The Metaphysical Jungle

Is Depression the Greatest of All Sins? Aquinas’ Anthropology of Despair

What we call depression today has at least something in common with what ancient Christian writers used to call acedia: nobody knows exactly what it is. This is, however, probably insufficient to identify depression with acedia.  In actual fact, there seems to be a massive difference between what medical science believes to be depression and what a medieval mind would diagnose as acedia. Imagine that you go to see the doctor and complain about feeling low. How would you react if he suddenly asked you: “are you not ashamed of yourself?”  The medieval understanding of acedia was that it belonged to the category of sinful behaviour.  We would never allow doctors to see a depression that way. Is it, however, a proof that they are not identical?  One cannot exclude the possibility of different approaches applying to one and the same reality. After all, the idea behind treating depression as a disease like any other is that making people feel guilty will hardly contribute to alleviating their suffering.  I am not certain, however, that a medieval mind would leave this statement unchallenged. That one needs to face reality even when it is unpleasant is, I believe, not the only reason why it would disagree with the approach of modern science. It would contend that speaking of sin does not amount to making people feel fruitlessly guilty, and that facing this unpleasant reality is decisive as to ensuring the healing process. What, therefore, if depression was what a 13th century theologian like Thomas Aquinas described as acedia?  What would he have to tell us if we assumed this as a fact?  In order to understand in what manner Aquinas ascribes a moral – or rather an immoral- quality to depression, one needs to describe its exact place in Aquinas´ anthropology. I will therefore take things from quite far, which will force me, unfortunately, to stride out through an immensely rich and endlessly enlightening material. If things stand as I just said they were, understanding the moral quality of acedia should eventually lead us to see in what manner one can hope to overcome it.


1)  Acedia and the structure of the human being

The fact that human beings are not pure spirits or that having a body enters in the definition of what they are, entails that they are not indifferent to the peculiarities of the universe that immediately surrounds them. Because I have what the anatomical science calls eyes, what I have in front of me is not a concept of table, but this table with all its imperfections. What I see is not what I think.  Besides, the way I react to what I see proceeds from the same reason. The smell of a juicy steak never stirs up such passionate feelings as on a Friday of Lent. If I am inclined to desire and, consequently, pursue the particular objects that fall under my sensory perception, it is because I have a body. All animals do the same. There is however a difference between the way human beings and other animals react to objects that surround them. What zoologists call instinct indicates a series of unvarying behavioural patterns.  According to one of them, a mouse will always run after the piece of cheese that it sees. If it does not, it is because some other pattern must be applied to the same situation. There is no such thing among human beings. Each one of us has to make the decision to take a piece of cheese or to order a good steak on a Friday of Lent. The fact that one has to apply one´s will to one´s desires imply that what is instinct in animals; that is, a set of highly adjusted, fine-tuned patterns of behaviour, is merely a quite chaotic component of human nature, which Aquinas calls the appetitive faculty. It is a source of various impulses waiting for the command of the will to transform one of many possible courses of action into an orderly and actual one[1].  It is indeed typical of a human being to keep himself or herself constantly busy thinking about what he or she is going to do next. Now, if we take a closer look at this process of thinking, we will see that it takes the form of a fairly simple reasoning, which in turn can be expressed in the mode of an elementary syllogism. The major premise states what is good for us as a whole – this is a purely intellectual idea. The minor points to some particular object that could eventually be good for us – this is the work of sensory perception impacting our appetitive faculty. The conclusion determines whether this particular object is truly good for us or not – this will give birth to a decision carried out by our will. Let us now focus on the minor premise or the way sensory perception interacts with our appetitive faculty. I am hungry and I see an excellent restaurant on my way. I feel my stomach in knots as I imagine the steak that I might be eating in a short moment. This experience rests on a combination of purely physical sensation and mental representation. Moreover, this combination cannot be without generating a feeling, which can eventually be a feeling of joy. I know by counting the money in my pocket that I am able to afford myself this treat.  However, the same psycho-somatic state can also generate sadness. I remember that today is a Friday in Lent and that I should rather pass my way.

The very same fact – the smell of a steak – can induce either joy or sadness, depending on whether it is perceived as something good or bad – in the present case, immediately good or immediately bad. What Aquinas defines as a passion of the soul is such a feeling of joy or sadness, occurring under the pressure of external circumstances, that goes together with specific physical sensation and is connected with the idea of a present good or a present evil[2].  Angels are joyful without bodily pleasure; they perceive evil without feelings of pain or anger.  But human beings are incarnate, and this is the reason why they can only experience joy or sadness in the mode of definite passions that involve their bodies.

It is important to note is that the same logic applies to states that are not related to strictly material or bodily desires. I bump into an old enemy while walking on the street. I have got a unique opportunity to hit him and thus avenge an old offense that he has committed against me. Contrary to the fact of eating a good steak, it is not the fact of hitting that gives me pleasure, but the thought that, in this manner, the offense that I once suffered will be somehow compensated.  Passions that are stirred by imagination or a specific train of thought can be called internal passions, as opposed to external passions that are stirred by sensory objects[3]. The former are not less passionate than the latter for being of a more intellectual kind.  The imagination which relates to redressing an offense is accompanied with the same type of bodily perturbations that I felt when I was considering eating a good steak. Under the influence of anger, I feel an outpour of blood coming up to my brain, just as I felt my stomach leaping at the idea of ordering a great meal[4]. Imagination is the echo of the desiring faculty, vis appetitiva, in our faculty of knowledge, vis apprehensiva, just as this bodily sensation is its echo at the level of our physiological system, vis vegetativa.

