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Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274)

is one of the towering figures

in Western philosophy and theology,

so great that he is even called the “angelic Doctor”

by the Roman Catholic Church. 

Within a twenty year span he wrote over forty books,

including his masterpiece The Summa Theologica,

in which he constructs a vast system integrating

Greek philosophy with the Christian faith.  

In the second part of this great work,

as well as Book 3 of his shorter volume

 Summa contra Gentiles,

he sets out a systematic answer to the question

of what human happiness is,

and whether it can be obtained in this life.  

His ultimate answer is that perfect happiness

(beatitudo)

is not possible on earth,

but an imperfect happiness (felicitas) is. 

 

 This puts Aquinas midway between those like Aristotle, who believed complete happiness

was possible in this lifetime,

and another Christian thinker, St. Augustine,

who taught that happiness was impossible

and that our main pleasure consists merely in the anticipation of the heavenly afterlife.

Thomas Aquinas was born in the castle of Roccasecca, north of Naples, to a wealthy aristocratic family. After studying at the University of Naples, however, he renounced his noble heritage, made a vow of celibacy, and determined to become a monk. He entered the Dominican order and studied with Albertus Magnus (also known as Albert the Great), who had initiated the great project of integrating all knowledge with Christianity. This meant not being afraid of empirical science or the contributions of the great Arabic philosophers, who had already synthesized the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle with their Muslim faith. Aquinas was so stout in stature, and so silent in class, that he was called “The Dumb Ox” by his fellow students. Albert however, responded: “You call him a Dumb Ox, but I tell you this Dumb Ox shall bellow so loud his bellowing will fill the world.”

Aquinas was ultimately assigned as a lecturer to various Dominican houses in Italy, but his real task was the masterpiece, his Summa Theologica, “The Summation of All Theology,” which sets out an entire book dedicated to the question of happiness. For twenty years Aquinas worked on this project, but on a night in December 1273 after celebrating Mass he experienced a mystical vision that shattered his entire aspirations. After that night he never wrote another word, and he died six months later. On his deathbed he is reported to have pointed to all of his books and said “After what I have experienced, all that is just straw.” As we shall see, this is most ironic when considering Aquinas’ views on happiness, since in the Summa one of his main conclusions is that true happiness consists in a mystical (beatific) vision of God that is only possible in the afterlife.

The Doctrine of Double Happiness

Already in his Summa Contra Gentiles, Aquinas had taken a position similar to St. Augustine’s, that perfect happiness is not possible in this lifetime. Aquinas takes seriously St. Paul’s assurance in 1 Corinthians 13:12 that “for now we see as through a glass darkly, but then we see face to face.” This world is too plagued with unsatisfied desires to achieve that ultimate good which we all seek by nature. Furthermore, God has basically created us with a desire to come to perfect knowledge of Him, but this is hidden from us while in our mortal bodies. True knowledge of God would require being able to see him directly, but this is only possible by a completely purified soul. When this occurs, we will experience the ultimate pleasure—a pure and everlasting bliss that will be the satisfaction of every human desire and the obliteration of every sadness or worry.

However, unlike St. Augustine, Aquinas goes on to maintain that we can achieve a kind of “imperfect happiness” here on earth. In this he is undoubtedly influenced by Aristotle, who argued that happiness depends on the actualization of one’s natural faculties. The highest faculty the human being possesses is Reason, from which it follows that we can achieve happiness in this life in proportion to the level of truth accessible to Reason. As he writes:

Man’s ultimate happiness consists in the contemplation of truth, for this operation is specific to man and is shared with no other animals. Also it is not directed to any other end since the contemplation of truth is sought for its own sake. In addition, in this operation man is united to higher beings (substances) since this is the only human operation that is carried out both by God and by the separate substances (angels).

While the perfect realization of Truth will only occur in heaven where we will perceive God “face to face,” there is an imperfect counterpart of that vision here on earth. Thus Aquinas is lead to make a distinction between “perfect happiness” which he calls beatitudo, and “imperfect happiness” called felicitas. By making this distinction, Aquinas is able to tone down the pessimistic view of human nature expressed by St. Augustine, including the doctrine of Original Sin. As Aquinas writes, “Human Nature is not so completely corrupted by sin as to be totally lacking in natural goodness.” We have an impulse in us that seeks God and other impulses that pull us down to worldly pleasures. However, it is possible to begin the process of healing in this lifetime by exercising the natural virtues that Aristotle talks about—the virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation, justice, friendship, etc. Furthermore, God in his grace has now revealed to us three additional virtues: those of faith, love and hope. These will pull us through to the final end so long as we begin the effort.

Aquinas held the following views about human happiness:

  • Perfect happiness (beatitudo) is not possible in this lifetime, but only in the afterlife for those who achieve a direct perception of God
  • There can be an imperfect happiness (felicitas) attainable in this lifetime, in proportion to the exercise of Reason (contemplation of truth) and the exercise of virtue.
  • Virtue is to be divided into two categories: 1) the traditional Aristotelian virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation, friendship, etc., and 2) the theological virtues revealed to man through Jesus Christ: faith, hope, and love.
  • There is an important distinction between enjoyment and happiness. Enjoyment concerns satisfaction of worldly desire. Happiness concerns obtaining our absolute perfection, which by definition can only be found in the absolute Being, which is God.
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