Love as primarily willed or emotional

One of the reactions to the sexual revolution (and the 19th Century radical Romantic movement) was to stress that love was an act of the will and not an emotional state. I think this leads to seeing love in a way that ends up distorting what it is, but to explain this will take three longish paragraphs of set-up.

Aristotle locates virtue in that part of the person which is not rational but can respond to reason, i.e that part of us that virtues train is what we now call our emotional states. By the time we recognize that emotion is something we need to work on we find ourselves with some good and fitting emotional responses to the world and some not so good, but everyone has a tremendous amount of work to do, and the complete effort is the work of a very long time. One of the more vexing problems is that emotional responses that of themselves count as great natural talents and gifts all come with a dark and harmful shadow that needs to be purged out by effort and cultivation. The emotional warmth that a scholar gets in the face of ideals, perfect constructions, and abstract truth will, before our own effort, come with a dark shadow of irrational expectations of human perfection, which in turn will lead to crazed-impatience and/or scruples  and/or irrational irritation at all demands that others make on our time, and/or a hundred other vices; and the emotional warmth that sociable and gregarious persons get from the presence of others will, before our efforts at improvement, come with a shadow of living beyond one’s means, and/or an overbearing and oppressive alpha-domination, and/or the a loss of one’s identity to the herd, etc.. Again, even identifying our natural emotional gifts is not always easy to do, since what appears to be an emotional gift might well not be, either because we misunderstand what a proper response is or because, even though we understand things correctly, what we take as a proper response is really just two vices fighting against each other or one of our more dominant vices using moderation as a tool to achieve the long-term goals of vice.

Virtue, morality, ethics, psychology, life wisdom, economics, friendship, and much of the work of actual grace and supernatural aid are dedicated to building a city in this wilderness of emotions where good and evil are both obscure and implicated in one another. The basic experience of growing up or living one’s vocation is discovering both the great abundance of natural emotional gifts we have and the extent to which they both help and deeply hurt humanity in the person of ourselves and of others. There’s also a great deal of experiencing our limitation and inadequacy, which in turn is both a gift-in-disguise and, of course, a humiliating self-critique and a source of harm for the humanity of ourselves and others.

Love only exists within this basic human emotional predicament, which we experience as a vocation to vows and virtue. Virtue just is a correct emotional response to the world, where “correct” means one that is purified of its dark shadow and where some emotional responses have been grown more or less from scratch from the habitual repetition of some behaviors. This sort of cultivation involves reason in its whole scope as self-reflective, mindful of human goods, tempered by experience and the arguments of others, perfected by cultivation in in art, entertainment, music, food, narratives of life, etc. Basically, “reason” is a proxy term for “anything in our psychological, cultural, volitional, or intellectual endowment that our emotions can be cultivated by”, and the difference between this and a Kantian deontological pure reason or a soi disant classical essential intellectualism could not be more stark.

And so after all this I can give some sense of just how wrong it is to see love as either essentially willed or essentially emotional, or how far we miss the mark if we want the difference between classical and modern accounts of love to turn on the primacy of emotion or will. The Emotionalists and Romantics want, in effect, the reward of virtue without the work of “reason” (again, understood as the proxy-term just mentioned). Those opposed to the Emotionalists fail to see that emotions are both the source and summit of the work of virtue, and they provide the only context in which love can be a virtue and not a vice.* Emotionalism or Romanticism is a perfectly correct stance to life for the virtuous, the saintly, those fresh out of Purgatory, or Christ and Theotokos throughout life.  Let’s put this claim as scandalously as we can: those right out of Purgatory are morally obliged to abandon or push aside object to which they feel emotional repugnance;** and to the extent that you feel emotional repugnance and something you should not push aside you still have moral work to do on yourself. This is the sense of Augustine’s “love and do whatever you want” or of Vergil’s speech to Dante in Purgatorio XXVII:

“I’ve brought you here with intelligence and art.
Let your own pleasure guide you from now on…
“Await no more a word or sign from me.
Your will is straightened, free, and whole —
and not To act upon its promptings would be wrong.

