Posted on: June 9th, 2020 St. Thomas & “what the heart desires”

I remember, sometime in the mid 1990’s (when I was an undergrad at UT Austin), hearing R. C. Sproul say that, for Thomas Aquinas (one of Sproul’s intellectual “heroes”), reason takes precedence over desire. This statement really caught my attention, and I can honestly say that I’ve been pondering it for two and a half decades. (Side note: while in seminary at Westminister Theological Seminary, where the approach to apologetics is determined by Cornelius Van Til, I realized that Van Til’s “presuppositional apologetics” would like not agree with Thomas here, although what’s more likely is that proponents of that “school” have rarely thought about this issue, sadly.)

Fast forward to about three years ago, when, in a YouTube video, I heard Ashley Null make the following statement (also, I think, in his book on Cranmer’s doctrine of repentance), credited to Phillip Melancthon:

What the heart desires, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.

Now, at a certain level I really like this statement. It resonates: our desires (including our sinful or illicit desires) are so often “justified” in retrospect by our “rational mind.” We “go after” what we want, and then we justify it ex post facto. At a basic level, that strikes me as a profoundly accurate assessment of the human condition after the fall. (My friends at Mockingbird ministries, Ashley Null included, would certainly agree.) The fallen human being is radically characterized, that is, by the libido dominandi. Truth.

By the way, this latter perspective is ratified by almost all modern thought: one thinks of Soren Kierkegaard and David Hume, the latter of whom said, “Reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any office but to serve and obey them.” (Alasdair MacIntyre has a nice treatment of all this in After Virtue.)

Thanks to Nicholas Lombardo for this connection with Hume.

And yet, in my research for a book chapter on Aquinas’ view of anger, I’m realizing that St. Thomas, on this issue, really delivers the goods, and is superior, in my opinion, to Melanchthon, Hume, and Kierkegaard (and even St. Bonaventure, who here as elsewhere can be viewed as an incipient, prototypical forebearer of these modern strains of anthropology).

On Thomas’ account (as he has it in the prima pars of the Summa Theologiae, Question 82 on the will), the intellect does take precedence over the will in the specific sense that the human person always seeks happiness and hence always seeks (albeit frequently in misdirected, sinful ways) the good. But in order for the human person (that is, the will, or the desire/appetite) to seek the good, he first must recognize the good, and this is an intellectual activity which performed by the mind. So, yes: intellect is priviledged over desire in this specific sense.

Yet in another way, the will leads and directs the intellect, since, as Thomas says, the will is “in charge” of every “active faculty” in the animal (rational or otherwise). I take this latter point to mean that, when I decide to focus on or to “intend” a tree as an object of my attention or to a memory of the past (or any other “object”), it is the will which makes this “choice.”

And so, I draw two conclusions from all this. First, I’m confident that any disagreement between these two schools is more “smoke than light,” that at bottom all (for the most part) would potentially agree. Thomas would say (and does say) that sometimes our desires are not guided by reason (or at least are irrational in some ways), and even that in our disordered, sinful state we sometimes rationally justify our own sin. Yes, he’d agree to that.

But I also think that his posture is the superior one, since it does full justice to the basic metaphysical principle that all creatures pursue their telos: rocks, oak trees, elephants, and humans. But in our case, that telos is to seek happiness, beatudo, eudaimonia. And that is a rational activity (since we are rational animals).

Besides, it is nihilistic to absolutize the libido dominandi, surely.  

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Posted on: May 12th, 2018 Desire above Reason (and Desire)

Any any student of philosophy knows, Plato and Aristotle both had accounts the human soul such that the soul can be seen as consisting of three basic “parts.” What’s more, even though the two renditions differ in important ways, in each case the respective thinker argues that, in some sense, human reason is “above” desire. That is, both Plato and Aristotle think that the flourishing of the human individual involves some kind of “program” in which reason’s  proper role is to somehow manage, control, oversee, or discipline human desire in all its manifold variety.

It has taken me a long time to grasp a certain way in which this picture, nevertheless, gets “tweaked” in an important way, at least by the mainstream neoplatonist tradition, and I’m shocked that I have not explicitly blogged about this before.

According to neoplatonism, and in particular Christian neoplatonism, while it is true in terms of traditional “faculty theory” that it is the  job of rationality to keep human desire in check, what’s equally true is that there is an additional kind of “desire” which is “above” both psychic faculties of reason (logos; ratio) and desire (horexis; epithumia; thumos). (Somewhat related to this is this.)

Now, why does all this matter, and why should you care? Two reasons: mythos and mysticism.

