Passion’s Trumping of Reason

Every time I make a political comment online, it feels like a mistake. Stupidly raging against faceless mechanisms of power and the people who manage them may be satisfying for a few minutes, but afterwards you feel bad and that resentment slowly builds and grows into chronic angst. On the Internet, no one can hear you scream. And nobody really cares anyway. There are a few people who make change happen online as well, but mostly the Internet is just a playground for bullies whose mission in life is to make others feel bad.

Hulk_aQUINASI prefer comics and heavy metal to politics. You very often learn much more from them than from professional politicians or political reporting. They have simple moral lessons that can help you in all sorts of ways. They are rarely like the over-emotional and manipulative news stories we are subjected to these days. There really is very little in the news for someone who wants an objective version of current events with which they could assess the political situation of their country. You are better off with the funny papers. Luckily, we also have a fairly good library at home filled with books that can do the job.

With the awful state of the emotional press and the subconscious ways in which I find myself imitating it, I began to think about Thomas Aquinas. Christopher Tilmouth describes Aquinas’ thinking about the passions, reason and will in his book Passion’s Triumph Over Reason very well:

Reason need only present what it deems to be good directly to the imagination as pleasant, and what it deems to be evil as painful. By thus influencing the ‘forms’ of the imagination, the very basis of the sensitive appetite, it can redirect the latter to produce passions which favour reason and the will’s own rational courses. […] One especially important manifestation of this mechanism is man’s ability to set one kind of sensitive passion alongside or against another as the will dictates. According to Aquinas, man has within him ‘not only a bent towards what is beneficial and away from what is harmful’ — this is the realm of the sensitive appetite’s ‘concupiscible’ passions — but also a power of ‘resistance to contrary and destructive forces’ which ‘block’ his aspirations or otherwise ‘menace’ him — this, the province of his ‘irascible’ passions. The irascibles, especially when driven on by the will, may act as ‘champions and defenders’ or the concupiscibles, attacking those ‘obstacles’ and ‘threats’ which stand between man and his desires; but equally irascible passions may be invoked by the will specifically to counteract the sensitive appetite’s initial, concupiscible inclinations, and even to make the soul ‘submit to pain’ when reason judges this the right thing to do.

Hulk_1_coverIn Aquinas’ famous conception of the mind, at least according to Tilmouth, emotions, the will and reason come together to form a web of interaction where we have some form of control of all the faculties relationally. If someone tells you they cannot help the way they feel, you can point to Aquinas. You actually can help the way you feel and make yourself do things accordingly — unless, of course, there is something pathological going on. That is not to say Aquinas got everything right, but to note that you are in charge of your emotions even, and perhaps especially, when you decide to give them power over your rational faculty.

Why is this, then, relevant to political reporting or anything else for that matter? The reporters’ job today is to serve up feelings for readers. Those of us who are into the arts gaze in wonder at their lamentable offerings. Anyone can get a more meaningful emotional experience from reading the Hulk or listening to a Cannibal Corpse song, I promise. Even if you don’t like them you will see and hear something you have never seen or heard before. Because of this, you will feel things you have not felt before and you will have to cope with those feelings using something like the mechanisms outlined by Aquinas. Experiencing art, in this sense, is like going to the gym. Your emotional gains will help you cope with difficulties in your life. They also help you to call bullshit when you need to and, finally, to shut up when it is wise to do so.

Ferrigno_as_HulkDoes this mean I support the notion that art has an instrumental use only and without it art would be just pretty figures and ornaments? Yes and no. Dogmatic approaches to something so central to all of us sound ridiculous. Tilmouth can tell you that a lot happened after Aquinas: Hume and the sentimentalists showed that feelings and moods affect everything we do, Kant tried to systematize how this happens, and so on. If someone accuses me of thinking about art only in terms of instrumental value, I can point to that tradition. Everything we do and everything we sense around us is informed by and filtered through our emotional makeup. If poets and artists are able to influence that in profound ways, they can control the ways the world shows itself to us. That is instrumentality, but it is very different from what is typically referred to as instrumentality. It is one thing to use art to cope with your emotions and the surrounding world, but when you realize you are really coping with how you are in the world and that this howness just is you, things take a more serious turn.

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