Sense Appetites – Passions

The nature of sense appetite.

Sense appetite is the second essential trait which distinguishes animals and plants. (Sense knowledge was the first.) Animals are affected by love, rage, etc. These affective experiences are accompanied by certain physiological changes called “bodily resonances.” Emotions and feelings are consequences of affective experiences. The general term which indicates the sense appetite is “passion,” but this term does not include the derogatory implications attached to it in ordinary language.

The definition of passion, as gleaned from ST I-II, 22, is as follows: A movement of the sense appetite, which follows the apprehension of the senses, and is accompanied by a bodily transmutation. The motion of the appetite is the formal element; and the bodily transmutation, the material element. (See ST I, 20, 1, ad.2.) Both are integral parts of passions. Passions are of both the body and soul. The object of the sense appetite is the concrete and material good perceived by the internal senses. The passions are essentially psychosomatic, and they are the cause of most neuroses.

Division of the passions.

There are two passions, the concupiscible passion and the irascible passion.

There is a passion through which the soul is simply inclined to seek what is suitable according to the senses, and to fly from what is hurtful, and this is called the concupiscible: and another whereby an animal resists the attacks of any agents that hinder what is suitable and inflict harm; and this is called the irascible, whence we say that its object is something arduous, because its tendency is to overcome and rise above obstacles. Now these two are not to be reduced to one principle: for sometimes the soul busies itself with unpleasant things against the inclination of the concupiscible appetite in order that, following the impulse of the irascible appetite, it may fight against obstacles… This is clear also from the fact that the irascible is, as it were, the champion and defender of the concupiscible, when it rises up against what hinders the acquisition of the suitable things which the concupiscible desires, or against what inflicts harm, from which the concupiscible flies. And for this reason, all the passions of the irascible appetite rise from the passions of the concupiscible appetite and terminate in them; for instance, anger rises from sadness, and having wrought vengeance, terminates in joy. For this reason also the quarrels of animals are about things concupiscible– namely, food and sex, as the Philosopher says (De animalibus VIII).

ST I, 81, 2. cf, ad.1.

That these two passions are really distinct is evident from the fact that they can sometimes be opposed to each other. Thus an individual may, in accordance with the desires of the irascible appetite, pursue activities that are against the immediate inclination of the concupiscible appetite. (Ascetic life is very much connected with the balance which should exist between these two passions.)

Fundamental movements of sense appetite.

Concupiscible Appetites: Simple inclination with respect to sensible objectAttraction towards object (object is good)Repulsion away from object (object is evil)
Love (good as such)Hatred (evil as such)
Joy (present good)Sadness (present evil)
Desire (absent good)Aversion (absent evil)
Irascible appetites: Inclination in virtue of an arduous objectGood that is difficult to attainEvil difficult to avoid
(N/A – no present good difficult to attain)Anger (present evil)
Hope (absent but
attainable good)
Courage (threatening but conquerable evil)
Despair (absent, unattainable good)Fear (threatening but unconquerable evil)

These passions play a very important role in the life of both rational and irrational animals. In man, when the passions are under the control of reason, they contribute powerfully to support the activities of intellect and will, because they can intensify man’s tendency toward the object of his desire. The concupiscible appetite represents the realm of concrete goals we wish to attain. The irascible appetite is intimately connected with asceticism. The modern world (Freud’s pleasure principle) emphasizes the concupiscible appetite. A balance between both appetites is the sign of a healthy personality. An excessive development of the concupiscible appetite leads to emptiness and egotism. An exclusive development of the irascible appetite leads to fear and abnormal anxiety.

Because the passions are susceptible to becoming disordered, the will needs to be perfected by settled dispositions or habits by which it can direct the passions to appropriate objects (the right thing, at the right time and in the right amount). The habits which dispose one to desire well, i.e., appropriately, are called virtues.

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