Besides, the same alternation of opposite feelings takes place in the case of anger. My joy at the idea of making an enemy suffer is counterbalanced by my sadness at the idea that hitting him might lead me straight to jail. The same fact can be a motive of joy or a sadness depending whether is associated with something perceived as good or something perceived as bad.

Joy and sadness, which are the primary passions regulating the whole dynamics of our emotions, are such internal passions. That our bodies have their own ways of expressing these feelings is but too obvious. Now, if we reflect on the existence of these primary components from a moral point of view, it is also quite obvious that they are good. Human beings are better off with passions than without. As Aquinas notes: ” it is a condition of goodness, that, supposing an evil to be present, sorrow or pain should ensue”[5].  Joy indicates that the task of accomplishing our human nature, as highly individualized psycho-somatic wholes, is on its way towards fulfilment. In the same manner, sadness witnesses that this process of fulfilment is being threatened.

Moreover, since the raison d´être of passions is the fulfilment of our nature, and even though our feelings of sadness can temporally overwhelm our capacity for joy, joy is given a primacy over sadness. We are sad because we are prevented from being joyful, whereas the converse does not hold true: we are not joyful because we are prevented from being sad. Sadness is relative; namely, relative to the absence of joy, whereas joy is absolute[6]. Our nature is ontologically orientated towards goodness, which is a consequence of the goodness of all creation. Of course, one will immediately ask: if passions are so fundamentally good, why do they suffer from such a bad reputation?

It is interesting to see Aquinas struggling with the limits of the Latin vocabulary. He is aware that passio is mostly understood in a negative sense, but he calls these naturally good states of the soul perfectivae passiones for lack of a term like emotion. Still, Aquinas claims that passio in a proper sense, stricto sensu, should refer to negative emotions; namely, to these moments when the strength of the physical sensation combined with the intensity of a mental representation tend to upset or eventually totally vitiate the normal process of practical reasoning[7].  I said earlier that joy was provoked by something that I perceive as good, and vice-versa when it comes to sadness. The problem is that I sometimes perceive as good something which is not good for me in reality, and vice-versa. A little boy rebels against swallowing some bitter medical potion because he does not realize that it is in reality good for him. This is also true of adults: the understanding of what is good for our nature as a psycho-somatic whole can lose its grip on our intellect due to the momentary attraction exerted by something that we perceive as a concrete and particular good. I know that hitting my enemy will lead me to jail, but I do it all the same. The memory of my offense, going with a heightened blood pressure, is so vivid, that I willingly set on the side the consideration of what would be better for me – a consideration which I know to be superior, but which is notwithstanding perceived as weaker, since it is merely intellectual. The regula rationis, the rule of reason is no longer there to regulate the dynamics of passions[8]. What is objectively better for me is subjectively perceived as worse, and vice-versa.At this point, we understand better what, according to Aquinas, the basic anthropological structure of human passions is. Before describing the place of acedia in this structure, an important precision needs to be added, though. I said that Aquinas relates what he calls passions to our appetitive or desiring faculty. However, passions as a genus should be further divided into two major species: those which pertain to desire stricto sensu – Aquinas speaks of concupiscientia in this case -and those which pertain to a category referred as the irascibilitas[9]. Behind Aquinas´ concept of anger or irascible power, one distinguishes a notion that goes back to the time of Homer: thymos, the energy that dwells in a warrior´s bosom as the semi-divine element on which he relies in the time of battle.The particular passion according to which a warrior enjoys victory, the specific pleasure that this victory brings with itself, are distinct from the quivering passion that leads him to victory, by removing all the obstacles that he finds on his way; and yet the latter is subordinated to the former[10]. The warrior releases his fiery ardour in order that he might later freely indulge in the pleasures of victory. Moreover, exactly as a passion related to desire stricto sensu can be pleasurable or distressing, a passion pertaining to irascibility can prove to be a positive or a negative driving force.  I am running on the street in the hope of meeting a friend- this is a positive drive. I am furious because the crowd will make it very hard for me to meet this friend – the same drive becomes negative, as I contemplate obstacles that might supersede my abilities. Both positive and negative drives are subordinated to pleasure and sadness respectively.However, while positive anger looks for pleasure as a goal, a terminus ad quem, the negative drive is caused by sadness as a starting-point or a terminus a quo. My anger at the crowd prompts the attempt to overcome the sadness of not being able to meet my friend – it an escape, a fuga from sadness. As we see, irascibilitas has to do with hope, either positive or negative.

