Pax and the Emotional Life
A Look at Virtue as the Principle of Emotional Stability

Doug McManaman
September, 2001
Reproduced with Permission

For most people the word 'peace' tends to evoke images that accord with the basic root meaning of the Latin pax, from the verb pacisci: to make a pact or agreement. A pact marks an end of conflict, and today most of us regard peace (pax) as little more than the absence of conflict. But the full meaning of pax in the Roman world extended beyond its origin as "pact". The Pax Romana had two aspects, one that concerned the citizens of Rome, and the other which concerned the rest of the world. For those inside of Rome (citizens), pax referred to a positive and active harmony (concordia) among the citizens. Stefan Weinstock writes: "For the citizens pax depended on ConcordiaÉfrom 49 onwards the winged caduceus appears on coins, often held by clasped hands, the symbol of concord." For those outside of Rome, pax meant submission to Rome.

If we keep our attention focused on the meaning of pax as a positive state of harmony and order -- and even submission -- , the key to a genuinely peaceful life will more readily come to light. The human person is an emotional being, and so an emotionally healthy life, one that results in a profound sense of peace (pax), will come about as a result of a harmonious ordering of the eleven basic emotions. All the powers of the human person stand in need of order, not according to any plan whatsoever, but according to the plan or blueprint that is the very nature of the human person. For in the world of artifacts, the blueprint remains outside of the artifact. The blueprint never becomes an integral part of the house, but remains in the mind of the architect, or in his files somewhere. And it is this idea that determines the required matter to be the kind of thing it is, namely a house, or school, or office building. Man's "blueprint", however, is an integral part of himself. This is what we earlier referred to as the soul, which is the substantial form of man. The soul has a number of powers, among which are the powers of sensation and appetite. Not only does the human person have sensitive appetites from which the entire spectrum of human emotion arises, but he also has a rational appetite that follows upon intellection. A fulfilling emotional life will be one that is lived according to this human plan involving the powers of intellect, will, and the concupiscible and irascible appetites, in their natural order.

Fulfillment, however, is a tricky concept, and one that is widely misunderstood, especially as it relates to the emotional life. The fulfillment of one's emotional and rational nature does not entail a life that seeks out and successfully experiences all that life has to offer. In fact, this may constitute the recipe for emotional frustration, as we will attempt to show later on. The fulfillment of one's emotional nature is achieved through the perfecting and ordering of the emotions, as opposed to the complete satisfaction of every movement of the appetites. Because man is a rational animal, his emotional life becomes fully human through habitual perfections (good habits) that originate in reason. In other words, it is the virtues that perfect the emotions. Consequently, it is the virtues that bring about emotional stability and peace to the life of the human person. As psychiatrist Conrad Baars writes:

…man's emotions have an innate need to be guided and directed by reason. That is to say that they need and desire to be guided by their very nature. …When an emotion receives its proper guidance, it is satisfied and is now disposed to submit to the decision of the will as to what course of action shall be taken.

Virtue, as Aquinas points out, is a quality or "habit of choosing the mean appointed by reason as a wise man would appoint it." The virtues are habits that make their possessor good, but the subject that is perfected by these habits is the sensitive appetites from which the emotions or passions arise. These emotions are, in the words of Dr. Baars, "psychic motors that will provide the energy necessary for the many varied situations in which man finds himself." To continue the analogy, these psychic motors need to receive their order and direction from outside of themselves, so to speak. They need to be directed to a common end, and thus they need to be directed by that which is capable of seeing the whole picture, namely, intelligence. This direction will result in the smooth and harmonious operation of the "vehicle". The source of that direction, order and harmony within the human person is none other than reason itself; for the highest power in the human person is reason.

