Educate emotions through virtue


“Formation in the virtues requires struggle, overcoming one’s own inclination when this is opposed to good acts. This is the part of truth that is contained in the reductionist, “voluntaristic” concept of virtue referred to earlier. But virtue doesn’t consist in the capacity to oppose inclinations, but rather in the formation of our inclinations. The goal, then, is not that we should be capable of habitually setting our feelings aside so as to let ourselves be guided by an external rule, but rather to form those feelings in such a way that we are capable of rejoicing in the good achieved. Virtue consists precisely in this rejoicing in the good, in the formation, we might say, of “good taste”: [Blessed is the man whose] delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night (Ps 1:2). Thus virtue entails the formation of our feelings, and not the habit of systematically opposing them.

As long as virtue is unformed, our feelings and emotions can offer resistance to a good act, which needs to be overcome. But the aim is not simply to overcome the resistance, but rather to develop a “taste” for acting virtuously. When one possesses virtue, the good act may still be difficult, but it is performed with joy.

  • Let us offer an example. To get up on time in the morning – “the heroic minute”[8] – will probably always be difficult; perhaps the day will never come when, on hearing the alarm, we don’t feel inclined to spend a little more time in bed. But if we habitually strive to overcome laziness out of love for God, a moment comes when to do so brings us joy, while to give in to comfort displeases us and leaves a bad taste in our mouth. Likewise, for someone who is honest, to take a product from the supermarket without paying for it is not only something prohibited; it is also ugly and disagreeable, opposed to that person’s dispositions, to their heart. This shaping of our feelings so that we experience joy at the good and displeasure at evil is not a collateral consequence of virtue, but rather an essential component. Hence virtue enables us to enjoy the good.
  • This is not a merely theoretical idea. It is of great practical importance for us to know, when we struggle, that we are not simply getting accustomed to putting up with annoyances, but we are learning to enjoy the good, even if for the moment it means we have to go against the grain.

Forming virtues makes the faculties and affections learn to focus on what truly satisfies our deepest aspirations, while attributing secondary importance – always subordinate to what is most important – to those things that are simply means to an end. In the final analysis, to be formed in the virtues is to learn how to be happy, to rejoice at and with what is truly great; it is, in short, to prepare for Heaven.

If being formed means growing in virtues, and the virtues consist in a certain order in our affectivity, in our feelings and emotions, we can conclude that all formation is the formation of affectivity.

  • On reading this, someone may raise the objection that, in one’s effort to acquire virtues, the aim is operative rather than affective, perhaps even adding that we apply the name of virtues precisely to operative habits. This is true.
  • But if the virtues help us to do good, it is because they help us to feel correctly. The human being always moves towards the good. The moral problem is, ultimately, why it is that what is not good appears to us – it presents itself to our eyes – as good, in a specific situation. That this happens is due to the disorder in our tendencies, which leads us to exaggerate the value of the good towards which one of those tendencies is directed, so that this good is considered more desirable in the particular situation than another good with which it is conflict, but which in fact has greater objective value because it corresponds to the person’s overall good.
  • For example: in a given situation we may find ourselves torn between telling the truth or not. The natural tendency we have towards the truth presents it to us as a good. But we also have a natural tendency to want the esteem of others, which in this particular case, if we think the truth is going to end up making us look bad, will present lying as appropriate. These two tendencies enter into conflict. Which of them will prevail? It will depend on which of the two goods is more important for us, and in this assessment our affectivity plays a decisive role. If it is well ordered, it will help the reason to see that the truth is very precious and that the esteem of others is not desirable if it makes us forsake the truth. This love for the truth over other goods that also attract us is precisely what we call sincerity. But if the desire to look good is stronger than the attraction of truth, it is easy for the reason to be deceived, and even though it knows that it isn’t good, it judges that it is appropriate to lie. Although we know perfectly well that it is wrong to lie, we consider that in this specific situation it is appropriate to do so.

A well-ordered emotional life helps us do good because it helps us to grasp it as good beforehand. Hence the importance of forming our emotions correctly. How can this be done? […]

Excerpt from J. Dieguez, “Reaching the Entire Person: Role of the Emotions (I)”. Read more here

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