If we put all these features together, the following structure comes out:These considerations enable us to catch sight of acedia´s original niche within the inner architecture of human passions. If irascibilitas has to do with hope, the impossibility of exerting this passion entails the opposite of hope; namely, despair. One realises that it will not be possible to circumvent the obstacles to reaching what we cannot but yearn after. We are no longer angry whenever there is nothing we can do in order to obtain what would make us happy: we are simply desperate. One can in turn distinguish two major types of desperation. Aquinas calls the first, which is also the milder one, anxiety or anguish. No space is left for the irascibilitas to take its flight, fuga, from the present sadness :

“We have anxiety, [‘anxietas’ from the greek ἄγχω embrace in wrestling, strangle, throttle] , which weighs on the mind (aggravat animum), so that we cannot see where to seek refuge: hence it is also called anguish  [‘angustia’ – literally the condition of finding on self in a narrow place]”[11].

Think of a prisoner led to a firing squad at gun point. However, the most acute form of desperation occurs when the obstacles are not only external, but within the desiring faculty itself. The problem is no longer that one is not able to distinguish a path out of current difficulties. It is that difficulties have deprived one of the will to look for a way out of them. This is, precisely, what acedia is about :

“If, the mind be weighed down so much, that even the limbs become motionless, which belongs to acedia  [ἀκήδ-εια , , (κῆδος) carelessness, indifference], then we have the foreign element affecting both, since there is neither a possibility of flight, nor the effect of it in the appetitive faculty.  And the reason why acedia especially is said to deprive one of speech is because of all the external movements the voice is the best expression of the inward thought and desire, not only in men, but also in other animals, as it is said in Aristotle´s Politics[12].

In other words, acedia is a passion that saps the very root of passions´ natural order. The one who falls prey to it experiences the paralysis of passions´ most fundamental tendency – the appetite towards and the striving after one´s own good. This is the quintessence of what Aquinas calls the inner pain: as opposed to the external pain which is relative to the body, the inner pain affects the appetitive faculty itself[13]. Of course, a natural appetite cannot be removed by the experience of something accidental as the fact of having to face terrible difficulties. However, the former can be more or less temporarily suspended by the latter. Unsurprisingly, the physical sensation that goes together with this utterly passionate mode of anti-passion is indifference, some form of anesthetized attitude towards the surrounding world. Let me quote a passage of the article where Aquinas discusses the identification of the effect of sorrow with a spiritual weight or a burden, aggravatio animi (IaIIae q.37, a.2, resp.). “Aggravatio” is here translated as depression – which it actually is in a literal sense:

“The effects of the soul’s passions are sometimes named metaphorically, from a likeness to sensible bodies: for the reason that the movements of the animal appetite are like the inclinations of the natural appetite.  And in this way fervor is ascribed to love, expansion (dilatatio) to pleasure, and depression to sorrow.  For a man is said to be depressed, through being hindered in his own movement by some weight.  Now it is evident from what has been said above that sorrow is caused by a present evil: and this evil, from the very fact that it is repugnant to the movement of the will, depresses (aggravat) the soul, inasmuch as it hinders it from enjoying that which it wishes to enjoy.  And if the evil which is the cause of sorrow be not so strong as to deprive one of the hope of avoiding it, although the soul be depressed in so far as, for the present, it fails to grasp that which it craves for; yet it retains the movement whereby to repulse that evil.  If, on the other hand, the strength of the evil be such as to exclude the hope of evasion, then even the interior movement of the afflicted soul is absolutely hindered, so that it cannot turn aside either this way or that.  Sometimes even the external movement of the body is paralyzed, so that a man becomes completely stupefied (stupidus).”

At this point, what can be stated regarding acedia´s moral dimension? As we said before, sadness is not necessarily a bad thing when it relies on the identification of a real evil.  Actually, even for such an extreme case of despair as acedia, one can think of cases where it is able to play a positive role.  For instance, it was quite common for prisoners in Nazi concentration camps to cultivate a selective form of acedia in order to survive.  For sure, one can also think of acedia as a destructive passion or a passion stricto sensu. Take someone who assumes wrongly that the situation he or she faces is without remedy, so as to indulge falling into an abyss of despair.Still, this is, if one may say so, the private problem of this person. What does it have to do with sin? Acedia might well be a passion against nature – even the passion par excellence against nature. Why should we view acedia as a sin – even the greatest sin of all?  At this point, we need to go beyond natural anthropology and consider the supernatural dimension of human existence.


