"Therefore, just as it is better that a man should both will the good and do it by an exterior act, so too it is part of the perfection of the moral good that a man should be moved not only by his will but also by his sentient appetite—this according to Psalm 85:3 (“My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God”), where by ‘heart’ we understand the intellective appetite and by ‘flesh’ we understand the sentient appetite." –St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologicae I-II.24.3)

What are the Passions?

The passions are the emotions aroused from something that is sensed. The things we see, hear, taste, touch, and even think about have physiological effects on our bodies and psychological effects on our souls. Some passions aid or impede our judgement; others compel or repel us from action.  Everyone has passions, but everyone also must learn to train them because they often go beyond or even against the direction of reason. Similarly, everyone has dominant or deficient passions that they must either master or muster, depending upon circumstances. This battle for proper order in the soul forges and fashions character. Without heroic battle, reason cannot govern and the passions will toss us about like a ship subject to raging waves in a storm. The liberal arts can help curb excessive passions or spur deficient ones to lead human beings, who are both rational and emotional animals, to true judgments and good actions.

Perfecting the Passions

Just as the passions are aroused through the senses, the passions may be tamed through the senses. When we see or hear something, those sensible objects form an image in our imagination, which, in turn, arouses the sensory appetites. Thus, a large part of perfecting the passions is appealing to the imagination with images that will arouse the passion proper to the situation. Pictures, paintings, songs, and poems that arouse the noblest passions fitting a situation help reason to rule, while things that arouse the basest passions at the wrong times compromise reason’s ability to rule. We include some art that, when contemplated, will help arouse the noblest passions. Yet, to control our passions, we need self-knowledge because identifying our emotion(s), most importantly our dominant emotion, is extremely difficult. Therefore, one seeking proper order in the soul needs to understand the passions, then reflect, meditate on, and examine their emotional reactions.


Definition and Explanation

  • Itself
    • Love is the beginning movement of the concupiscible appetite toward a person or a good. It is the passion opposite to hatred. 
    • The passion of love is the first passion, for all other passions are born from this one.
  • Causes
    • Union with a good arouses love because there is a connaturality between the lover and the beloved. When Dante finally sees Beatrice at the top of Mount Purgatorio, the narrator says, “I felt the mighty power of old love” (Purgatorio XXX.39)
    • Cognition of the good arouses love because we need to know that the good we united with is actually a good. In Paradise Lost, when Satan wants to make hell his good, he says, “The mind is its own place and in itself / Can make a Heaven of hell, and a hell of Heaven” (1.254-5).
    • Likeness with a good arouses love since one shares certain features in actuality or in potency. In Paradise Lost, when God describes to lonely Adam how he will make Eve, he says, “What next I bring shall please thee, be assured, / Thy likeness, thy fit help, thy other self, / Thy wish exactly to thy heart’s desire” (8.449-51)
  • Effects
    • Union is the first effect of love, for either a lover really unites with a beloved, or a lover desires to unite with a beloved.
    • Mutual indwelling comes from the union of the lover and beloved, since now the beloved good lingers in the lover’s apprehension or affections.
    • Ecstasy (“out of state”) is another effect of love, since apprehending a good elevates that good to a higher sort of cognition than just desiring. But the desire for the beloved carries the lover outside of themself into the beloved.
    • Zeal is an effect of love, for the more intensely we love something, the more we desire to possess it and protect it from anything that is contrary to it.
    • Hurt is a surprising effect of love, but hurt is only born out of a love for some good that is not connatural with our nature.
    • Finally, the greatest effect of love is that it causes all other operations Every agent acts for some end. The end is good that the lover loves. Therefore, every agent acts out of some sort of love.

Examples from Western History, Literature, and Art

  • Heroic Examples
    • Purgatorio XVIII 16-32
      • Virgil says to Dante: “Direct your intellect’s sharp eyes toward me, and let the error of the blind who’d serve as guides be evident to you. The soul, which is created quick to love, responds to everything that pleases, just as soon as beauty wakens it to act. Your apprehension draws an image from a real object and expands upon that object until soul has turned toward it; and if, so turned, the soul tends steadfastly, then that propensity is––it’s nature that joins the soul in you, anew, through beauty. Then, just as flames ascend because the form of fire was fashioned to fly upward, toward the stuff of its own sphere, where it lasts longest, so does the soul, when seized, move into longing, a motion of the spirit, never resting till the beloved thing has made it joyous.”
  • Tragic Examples
    • Juliet’s suicide done for “love” (The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet 3.5)
      • Indeed I never shall be satisfied / With Romeo till I behold him—dead— / Is my poor heart so for a kinsman vex’d. / Madam, if you could find out but a man / To bear a poison, I would temper it, / That Romeo should upon receipt thereof, / Soon sleep in quiet. O, how my heart abhors / To hear him nam’d, and cannot come to him, / To wreak the love I bore my cousin / Upon his body that hath slaughter’d him.
    • Terrace of Lust in Dante’s Inferno V
      • I reached a place where every light is muted, / which bellows like the sea beneath a tempest, / when it is battered by opposing winds. / The hellish hurricane, which never rests, drives on the spirits with its violence: / wheeling and pounding, it harasses them. / When they come up against the ruined slope, / then there are cries and wailing and lament, / and there they curse the force of the divine.
      • And she [Francesca] said to me: There is no greater sorrow / than thinking back upon a happy time / in misery––and this your teacher knows. / Yet if you long so much to understand the first root of our love, then I shall tell / my tale to you as one who weeps and speaks. / One day, to pass the time away, we read / of Lancelot––how love had overcome him. We were alone, and we suspected nothing. / And time and time against that reading led / our eyes to meet, and made our faces pale, / and yet one point alone, defeated us. / When we had read how the desired smile / was kissed by one who was so true a lover, / this one, who never shall be parted from me, / while all his body trembled, kissed my mouth. / A Gallehault indeed, that book and he / who wrote it, too; that day we read no more.

Examination of Passion

  • Am I aware of what things arouse my passion of love most frequently? Can I list them out on a sheet of paper?
  • Are the goods that arouse my love truly good for my eternal happiness? Am I addicted to or obsessed with anything that I love?
  • Do I prioritize and feel more love for people than for projects? Do I prioritize and feel more love for family than for friends? Do I prioritize and feel more love for God than for people? Am I willing to sacrifice the lesser loves for the greater loves?
  • Do I passionately love my school, my family and friends, my country, and my religion? Do I show my love with deeds? 
  • When I receive some good (like honor, praise, a raise, a good grade, a gift), do I allow the passion of love to cloud my judgement or forget about others around me?
  • Do I rely too much on my feelings of love as a motive for service, cheerfulness, affection, understanding, or charity?
  • Do I consider my work and study as a good thing that is worth doing passionately with love?
  • When I want to, but do not, passionately love someone or something that is good for me, do I “put my heart into it” knowing that my effort and desire will order my heart?
  • Do I respond to things that I know are good (like good news from a friend or the happiness of another) with coldness or indifference?
  • Do I help others to love truly good things by explaining the goodness of those things to them?
  • Have I let my love for my spouse or close friends grow cold from routine? Do I constantly try to love each person every day with more intensity, more spontaneity, and more thoughtfulness?
  • Do I frequently give thanks or show appreciation to the person or thing that I love?