Personhood and Love

It is by virtue of intellectual cognition that the human person is not only able to know something outside of himself; he is also able to become what he knows -- in an immaterial way. In knowing this particular man, I apprehend his nature. I also become aware that he has the same nature as any other man. In apprehending his nature, I apprehend the nature of man in general. But the intellect becomes what it knows in cognition. The essence of this man outside of me begins, in cognition, to exist inside my mind. The cat does not apprehend the nature of the tree it climbs or the nature of the dog from which it runs away, otherwise she'd be able to communicate that knowledge to us and eventually comprehend the language we use to communicate our ideas to others. The brute animal is only capable of imperfect communication, because its knowledge is imperfect and incomplete. The brute only senses objects, it does not grasp the natures of things. But a person is capable of a more perfect communication, for the human person can grasp and communicate the very ideas of things. That is why the human person, and not the brute animal, is capable of perfect love, that is, a love that is entirely self-transcending and which loves the other as another self. St. Thomas writes: "It is in the nature of love to wish well to the object beloved." Love, he goes on to say, tends towards two things: it tends towards the beloved, and it tends towards the good which we desire for him. Now, "it is incorrect to say", Thomas continues, "that we really and sincerely love an object which we desire to destroy; and since many of the things which we use are destroyed, for example, we consume wine in drinking it, we expose a horse to death in battle -- in such cases, we are truly loving ourselves and are only loving these other things per accidens on account of the use which they are to us."

The human person has the capability of loving another person for his own sake, and not for the sake of what the other does for him. He can do this because he is capable of a certain kind of communion, namely an intellectual one. I can know another man as another man, of the same nature as myself. I can know him or her as another self, for I can grasp the concept of 'self'. Also, I completely and perfectly transcend myself in the act of knowing something other than myself; for I know that I am knowing something, and I know that I know that I am knowing something. In fact, it is only in knowing something other than myself that I become aware of myself as an existing being. Because I can know the other person as another self, that is, because I can transcend myself, I can love the other as another self. I can wish him a good for his sake in the same way that I can wish a good for myself. In fact, this is the only truly genuine way that human persons ought to be loved; for it is the only way in which our love respects the other as equal in dignity to ourselves. St. Thomas writes:

…if we love some men only in so far as they are of use to us, it is evident that we do not truly love them as we love ourselves. He that loves another because he is of service to him, or affords him gratification, proves that he loves himself. As he seeks only convenience and profit from his friend and not his friend himself, he can only be said to love his friend in the sense in which we are said to love wine or horses, that is, not as ourselves by wishing well to them, but rather as valuing them as an advantage to ourselves.

And so it is only through the powers of intelligence and will that human persons are capable of a truly genuine love, one that is disinterested and selfless. This does not mean that his love is necessarily disinterested and selfless. Rather, we mean to say that this is the highest kind of love that man is able to achieve according to the powers of his nature. To actually achieve such a love is difficult indeed.

Let us consider now the good towards which love tends, the good we will for the beloved. Note that we necessarily will our own happiness. A genuine love of another will mean that we wish that happiness befall him or her. If our understanding of what constitutes happiness is distorted, then so too will our love for ourselves and for others suffer the same flaw. Suppose I am convinced that doing my own will and eating sweets will bring about my happiness, and I feed my daughter sweets whenever she so desires them(which is nearly always). My love for her is simply disordered and unenlightened. A distorted love is not genuine love at all. For a "just and rightly ordered love prefers the greater good to the lesser good." I have a duty, therefore, to love myself rightly. To do so requires that I come to know what truly constitutes my greatest good. Only then will the possibility of loving another human person sincerely be opened up for me.

Love and the Greatest Good

But what is man's greatest good? What is it that constitutes his happiness? Many people are wont to answer that happiness is different for different people. We are convinced that this view is mistaken and is rooted in a confusion between happiness and the fulfillment of one's desires. A fulfilling life is not the same thing as the fulfillment of one's desires. Different people have different desires, for some people like the winter more than the summer, and some like the summer more than the fall. Some like chicken more than they like beef, and others like seafood over both. But happiness occurs on a much more fundamental level. Happiness results from the fulfillment of one's nature, and all human persons have the same nature. And so happiness is the same for all human persons. But the answer to the question of what constitutes happiness depends upon the answer to the question of life's purpose, and the purpose of a thing is determined by the nature of the thing in question, in this case human nature.

