JMC : Classification of Desires / by Henry Ignatius Smith, OP

Chapter I.

Subjective Classification of Desires in St. Thomas.


St. Thomas refers human action to the human soul. (1-2ae, Q. 37, a. 1). This simple spiritual substance is the remote principle of all action. In order to exercise its inherent powers it uses different channels or faculties. These are called the powers of the soul and are the proximate sources of action (la, Q. 77, a. 1). These powers are distinguished from the essence of the soul although they are inherent in it (ibid.). They are related among themselves (la, Q. 77, a. 7), being distinct from one another and of different dignities (la, Q. 77, a. 4). These faculties are of two kinds; through some of them the soul executes an action while through others it is acted upon by another agent.{1} (De Verit., Q. 25, a. 2; Q. 16, a. 1.) The powers of the soul are drawn into action by the stimulus of their proper objects. They in turn stir the soul to action.

The soul is the vivifying principle of the material body; hence, it is the sustaining element of the body's vegetative and sensile life. It has also its peculiar spiritual activity. St. Thomas holds that human action is the combined result of interaction of soul and body and that, therefore, it is not correct to say that the intellect understands and the will wishes. His definite principle covering this point is, "Actiones sunt suppositorum." Man acts. It is the concrete individual who understands through the intellect and wishes through the action of the will. St. Thomas teaches that human action is neither entirely angelic nor totally animal, but that it is on the confines of the spiritual and the bodily natures and that both kinds of powers meet in the soul (la, Q. 77, a. 2). Its simple spirituality can be reconciled with its varied activities only by assuming the existence of many different powers distinguished from one another by the nature of the object which stimulates them to act. In other words, the faculties of the soul are distinguished by their activities, and these activities are distinguished by their proper objects (la, Q. 77, a. 3). Thus we see that the subjective and the objective classifications of desires are fundamental throughout the system of St. Thomas. Certain faculties, intellect and will, are complete acts of the soul and are situated in the soul itself; others, the vegetative and sensile faculties, are situated in the composite being (la, Q. 77, a. 5). All of them depend on the soul as their principle of emanation (la, Q. 77, a. 8).

St. Thomas presents his fundamental classification as follows (la, Q. 78, a. 1):

Utrum quinque genera potentiarum animae sint distinguenda.

Respondeo dicendum quod quinque sunt genera potentiarum animae, quae numerata sunt; -- tres vero dicuntur animae; -- quatuor vero dicuntur modi vivendi.

Et hujus diversitatis ratio est, quia diversae animae dlstinguuntur secundum quod diversimode operatio animae supergreditur operationem naturae corporalis. Tota enim natura corporalis subjacet animae, et comparatur ad ipsam sicut materia et instrumentum. Est ergo quaedam operatio animae quae in tantum excedit naturam corpoream, quod neque etiam exercetur per organum corporale; et talis est operatio animae rationalis. Est autem alia operatio animae infra istam, quae quidem fit per organum corporale, non tamen per aliquam corpoream qualitatem; et talis est operatio animae sensibilis; quia etsi calidum, et frigidum, et humidum, et siccum, et aliae hujusmodi qualitates corporeae, requirantur ad operationem sensus; non tamen ita quod mediante virtute talium qualitatum operatio animae sensibilis procedat, sed requiruntur solum ad debitam dispositionem organi. Infima autem operationum animae est quae fit per organum corporeum, et virtute corporeae qualitatis. Supergreditur tamen operationem naturae corporeae; quia motiones corporum sunt ab exteriori principio; hujusmodi autem operationes sunt a principio intrinseco, hoc enim commune est omnibus operationibus animae. Omne autem animatum aliquo modo movet seipsum; et talis est operatio animae vegetabilis. Digestio enim, et ea quae consequuntur, fit instrumentaliter per actionem caloris, ut dicitur in 2 de Anima, text. 50.