2) Acedia and the supernatural finality of human beings

Everything that goes against the good of our nature is not a sin. Breaking one´s leg by sliding on a patch of ice is an example of this kind. But the converse does not hold true: all sins go against the good of our nature. What is, indeed, a sin?  It is the choice of going against the will of God on us, of course. But what is the will of God on us?  The answer of Aquinas is unequivocal: God wants to lead us to a condition of blessedness, which consists in nothing other than in letting us contemplate Himself as He is ; that is, sharing God´s own blessedness.  To sin means preferring a temporary good to such eternal one. There are a number of actions that can prevent us from reaching this goal, and they all go against our nature. How, indeed, could God will to harm the goodness of a nature that He has himself created in order to bestow his blessedness on us?  The sphere where our choices of temporal goods interfere with the possibility of reaching our supernatural end is the sphere of moral action.  Someone who chooses to live from stealing rather than from honest work is not only remote from the holiness that God would like us to pursue; this person will also never be happy in this life, because stealing does not pertain to the goodness of our nature. This does not mean, however, that refraining from stealing is sufficient to access God´s blessedness. This state is beyond the reach of our finite nature; no finite being can achieve this goal without the grace of God. More specifically, one needs virtues which go beyond natural virtues. Faith, hope and charity are supernatural or theological virtues that, according to Aquinas, are the direct or infused outcome of God´s grace working in us.  To recapitulate, we need to think of human beings´ natural finality and supernatural finality as two distinct finalities coexisting in human beings, the former being the necessary, but by no means the sufficient condition of the latter.Let us now consider acedia. When does acedia become a sinful passion or a vice?  According to Aquinas, it does when it relates to a specific form of desperation, which one would define as theological in reference to the theological virtues mentioned above. If the prisoners in Auschwitz practiced a form of acedia, it was not a theological, but a natural one.  There was simply no hope, on a practical level; even worrying about the future had ceased to be a relevant option. But acedia can also be related to the supernatural end of our existence. Here, it pertains to the inner feeling or conviction that one will never be able to fulfil one´s supernatural calling. This form of desperation is the exact opposite to the theological hope which proceeds from faith in God´s salvation and lies at the principle of supernatural charity. True, acedia is not the only reason, at least directly, of such religious despair. Sometimes, an almost invincible attraction towards things such as carnal pleasures, which one knows to be incompatible with the pursuit of human being´s supernatural end, can induce one to give up all hopes in God´s salvation. Think of Don Giovanni. However, Aquinas emphasizes that religious despair is most essentially due to a feeling of dejectio, literally, of having been thrown low, which he associates with acedia. Actually, the notion of dejectio is probably the closer the medieval vocabulary can get to the modern idea of depression: “(…) acedia est tristitia quaedam deiectiva spiritus”[14]. If my interpretation is correct, Aquinas sees this feeling of dejectio as encompassing the case of a hardened sinner´s anxiety. The weight of a bad conscience can sometimes bring someone low but this state of desperation can also, as it were, come from nowhere or arise without serious reasons. We feel dejected because we feel dejected. It is most interesting that Aquinas does not attempt at ascribing a specific cause to acedia, even if the objectivity of a sinful behaviour can sometimes be seen as the occasional circumstance that triggers it[15]. If this is true, one will ask if acedia itself should be conceived as a sin.

There are two aspects to be considered here, according to Aquinas. First, theological despair is likely to generate a sinful behaviour. When one thinks of the two other theological vices; namely unbelief and hatred of God, that oppose the two other theological virtues; namely, faith and hope, these are certainly more serious than theological despair, in the sense that they are directly set in opposition to God, whereas theological despair is only such indirectly. Taken it in itself, religious despair is rather a form of hatred directed at oneself. However, when one considers theological vices from the point of view of their consequences, despair turns out to be more problematic than unbelief and hatred of God:

“ (…) despair is more dangerous, since hope withdraws us from evils and induces us to seek for good things, so that when hope is given up, men rush headlong into sin, and are drawn away from good works. Wherefore a gloss on Proverbs 24:10, “If thou lose hope being weary in the day of distress, thy strength shall be diminished,” says: “Nothing is more hateful than despair, for the man that has it loses his constancy both in the every day toils of this life, and, what is worse, in the battle of faith.” And Isidore says (De Summo Bono ii,14): “To commit a crime is to kill the soul, but to despair is to fall into hell.”[16]

However, the fact that acedia acts an incentive to various sins does not tell us what is the nature of the sin related to itself. This is the second aspect of acedia´s sinful dimension. According to Aquinas, acedia or theological despair is the greatest sin, because it is an open denial of God´s power of salvation. Thinking of oneself that one is not worthy of being saved by God implies that one sets boundaries to the power and the mercy of God:

“Every appetitive movement which is conformed to a true intellect, is good in itself, while every appetitive movement which is conformed to a false intellect is evil in itself and sinful. Now the true opinion of the intellect about God is that from Him comes salvation to mankind, and pardon to sinners, according to Ezekiel 18:23, “I desire not the death of the sinner, but that he should be converted, and live” [Vulgate: Is it My will that a sinner should die . . . and not that he should be converted and live? Cf. Ezekiel 33:11]: while it is a false opinion that He refuses pardon to the repentant sinner, or that He does not turn sinners to Himself by sanctifying grace. Therefore, just as the movement of hope, which is in conformity with the true opinion, is praiseworthy and virtuous, so the contrary movement of despair, which is in conformity with the false opinion about God, is vicious and sinful”[17].