The words 'fulfillment' and 'purpose' have the same reference, that is, they both refer to an 'end'. When we say that something acts with purpose, we say that it acts for an end. So the question of life's purpose is really a question about the end or destiny of human life. The answer to this question will be identical to the answer to the question: "What is life's meaning?" or "What is it that will give my life meaning?" For the French word for 'meaning' is sens (note the English "sense"), which is a word that at times is translated as 'direction'. The question of life's meaning is therefore a question that can accurately be translated thus: "What is it that will give my life direction?" For we often speak of a meaningless or senseless life as one that is 'going nowhere fast.' We also refer to a person's meaningless work as 'spinning one's wheels'. These expressions call to mind the notion of movement (motion), only to deny it, of course.

Now consider that it is the end that gives meaning and direction to a moving thing, such as an automobile. But to know the end of a moving thing, it is enough to return to the origin of its movement. As in the case of an automobile, the origin of its movement is the driver himself. The end is the intention that is within him, and so we ask him: "Where do you intend to go?" Once he reveals his intended destination, the movement of the car begins to "make sense". We understand why he is taking this highway rather than that one. In the same way, the end or destiny of human life is to be discovered in its origin.

All existing things, of course, have their origin in God. For nothing brings itself into existence, and neither can any finite creature bring something into being from nothing. To do so requires power that is unlimited; to be able to impart being or exercise dominion over being is to be limited by nothing. Only God, whose nature is to be, can impart the act of existing, and thus bring something into being from nothing. But just as we inquired of the intention of the driver who is the origin of the movement of the car, we can inquire of God's intention in creating anything. And the answer to this question is, once again, God Himself. Without getting too complicated, consider that the end is the reason for one's action. This is why Aristotle points out that the good is that which all things desire. So the agent that acts for an end regards the end as a good, for he desires it. Now 'good' is a property of being. This means that a being is good insofar as it exists. Consider that what things desire first and foremost is their own perfection, or their own fullness of being. In other words, things desire to be most fully because being is good. Now God exists supremely, for He is His own existence. Therefore, God is the Supreme and Perfect Good. All things are good because they come from God, just as all things exist because they come from God.

It follows that God cannot ultimately intend any good other than Himself. In willing anything into existence, He wills it ultimately for the sake of Himself. This, of course, does not mean that He needs anything, as if a finite being can somehow contribute to the goodness of God's existence. For God lacks nothing. Rather, God freely and gratuitously wills creatures into existence. Why does God do so? Because God is His own Goodness, and goodness is self-diffusive (bonum est diffusivum sui). It is of the nature of goodness to diffuse itself, to communicate its goodness to another, as much goodness as the other is capable of receiving. That is why husband and wife, for example, desire to communicate the goodness of their life and love to a child. In other words, God is love, and things have being as a natural sharing in the goodness of God. It is in this way that He wills Himself, His own goodness in creating other creatures. Other creatures participate, as far as they are able, in the goodness that God is essentially, and this is what God wills in creating.

And so God is the destiny of all things. It is God alone who is the meaning of the entire order of creation. The meaning and end of the physical universe is God. But the physical universe achieves the perfection of its destiny in man's highest achievement, which is the achievement of his destiny.

Consider the hierarchy of being. Recall that the lowest level on the scale of the hierarchy of being is the mineral level. This level of being is good, but better yet is the vegetative level. It is better to be a plant than a mineral. A plant has more being than a mineral; for it is alive, can grow and reproduce itself. Consequently, it has more goodness. But better than both is the kind of existence enjoyed by animals. They not only grow and reproduce themselves, like plants, but they know things in sensation and can move. However, the crowing perfection of the visible universe, the highest kind of material existence, is human existence. Human life includes all levels of material being, but surpasses them in a spiritual kind of existence. Man's share of the good is far richer than that of a rose or a turtle. As a personal being, man is like God in a way that no other material being can claim to be. Man exists in the image and likeness of God; for he has intelligence and will, that is, he can know and he can love. He can know the natures of things, and he can, like God, love other persons for their own sake, and ultimately for God's sake.

But how is it that all things tend to God as their end? All things tend to God as far as their nature allows. They do this by becoming most fully what they are, and in so doing they achieve most fully the goodness in which they were created to share. Man exists most fully as a person, that is, as a being of intelligence (knowledge) and will (love). He exists most fully as a knowing and loving being. So his greatest achievement will be the knowledge of the most intelligible being (God) and the love of the greatest good (God). In short, man's purpose is to know God and love God.