Genera vero potentiarum animae distinguuntur secundum objecta. Quanto enim potentia est altior, tanto respicit universalius objectum, ut supra dictum est, quaest. praec., art. 3, ad. 4. Objectum autem operationis animae in triplici ordine potest considerari. Alicujus enim potentiae animae objectum est solum corpus animae unitum; et hoc genus potentiarum animae dicitur vegetativum; non emim vegetativa potentia agit nisi in corpus cui anima unitur. Est autem aliud genus potentiarum animae quod respicit adhuc universalius objectum, scilicet omne corpus sensibile, et non solum corpus animae unitum. Est autem aliud genus potentiarum animae quod respicit adhuc universalius objectum, scilicet non solum corpus sensibile, sed etiam universaliter omne ens. Ex quo patet quod ista duo secunda genera potentiarum animae habent operationem non solum respectu rei conjunctae, sed etiam respectu rei extrinsecae. Cum autem oporteat operans aliquo modo conjungi suo objecto, circa quod operatur, necesse est extrinsecam rem, quae est objectum operationis animae, secundum duplicem rationem ad animam comparari. Uno modo secundum quod nata est animae conjungi, et in anima esse per suam similitudinem; et quantum ad hoc sunt duo genera potentiarum, scilicet sensitivum respectu objecti minus communis, quod est corpus sensibile; et intellectivum respectu objecti communissimi, quod est ens universale. Allo vero modo secundum quod ipsa anima inclinatur et tendit in rem exteriorem; et secundum hanc etiam comparationem sunt duo genera potentiarum animae: unum quidem, scilicet appetitivum, secundum quod anima comparatur ad rem extrinsecam ut ad finem, qui est primum in intentione; aliud autem motivum secundum locum, prout anima comparatur ad rem exteriorem sicut ad terminum operationis et motus. Ad consequendum enim aliquod desideratum et intentum omne animal movetur.

Modi vero vivendi distinguuntur secundum gradus viventium. Quaedam enim viventia sunt in quibus est tantum vegetativum, sicut in plantis. Quaedam vero, in quibus cum vegetativo est etiam sensitivum, non tamen motivum secundum locum, sicut sunt immobilis animalia, ut conchilia. Quaedam vero sunt quae supra hoc habent motivum secundum locum, ut perfecta animalia, quae multis indigent ad suam vitam; et ideo indigent motu, ut vitae necessaria procul posita quaerere possint. Quaedam vero viventia sunt in quibus cum his est intellectivum, scilicet in hominibus. Appetitivum autem non constituit aliquem gradum viventium: quia in quibuscumque est sensus, est etiam appetitus, ut dicitur in 2 de Anima, text. 27.

From this text we find that our author describes five different kinds of objects around which the power of the soul is focused. The soul cares for the material welfare of the body which stands between it and the outer world. This class of powers is called vegetative. It includes the nutritive power preserving the bodily existence, the augmentative power which carries the body to its right proportions, and the generative power giving life to others.

Other phases of the soul's activity bring it into relation with objects not joined to it like the body but extrinsic to it. The relation of the soul to these external objects has a two-fold direction, the motion of the object toward the soul and the motion of the soul toward the object. This difference of direction represents the difference between the cognitive and the conative faculties. Every agent must be united in some way to the object on which it is acting; it must either bring the object to itself or it must be carried in some way to the object. This holds true when applied to the operations of the soul about objects that are extrinsic to it. In the case of apprehension the mind draws the object of knowledge to itself and adapts it to its own processes. In the case of conation the faculty is drawn toward the object. In regard to that movement of the soul whereby it draws in the object, the object can be considered in two senses, either materially or immaterially. Thus in the cognitive class of the soul's activities we meet the fundamental division between the sensitive, and the rational or intellective operations. To take care of the different phases of sensitive cognition St. Thomas enumerates the following faculties or powers of the soul. The faculties for internal sensible cognition are common sense, memory, imagination and the instinct of estimation. The faculties for external sensile knowledge are sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. To provide for the knowledge of things in a rational way we have the intellect.

In that kind of psychic activity by which the soul is drawn toward the object the latter is again either a material thing or something spiritual. For the soul's activity or motion toward an external sensible object there are two powers, the irascible and the concupiscible powers of the sensitive appetency. The motion of the soul toward a more universal object is through the will. Where the external sensile object can be procured only by effort and travel the soul is aided by the faculty of locomotion (la, Q. 78, a. 2; a. 3; a. 4; Q. 79; Q. 80; Q. 81, a. 2; 1-2ae, Q. 23, a. 4).


