Students in my philosophy of the human person classes are often surprised to learn that Saint Thomas Aquinas responds affirmatively to the question of whether the human emotions “obey” reason. As anyone who has ever experienced a feeling of powerlessness in the face of a pornography addiction knows, our emotions and appetites often seem to run directly counter to reason. It is difficult to abide by the resolutions we made in calm, rational moments when we are struggling with powerful physical and psychological cravings.
Indeed, Saint Thomas is well aware of the unruliness of the emotions in fallen, wounded human beings. He readily admits that reason lacks “despotic” or direct control over all our appetites. Yet a lack of direct control does not mean we have no control or influence at all. Following Aristotle, Saint Thomas observes that reason enjoys a “political or royal” influence over the emotions—meaning an indirect sort of control. The key is to see that indirect control can still be extremely effective.
Reason’s Influence on Perception
How does reason influence or “indirectly control” the emotions? Saint Thomas offers two examples, each of which refers to a different aspect of our human reasoning ability. The first has to do with our ability to reason about particular events or situations. Our reasoning in such cases often involves classifying the situation in terms of a broader category, a more “universal consideration.” That reasoning process might sound abstract and complicated, but we actually do this sort of mental operation many times each day.
For example, if I see someone spray-painting a spot on my neighbor’s shed, I might initially understand it as an act of vandalism and feel a surge of anger in response. However, on closer inspection, I might realize that the person with the can of spray-paint is a local handyman, and he is beginning the process of repainting the shed. My anger quickly fades as I mentally reclassify the situation: I am now seeing the particular situation under the category of home improvement, not vandalism. While my reason exerted no direct control over my anger, reason’s ability to tell a different story was nonetheless quite effective in diffusing my emotion of anger.
A similar use of reason could aid us in a struggle with pornography. Our desire to view pornography can be diminished as we begin to understand how pornography should be truly classified. It is not “harmless entertainment.” Pornography is more correctly classified as “exploitation.” The production of pornography routinely involves various forms of coercion, substance abuse, and human trafficking.
Pornography profoundly wounds all those involved in its production, a wound we perpetrate through our viewing. Keeping these considerations in mind can serve as a counterweight to our desires. After all, emotions like desire arise in response to some form of awareness brought to us by our senses or our minds. Changing the awareness in a significant way changes the emotional response.
We should not overlook the help we can receive from other people in strengthening our reasoning ability in this sort of way. Saint Thomas teaches that a strong surge of emotion can impair our personal reasoning ability. In other words, we may not always be in the best state to do the mental “reclassification” necessary to lessen the emotions that draw us toward the use of pornography. It is a great advantage then if we have a friend or accountability partner who we can contact in moments of weakness and temptation. This friend can remind us of the true nature of pornography, effectively strengthening our resolve.
The Will’s Veto
Saint Thomas also mentions a second aspect of human reason: our rational appetite or will. In this second sense, too, the emotions “obey” reason, for an emotion such as desire cannot move us into action without the consent of the will. In other words, what we feel is never fully determinant of our actions; we are free, no matter how difficult it may be to exercise that freedom. As Stephen Covey famously articulated the principle of the human person, there is a sort of “space” between a stimulus and our response, and in that space, we have the freedom to choose how we will respond.
We might be tempted to think this “veto power” exercised by the will is not an effective form of influence or indirect control. It could be thought of as just setting up the commonly unsuccessful scenario of trying to “white-knuckle” one’s way through a pornography addiction, to fight the addiction with one’s willpower alone.
However, we should remember that human actions are never really isolated, unrecorded occurrences. Rather, in humans, our repeated actions form habits, settled ways of acting. Over time, the will grows in strength by exercising its veto power, and emotional movements that are successfully resisted tend to diminish in their intensity. Because of this human tendency to habituation, the governance of the will over actions is more effective in influencing the emotions than is commonly supposed.
Moreover, the will can do more than simply say “no” to acting on an emotional stimulus. The full power of the will is instead found in its ability to say “yes,” to command the performance of some other action, one that fundamentally alters the situation.
For example, perhaps I am struggling to stay true to a diet and avoid desserts. If presented with a piece of cake, I may greatly desire to eat it. My mouth may even begin to water. While I could fight that temptation by exercising willpower and just refusing to eat the cake, I would be more likely to succeed in the struggle if I left the room, or went for a run, or engaged in some other activity that removed the cake from my immediate awareness. Recall the axiom mentioned above: change the awareness, change the emotion.
Because of the powerful cravings involved in pornography addiction, it is best to plan such alternate activities in advance. We should identify good options to choose in situations when we undergo strong temptations to view porn. Or, we might be even more proactive and get involved in wholesome activities and hobbies that fill our time and help us avoid the situations that lead us into temptation in the first place. All such approaches have their root in the power of the human will, the rational appetite.
Christ our Strength
Still, even with these formidable powers of reason at our disposal, we need help. Saint Paul speaks for all of us when he laments, “For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate” (Romans 7:15). We should recall, then, that everything that Saint Thomas teaches about the human person must be seen in the light of the salvific mission of Jesus Christ. In other words, Saint Thomas is not a Pelagian; he does not presume our reasoning and willingness will be up to the task of governing the emotions without God’s grace. Rather, it is only the victory of Christ that makes possible a victory over sin.
We should, then, commit our struggle to Christ in faith and pray specifically that God will give us the grace to think clearly and will effectively. As our minds are healed by Christ, our emotions and appetites will begin to be healed as well.
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