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Being Impulsive: A Problem for Moderns and Ancients

July 20, 2012

A number of psychological disorders that cause people a good deal of distress, such as addictions of all stripes, have to deal with the problem of acting imprudently on impulse. One contemporary definition of impulsivity is “… a predisposition toward rapid, unplanned reactions to internal or external stimuli without regard to the negative consequences of these reactions to oneself or others” (Moeller FG, ES Barratt, DM Dougherty, JM Schmitz and AC Swann (2001) Psychiatry aspects of impulsivity. Am. J. Psychiatry 158, 1783-1793).

The ancient fathers of the Church had their own theory of impulses which was ultimately a theory about freedom and slavery. For instance, Saint Gregory of Nyssa in his On the Making of Man, notes “There are cases, however, in which the mind even follows the bodily impulses, and becomes, as it were, their servant; for often the bodily nature takes the lead by introducing either the sense of that which gives pain or the desire for that which gives pleasure, so that it may be said to furnish the first beginnings, by producing in us the desire for food, or, generally, the impulse towards some pleasant thing; while the mind, receiving such an impulse, furnishes the body by its own intelligence with the proper means towards the desired object. Such a condition, indeed, does not occur in all, save in those of a somewhat slavish disposition, who bring the reason into bondage to the impulses of their nature and pay servile homage to the pleasures of sense by allowing them the alliance of their mind; but in the case of more perfect men this does not happen; for the mind takes the lead, and chooses the expedient course by reason and not by passion, while their nature follows in the tracks of its leader” (Chapter 14). While the initial reaction or impulse may be unplanned, the Saint rightly notes that the mind remains active either supporting the impulse by providing a quick plan for obtaining the object or by weighing the plan before acting on it. The first way of slavery is experienced by many suffering from an addiction. The second case of freedom represents the approach of the Saints.

In the same discourse, the Saint notes that when an impulse is good, movement continues as a river flowing to an endless sea, because goodness is by nature infinite. But when an impulse is evil, it will eventually reach a dead end when it materializes, a point from which it can go no further. At that point, the only movement left is one of repentance or a return to the good in which the reasonable mind again takes an ascendant position and governs the soul  (Chapter 21). Of course, the pointless wandering and pain could have been avoided by remaining focused on the good in a spirit of watchfulness with respect to impulses and motivations. In chapter 5 of my book, I refer to the focus of this watchfulness when I note, “For Saint Maximus the Confessor, the believer pays close attention to any improper thoughts in order to recognize and eliminate their causes. In fact, the spiritual fisherman is also a true philosopher who exercises self-control with respect to passionate impulses and studies how to rectify them. To this end, he learns to detect the premonitory signs that make certain thoughts seem attractive and compares them with the ultimate results that are often repulsive.”

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