1. NATURAL APPETENCY. -- Modern psychology confines the use of the term appetite or appetency to the lower faculties of man. St. Thomas, however, gave the word a much broader meaning, using it to denominate the universal tendency in all created things toward a particular kind of existence or action. In this sense, the word may be applied as readily to economic or geological activity as to the higher forms of rational evolution. Appetitus is the inclination or relation of a thing to an object that is agreeable to it (1-2ae, Q. 8, a. 1; la, Q. 80, a. 1; De Malo, Q. 3, a. 3; De Verit., Q. 25, a. 1); to a natural complement which it desires when not possessed and which it enjoys when possessed (la, Q. 19, a. 1, a. 2); it is. an inborn inclination placed in everything by the First Mover by force of which each thing tends to realize the purpose for which it exists and in the manner in which it exists (Eth. lec. 2; Phys. I, 5).

One can see at a glance the relation of this natural appetite to the problem of classification of the powers of the soul. Each power or faculty of the soul is distinct from the others. Each one is a channel of the soul's activity and is endowed with a natural inclination or appetitus to accomplish that for which it was placed in the soul. Each power of the soul, by force of a natural appetite, desires and loves the object to which it is ordained by nature (la, Q. 78, a. 1, ad. 3). This natural appetite is not a distinct power of the soul (De Verit., Q. 22, a. 3). St. Thomas uses the term "natural" here to indicate that this inclination is placed in each faculty by nature.{2}

2. SENSILE APPETENCY. -- Natural appetite governs objects automatically. It is nothing other than natural inclination or tendency. There is in connection with it, no question of antecedent knowledge or understanding or choice.

St. Thomas devotes much time to the analysis of the sensitive appetency. The act of the sensitive appetite is called sensuality. This term covers any movement of the sensile appetite whether promoting or interfering with the welfare of the individual. The act of appetency differs from the act of apprehension. The latter is completed when the thing apprehended is brought toward the cognitive power (la, Q. 81, a. 1). The general sensile appetency of the individual acts by two distinct faculties, the irascible and the concupiscible. The latter of these has for its object the good as such, while the former has for its object the difficult good and the removal of any obstacle which may stand in the way of a good desired. Thus the movements of the irascible faculty are grounded in the concupiscible faculty. Sensitive conation is an inclination that follows in the wake of sensitive perception just as natural conation is an inclination resulting from natural constitution. The apprehensive faculty may represent a desirable object as attainable without or with difficulty. The soul is prepared for each situation by the irascible and concupiscible faculties (1-2ae, Q. 23, a. 1, ad. 3).

a) Out of these two powers of the soul arise the passions known in modern terminology as the emotions. The word "passion" is relegated now to moral philosophy which uses it to denote ill regulated emotion. The phrase "sensile appetency" is no longer used in psychology outside of Thomistic circles, In the mind of St. Thomas the passions are movements of the sensile appetency which follow upon sensile apprehension. He recognizes fully the importance of the emotions in human action (1-2ae, Q. 22, a. 2, ad. 2).

The following table represents the passions as St. Thomas explained them and their relation to the concupiscible and irascible powers of the soul:

  Concupiscible Faculty Awakens Irascible Faculty Awakens
Object as first apprehended Good . . . Love
Evil . . . Hatred
Object as to be possessed Good . . . Desire
Evil . . . Aversion
Fear and Courage
Hope and Despair
Object as possessed Good . . . Delight
Evil . . . Pain

The good apprehended awakens the passion of love; evil apprehended awakens the passion of hatred. A perceived good, not yet possessed awakens the passion of desire or concupiscence; an evil perceived but not suffered arouses the passion of dislike. The good possessed occasions delight or joy. The good or the evil suffered awakens pain or sorrow. The irascible passions arise in a similar way. The good not yet obtained occasions hope or despair. The evil feared but not yet suffered awakens fear and daring. Evil suffered arouses the passion of anger (1-2ae, Q. 23, a. 1).

