Our world places a great deal of emphasis on acting upon our emotions, or “passions.” “Do what you feel is right,” trusted advisers tell us. “Watch our heart-rending commercials and buy our products,” corporations seem to say. “Follow your heart, carve out your own path!” children’s entertainment cries. This emphasis, to put it simply, is disordered and dangerous. Why? Why should we be concerned about this modern custom? After all, our emotions are an important part of who we are as humans. What makes it a problem? And if it is a problem, what ought we to do about it?
In his De Fide Orthodoxa, St. John of Damascus defines “passion” as “a sensible activity of the appetitive faculty, depending on the presentation to the mind of something good or bad.” In other words, it is the irrational activity of the soul produced by something perceived as good or ill. Such activity includes desire, aversion, sorrow, joy, and anger. Both man and the other animals experience passions, since these belong to the sensitive soul.
Man is set apart from the other animals by his faculty of rationality, and herein lies the reason why constantly being guided by our passions instead of our reason is disordered. By encouraging such a way, man is separating himself from what makes him the best of the animals; he is separating himself from that which makes him man; he is separating himself from that likeness of God in which he was made.
When Adam was created, he was able to control his passions by reason, but after he fell, they were no longer subject to his intellect. Why would anyone encourage such a dastardly result of the Fall? As a result, we now live in a society in which people do not like to think or sacrifice their feelings, and are pained when they must. To many, the truth does not matter nearly as much as what pleases them. We know that the truth will never change, and that our feelings toward something certainly can and do. What a sorry state man will find himself in when he realizes that those feelings he idolized will eventually come to nothing and that the truth he has ignored is what could have saved him.
Now all this seems rather dismal, but we must not become discouraged or try to eradicate the passions in our souls. The passions are not evil. We can say this with certainty because God Himself gave them to Adam and Eve when they were created in the state of Original Justice. Our emotions can move us to do noble acts, like saving the life of another, and produce such beautiful things as sacred polyphony. All we must do is realize that reason and the passions are meant to work together, the latter in subjection to the former, and then live that way.
A shining example of this harmony between reason and the passions is the story of St. Augustine’s disillusionment from Manichaeism. In The Confessions, he wrote, regarding his time spent listening to a particular Manichaean bishop, “Many people were ensnared by the persuasive sweetness of
his eloquence, but I was beginning to distinguish it from the truth I hungered to learn. What interested me was not this dainty verbal dish on which he served his offerings. . . but how much knowledge he could provide for me to eat. . .” When he saw that there was nothing for him in Manichaeism, he refused to move forward in it. Rather than allowing himself to be taken in and fanaticized by what appeared good, sweet, and satisfying, St. Augustine waited to find a greater, more glorious thing, which he knew would be truly good, truly sweet, and truly satisfying. The earnest desire, or “hunger,” he felt to rest in the truth was governed by what he thought and believed.
When the world with its whispering exhorts us to eschew our reason, we must oppose it stoutly, and instead live as we were made to live. We must not abandon our passions, but instead put them to the service of our intellects. In the last two stanzas of his poem, “The Head and the Heart,” John Godfrey Saxe illustrated this relationship and way of life beautifully, writing:
And from the head, as from the higher,
Comes every glorious thought;
And in the heart’s transforming fire
All noble deeds are wrought.
Yet each is best when both unite
To make the man complete;
What were the heat without the light?
The light, without the heat?