The Theory of Impulse in Christian Anthropology (c. 300-1300) : From Rebellion to Submission

This paper, read at the International Medieval Congress (Leeds, 12 july 2006), is a short and preliminary version of my article: « Des racines de l’émotion. Les préaffects et le tournant anthropologique du XIIe siècle »/ »The Roots of Emotion: the Pre-affects and the Anthropological Turn of the Twelfth Century », in D. Boquet et P. Nagy (ed.), Le Sujet des émotions au Moyen Âge, Paris, Beauchesne, 2009, p. 163-186.

Damien Boquet ©

It is difficult to find in medieval categories an acceptable equivalent of our elusive emotions. However, we can feel more confident in investigating a partial definition of emotion, its original and inchoate form that ancient Greek authors called propatheia because it precedes pathos. Latin philosophers and theologians used multifarious words to translate propatheia, namely propassio, antepassio, commutatio, affectio, impulsus, impetus, suggestio or else primus motus, a phrase which flourished in the scholastic era.

To make things simpler, I will call this first symptom of emotion « impulse », which is to be distinguished from emotion itself.

What I wish to show is how the Latin Fathers exploited the ambiguous character of the definition of impulse in stoic philosophy to construct their own dialectic notion of human nature. Then, I will argue that a tentative synthesis was made between the 11th and 13th centuries, which paradoxically led to accentuating the discrepancy between emotion and cognition within theories of human nature.

The patristic notion of impulse

The Greek tradition left Christian authors with a dual approach to impulse. Indeed, depending on philosophical schools or even authors, impulse was presented in the following manners:

1)                      either as a spontaneous surge of sensibility which favoured the emergence of passion but was exerted far from rationality

2)                      or as the first sign of passion in the rational soul itself

This double position, which is partly self-contradictory, is to be found for instance in Seneca who defines primus motus sometimes as the first shock of passion in the rational soul, sometimes as a stirring of the irrational soul which precedes passion.

It is the task of historians of philosophy to understand and perhaps resolve those contradictions. However, if one aims at a history of representations and sensibilities, the existence of such contradictions should be taken into account in its own right. As a matter of fact, it is probably this very ambivalence that made the philosophical concept of impulse so popular with Latin theologians.

We must bear this in mind when approaching the ambiguous notions of impulse in Jerome’s and especially in Augustine’s work. On the surface, Jerome’s position seems to be clear: only with consent does sin begin. Therefore, propassio being a first and involuntary shock of suggestion (cogitatio), is not a sin. Nevertheless, Jerome says that propassio contains fault in its origin. The origin of the fault thus referred to is but a consequence of original sin which upset man’s desiring faculties. Augustine’s view proceeds from the very same reasoning.

Later, one can understand why monastic theology in the early Middle Ages went so far as to consider that impulse was systematically imputable. Thus, for Gregory the Great, impulse (suggestio) is in itself a sin. Gregory narrowed down the historic ambivalence of impulse by taking over Augustine’s theory that spontaneous impulses were the original cause of sin.

(The notion of) impulse in cloisters and schools

When the debate on the value of impulses makes it back to centre stage at the end of the 11th century, discussions still revolve around the question of personal responsibility in connection with original sin; however, religious sensibilities have changed.

The legacy of the Fathers still runs deep. Indeed, at the end of the 11th century, Anselm of Laon, Abelard’s master, expresses a point of view that is directly inspired by that of the Fathers. In a highly classical fashion, he likens suggestio to an impulsive representation that may lead to involuntary delight (delectatio). This delectatio or propassio is a minor sin, according to the Gregorian reading of Augustine, but it becomes a mortal sin if it is taken over by a consent of the will (consensus). It is at this time that the stoic phrase primus motus reappears, especially in Peter Lombard who also follows the Gregorian interpretation of Augustine by considering that the involuntary impulses of sensitive appetite are sins.

Nevertheless, at the beginning of the 12th century appears a more optimistic interpretation of impulse, according to which it is only with the consent of the will that sin begins. This is actually a new version of the following ancient principle: without consent there is no sin. Such is the opinion of Anselm of Canterbury, Abelard and also William of Champeaux. It means that impulses are not sins, not even minor ones; this is intimated in Abelard’s Ethics through his theory of intention. It would be pointless to distinguish between the position adopted in schools and cloisters on these questions. As a matter of fact, the Cistercian Aelred of Rievaulx, drawing on his reading of Augustine, clearly denies the imputability of impulse. He admits in a sermon that a feeling of delight (delectatio) may be provoked by a thought (cogitatio) about a memory of carnal pleasure (voluptas carnalis). However, such a process is nearly impossible to control and operates apart from the consent (consensus) of deliberation (deliberatio) supported by will (voluntas). In his Mirror of Charity, he makes it clear that to be excited (pulsari) by these involuntary impulses is neither « commendable when they are good, nor punishable when they are bad. » Impulses must therefore be kept in check but their appearance should be no cause for alarm.

