Emotion and Reason: A Potential Dialogue

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Giovanni Cucci, SJ

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Emotions and reason in dialogue

A previous article demonstrated how the relationship between reason and emotions (and by this term I refer to a complex world known by different names: passions; sentiments; affections) is not a simple one but, at the same time, cannot be conceived in terms of antithetical opposition.[1] Pleasure and moral good are only contrasting in a dualistic ethic, which comes with a high price.[2] In fact, in the perspective prior to modernity, the relationship passions/reason was understood in a bi-directional manner, that is, being of mutual influence one to the other, rather, of mutual aid for recognizing and doing the good.[3]

The passions that rise from sensibility influence the intellect and one’s judgment of things, but others find their origin in the intellectual evaluation: these are the so-called “passions of the soul,” of which anger is an emblematic example.[4] Bringing this to light means denying modern anthropological dualism because, the passions, themselves, have to do with both the body and the soul and, therefore, are of reciprocal influence, allowing or impeding the accomplishment of the good.

Emotions and reason, therefore, are not constitutionally enemies; they can become such, but they can also be of mutual aid. The emotions make decisions of the will more intense and stronger so as to overcome difficulties and obstacles in doing the good, in order to live in a full, integral and constant manner characteristic of the life of virtue: “The movement of virtue, which consists in a perfect act of will, cannot be had without any passion, not because the act of will depends upon the passion, but because in a nature subject to passion a passion necessarily follows upon a perfect act of will.”[5]

Antonio Rosmini noted that “there is no thought that is not affective: love perfects knowing and the one who, knowing something, loves it, finds in the beloved the good, the fullness of that act of which man is potent.”[6] For Martin Heidegger, comprehension includes an affective element.[7] This conclusion is very close to what Saint Thomas noted: ubi amor, ibi oculus, “where there is love, there is the eye.” The act of seeing which, in and of itself is a selective operation, focuses on what captures the heart’s attention. He calls cogitative this capacity to unify the sensibility and the intellect, imagination and knowledge, memory and understanding.[8]

Affectivity, therefore, is fundamental not only for doing the good but also for knowing it: it notes details, consents to enter into relationships with others, to help them, to live friendship, love. In difficult and critical situations, reason is insufficient for recognizing and singling out the good to be done, or for confirming the choice. In these situations, the passions are a precious help, as Augustine notes: “As long as we carry the weakness of this life, if we do not have some passion, we will not live rightly.”[9]

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