Aquinas underlines that this is not a problem related to faith taken it in itself. Someone who is prone to acedia may perfectly believe that God wants to save all human beings and has the power to do so. What is typical of acedia is that the same person will obstinately decline drawing what seems to be the logical consequence of this premise; namely, that God wants and has the power to save him or her. For some obscure but almost irresistible reason, this person believes that he or she is the only one God will not save:

“Unbelief pertains to the intellect, but despair, to the appetite: and the intellect is about universals, while the appetite is moved in connection with particulars, since the appetitive movement is from the soul towards things, which, in themselves, are particular. Now it may happen that a man, while having a right opinion in the universal, is not rightly disposed as to his appetitive movement, his estimate being corrupted in a particular matter, because, in order to pass from the universal opinion to the appetite for a particular thing, it is necessary to have a particular estimate (De Anima iii,2), just as it is impossible to infer a particular conclusion from an universal proposition, except through the holding of a particular proposition. Hence it is that a man, while having right faith, in the universal, fails in an appetitive movement, in regard to some particular, his particular estimate being corrupted by a habit or a passion, just as the fornicator, by choosing fornication as a good for himself at this particular moment, has a corrupt estimate in a particular matter, although he retains the true universal estimate according to faith, viz. that fornication is a mortal sin. In the same way, a man while retaining in the universal, the true estimate of faith, viz. that there is in the Church the power of forgiving sins, may suffer a movement of despair, to wit, that for him, being in such a state, there is no hope of pardon, his estimate being corrupted in a particular matter.’’[18]

One is not depressed because one has done bad things. Depression is not a moral, but a theological sin.  One is doing something bad by being depressed; namely, one is challenging God´s power of mercy. The sadness that goes with this sin marks the absence of charity´s proper good – rejoicing spiritually about one´s own salvation:

“(…) it is proper to each virtue to rejoice in its own spiritual good, which consists in its own act, while it belongs specially to charity to have that spiritual joy whereby one rejoices in the Divine good. In like manner the sorrow whereby one is displeased at the spiritual good which is in each act of virtue, belongs, not to any special vice, but to every vice, but sorrow in the Divine good about which charity rejoices, belongs to a special vice, which is called acedia”.[19]

Moreover, that one can also be a believer and desperate implies that one does not need to be a believer to be theologically desperate. An atheist is someone who is theologically desperate, and therefore sins. Of course, his or her despair is a direct consequence of unbelief, but it does not remove from theological despair its character of sin – it merely adds sin to sin. One could therefore argue that depression, in the form which is known to us, is a spiritual or a theological issue, even when someone is not aware of it. The “nowhere from”  religious acedia or dejectio spiritus arises is a “nowhere to” – it is the acute and intimately personal feeling of some massive absence of finality.  Of course, natural finality is still there, and together with it, intimately connected with it, the supernatural finality which carries the movement of nature further and beyond its own limits. Nothing can abolish that. As long as one lives, one cannot be intent on pursuing the goodness that pertains to one´s nature. However, this drive is no longer sufficient to sustain our natural irascibilitas; that is, the necessary fight against the external and especially inner obstacles set on the path towards our personal fulfilment. The thing is that one´s irascibilitas is eaten out from the inside by the loss of transcendent finality, both as an object of belief and as a living power with which someone reckons. Immanent, naturally finality, as a positive force, is still at work in us, but it is no longer instinctively subordinated or vectorized, as it were, by a sense of supernatural or transcendent finality. Accordingly, depression implies a condition of considerable tension between the level of subjective consciousness and the objective level of nature or being, the former being in denial of the latter´s quintessential orientation towards an end that goes far beyond earthly existence.

At the beginning of this presentation, I argued that, contrary to what was generally assumed, acknowledging the sinful dimension of depression might help those who suffer from it to find a path towards recovery. This is the last point I would like to take up here.


3) From death to health

The first benefit one can retrieve from a Thomistic approach to depression is, I believe, to separate it from guilt feelings and guilt behaviour. Highlighting the religious substrate of depression does not provide a warrant for the self-abasement that goes with it. This is just the opposite. What Aquinas identifies with the specific sin pertaining to depression is, precisely, self-abasement. One feels dejected without real justification. As I said earlier, depressions are sometimes triggered by objectively sinful behaviours. However, one cannot argue that sinful behaviours justify or give depression some reasonable grounds. Sin should incite us to renew our hope in God´s mercy, not to abandon it, so as to indulge into some fruitless and self-centred consideration of one´s unworthiness. Depression is a sin inasmuch as it lets feelings of guilt subdue the sense of our irreducible dignity. As we know but too well, however, nothing is more useless than to tell someone who is depressed that there is no objective reason for him being so.  Accordingly, how could the fact of pointing at the sinful dimension of depression really help people out of it?

As we have seen earlier, one cannot claim that depression is a sin without bringing forward the transcendent dimension of our existence, or the idea that a finality that goes beyond natural finality is inscribed at the root of our being.  In this framework, depression arises when fighting to fulfil the good of our nature loses its raison d´être, due to the fact that such a fight is no longer finalized by a goal that extends beyond our nature. Paradoxically, depressed persons relish as a good thing for them the idea of giving up the fight for their own good. Conversely, it is plain to see that healing depression implies re-enacting the fight for one´s natural good, something which in turn implies re-enacting the connection between natural finality and the supernatural finality that governs it. Here again, one could say that this is only possible when one is religious or when one believes in the reality of this supernatural end. But here again, I would challenge such an interpretation.