In point of fact, in the 12th century there are two opposing sides, each claiming an Augustinian legacy, which testifies to the ambiguity of Augustine’s position:

–        some defend the non-imputability of impulses on the grounds that only consent breeds sin. That is the position of Anselm of Canterbury, Abelard, William of Champaux and Aelred of Rievaulx and, to a lesser extent, Bernard of Clairvaux and Hugh of Saint-Victor.

–        others, like Anselm of Laon and later Peter Lombard and his disciples, consider impulses to be minor sins.

The reduction of possibilities

But, beyond this opposition between an imputable and a non-imputable impulse, the effects of a more or less well worked-out conceptual schism within the sensitive appetite itself are to be observed on both sides. I think this trend is the most important historical factor in the evolution of the Christian anthropology of affectivity.

Thus, as early as the middle of the 12th century, Gilbert of Poitiers proposed a solution which had the great advantage of solving a paradox that was more and more difficult to accept, namely the fact that impulses were supposedly both involuntary and morally imputable. Gilbert of Poitiers identifies two kinds of impulses:

–        a motus primo primitivus (primary first movement)

–        a motus secundo primitivus (secondary first movement)

This schism within the notion of impulse was completed at the beginning of the 13th century by William of Auxerre who elaborated a theory of duplex sensualitas, distinguishing between a purely animal form of sensibility and rational sensibility. The pattern of double sensuality is in perfect accordance with the new duality of impulses and it solves the question of imputability: primary impulses, which emanate from sheer natural causality, are not imputable; however, secondary impulses come under moral responsibility.

Nevertheless, even the advocates of the non-imputability of impulses were interested in this schism within sensibility. As a case in point, Simon of Tournai, who was the first to contradict Peter Lombard on the question of imputability in the middle of the 12th century, toys with the idea of a dualism of sensibility when he distinguishes two types of impulses apart from consent: a non-imputable primus primitivus which corresponds to the impulse of titillatio carnis and a secondus post primitivum when the soul derives pleasure from the idea but still does not consent to it.

Thus, the shift towards double sensuality covertly contributed to support Peter Lombard’s thesis since impulse had long been considered as the original movement of the sensibility of the soul. Actually, the secondary impulse of scholastics is nearly the exact equivalent of its counterpart in tradition. Eventually, by endorsing the non-imputability of the primary impulse only, Peter Lombard’s disciples did nothing less than take over Gregory the Great’s pessimistic interpretation. At the end of the 13th century, the exemption of imputability in the name of spontaneity was over: the impulses of human sensibility may be involuntary but reason can nonetheless keep them in check. Therefore, the one who lets them assail him evinces weakness.


The ancient and medieval notions of impulse correspond to only a part of what we mean by emotion today. Impulses are neither joy nor anger, sadness, etc. but the original moment when those affective phenomena spring up in a human being. Primus motus is an impulsive movement towards anger, joy, pleasure etc. Impulses, which were strongly mistrusted by the Ancients, did not fare much better in Christian anthropology. However, nothing was written in advance.

At the time of the Fathers, this subjection of the impulses to the rational will was exacted in the name of the moral danger represented by impulses, an aftermath of the upset of affectivity that was provoked by original sin. In the 13th century, the theory of impulse shifted notably. It was unthinkable for scholastic thinkers to let these spontaneous movements of sensitive appetite dethrone reason. Augustine called for a radical subjection of these rebels in the soul; Thomas of Aquinas later turned them into submissive slaves of reason.

If impulses played a part in the Christian theory of the balance of human nature in the Middle Ages, it was almost always the part of the vanquished, doomed to either submission or rebellion. True, there were attempts at integrating impulses in a new harmonious vision of human nature at the end of the 11th and beginning of the 12th centuries. They led to nothing but a further dismantling of the notion of human being.

What are the consequences of the naturalization of impulses in the 13th century? The first one is of course the perpetuation in western culture of the mistrust toward emotions that are not severely held in check by reason. But the most important one may be the widening of the gap between emotion and cognition. The moment when emotion is inchoate is subsumed under the notion of animality while sensibility itself is more and more separated from intellect. The new anthropological order created by scholastic thinkers in the 13th century entailed a reduction of possibilities.

Translation: Clara Mallier

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