Good Servants, Poor Masters

[As Lent begins, please let me draw the readers’ attention to two relevant offerings on our web site: Suggested Lenten Penances, and Guilt Transformed, Some Lenten Thoughts. Also, for those beginning the preparation for Total Consecration on February 20 in order to make the consecration on March 25, here is a book with True Devotion to Mary and all the readings and prayers you will need in one volume. If you cannot wait for the book, click here to find all the requisite materials on There is even an iPhone app you can use. Lastly, these conferences by your humble servant may be of use as well.]

Man has twenty-six powers. In common with vegetative life, we have the powers of growth, assimilation, and reproduction. We further posses powers in common with the brute animals: locomotion, the five external senses, the four internal senses, and the eleven passions. That makes twenty four.

Over and above are those two faculties that make us human — that put us in the image of God: intellect and will.

If — per impossibile — we could “lobotomize” the soul and remove intellect and will from a man’s makeup, he would cease to be a person. Not only would he cease to be human; he would not be a person at all, but a brute animal. Moreover, he would be a fairly useless higher primate, for our powers of sense and instinct are inferior to many of the animals beneath us. We were made to know truth, to think, and to seek wisdom, which is ultimately achieved in the Vision of the Trinity in Heaven. Accordingly, it is those higher faculties by which we reason, and by which we cleave to the known good, that make us human. These, and not some merely material principle, are the parts of our makeup that differentiate us from the brute beasts. Without them, we could not see God in Beatitude.

Those lower parts — the emotions, the senses, our bodily powers — make for good servants when they are under the rule of reason. They are supernaturally good servants when they are ruled by a reason enlightened by grace. But while they must ever be ennobled by putting them to good use, they must never be promoted to the top of the hierarchy, for they are very poor masters.

What happens when they rule instead of being ruled?

Someone ruled by his passions (also called emotions and appetites) is often easily spotted, but sometimes not. Whenever reason takes a back seat to the passions — love, hate, desire, aversion, joy, sorrow, hope, despair, daring, fear, or anger — we weaken ourselves and sin. If not controlled by reason as its master, these passions will become disordered, whether by love of food or drink (gluttony, drunkenness), hatred of our brothers, desire for illicit pleasures, aversion to duty, joy in others’ misfortune, sorrow at the loss of some illicit pleasure, etc. There is no passion that cannot be a cause of sin, and there is no passion that cannot be disciplined and used to our advantage in the great work of glorifying God by holiness in this life and salvation in the next. Good servants, poor masters.

Are you an emotional basket case? Moderate these emotions by the use of reason enlightened by God’s Law. One of the purposes of the moral virtues is the proper discipline and ordering of these passions. For instance, justice restrains the passions in their disordered pursuit of the things of this world, disposing us to render to each (including God), what is His due. Another example: By fortitude, man pursues the good as it is arduous or difficult to attain, therefore it properly orders the irascible passions, that is, the “fighting passions” of hope, despair, daring, fear, and anger.

Supposing we are ruled by our internal senses: cognitive sense, memory, imagination, and common sense? These four senses, which have the brain as their organ, and which we also have in common with the brute animals, are useful servants by mediating to our intellect the sense data that we get from our external senses. The imagination very usefully receives phantasms from the external senses (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches). Once in the brain, these phantasms can be abstracted by the intellect. The sense memory, also localized in the brain, stores these images. Supposing we let these good servants become our masters. Then we are slaves to the images on our brains. We might daydream all day long. Not as innocent as those of the bumbling Walter Mitty, our daydreams could do more than just distract us. They can easily fuel the passions, e.g., of anger, hatred, or lust. Even if they were as innocent as Walter Mitty’s, our daydreams would put us in a world of our own making, not in the reality that God made — where virtue must be exercised and not merely imaged.

We must be careful what we allow our brains to image and thus let into our sense memory. Among other reasons for this is an alarming one: the demons have full access to this cache of sense images, and can thus manipulate them to tempt us, not by possession or obsession mind you, but simply by their ordinary power to tempt our race. Surrounding ourselves with holy images, on the other hand, helps to sanctify our sense memory and imagination, and gives our good angels phantasms with with to edify us, for they, too, have access to our inner senses.

And supposing the external senses are our masters? Well, they don’t call it “sensuality” for nothing. This is where effeminacy takes over. And by that, I mean the word as an expression of the Latin mollities and the Greek, μαλακία (malakia)“softness,” which Saint Thomas opposes to the virtue of perseverance, because the persevering man “does not forsake a good on account of long endurance of difficulties and toils.” The persevering man is tough, the effeminate man is a “softie,” a “sissy,” hence its connection with a “womanish” man. (Effeminacy, by the way, is a vice in men and women. Femininity is a good quality in women, just as masculinity is good in a man. Mary is feminine. Jesus and Saint Joseph are masculine. None of them are effeminate.)

The sensual man allows sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches to be his masters. Get such a man behind a computer screen, and he may easily become a porn fiend. Put him in a tavern and he may easily become a drunkard. But whatever the concrete manifestations of his vice (and these particulars will depend on many things: temperament, dispositions, personality, family background, even, to some degree, genetics), one thing is for sure. Such a one is going be be apathetic to the interior life, for Saint Paul assures us: “But the sensual man perceiveth not these things that are of the Spirit of God; for it is foolishness to him, and he cannot understand, because it is spiritually examined” (1 Cor. 2:14). A lot of the spiritual dullness around us is caused by the softness and effeminacy of the modern man.

The cure for all this? The Cross. Penance. Suffering. The active acquisition of the virtues, and the passive receptivity to God’s good pleasure in sending us trials. When we are in grace, suffering that is well endured for a supernatural purpose serves to integrate the constituent parts of our nature so that the master rules the servants and the servants serve the master. By the active and passive purgations of the spiritual life, the lower powers become good servants and the higher powers become good masters.

If these slaves need to be beat occasionally (as during Lent, or whenever they go into rebellion), it is only so that they serve us better. If that image is indelicate to the reader — and it really is not, when we consider the asceticisms of the saints and the utterance of Our Lord: “the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away” (Matt. 11:12; see the brief commentary here) — then these servants can be considered as little children who need to be disciplined so that they do not become hooligans.

Over and above asceticism and the practice of the virtues, there is a need for counsel in the form of spiritual fatherhood. God has so ordained it that we need an external hierarchy to guide us in the proper ordering of our own internal hierarchy. For, in these matters, we can easily deceive ourselves.

One final word. Intellectual sins (e.g., unbelief, spiritual pride) are the worst, and these are sins committed only by the highest faculties of intellect and will. I add this so that the reader does not get the false impression that the intellect and will are always innocent. On the contrary, there is no sin without knowledge in the intellect and consent in the will. Even our highest faculties are but servants in relation to God, and when they rebel, we utter the non serviam of Satan, who, as an angel, did not have any of the twenty-four lower powers proper to our nature. And, with him, we become poor servants of our good Master.