Aquinas on the Emotions: A Religious-Ethical Inquiry

Aquinas on the Emotions: A Religious-Ethical Inquiry

Aquinas on the Emotions: A Religious-Ethical Inquiry

Aquinas on the Emotions: A Religious-Ethical Inquiry


All of us want to be happy and live well. Sometimes intense emotions affect our happiness -- and, in turn, our moral lives. Our emotions can have a significant impact on our perceptions of reality, the choices we make, and the ways in which we interact with others. Can we, as moral agents, have an effect on our emotions? Do we have any choice when it comes to our emotions?

In Aquinas on the Emotions, Diana Fritz Cates shows how emotions are composed as embodied mental states. She identifies various factors, including religious beliefs, intuitions, images, and questions that can affect the formation and the course of a person's emotions. She attends to the appetitive as well as the cognitive dimension of emotion, both of which Aquinas interprets with flexibility. The result is a powerful study of Aquinas that is also a resource for readers who want to understand and cultivate the emotional dimension of their lives.


All of us want to live happily and well. We want this not only for ourselves but also for others who are part of us or closely connected to us. When something happens that appears to bear notably on our own or a loved one's wellbeing, a situation forms and holds our attention. We receive impressions and make judgments about what is happening and about how it concerns us. More than this, we are moved by what we apprehend. We might not be moved outwardly, in the form of physical movement, but we are moved inwardly.

Imagine that the phone rings. You answer and hear the voice of a friend with whom you have not had the chance to talk for months. She sounds happy and you feel elevated. As the conversation unfolds, you have the sense that you are drawing close to her and she is drawing close to you. You resonate with pleasure in the simple goodness of this relationship—in the way that you are poised to unite with her and she with you, in thought, by phone, or in person. When the conversation ends, your friend is drawn away from you into other aspects of her life. You are drawn back into your previous activities. Yet your friend remains vaguely present to you. You rehearse parts of the conversation, smiling.

Imagine that five minutes later the phone rings again, and you answer cheerfully. This time, however, it is a person with whom you have a difficult relationship. At the sound of his voice you experience a kind of dissonance. You recoil inside and your defenses go up. Every time you talk to this person he says something insulting. You replay a set of his past comments as you listen (and fail to listen) to what he is saying now. One part of you tends away from the person as you suffer the pain of old and new injuries. Another part of you tends toward the person as you fantasize about “knocking him off his high horse.” When you hang up the phone, you go on and on, in your mind, about how awful this person is. You begin to attack yourself for not saying something to put him in his place, but you withdraw your attack as you recollect past attempts that have only made matters worse.

Then you hear a knock at the door. Startled, you become aware that you have been lost in a dark reverie for nearly half an hour. “Come in!” the door drifts open and a colleague appears, looking pale. She says, “I'm afraid I have some bad news.” You learn that another, valued colleague has been in a car accident and is undergoing emergency surgery. Instantly, the situation that had preoccupied you since that last phone call is gone from your mind. As . . .

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