But how is it possible for the human person, who is finite and who can directly know only material things, come to know God directly, who is pure Act of Existing without limits? The answer is that he simply cannot, on his own natural power. Only God can take the initiative and provide a way for man to reach his destiny. St. Thomas writes:

…because man's perfect good is that he somehow know God, lest such a noble creature might seem to be created to no purpose, as being unable to reach its own end, there is given to man a certain way through which he can rise to the knowledge of God.

This way that Thomas speaks of here is one that is given gratuitously. As Joseph Owens writes: "It is a way by which divine truth above the natural grasp of the human intellect comes to men not through demonstration but through revelation. Only in the culmination after death will the human mind be elevated to perfect intuition of what has been revealed."

We will return to this point much later when dealing with the habituation that comes about through divine grace, but at this point let us return to our discussion concerning the meaning of a rightly ordered love. The greatest achievement of human love, as we said above, is to love 'the other' as another self, for his own sake and without reference to his convenience or utility. But a rightly ordered love, as was said above, wills what is truly good for the other and what really brings about his happiness; for "we must desire his welfare in the same manner as we ought to desire our own." But the chief end of human life is God. As St. Augustine wrote: "O Lord, you made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." He is our greatest good, and so He is the ultimate principle of human happiness. It follows that the greatest achievement of human love will be the achievement of a holy love, a love of neighbor that is directed to God. A holy love wills that the happiness of knowing and loving God befall another. As Thomas writes: "So when he also loves his neighbour on account of God, he loves his neighbour as himself, and by means of this he makes this love holy."

Furthermore, the perfection of love is measured not only by its intensity, but also by its extension. After we have achieved a fully extensive love, it remains for us to spend the rest of our lives increasing the intensity of that love. As we said above, when we love another as another self, there is a kind of communion between us. As Thomas writes: "insofar as the two are united, they are considered as if they are one, and thus each one behaves to the other as to himself." But as Thomas goes on to say, there are different ways in which two can be united. Some are united by family ties (both are born of the same parents), others may be culturally united (both are Italian, or Jamaican, etc.), or socially united in that both belong to the same country. The two may be joined by some professional or commercial bonds (both are police officers or both work for the same corporation). Now, a person's love is as extensive as the borders of the union in question. For example, a person may love the other as another Italian, or he may love the other as a fellow soldier in the army. But the intensity of my love stems directly from the intensity of my love of the country, or the culture, etc. If I love my Jamaican culture much more intensely than I love my country of residence, I will react more vehemently to protect the good of a fellow Jamaican than I would to protect the good of the country, for instance. Now, the greater the extension and intensity of my love, the more perfect it is; for not everyone is of the same culture, nor is everyone of the same family. But everyone is of God, and it is on the basis of this common ground that my love of neighbor becomes holy. Moreover, love is not only unitive, but efficacious and fruitful, that is, love is effusive (bonus est diffusivum sui). And so love not only wills what is best for the other, but also actively seeks to procure this good for the other by beneficial works. And so if the perfection of love is measured by its extension, the most perfect love involves loving someone for God's sake, and the greater the intensity of that love for God, the greater will be the love for human persons, who belong to God.

Love can only be Channeled through Virtue

But why is it that loving another for the other's own sake is difficult to achieve? The reason is inordinate self-love. The self exercises a kind of magnetic pull, and so there is emotional disorder in the human person, resulting from the circular and self-centered direction that we naturally tend to give to our lives. The human person discovers the authentic meaning of his life by directing it outside of himself, that is, by choosing to strive to know and love his origin and end. But bad habits are difficult to break, and we have very bad habits. The passions are not easily governed by reason, and they are quasi-naturally habituated to inordinate self-love. If love is to be genuine, disinterested and efficacious, the whole emotional network of the human person will require proper ordering. It is a life structured according to the four cardinal virtues that brings about this order and harmony to the human emotions, and it is this four-fold structure that is the root and source of the peace (pax) that human persons so desperately seek. Such a life is an achievement, and not something received from the outside. Happiness and pax is an activity, not a passivity, as we tend to believe.