Said another way, one response to “love is a choice, not an emotion” is to say either “no” or, better yet “not in the virtuous, it isn’t” or “love is either vicious or incontinent where it does not have the proper emotional responses” And the proper response to Emotionalism or Romanticism is not “love is a choice- an act of the will!” but “Yes, you are supposed to live by your emotions, but you have no idea how undeveloped, imperfect, and in need of cultivation your emotions are. Living according to your emotions now would be like trying to make an oak table out of acorns.”


*We can probably make the claim stronger than this: emotions are essential guides to what is true or false. This is easiest to see in the Capgras syndrome, where a failure to route sense information though emotional centers in the brain leads us to think we are sensing fakes or impostors. This has a less delusional but still corruputive instantiation in teenagers who think everyone is fake or phony or without integrity (Holden Caulfield would be a paradigm instance… Full disclosure: as a teenage I identified with Holden, which turned out to be both a source of later perfections and a great source of harm and irrationality).

**Just what sort of exegesis this calls for of Christ’s “not as I will, but as thou will” is not clear, but my own commitments rule out reading this as Christ’s emotional repugnance to a fully understood duty. It likewise creates a greater demand on the imperative to “love your enemies”. Taking this as a duty does commit us to emotions that are appropriate to the imparative which is, for most, an impossibly remote ideal.



  1. Lucretius said,

    July 15, 2016 at 3:14 pm

    I always saw the soul working as a hierarchy:

    Reason in communion with faith,
    Will in communion with reason,
    And emotions in communion with will.

    Or, in other words, the will and emotions (our conscious inclinations we tend to refer to as “the heart”) all integrated with each other and influencing each other: the emotions being like energy for the will, and the will mediating between the emotions and reason, ensuring the emotions don’t go wild.

    However, wouldn’t all this be love as experienced by humans? What about beings like angels, beings without emotions but with will? What does love look like for them? Wouldn’t love for them look similar to the “love being an act of the will?” If so, why are their love not “vicious or incontinent?”

    Christi pax,


    • Lucretius said,

      July 15, 2016 at 3:23 pm

      How would you respond to people who have deep seated emotional tendencies, ones that probably cannot be corrected in this life? Can they simply not love much?

      Christi pax,


      • July 15, 2016 at 6:51 pm

        All emotions are tendencies and all are deep seated, so I assume you mean mental illness or something like this, in which case a think can’t count as a mental illness at all except to the extent that it is an impediment to happiness, or at least proper social functioning. If by “love” you mean what I mean then whatever impedes happiness will impede an ability to love.

      • Lucretius said,

        July 15, 2016 at 9:25 pm

        I had in mind multiple situations, such as

        1) sociopaths and psychopaths, who don’t seem to have certain vital emotions,

        2) homosexuals, as his desires don’t seem to be the sort of thing cultivating good sexual habits can rid him of, and

        3) any emotions in some that don’t seem to be orderable by habit.

        I’m wonder how we as Christians can guide these poor folks 😔 Is it impossible for them to obtain happiness?

        Oh, thank you for your response, by the way!

        Christi pax,


      • July 16, 2016 at 11:20 am

        Again, if you are understanding all these things as emotional disorders, then isn’t it true a priori that they are incompatible with happiness? Why would something count as an emotional disorder if it had no negative affect on happiness?

        But if you’re asking “just how inveterate is any emotional disorder?” I’d say first that nothing that counts as a disorder or sickness could be a part of the self (this is how disorders or sicknesses are different from imperfections. Nature both requires and promotes some imperfections, and so these can be a part of what a thing is.) And so no disorder or sickness can be what someone is. Second, both Neuroscience and character-psychology have moved from a rigid and inflexible notion of nature to one with a good deal more plasticity, and since nature is plastic and spirit is free, there seems to be little in-principle restraint on human malleability. But to establish something is possible in principle is not to know how to pull it off in practice.

      • Lucretius said,

        July 16, 2016 at 4:17 pm

        No no no, that’s not what I mean. I’m asking how to deal with these “hard cases” in practice, as you say.

