Trolling through the news, an article caught my attention. It stated, “When your best intentions go south, new research suggests that it wasn’t the devil that made you do it. It was your brain. Will power, the study found, is a finite resource, one that can be easily depleted.”
The article goes on:
“Our results suggest self-control can be diminished by use,” Hedgcock tells us. “People have a hard time resisting temptation after prior acts of self-control. This can negatively affect people’s ability to maintain attention, resist tempting snacks and resist purchasing on impulse.”
What we’re dealing with, in philosophico-anthropological terms, are the sensible appetites. Generically, we all have simple inclination toward sensible good and away from sensible evil (the concupiscible appetite) and an impulse to contend with anything that gets in our way, either by inhibiting the pursuit of a good or by presenting a positive threat (the irascible appetite). The specific passions of the first are love and hatred, joy and sadness, desire and aversion. The latter’s hope and despair, courage and fear, and anger.
Many people see a sharp division between reason and passion, the head and the heart. And it is understandable enough, most of us experience, with some degree of frequency, what St. Paul described with such precision in Romans 7. Basically, we do what we know we shouldn’t, and we don’t do what we know we should. But it is an unfortunate misconception to see the emotional life as something to be smothered with the pillow of reason. Nonbelievers often perceive Christianity as life’s great party-pooper, a termagant that threatens a slap across the mouth for the slightest peep from the emotions. Similarly, those in the Church often have the idea that true sanctity means waving bye-bye to the enjoyment of life’s good things, and learning to love things which are painful, boring, or painfully boring.
As a rational animal, man’s emotional life is regulated by reason, but not in the way we might think. The Christian ideal of the perfectly integrated person is not the unfeeling and unresponsive stoic. This would be one extreme, and an injustice to human nature. On the other hand, a life ruled by passion is equally inhuman—it reduces man to the level of a beast. In St. Thomas’s terminology, reason controls the appetites “politically” or “royally” rather than “despotically.” The will–man’s rational appetite–can either command or excite the sensible appetites toward a true and authentic good and resist the motions of the sensible appetites toward what is only meretricious. In other words, a properly ordered will (one that leads toward good things in good measure) following closely on the heels of right reason (one that perceives and presents to the will goods really perfective of the human person) goes a long way to putting the passions in their place (which is not, emphatically, squashed way down into a virtual black hole). All of the faculties and powers of man—reason, will, and appetites—ideally link arms and move in lockstep toward the Ultimate Good Himself.
“Hedgcock suggests that when the well of self-control runs dry, the only way to fill it back up is with time. In other words, give yourself a break.” OK, it’s no surprise that when one is physically or mentally tired, or feeling just a bit of self-congratulation for passing up that second preprandial G&T, there tends to be a correlation to other acts of indulgence. But we can also note that virtue—a stable disposition to act well—can seep into the passions as well. Self-control is easier when a person is otherwise virtuous and in possession of an informed conscience.
Even the saint experiences passions, passions that become more purified and ordered, loving and hating, hoping for and fearing the right things. So, to sum it up, it’s not about discipline, but about love. The good (and Godly) man lives–and loves–well.