The emotions of the irascible faculty are secondary to the concupiscible emotions. The most important of these is love (1-2ae, Q. 25, a. 2). Others are joy, sadness, hope, fear and pleasure (1-2ae, Q. 25, a. 4).

b) St. Thomas considers instinct in two ways -- as an inclination to action found in all of the faculties (appetitus naturalis), and as a special combination of the sense of estimation with one or another of the emotions. He would explain the general instincts for knowledge, imitation, self and race preservation as the natural appetite or inherent activity of the powers of intellect, nutrition, augmentation and generation (la, Q. 78, a. 1). In many instances instinct seems to indicate a kind of choice as is evident in the case of the lamb instinctively avoiding the wolf (la, Q. 81, a. 3). This is due to the sense of estimation, the guide of the sensile appetite just as the practical reason is the guide of the will (3. Sent. dist. 26, Q. 1, a. 2). Unlike the other faculties, each one craving for selfish satisfaction, the sense of estimation is the governor of the other senses and directs the sensile welfare of the composite (De Verit., Q. 24, a 2).

3. RATIONAL APPETENCY. -- The rational appetite in man is the will. The will necessarily desires happiness as its last end (la, Q. 82, a. 1). It is metaphysically determined to the good. However, in regard to individual goods, the will has the power of choice (ibid.) seeking all things under the aspect of good (la, Q. 82, a. 2, ad. 1). Unlike the sensitive appetite which seeks particular sensile goods, the will seeks good in its universal aspect (1a, Q. 82, a. 5). Free will is essentially the act of choosing among goods (la, Q. 83, a. 3) and is accompanied by the judgment of the reason (ibid., ad. 2), since the appetite itself does not make comparisons (ibid., ad. 3).

On the will rests the work of controlling the other appetites. The irascible and concupiscible faculties obey the will as an inferior obeys a superior, through a political but not despotic subjection (la, Q. 81, a. 3). At times the will is not powerful enough to control the inordinate cravings of the lower appetites and is overcome very often by fear, anger and sexual passion (1-2ae, Q. 6).

This overpowering force of the lower appetites may come from habit, heredity and environment. On this basis St. Thomas accounts for diversity of actions among individuals where the powers of the soul -- the sources of action -- are theoretically the same in all.

Habits are acquired tendencies and are the results of repeated acts (1-2ae, Q. 51, a. 1). They are very often initiated by inherited dispositions (De Potent, Q. 3, a. 9, ad. 7). The child resembles the parents in many personal traits (De Verit. Q. 23, a. 5) and many characteristics rooted in the organism are transmitted from parent to child, such as physical ability and keen minds (1-2ae, Q. 81, a. 2; De Malo, Q. 4, a. 8; 1-2ae, Q. 51, a. 1). Thus one will have a natural predisposition to science, another to bravery and another to temperance (1-2ae, Q. 63, a. 1). Inherited evil dispositions when gratified build up bad habits or vices; good inclinations repeated form good habits or virtues (1-2ae, Q. 49, a. 1; ibid., Q. 50, a. 2, a. 3). The task of the will is to control vicious inclinations and direct the lower appetites toward the Summum Bonum. In this work it can be helped or hindered by environment because of the tendency of individuals to imitate actions of their neighbors (2-2ae, Q. 83, a. 1; In Rom., lec. 7, c. 2; lec. 14, c. 2). Good example is more powerful than words (1-2ae, Q. 34, a. 1) and the will is assisted by the imitation of the Savior and the saints (In Heb. 12, lec. 1; 3a, Q. 48, a. 5, ad. 3; 4 Sent. dist. 14, Q. 1, a. 5).


While love is the beginning of all action practically speaking, the desire for spiritual or material pleasure is the first step in the mental process (1-2ae, Q. 31, a. 1). In this sense, pleasure is the conditioning element of all appetite and action just as good is their object. Intellectual pleasures are called gaudium; when accompanied by elation, pleasure is called laetitia; when expressed externally it is jucunditas; when it arises from the animal appetites it is called voluptas. Pleasure is necessary as an antidote for sorrow and men usually choose material pleasure because they cannot obtain or appreciate spiritual pleasures (1-2ae, Q. 31, a. 5). Pleasures may be obtained from Action well regulated (1-2ae, Q. 32 a. 1): Hope and Memory (ibid., a. 3, ad. 3): Sadness and Hatred (ibid., a. 4, ad. 2 and ad. 3): Praise and Flattery (ibid., a. 5): Charity (ibid., a. 6): Correcting and Scolding Others (ibid., a. 6, ad 3): Similarity (consciousness of kind) (ibid., 7): Wonder and Research (1-2ae, Q. 32, a. 8, ad. 3). Pleasure has the following effects on desire: it causes a thirst or desire for itself (1-2ae, Q. 33, a. 2): material pleasures hinder the use of the imagination and thus fetter the reason (ibid., a. 3).

