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Aquinas sees us as deeply physical beings. Our bodies are perfectly permeated with life and mind and as we learn about the world and ourselves from sense experience, we are always having emotions. Being Italian, he calls these passions, and they play a big part in determining our voluntary actions.

What are we most passionate about? What is good for us, of course, which is also what ultimately makes us happy. Passions are built to fuel the will to seek what we think is good by taking over our heads with the glory of whatever it is we desire. In fact he defines passion essentially as the exchanging of one state for another: one minute we're just sitting there, then something happens, and wham, heart and soul, we've got to have whatever it is we're after and we can think of nothing but possessing the objects of our desires.

love and passion

Not surprisingly, love is the root of passion. Love reacts to goodness, drawing us like a magnet to seek it with a passionate attachment, powering our mind's appetite to acquire it, and creating joy when we come to rest in its possession, whether the good is an object, an experience, or the presence of a loved one.

It goes like this:




desiring (hoping, being bold)



To be happy, we have to be willing to love: to know, recognize and be fully drawn in by the good.

"The beloved is constantly present in the lover's thoughts, and the lover tries to think himself into the beloved's very soul."
(1a 2ae. 28. 2)

Then our desire prompts us to act in order to possess the good, and we rise to the challenge with the adrenalin kicks of hope and boldness.

"Hoping adds to desiring a certain buoyancy of spirit in pursuit of what is good but arduous ... and boldness confronts in order to win."
(1a 2ae. 30. 2)

And when we possess the good we seek, we come to a joyful rest.

"Desire cumulates in pleasure when lover and beloved are really united ..."
(1a 2ae. 25. 3)

"Our greatest pleasure arises when we perceive what is pleasurable to be actually and sensibly present."
(1a 2ae. 32. 3)

Not only can we enjoy the pleasure of the presence of what we love, we can reflect on ourselves being joyful, bringing us even greater joy, because as Aquinas says, the "thing is perceived all the more perfectly the more abstract and non-physical the mode of perception" (1a2ae. 35. 2-4). This self-awareness of the presence of the good is a clue as to why beatitudo ends up being the ultimate happiness.

passion and evil

Passion first and foremost drives us to seek the good, but it also rejects and repels what we perceive as threatening or harmful. Just as we naturally love things good for us and ours, we naturally hate things that are evil (e.g., bad luck, negligence, flaws, distortions of form, evil perpetrated by others), especially when it is threatening or harmful. Obviously, if we hate something, we are repelled by it and feel despair if it is overwhelming. We are also aroused by fear or anger to avoid it, and if the evil befalls us, we experience sadness proportional to the harm done. But both sadness, when expressed, and anger, when it combines with the desire and hope of righting the wrong, can act to move us out of the avoidance of evil and back into the pursuit of good, which is right where we belong.

passion and will

According to Aquinas, it is better to seek the good with all we have, including passion, as long as it is in sync with our will actually seeking the good (since obviously not everything we desire is truly a good). And if we do act well, we should enjoy it: "Good actions can't be perfectly good unless completed by pleasure in the good done." (1a2ae. 34. 4)

The question then becomes, if we want to attain the pleasures of acting well, how can we dispose ourselves to make the right choices?

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"We get more pleasure from union with the spiritual objects we understand than from the bodily objects we sense: the objects themselves are to be prized more, the ability to understand is a nobler ability, and the union achieved is more intimate, more complete, and more lasting."
(1a2ae. 31. 5)

"Spiritual pleasures presuppose virtue, so most people fail to experience them and fall back on bodily pleasures."
(1a2ae. 31. 5)


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