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 Theologiae I-II q.24, a. 3)

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 emotions, 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.