St. Thomas recognizes four degrees of pain. Sorrow or pain is always occasioned by evil with which the individual is brought into contact. If the evil lies in the misfortune of a friend, pity is aroused; if a man think the success of a neighbor is his own misfortune, envy is stirred up. The inability to avoid evil is perplexity, and paralysis is the complete depression of the mind and body in the face of evil (1-2ae, Q. 35, a. 2). When the presence of evil is perceived by the interior senses, the emotion is called sorrow; otherwise it is called pain (12ae, Q. 35, a. 3).

Sorrow and pain, while the opposites of pleasure, can be the cause of pleasure; on this principle is built the philosophy by which material pains and sorrows are borne with a pleasure based on higher motives (ibid.). In many cases the avoidance of pain may be a stronger motive than the pursuit of pleasure (ibid., a. 6).

Sorrow is caused by delay in procuring the objects of desire or when the hope of satisfying our desires vanishes (1-2ae, Q. 36, a. 2). Were we to crush desire, sorrow would also disappear (ibid., a. 4).

The remedies for pain and sorrow are:

Pleasure: Tears and Groans (1-2ae, Q. 38, a. 2): Friendly Sympathy (ibid., Q. 38, a. 3): Contemplation: Sleep and Bathing (Q. 38, a. 4).

The following table presents the entire analysis of St. Thomas in brief form:


Vegitative Nutritive (1a, Q. 78, a. 2)
Augmentative (ibid. ad. 3; ad. 4)
Generative (ibid. ad. 2; ad. 4)
Sensitive: External (1a, Q. 78, a. 3) Sight (la, Q. 78, a. 3)
Hearing (ibid.)
Smell (ibid.)
Taste (ibid.)
Touch (ibid.)
Sensitive: Internal (1a, Q. 78, a. 4) Common Sense (1a, Q. 78, a. 4)
Imagination (ibid.)
Estimation (ibid.)
Appetitive: Sensitive (1a, Q. 80, a. 1, a. 2) Irascible (Q. 81, a. 2, a. 3; 1-2ae, QQ. 22, 23, 24, 25)

Concupiscible (Q. 81, a. 3)
Hope (1-2ae, Q. 40)
Courage (ibid. Q. 45) (Q. 81, a. 2, a. 3)
Fear (ibid. QQ. 41, 42, 43, 44)
Anger (ibid. QQ. 46, 47, 48)

Love (1-2ae, QQ. 26, 27, 28)
Desire (ibid. Q. 30)
Pleasure (ibid. QQ. 31, 32, 33, 34)
Hatred (ibid. Q. 29)
Sadness (ibid. QQ. 35, 36, 37, 38, 39)
Appetitive: Rational (Q. 80, a. 2; Q. 82; Q. 83) Will -
Intellective Intellect (Q. 79, a. 1) Active Intellect (Q. 79, a. 3, a. 4)
Possible Intellect (ibid.)
Practical Intellect (a. 10, 11)
Speculative Intellect (aa. 10, 11)
Universal Intellect (ibid.)
Locomotive Locomotion -

{1} Modern Psychology in general repudiates this faculty theory of the soul, substituting for it a function theory. The most distinguished defender of it according to the mind of St. Thomas is Cardinal Mercier, who is the leader of the Neo Scholastic movement.

{2} For the uses of the word 'natural' in St. Thomas, see Verit. Q. 22. a. 4.

{3} Ellwood, Sociology in its Psychological Aspects, pp. 109-123 and 198-288, contains an excellent critical summary of modern sociological and psychological literature on this field. Mercier, in his Psychologie, gives an excellent and sympathetic exposition of St. Thomas' doctrine in the light of modern psychology.

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