Love as Passion – and Virtue

I’ve often read something in the work of Thomas Aquinas and been puzzled by it, only to discover later how much wisdom was contained there.

One example that comes to mind deals with love, and when I describe my puzzlement, the older and wiser among this audience will certainly say: “How could he not have understood that?” In his Summa of Theology, Thomas discusses love in two contexts: once in his discussion of the passions, and then again in his discussion of the virtues. Here was what puzzled me: How can love be both a passion and a virtue? Isn’t it one or the other?

Passions, or what we call emotions, are things like fear, sorrow, or anger. They are things that, in a certain sense, just happen to you – which is why the medievals called them “passions” (passiones), to distinguish them from acts. Similarly, we call them “emotions,” because we are “moved by” (e-motus) them. I just feel fear. I don’t choose to feel fear. I may very much wish that I did not feel fear. But the fear simply besets me.

Virtues, on the other hand, are “habits,” or better yet, settled dispositions, that bear fruit in action. Virtues including things like courage, temperance, honesty, and generosity. They aren’t things that merely happen to you. When you have them, they allow you to do something — sort of like a skill. The skill of carpentry doesn’t just happen to you one day, like getting hit with a board. You have to develop the skill after hours and hours of practice and study. You can’t say that someone who never does courageous acts is courageous, any more than you can call a liar “honest.”

“Okay, so is love a passion or a virtue?” I asked myself. At first, being young and naive, I understood what it meant for love to be a passion. We say things like: “I couldn’t help myself; I just fell in love” – as though love was something that just happened to you, something you couldn’t control. You “fell into” it, like a person might fall into a pool of mud. You might not have wanted it to happen, or you may have wanted it to happen with someone else. But once it happened, it seemed there was very little you could do control it. Indeed, maybe it was best not to try to “control” it at all. Isn’t love a good thing?

Well, then, if love was a passion, what did it mean to call love a virtue? And how could it be both? Further years and greater experience – not all of it pleasant or entirely praiseworthy – has revealed to me how wise St. Thomas was.

Certainly there is love as a passion. This is the sort of love one “falls into.” This sort of love isn’t necessarily wrong or evil, any more than any of the other passions are evil in and of themselves. But like the other passions, this sort of love has to be disciplined and directed by our wisdom and prudence to serve not only our flourishing, but the good of others.

“The Glory of St. Thomas Aquinas” (detail) by Benozzo Golozzi (c. 1475) [Musée du Louvre]
“The Glory of St. Thomas Aquinas” (detail) by Benozzo Golozzi (c. 1475) [Musée du Louvre]
Love as a virtue, then, is love that has taken root, we might say, in our character – something that has become a settled disposition for willing and doing the good for others.

We all want the “warm, fuzzing feeling” – that marvelous little spark we call “love,” when our hearts start to beat a little faster, our heads start to empty of all other thoughts, and warmth spreads everywhere. And yet if there’s anything we know about the passions, it is that they are ephemeral: they come and go.

That “warm, fuzzy feeling” won’t stay around for long any more than pleasure, anger, fear, or lust abides. We can lust after a certain sweater or pair of shoes very intensely for a while, but then, eventually, it passes, and we wonder what all the internal fuss was about. So too with “love” as an emotion: it can come and go. It needs to become more deeply rooted if it is to last through bad times as well as good.

Something else that Thomas Aquinas understood about the passions is that you can’t really question them. If someone says to me, “I’m frightened,” I can’t really say: “No you’re not.” I might foolishly try to scold the person and say something silly like: “It’s just a bug; you shouldn’t be frightened.” But if someone is frightened of bugs, they just are frightened. Besides, sometimes fear is the appropriate response – for example, to danger. Brave men and woman aren’t people who feel no fear; they feel fear, but act in spite of it.

So when a mother who has failed to feed her children for weeks weeps pitifully to the people from Child Protective Services and insists: “But I love my children,” we needn’t conclude she’s lying. But the question isn’t whether she has a “warm, fuzzy feeling” for her children – love as an emotion. She may well have it. The question, rather, is whether she is giving them the nourishment they need. If not, then we can say that, although she may “love” them emotionally – perhaps very deeply, more than we can know – she still needs to learn to “love” them by how she treats them every day. And that will undoubtedly require a certain amount of discipline and self-sacrifice – usually more than the “warm, fuzzy” feeling fools us into thinking we need.

Nothing can cause us to do more good for others than the virtue of love, guided, as all the virtues must be, by reason, prudence, and truth. But few things can cause us to act more foolishly, recklessly and do more damage to others than the misdirected passion of love.

O Lord, give us the wisdom to love what we ought, the way we ought.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.