        Christi pax,


    • July 15, 2016 at 7:05 pm

      the will mediating between the emotions and reason, ensuring the emotions don’t go wild.

      This makes emotions too simple, as though they only all had a tendency to excess or abandon. But people have all sorts of emotional tendencies to atrophy of feeling, and even a wild emotion will have as its shadow side a desire for emotional withdrawal. At any rate, there are times when wildness and chaos are appropriate. Moderation in passions is not mediocrity but a passion that is supple enough to respond appropriately to the problems of life – one of the key features of stunted emotion and vice is a tendency to respond in exactly the same way to all problems, i.e. to have a rigidity of immediate emotional response to situations.

      What about beings like angels, beings without emotions but with will? What does love look like for them? Wouldn’t love for them look similar to the “love being an act of the will?”

      Angels aren’t moral since they don’t need to develop an irrational part of themselves by habituated behavior, perfected by feeling emotions correctly and thus being happy. But in doing this human beings simply do what any nature does when it performs its proper function – rocks fall, fish swim, etc. Angels, like any nature, have this too. They “do their thing” (a more insightful idiom than it looks, since “thing” is “essence”) and in doing it experience whatever, for them, is joy for us.

      • Lucretius said,

        July 15, 2016 at 9:36 pm

        When I say wild, I meant disordered passions. I think that sometimes it is appropriate to settle down certain emotions, but if I understand you correctly, do you mean something similar to what Chesterton characterizes as the genius of the Christian faith in Orthodoxy: just as the faith is set up in such a way that opposing approaches to it can coexist without contradiction and without weakening each, so to should our emotions?

        Christi pax,


      • Lucretius said,

        July 15, 2016 at 10:13 pm

        I’ve always viewed emotion and will and reason as so:

        Christi pax,


  2. robalspaugh said,

    July 15, 2016 at 4:49 pm

    I don’t know, James. All joking about Just Humeanism aside, you seem to be flip-flopping between love being an act of the integrated whole and love being an act of a part of that whole (emotions). You are pushing so hard on the latter so times that I worry about, among other things, our God-likeness.

    Neat post though. Definitely a good think.

  3. July 16, 2016 at 9:55 pm

    I’m intrigued by the point relating to the Agony in the Garden. I absolutely agree that it cannot be seen as merely an emotional repugnance to a duty. But the deeper point we’re getting at here has to do with the place of suffering in a virtue-oriented system. All virtue ethicists presume, as a matter of course, that things can be good for us without seeming good to us–but this is radically insufficient to account for the reality of suffering within a Christian framework. If this were all suffering was, then suffering would be something that could, or even ought, to be trained out of us by the practice of virtue, and also entirely inapplicable to Christ. This–suffering as a reality capable of being removed entirely through the practice virtue– is, more or less, the Stoic system; but this is, obviously, entirely ruled out by Christianity as such.

    Suffering in the higher sense, though, is the bearing and/or experience of evils; and if the Cross and the Agony means anything, it is that evils accepted for the sake of some higher good remain evil in the fullest sense, and thus a fitting object of repugnance for both the emotions and the will. Many doctors have taken the Agony in the Garden as the paramount proof for the existence of a human will–a human rational appetite–in Christ along with the Divine Will, and it is not hard to see why. What Christ’s will is desiring to avoid in the Garden, then, is not the Cross considered merely as a positive duty, or even merely a work of charity, but considered as evil fully realized and perceived as such; and it is this which his emotions, rightfully, react to with repugnance and pain, and his will with a request for deliverance.

    This is one reason why I think an appreciation of suffering is vitally important for philosophical ethics. Even a fully virtuous person, so long as evils are present in the world, will find himself in situations where he must act despite both strong emotional repugnance and even a fully rational repugnance of the will. In a sense, suffering could, in at least certain senses of the word, even have the potential to be increased the more our emotions and our intellects become capable of fully grasping and reacting to evil as such; this is contrary to all philosophical sects, but consonant with much of the Christian mystical tradition.

    After all, it is a pretty poor Romanticism that does not have a place for a grand sacrifice for the beloved.

    This also, I suppose, would have implications for theodicy as well.

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