Yet we are right in thinking that our peace has something to do with love, but we continue to witness the failure of love. This is because love can only be channeled through virtue. We may have a great reservoir of love, but if we lack magnificence, or the virtue of justice, or courage, or perseverance, or chastity, or sobriety, or meekness or clemency, that love will remain in the reservoir, and the world around us will continue to burn from lovelessness, or ineffective love. If we are impetuous, thoughtless, or inconstant and negligent, if we are, like many people, unable to learn from experience (memory), and if we are intemperate, that is, not indifferent enough to the pleasures of touch, our love will not stretch beyond our own noses in order to bring life and light to those in our lives. The solution to the social problems of our world as well as the personal and emotional problems of our individual lives is to learn to cultivate the virtues. But as the word 'cultivate' suggests, this work is hard labour. It is much easier to cultivate a field, for it takes much less time. Cultivating the virtues takes a good part of a lifetime.

The Interconnectedness of the Virtues

In the natural world there is a real dynamism by which beings tend towards their own perfection. Things naturally tend to be most fully what they are by nature. And this is especially true of the human person; for the human person seeks the good that is perfective of his emotional and rational nature, that is, his nature as an incarnate spirit. And so he moves towards his perfection as one immersed in the material world. When the human person seeks the good, therefore, all his appetitive powers, both the sensitive and the rational, play a vital role. That is why his development includes the perfecting of these powers.

Passion, or emotion, is man's sensible appetitive reaction to the perception of good or evil. In and of themselves, the passions are neither morally good nor morally evil. We could also say that in themselves they are neither healthy nor unhealthy, although they are indeed existentially good. But they become morally good and healthy to the extent that they are voluntary, that is, commanded by the will and directed by reason. For the proper development and emotional well being of the human person is threatened by excessive sensuality. That is why emotional development requires that the passions be moderated by reason. But this moderation is difficult to achieve, for the appetitive part of man (concupiscible and irascible appetites) obeys reason only with great difficulty. This difficulty isn't permanent, thanks to habit. But as we all know, good habits are difficult to acquire, and old habits are hard to break. But habit is a disposition "whereby someone is disposed well or ill." More specifically, habits dispose the powers of man, which are related to specific operations, for instance the power to think to thinking a certain way, the power to will to willing a certain way, and the sensitive appetitive powers to love, complacency, hate, fear, daring, and hope, etc. Habits are acquired by repetitive action, and they dispose the powers of action so that the proper activities of these powers are more readily performed. And so the state of a power disposed by habit is one that is between the potentiality of a power for operation and the full actuality of the operation itself. Habit inclines the power toward a certain way of acting. And so virtue inclines the power to a way of acting that is in accordance with reason, and in such a way that the action may be performed readily and with pleasure.

In order to act well, that is, in order to achieve the emotional pax that we spoke of earlier, it is first of all necessary that the intellect be well disposed by the intellectual virtues, in particular understanding and prudence. It is also necessary that the appetitive powers be well disposed by good moral habits (the moral virtues), for instance the will by justice and the sensitive appetites by temperance and fortitude.

Virtue is not, as many people are wont to believe, freedom from passion. Rather, virtue is freedom from inordinate passion, or passion that is out of sink with the harmonious ordering achieved by reason. But when passion follows reason, it actually adds to the execution of reason's command. In this sense, virtue is freedom for passion. St. Thomas writes: "When a passion forestalls the judgment of reason so as to prevail on the mind to give its consent, it hinders counsel and the judgment of reason. But when it follows that judgment, as though commanded by reason, it helps toward the execution of reason's command." That is why the morally virtuous person is more passionate than the one who behaves without moderation and virtue. In fact, the more perfect a virtue is, the more does it actually cause passion. St. Thomas writes:

Those moral virtues, however, which are not about the passions, but about operations, can be without passions. Such a virtue is justice, because it applies the will to its proper act, which is not a passion. Nevertheless, joy results from the act of justice, at least in the will, in which case it is not a passion. And if this joy be increased through the perfection of justice, it will overflow into the sensitive appetite, insofar as the lower powers follow the movement of the higherÉTherefore by reason of this kind of overflow, the more perfect a virtue is, the more does it cause passion.