It is true that believing in God´s mercy is a powerful help against depression. Faith, when it operates correctly, is able to re-energize or equivalently re-finalize the fight for one´s natural good, as it sets nature in the prospect of man´s supernatural end again. However, as we have seen, it would be an error to think that having faith excludes the possibility of falling into depression. The man of faith who is depressed is very well aware of his supernatural calling; but this only adds to his despair, because he is personally prevented from reaching the goal and believes that everyone else will be saved except himself. To a large extent, the imagination that makes him think so evades the power of his reasoning ability, since this imagination stands mainly under the influence of his appetitive faculty. Accordingly, keep telling him that, being a man of faith, he should think otherwise makes as little sense as keep telling an atheist that he or she should believe in God in order to be cured. Even if it deals with the supernatural dimension of human existence, the roots of depression lie in a disorder of the appetitive faculty.  The only superiority that a depressed believer enjoys over a depressed non-believer is that the former sees more clearly what depression is about – but understanding, in that case, does not help, far from it. One is therefore entitled to ask again: what is the point in understanding that depression is a sin against God´s power and mercy if this understanding does not make any difference?

If there is one thing that the category of sin helps us to realize, it is that the answer to depression does not lie outside the person who is depressed, as in a list of pills or any other form of magical treatment. It does not even lie inside this person in a psycho-analytical sense, as referring to a person´s conscious and subconscious memory. The psychic traumas of Freudian psychoanalysis are the equivalents of physical diseases – they confine the sphere of human consciousness to a role of passive victim. By contrast, speaking of sin refers to the sphere of inner personal responsibility. It is my firm conviction that depressed persons knows that they have a share of responsibility in their existential self-closure. True – and this is essential – they are only partly responsible, because they suffer from a disorder of their appetitive faculty – this lethal spiral of desires and imaginations – over which they have little sway. Simply, these persons decide, at some point, that they can no longer cope with such a psychologically devastating disorder[20]. Accordingly, what is crucially at stake in depression is the sphere of personal choice considered in its most intimate condition of frailty and tension. From this point of view, speaking about sin in such a context allows to speak about this thin, but decisive particle of freedom which lies hidden in the midst of depression. It is my firm conviction that the one who is depressed needs nothing more having his or her capacity of choice given back. In other words, there is a point inside the individual that can reverse the process of sin. This point is what all Christians are used to call conversion, literally the turning-backwards-from-the-path-one-was-following-until-now. Depression cannot be beaten unless a conversion point is triggered in the individual, a decisive consciousness or a conscious decision of embracing life´s movement in its inner, ontological positivity and directionality. I understand this is easy to say. How is a depressed individual supposed to reach this turning-point?

The first thing one has to realize is that this positivity and directionality subsist in the person who is depressed. As we said earlier, no obstacle, be it an obstacle that comes from the inside of the subject, from the depth of his or her experience and imagination, can abolish a tendency which pertains to nature itself. From this point of view, the specific sadness which is connected with depression is in itself, for the one able to perceive it, a token of hope. Pay attention to the way Aquinas confutes the idea that sorrow is the greatest evil:

“For all sorrow or pain is either for something that is truly evil, or for something that is apparently evil, but good in reality.  Now pain or sorrow for that which is truly evil cannot be the greatest evil: for there is something worse, namely, either not to reckon as evil that which is really evil, or not to reject it.  Again, sorrow or pain, for that which is apparently evil, but really good, cannot be the greatest evil, for it would be worse to be altogether separated from that which is truly good.  Hence it is impossible for any sorrow or pain to be man’s greatest evil”[21].

The element of self-illusion concealed in depression cannot be the greatest evil, since it excludes the existence of a real evil. But as to its dimension of reality, the evil which we face when we our depressed cannot be the greatest evil either, since the sadness which it inspires us witnesses the irreducible presence of a force which opposes it. Sadness arises precisely from the fact that the positive, directional force of our nature encounters a substantial obstacle. Accordingly, the only way a depressed person can overcome the obstacle of depression is to regain confidence in this natural force that dwells in him or to her, so as to make the choice of espousing again the drive of one´s innate irascibilitas towards the good.

This sounds probably much too abstract. But Aquinas, believe it or not, does not think in the abstract. What makes his teaching so precious is its concrete and realistic character. It is humbling to see this prodigious metaphysician list out the great, but also the small – sometimes very small – steps through which someone is gradually led to repel sadness, so as to be able to embrace the movement of life again.  Aquinas states that “whatsoever pleasure is a remedy against whatsoever sorrow, as well as whatsoever sorrow is a hindrance to whatsoever pleasure, and mainly when they pleasures and sorrows belong to the same kind”[22]. Only a concatenation of legitimate, rationally regulated pleasures is able to gradually check the unregulated, immoderate concatenation of sorrows, the lethal spiral of desires and imaginations, that induces depression, so as to release this inner space that makes conversion to life possible. I will conclude this presentation with summarizing the remedies against sadness that Aquinas points out in the Summa Theologiae.

The first step is letting tears flow. Crying, believe it or not, is a pleasure, according to the legitimate and regulated sense of the notion. Indeed, an interior suffering is softened from the fact that it is exteriorized. One experiences pleasure as pain decreases.  Besides, crying is the condition of the body which naturally corresponds to the condition of a depressed spirit, and managing to do what corresponds to our nature is always a pleasurable thing.

