travel slowly and ineffectively by himself. An effective horseman becomes free to travel wherever he pleases because the horse has become a willing servant rather than a slave subdued by force. Our task, similarly, is to use our emotions under the gentle guidance of reason to be able to live a more free and virtuous life.
Using Our Emotions Properly
In sum, the passions are not moral in themselves but can contribute to the spontaneous joy of virtue, or the spontaneous evil of vice. Pause and think for a moment about the consequences of such a statement. We may have been under the impression that every time we experience anger, or sorrow, or fear, that we have automatically committed a sin. It’s okay to be angry sometimes, it’s okay to be sorrowful sometimes, it’s okay to be fearful sometimes! We need to learn to use our emotions toward a constructive and virtuous end.
As we conclude, I want to bring up specifically the emotion of anger. It may come as a surprise, but anger can be used as a very effective tool to overcome suffering, sin, and fear. “Jesus did not come to show us how to accommodate ourselves to sin and suffering in the world. He came to give us an example of how to rage against it” (Dr. Gregory K. Popcak, Ph.D., The Life God Wants You to Have, page 188).
Anger is the tool that we can use to rage against suffering, to rage against sin, to rage against fear. Think for a moment about the sins, sufferings, or fears in your life that have caused you to not live the full life that God wants for you. Some may be so stuck in a sin that they have neglected people and relationships. Some may be so downtrodden by a particular suffering that they cannot escape the feeling of loneliness and depression. Some may be so afraid of flying that they have never traveled anywhere and missed multiple life experiences as a result.
It’s time to use our emotions the way that God has designed, not to suppress them, not to exaggerate them, but to direct them toward living a virtuous life. Get angry at whatever sin, suffering, or fear as caused you to not live the life of your dreams. Get angry at whatever lie is keeping you stuck in sin, downtrodden, or fearful at living your dreams. These things have taken enough from you, a holy anger will help you say “enough!”.