First, mythos. More and more, I’m convinced that for the Christian mythos is privileged over logos. That is, it is the Christian story into which we as Christians are called super deeply to delve. With the Feast of the Ascension ringing in my imagination (and its amazing collect), it is truly mind blowing to affirm that Christ ascended into the clouds, and then continued to rise beyond the ability of the disciples to see. Where did he go? The answer to this question, it seems to me, stumps rationality. And yet, it makes for a really good story, which is a way of saying that mythos is closely connected to desire. It is myth, over and over again throughout Christian intellectual history (according to folks like Bonaventure and CS Lewis) which supremely is able to stimulate (and satisfy?) Christian desire.

Second, mysticism. My nifty nutshell “definition” of a mystic is one who is convinced that God wants us to experience God. Not primarily to think about him, but to experience him. If this is the case, if the mystic is correct, then the central role of desire in the Christian life, occupying a position even superior to that of reason, is a very big deal.

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Posted on: April 16th, 2015 Sex, Desire, & Bodies

I am currently in a graduate “reading group” on Michel Foucault, and it is in that context that I have been thinking much about sexuality, desire, and bodies.

In addition I just watched a fascinating (and deeply convicting and encouraging) documentary put out by (an organization within) the Catholic Church on which makes the point that for the Christian tradition human desire is something which is disordered but able to be transformed. (To put this in the language of Reformed theology, human desire is good, fallen, and redeemed / redeemable in Christ.)

I heartily agree.

With these matters rumbling around in my head, a personal definition of “sexuality” occurred to me on my morning run today. What is sexuality? It is the human desire for human bodies.

We can speak (without falling into Cartesian dualism) in terms of the subject of this desire and the object of this desire.

The subject is the human being, which is necessarily embodied. It is necessarily embodied because the definition of “human” is “rational animal,” and following Boethius in his ordering of the sciences contained in his De Trinitate, an animal (falling under the rubric of natura or in Greek physis) is “inseparable from [its] material [body], either in thought or in reality. “In thought” means that the definition of something (in this case an animal) necessarily includes the notion of embodiedness or materiality. Here “animal” stands in opposition to other beings such as triangles (which as geometric objects are separable from material in thought) and “intelligences” or angels, or the soul, or God (which are separable in both thought and reality).

So, the subject of sexual desire and sexual activity is a human being, an animal, necessarily embodied.

What, then, is the object? While the subject of the desire is a human being, the object of the desire is the body of a human being.

Why the body and not something else, such as the soul or the mind or the attention of a human being? Because there are other names for each of these desires, for example, companionship, love, kononia, friendship, and the like.

How does this definition of sexuality relate to the traditional notion of eros? I do not know, but perhaps I will turn to that question in the near future.

 

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Posted on: November 1st, 2014 Dostoevsky, Desire, & Seduction

In Notes from the Underground we see that for Dostoevsky desires (including sordid ones) cannot successfully be eradicated or stamped out. Instead they can be transformed through seduction. Thus the Underground Man quips: “So change them, seduce me with something else, give me a different ideal.”

In this spirit, Socrates in the latter books of Plato’s Republic tries to “seduce” Glaucon out of his tyrannical tendencies and aspirations by appeal to the superior pleasure of the philosophical life.

So also Aidan Kavanagh says, “Liturgy exists not to educate, but to seduce people into participating in common activity of the highest order, where one is freed to learn things which cannot be taught.” (Having said this, I might want to quibble with Kavanagh’s use of “educate,” seeking to show how it is quite compatible with seduction. Education as ex-duco, a kind of “drawing out” from the deep reservoirs of anamnesis, a la St. Augustine, etc.)
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Posted on: August 19th, 2014 If I don’t control my appetites …

If I don’t learn to control my appetites, I will end up drunk in a ditch on the side of the road.

If I don’t learn to control my appetites, I will get type two diabetes and probably die of cancer at an early age.

If I don’t learn to control my appetites, eventually my wife will leave me and I will lose my ministry and my kids will grow up damaged and dysfunctional.

All of this (and more) I believe. After all, “… the fruit of the Spirit is … self-control….” (Gal 5:22-3).

But if one wants to control her appetites, then maybe it would be a tad helpful to know what an appetite actually is. (For appetites manifestly are not controlled by “trying harder.”)

Enter Thomas Aquinas, who has some very interesting things to say about appetite and the larger issue of desire.

By the way, as an Anglican priest I’d be remiss not to mention that our Book of Common Prayer is replete with references to desire, not least the Collect for Purity: Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secretes are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy holy spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name: through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Indeed, desire is what the Christian life is all about. (John Piper gets this right with his “Christian Hedonism,” in my opinion, albeit in a truncated way which leaves much to be desired — no pun intended.)

