"Are our emotions the sorts of things over which we have any choice? Are they the sorts of things for which we can be held responsible?" (3) Thus does Diana Cates begin her study of Thomas Aquinas' thinking on the emotions. Her chief concern is to show how Thomistic thought can contribute to a contemporary understanding of the structure of emotions, one capable of guiding the cultivation of a mature emotional life. "[I]t is important to understand how emotions are composed if we wish to become more articulate about our interior lives, more deliberate in shaping our emotions, and more discerning about the constraints that our ‘nature' imposes on this sort of ethical work." (62)
Aquinas on the Emotions: A Religious-Ethical Inquiry proceeds in three movements. First, Cates clarifies the notions of "religious," "religious ethics," "emotion" and "religious emotion"; provides some methodological reflections; and considers some of the ideas of James Gustafson and Martha Nussbaum on emotion and ethics. Second, St. Thomas' understanding of an emotion as "an object-oriented appetitive motion" (236) is examined in detail. Third, Thomistic insights are deployed to illuminate the complexity of the emotional life and the possibilities for its rational shaping. The interplay of intellect, will, and sensory powers indicate that the human person has the power to arouse emotions, reflect on them, and "alter the emotion's content, intensity, and duration, as needed, according to the light of reason..." (214)
Cates' endeavor achieves a marked level of success. The emotional life is so often consigned either to the illimitable sway of psychotherapy or placed beyond the realm of reasoned critique, that it is a delight to see the thought of Thomas Aquinas proposed as a worthy source for thinking clearly and acting wisely in regards to emotion. The author's reading of Aquinas is solid, and she acknowledges where her views differ from other exegetes. Where Aquinas on the Emotions falls short is in matters of structure and style. Cates views the pursuit of "a religious ethics approach to the study of Aquinas on emotion" (21) as demanding a good deal of discussion over what constitutes ethical reflection. This seems to me more a matter of unnecessary stage-setting rather than crucial foundation-laying, and this material might have been better handled in a single, compact chapter.
A related difficulty is drawing a bead on the readership Cates has in mind. The audience she envisions is intellectually diverse, and they "seek new possibilities for self-understanding, and not simply conceptual clarity and simplicity." (13) Swaths of this audience appear to be more than a little resistant to the project, and to these Cates is a somewhat overindulgent cicerone. "Religious" is repeatedly said to be a matter of wondering about, and living in proper relationship with, the "really real." Religious reflection and action, therefore, do not require subscription to any creed (28), and difficulties with "the packaged morality" (31) in which one was raised do not constitute a rejection of religious values. Those for whom the language of "soul" constitutes a skándalon (80) are assured that Thomas still offers wisdom for them. A third of the way through her book Cates is still supplying these "people of broadly religious curiosity and concern" (97) with reassurance of the value of studying Aquinas; and curiosity and "generosity of mind" continue to be enjoined throughout the book (e.g., 166, 247). Too often we are told to bear in mind that St. Thomas' views constitute only one way of approaching the matter (e.g., 29, 33), that other "excellent" accounts of these matters exist (e.g., 11, 262-263), and that one does not need to accept the entire Thomistic worldview in order to find value in Aquinas' reflections on emotion (e.g., 104, 251). This is not to say these points are not well-taken; rather, their repetition becomes intrusive, and their tone suggests a defensive stance that ill becomes the presentation of any serious thinker's ideas to an educated audience.
Finally, Aquinas on the Emotions is hamstrung by a severe infelicity of style. For example, in the section of chapter 7 titled "Intellectual and Sensory Apprehensions of Goodness Conjoined," which runs for 8 paragraphs, the word "one" is used 77 times - in three instances as an adjective, in the rest as an indefinite pronoun. Elsewhere, the author often loads her observations with a number of synonymous or significantly overlapping terms, e.g., "A religious emotion thus arises when one has an object in mind or in view and one's interest and attention are drawn beyond the object's surface toward the hidden source of its power, toward the ultimate cause or reason for its being, or toward a horizon of meaning (only partly visible) against which the object takes on a significance that it would not otherwise have." (49) Again, I sense that there is something about her audience that leads Cates to think that writing in this way will be helpful, but it does not impart a smooth texture to her prose.
In sum, I would advise prospective readers to study chapter 10 first, and if they find that well-organized summary of Cates' project to be valuable, to read the entire work. Though it is often slow going, Aquinas on the Emotions will repay careful study.