On Feelings

The administration of a major university recently sought information about the success of a new initiative. A survey was sent around. The respondents were asked in various ways to express their “feelings” about the program. About “feelings,” of course, no controversy or disagreement can follow. If “feeling” is the category under which we find out about things, we can have no argument. “Feelings” as such, however fleeting, are absolute. Either we have them or we do not.

Such is the meaning of the old Latin adage: De gustibus non est disputandum – about taste there is no dispute. In a world of “feelings,” no middle ground can be found. No common principle exists except: “Yes, I ‘feel’ this way” or “No, I do not ‘feel’ that way.” Suppose someone says to you: “Let me convince you that the beer that you claim ‘tastes’ so good is little better than warmed over lemon Jell-O.” Your answer remains: “I still like it best.”

The verb, “to feel” has, in many instances, replaced the verb “to think.” At first sight, these two verbs might seem to be synonyms. But on closer examination they differ tellingly from each other in a manner that indicates a civilizational shift. The society that “feels” is not the society that “thinks.” Both words have a specific meaning and they belong together in a certain order of priority. Our “feelings” are, or should be, at the service of our thought, but they are real enough in their own order.

“To feel” is the verb we use to indicate the status and nature of our passions or desires. It refers to those movements of our soul that are conjoined to our bodies. Hence, we say: “I feel sick.” “I am angry at Charlie.” Or “I laugh at Harriet.” But it is not sufficient to tell someone of his illness, anger, or humor. We need also to know whether such feelings are reasonable or not in the circumstance in which they arise. They may be. But if they are, it means not just how we “feel,” but whether our feelings are under the guidance of our reason. Further, it implies that our reason itself is measured by a standard that is not subjective. The standard was not created solely out of one’s own interests.

** (see below)

Aristotle is still master here. We have sensory knowledge. We “feel” pain. We touch something warm. We smell that foul odor. We taste the salt in the salad. We hear and understand the fib or joke that George told us. Without our sensory powers, we could not know these things that we deal with every day. Yet, the sense of smell does not itself know what smell is or how it differs from taste. Since we have minds that are not simply extensions of sensory powers, we know what smell, hearing, touch, and taste mean. We can hold all these differing aspects together at the same time.

Another thing we quickly learn about ourselves is that our sensory powers are subject to the rule of ourselves. We can learn why we have these powers. We see that we can be too angry or not angry enough. They each have proper purposes from which we can conclude to their proper place in our lives. By trial and error, by doing the right thing or wrong thing we become virtuous or vicious. We habituate ourselves in the way we use each of our sensory powers. Our character is manifested to others in the habitual way we respond to others. The central issue of our moral lives quickly comes to the surface in the way we act. Are we ruled by our passions or do we rule them?

If they rule us, does it make any difference? It turns out that our reason itself is oriented to an end, to a good that is not simply arbitrary. Our passions themselves, in other words, are faculties that look to reason’s guidance. Hence, their good or bad use arises from the end that our intelligence provides for us to choose and follow.

Thus, if our minds are skewered, so, in all likelihood, will be our passions. In this sense, the path from a civilization of reason to a civilization of “feelings” is quite intelligible. A civilization that places the primacy of “feelings” over a civilization of reason is one in which disorder has been habitualized and, indeed, customized and legalized.

One cannot be civilized and have no “feelings.” Civilization means freely implanting reason in control of our “feelings.” But it also means directing all of our passions to an end that places everything else in order. Passions, when given primacy, can become sophisticated “reasons” for replacing reason. But when this replacement happens, it is because we deliberately direct our minds away from their proper end.


**Image: Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth by J.M.W. Turner, 1842 [Tate, London]

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

  • On Hell - Monday, February 25, 2019