For example Thomas insists that, though all people do not choose God, all people do nevertheless desire God.

He also teaches that if a thing exists, then it has appetite. So rocks have appetite, as do trees, earthworms, chimps, human beings, angels (what Thomas sometimes, in a more metaphysical mode, calls “intelligences”), even God himself. Appetite is the tendency that a thing has to “complete” itself, to strive for its telos.

For Thomas the appetite, like the external sense organs of eye, ear, nose, etc., are passive. They require an object if they are to be “activated.” But the object required to activate or to “ignite” the appetite is no ordinary object. It is a fusion of various “inputs,” the result of a chain of psychic steps which include sense impression, synthesis by the common sense, and “intention.”

What, you ask, is an “intention?” For Thomas an intention is a kind of psychic apprehension (performed in nonrational animals by natural instinct, and in humans by the evaluative faculty known as the vis cogatitiva) by which an object is imbued with self interest. That is, a lamb grasps by natural instinct that a lion is a threat; a human being (who happens to be an entrepreneur) grasps that a market opportunity will create wealth which will lead to creaturely comfort.

More on appetite forthcoming. For now, if you want to control your appetites, perhaps you should know what they are, and how they work.

For more, see Nicholas Lombardo, The Logic of Desire: Aquinas on Emotion, ch. 1.)

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Posted on: January 15th, 2013 Why St. Augustine?

I wrote this short piece for my church newsletter, the Crucifer.

For my Christian Formation class this Spring, we are studying the Confessions of St. Augustine. I thought I’d take a few minutes and explain why we have decided to look at this magisterial work. I can think of three reasons which have motivated this decision.

First, the Confessions narrates a story about exit and return. You see I frequently have parents and grandparents from Christ Church approach me with heavy hearts, burdened by the perceived lack of interest in spiritual things on the part of their children and grandchildren. In fact, even in my previous denomination (a very evangelical denomination) studies have shown dramatic trends of young adults leaving the church, a new reality leading to the sobering realization that even the most evangelical denominations in the US are declining numerically.

And yet, on page 298 of our Prayer Book, it states that the bond which God establishes in baptism is indissoluble. Which means that those who, like the prodigal son of Luke 15, journey far away from God’s people into what St. Augustine calls “the region of dissimilarity” can be prayed for, with the expectation that they will return. (This primeval pattern of exitus et reditu runs deep throughout the western tradition, beginning with Odysseus’ journey in the Odyssey and can even be seen in God the Son’s journey from and back to his eternal Father.) It is just this kind of prayer which St. Augustine’s godly mother, Monica, engaged in for decades. At times it looked hopeless, and yet Augustine’s is a story of eventual return to the God who calls us home, thanks to the fervent and persevering prayers of his faithful mother.

Second, the Confessions narrates the story of a man who was living in, and interacting with, a highly pluralistic culture. The young Augustine was passionate in his search for truth, a search which would take him through the Stoicism of Cicero,  then through the dualism of Manicheanism,[*] then through neo-Platonic philosophy, and finally to the eventual landing point of Christian theology. What is interesting, however, is that Augustine believed that both Cicero and Neoplatonism were redolent with God’s truth. He considered Cicero a “righteous pagan,” and neoplatonism as a prologue to the Gospel. In fact, Augustine’s last words were a quotation of Cicero!

This situation could not be more relevant to our own time, and to the lives of many Christ Church folks (and to their friends and loved ones) as they make their way in a highly pluralistic world in which we constantly face such influences as the rise of neo-paganism, a cultural development which will only intensify in our increasingly connected global information age.

Finally,  the Confessions is a story which deals, in a brutally honest way, with the disturbing and often perplexing nature of human desire. In fact, this is perhaps the most interesting point of all for me personally. Why, do you think, Augustine eventually rejected these competing world views and eventually embraced the Good News of Jesus Christ? It was not simply because he found them to be rationally less compelling than the Christian story. Rather, it was because he continually failed to live up to the ethical and moral standards which they taught. Stoicism, Manicheanism, and Neoplatonism all commended lifestyles of the highest moral caliber, and Augustine simply could not live up.

Not until he dealt with his desires (for sex, for food and drink, for fame) could he finally begin to live a life of satisfaction and coherence. As he prays near the beginning of the Confessions: “Lord, you made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.”



[*] The heretical system of Manicheanism was dualistic in that it taught that good and evil are equally ultimate in the universe.

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