This explains why there isn't a great deal of passion in the relationships of the intemperate. Lust that is regularly indulged in, for example, will only leave a person unsettled and emotionally empty. At the opposite extreme, insensibility may allow a woman to appear temperate, but the lack of passion in her gives her away, revealing that we are dealing here not with the virtue of chastity, but its defect, which is often rooted in a repression of the sexual powers, not their perfection through reason.

The entire network of the virtues is really a structure in which each of the virtues is connected to and dependent upon the others. All the virtues, for instance, depend upon prudence, which Aquinas calls the mother of the virtues. For one cannot be virtuous unless one knows what constitutes the mean of reason in the particular situation in which one finds oneself. And one will not know the mean of reason if one's intellect is blinded by an intemperate life, as we will treat in more detail later. And one will not choose the mean appointed by reason unless one's will is properly disposed by the virtue of justice. But even if a person knows that is truly just, he will not successfully live according to the demands of justice unless he is temperate and brave; for as we said above, the appetitive part of man obeys reason only with great difficulty. If his life is ordered primarily towards his own private good as opposed to the common good, the demands of general justice will go unheeded. Furthermore, his judgment of what is truly just will be skewed by inordinate passion, and of course the demands of temperance cannot be fulfilled without a certain firmness of mind brought about by fortitude. St. Thomas writes:

…these four virtues qualify one another by a kind of overflow. For the qualities of prudence overflow on to the other virtues in so far as they are directed by prudence. And each of the others overflows on to the rest, for the reason that whoever can do what is harder, can do what is less difficult. Therefore whoever can curb his desires for the pleasures of touch, so that they keep within bounds, which is a very hard thing to do, for this reason is more able to check his daring in dangers of death, so as not to go too far, which is much easier; and in this sense fortitude is said to be temperate. Again, temperance is said to be brave, by reason of fortitude overflowing into temperance, in so far namely, as he whose soul is strengthened by fortitude against the dangers of death, which is a matter of very great difficulty, is more able to remain firm against the onslaught of pleasures.

The human person is fundamentally relational; for the very word 'person' comes from the Latin 'per' and 'sona', which together mean 'through sound', calling attention to the phenomenon of language or communication. A person is, as we have already seen in treating love, one who communicates (ideas) and in so doing enters into community (love). The human person can only really develop and become most fully what he is by nature in and through community with others, for his very existence as a human person depended and continues to depend upon others. His emotional and moral integrity depends in large part on his ability to learn to relate well with others. But a necessary precondition to living well with others is that one be able to "act well with one's self from within one's self." This is a very important point, for as was said above, unless one is temperate and firm of mind, one has no hope of successfully cultivating the virtue of justice, for example, which is the virtue by which we are disposed to relate well with others. That is why it is absurd the notion that our lives can be governed by the principle that what is really important in life is that we learn to be compassionate, caring and just toward one another, while chastity and the other virtues that deal only with one's self are of little or no significance. The principle that everything is permitted, except what causes harm to others, is, by virtue of man's emotional nature, one that is unworkable and defeated from the start. The appetites can and often do get in the way of the requirements of justice, that is, the appetites can sway the will and even affect the quality of one's evaluation and judgment of concrete situations. That is why in our presentation of the virtues, we are going to proceed backwards. Instead of beginning at the top with prudence and ending with temperance, we are going to begin with temperance and move upwards towards prudence, and finally up even further towards the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. Because there is an interconnection and interdependency among the virtues, it is impossible to treat each one in complete isolation from the rest, in particular justice and prudence, since prudence provides the measure of reason and presupposes right appetite. So it may appear that we beg the question in certain areas, by appealing to virtues and principles we have yet to treat, but this is inevitable. For the development of the human person does not take place one virtue at a time, any more than the physical development of a child takes place one organ at a time. The skeletal structure as well as all that depends upon it develop as a whole, so too the moral and emotional development of the human person.