The second step is to rely on friendship. Drawing on Aristotle, Aquinas points out, here also, two reasons explaining this state-of-thing:

“The first is because, since sorrow has a depressing effect, it is like a weight whereof we strive to unburden ourselves: so that when a man sees others saddened by his own sorrow, it seems as though others were bearing the burden with him, striving, as it were, to lessen its weight; wherefore the load of sorrow becomes lighter for him: something like what occurs in the carrying of bodily burdens.  The second and better reason is because when a man’s friends condole with him, he sees that he is loved by them, and this affords him pleasure”[23].

The third step, probably the most important one, is also the privilege of those who have faith in the revelation of Jesus Christ. This remedy has to do with prayer and study,  spiritual contemplation as well as intellectual work, all operations that Aquinas has in mind when he writes about “the contemplation of truth”:

“The greatest of all pleasures consists in the contemplation of truth.  Now every pleasure assuages pain as stated above: hence the contemplation of truth assuages pain or sorrow, and the more so, the more perfectly one is a lover of wisdom.  And therefore in the midst of tribulations men rejoice in the contemplation of Divine things and of future Happiness, according to James 1:2: “My brethren, count it all joy, when you shall fall into divers temptations”: and, what is more, even in the midst of bodily tortures this joy is found; as the “martyr Tiburtius, when he was walking barefoot on the burning coals, said: Methinks, I walk on roses, in the name of Jesus Christ.”[24]

Following Aquinas, I left, however, the most exquisite remedy against sadness in final position. It is exquisite not only in itself, but also in relationship to our own context; namely Finland. Indeed, it is in warm baths, which is the closest the medieval mind can get to the sacred notion of sauna, that one, according to Aquinas, is able to find the ultimate weapon against sadness:

“Augustine says (Confessiones ix,12): “I had heard that the bath had its name . . . from the fact of its driving sadness from the mind.”  And further on, he says: “I slept, and woke up again, and found my grief not a little assuaged” and quotes the words from the hymn of Ambrose, in which it is said that “Sleep restores the tired limbs to labor, refreshes the weary mind, and banishes sorrow.” Sorrow, by reason of its specific nature, is repugnant to the vital movement of the body; and consequently whatever restores the bodily nature to its due state of vital movement, is opposed to sorrow and assuages it.  Moreover such remedies, from the very fact that they bring nature back to its normal state, are causes of pleasure; for this is precisely in what pleasure consists, as stated above (Q31,A1).  Therefore, since every pleasure assuages sorrow, sorrow is assuaged by such like bodily remedies”[25].

This is, assuredly, a sweet and soft way of getting definitively rid of the most serious of all sins: the refusal to hope in the greatness of our personal calling, which we owe to the grace of our God. Unfortunately, we do not have a sauna at the Studium. We have a beautiful chapel, though. As to the intellectual contemplation, I believe we have done our part today. We still have on the agenda the greatest pleasure of all, which is the immediate, prayerful contemplation of the Truth. Let us therefore delve into this contemplation, as into the warm waters of God´s grace. They have the power – we should know it by now – to soothe our personal sadness as well as the sadness of those we love.

Fr.Antoine Levy, OP. Helsinki, Lent 2012.


[1] “Bruta autem animalia non habent in sui potestate appetitivum motum, sed talis motus in eis est ex instinctu naturae. Unde brutum animal appetit quidem, sed non applicat appetitivum motum ad aliquid. Et propter hoc non proprie dicitur consentire, sed solum rationalis natura, quae habet in potestate sua appetitivum motum, et potest ipsum applicare vel non applicare ad hoc vel ad illud”, ST IaIIae, q.15, a.2, resp.

[2] “(…) ira et gaudium et omnes huiusmodi passiones sunt cum aliqua corporis immutatione”.Ia, q.75, a.3., ad 3.

[3] “(…) delectatio et dolor ex duplici apprehensione causari possunt, scilicet ex apprehensione exterioris sensus, et ex apprehensione interiori sive intellectus sive imaginationis. Interior autem apprehensio ad plura se extendit quam exterior, eo quod quaecumque cadunt sub exteriori apprehensione, cadunt sub interiori, sed non e converso.”, IaIIae, q.35, a.2, resp.

[4]“ (…) ad actum appetitus sensitivi per se ordinatur huiusmodi transmutatio, unde in definitione motuum appetitivae partis, materialiter ponitur aliqua naturalis transmutatio organi; sicut dicitur quod ira est accensio sanguinis circa Cor.”, IaIIae, q.22, a.2, ad.3

[5]  IaIIae q.39, a.1, resp.

[6] ”(…) bonum, quod est obiectum delectationis, propter seipsum appetitur, malum autem, quod est obiectum tristitiae, est fugiendum inquantum est privatio boni. Quod autem est per se, Potius est illo quod est per aliud”, IaIIae, q.35, a.6, resp.;”(…) causa delectationis et tristitiae, scilicet amor, per prius respicit bonum quam malum”, IaIIae, q.36, a.1, resp.

