Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Early Church Fathers

Three (Affectionate!) Cheers for the Emotions

The emotions sometimes get a bad rap in contemporary conservative Reformed theology. This is both unjust and unfortunate, because they form an essential and basic part of the make-up of human nature–at the very least as it is constituted in this life. A helpful corrective is found in City of God 9.5, where Augustine contrasts the Christian faith with Stoicism on the subject of the passions (the latter considered them vicious)–though Augustine asserts that they are in the end compelled to agree with the Peripatetics and Platonists, who, like the Christians, allow a place for the affections in virtue, provided that they are subject to reason–which is to say, provided that they do not prompt action that violates justice. We should be careful here: whatever a “violation of justice” might refer to, it does not refer to forgiving someone who has wronged you or helping the poor through charity. But we should be equally careful not to miss the point: the affections, passions, or emotions are important motives for action, including for righteous action in service to one’s fellows, and therefore one is not remiss in appealing to them in certain contexts; indeed, not to do so is to pretend that they are not part of our nature as constituted by God. In other words, their existence is not a bug in the system–it’s a feature.1

We need not at present give a careful and copious exposition of the doctrine of Scripture, the sum of Christian knowledge, regarding these passions. It subjects the mind itself to God, that He may rule and aid it, and the passions, again, to the mind, to moderate and bridle them, and turn them to righteous uses. In our ethics, we do not so much inquire whether a pious soul is angry, as why he is angry; not whether he is sad, but what is the cause of his sadness; not whether he fears, but what he fears. For I am not aware that any right thinking person would find fault with anger at a wrongdoer which seeks his amendment, or with sadness which intends relief to the suffering, or with fear lest one in danger be destroyed. The Stoics, indeed, are accustomed to condemn compassion. But how much more honorable had it been in that Stoic we have been telling of, had he been disturbed by compassion prompting him to relieve a fellow-creature, than to be disturbed by the fear of shipwreck! Far better and more humane, and more consonant with pious sentiments, are the words of Cicero in praise of Cæsar, when he says, Among your virtues none is more admirable and agreeable than your compassion. And what is compassion but a fellow-feeling for another’s misery, which prompts us to help him if we can? And this emotion is obedient to reason, when compassion is shown without violating right, as when the poor are relieved, or the penitent forgiven. Cicero, who knew how to use language, did not hesitate to call this a virtue, which the Stoics are not ashamed to reckon among the vices, although, as the book of the eminent Stoic, Epictetus, quoting the opinions of Zeno and Chrysippus, the founders of the school, has taught us, they admit that passions of this kind invade the soul of the wise man, whom they would have to be free from all vice. Whence it follows that these very passions are not judged by them to be vices, since they assail the wise man without forcing him to act against reason and virtue; and that, therefore, the opinion of the Peripatetics or Platonists and of the Stoics is one and the same. But, as Cicero says, mere logomachy is the bane of these pitiful Greeks, who thirst for contention rather than for truth. However, it may justly be asked, whether our subjection to these affections, even while we follow virtue, is a part of the infirmity of this life? For the holy angels feel no anger while they punish those whom the eternal law of God consigns to punishment, no fellow-feeling with misery while they relieve the miserable, no fear while they aid those who are in danger; and yet ordinary language ascribes to them also these mental emotions, because, though they have none of our weakness, their acts resemble the actions to which these emotions move us; and thus even God Himself is said in Scripture to be angry, and yet without any perturbation. For this word is used of the effect of His vengeance, not of the disturbing mental affection.

  1. My attention was directed to this passage–part of which he quotes–by John Webster’s comments on Augustine in his 2007 lecture “On Mercy.” You can find the audio here. It is well worth your time.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.