The good which is difficult or arduous, considered as good, is of such a nature as to produce in us a tendency to it, which tendency pertains to the passion of hope; whereas considered as arduous or difficult, it makes us turn from it; and this pertains to the passion of despair. In like manner the arduous evil, considered as an evil, has the aspect of something to be shunned; and this belongs to the passion of fear: but it also contains a reason for tending to it, as attempting something arduous, whereby to escape being subject to evil; and this tendency is called daring. (IaIIae Q. 23 art 2 resp.)

What are the Irascible Passions

St Thomas groups our emotions into two categories: the concupisible and the irascible. The concupisible are our experience of goods and evils simply: lovedesirejoyhatred, dislike, and sorrow. For example upon seeing a freshly shaken martini I am inclined to it – I love the well presented vodka, vermouth, and olives – my inclination moves me to action – desire for the subtle flavours –  and upon sipping it I rest in the good glow only brought about by a well made martini, this is joy! The irascible emotions however are our experience of goods and evils accompanied by some difficulty or arduousness. If however, my desire would have to sustain me through an onslaught of Russian assassins shooting at me forcing a daring car chase while I save the girl in order to arrive at my favourite club with an unblemished tuxedo before I can sip that excellent martini, I would need to feel hope that the good martini was obtainable and daring to overcome my doubtlessly tea-totaling assailants.

We all experience the difficulties every day. Sometimes they are simple goods like the next math assignment, or listening to our spouses after a long day, at other times they are more daunting it passing a semester exam or asking someone out.  Occasionally we are faced with great evils, the death of a family member, or having to defend ourselves in times of war; other evils however loose their sense of urgency by being mundane, like not being able to afford to pay our rent this month or failing a class. Nevertheless each of these require more than the attraction of desire or the aversion of dislike for our success, what is needed is hope for the good, lest we despair on account of the challenge, or fear to keep us from coming to evil or, more than simply avoiding the evil no matter how difficult, we overcome it through daring.

Consider How We Come to Feel This Way

In the quote from his Summa Theologica above St Thomas offers a key to how we can come to feel hope, despair, fear, and daring in the word considered. Homework and death, making rent and avoiding Russian assassins will each elicit different reactions from different people. This difference is possible because their attention is given to different aspects of the problem. To the degree that we look upon our martini hating assassins as a difficulty, we will feel fear and seek to avoid them. However to the degree that we look upon our homework as an evil, difficult indeed, but possible to overcome we will attempt the daring deed. So to with hope and despair, to the degree we focus upon the insurmountability of the task we will despair, to the degree we focus upon the goodness of the object to be obtained we will feel very different emotions.

It is one thing to sit back in the comfort of our blogging chairs and say, “Just focus on the good and you won’t despair!” It is quite another to do this. Often we must build a habit of hope or daring, lest we feel despair and fear at every difficult moment.