[7] “ (…) pati dicitur tripliciter. Uno modo, communiter, secundum quod omne recipere est pati, etiam si nihil abiiciatur a re, sicut si dicatur aerem pati, quando illuminatur. Hoc autem magis proprie est perfici, quam pati. Alio modo dicitur pati proprie, quando aliquid recipitur cum alterius abiectione. Sed hoc contingit dupliciter. Quandoque enim abiicitur id quod non est conveniens rei, sicut cum corpus animalis sanatur, dicitur pati, quia recipit sanitatem, aegritudine abiecta. Alio modo, quando e converso contingit, sicut aegrotare dicitur pati, quia recipitur infirmitas, sanitate abiecta. Et hic est propriissimus modus passionis.”, IaIIae, q.22, a.1, resp.

[8] ”Omnes passiones animae regulari debent secundum regulam rationis, quae est radix boni honesti”, IaIIae q.39, a.2, ad.1

[9] “Dictum est autem in primo quod obiectum potentiae concupiscibilis est bonum vel malum sensibile simpliciter acceptum, quod est delectabile vel dolorosum. Sed quia necesse est quod interdum anima difficultatem vel pugnam patiatur in adipiscendo aliquod huiusmodi bonum, vel fugiendo aliquod huiusmodi malum, inquantum hoc est quodammodo elevatum supra facilem potestatem animalis; ideo ipsum bonum vel malum, secundum quod habet rationem ardui vel difficilis, est obiectum irascibilis”, IaIIae, q.23, a1, resp.

[10] “(…) dicendum quod, sicut in primo dictum est, ad hoc vis irascibilis data est animalibus, ut tollantur impedimenta quibus concupiscibilis in suum obiectum tendere prohibetur, vel propter difficultatem boni adipiscendi, vel propter difficultatem mali superandi. Et ideo passiones irascibilis omnes terminantur ad passiones concupiscibili”, IaIIae q.23, a.1. ad.3

[11] IaIIae, q.36, a.8, resp.

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Causa enim doloris exterioris est malum coniunctum quod repugnat corpori, causa autem interioris doloris est malum coniunctum quod repugnat appetitui. Dolor etiam exterior sequitur apprehensionem sensus, et specialiter tactus, dolor autem interior sequitur apprehensionem interiorem, imaginationis scilicet vel etiam rationis. Si ergo comparatur causa interioris doloris ad causam exterioris, una per se pertinet ad appetitum, cuius est uterque dolor, alia vero per aliud. Nam dolor interior est ex hoc quod aliquid repugnat ipsi appetitui, exterior autem dolor, ex hoc quod repugnat appetitui quia repugnat corpori”, IaIIae q.35, a.7, resp.; ”Passiones autem quae important motum appetitus cum fuga vel retractione quadam, repugnant vitali motioni non solum secundum quantitatem, sed etiam secundum speciem motus, et ideo simpliciter nocent, sicut timor et desperatio, et prae omnibus tristitia, quae aggravat animum ex malo praesenti, cuius est fortior impressio quam futuri”, IaIIae q.37, a.4, resp.

[14] IIaIIae, q.20, a.4, resp.

[15] “Ad hoc autem quod bona spiritualia non sapiunt nobis quasi bona, vel non videantur nobis magna bona, praecipue perducimur per hoc quod affectus noster est infectus amore delectationum corporalium, inter quas praecipuae sunt delectationes venereae, nam ex affectu harum delectationum contingit quod homo fastidit bona spiritualia, et non sperat ea quasi quaedam bona ardua. Et secundum hoc desperatio causatur ex luxuria. Ad hoc autem quod aliquod bonum arduum non aestimet ut possibile sibi adipisci per se vel per alium, perducitur ex nimia deiectione; quae quando in affectu hominis dominatur, videtur ei quod nunquam possit ad aliquod bonum relevari. Et quia acedia est tristitia quaedam       deiectiva spiritus, ideo per hunc modum desperatio ex acedia generatur. Hoc autem est proprium obiectum spei, scilicet quod sit possibile, nam bonum et arduum etiam ad alias passiones pertinent. Unde specialius oritur ex acedia. Potest tamen oriri ex luxuria, ratione iam dicta”, IIa IIae, q.20, a.4, resp.

[16] II IIae, q.20, a.3.

[17] IIaIIae, q.20, a.1, resp.

[18] IIaIIae, q.20, a.2, resp.

[19] IaIIae, q.35, a.2, resp.

[20] “Est autem consummatio peccati in consensu rationis, loquimur enim nunc de peccato humano, quod in actu humano consistit, cuius principium est ratio. Unde si sit inchoatio peccati in sola sensualitate, et non pertingat usque ad consensum rationis, propter imperfectionem actus est peccatum veniale. Sicut in genere adulterii concupiscentia quae consistit in sola sensualitate est peccatum veniale; si tamen pervenitur usque ad consensum rationis, est peccatum mortale. Ita etiam et motus acediae in sola sensualitate quandoque est, propter repugnantiam carnis ad spiritum, et tunc est peccatum veniale. Quandoque vero pertingit usque ad rationem, quae consentit in fugam et horrorem et detestationem boni divini, carne omnino contra spiritum praevalente”, IIaIIae, q.35, a.2, resp.

[21] IaIIae, q.39, a.4.

[22] IaIIae q.35 a.4, ad.3

[23] IaIIae, q.38, a.3, resp.

[24] Ibid., a.4, resp.

[25] Ibid., a.5.

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