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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle: Good and Happiness

How does one define happiness? More importantly, how may it be attained? These are questions for the ages, with answers that run the gamut. Not unexpectedly, when entering into a dialog about the finer points of
happiness, clarifications are invariably made. Among those entering into this debate was Aristotle. His philosophical influence can be found throughout the writings of our own St. Thomas Aquinas. In Thomas’ Summa Thelogiae, a compendium of Catholic theological teachings, the subject of happiness is discussed at length; especially in the light of divine revelation, and our creation in the image of God. In order to gain a better understanding of Thomistic philosophy it helps to first have a firm grasp of the Aristotelian definition of happiness, what he believes the path of attainability to be, and how all of this informs our own lives.
Aristotle firmly believed that humans were inclined to do “good.” This natural and deep-rooted inclination informs our decision making process. Because of this, the end which we all seek to achieve is ultimately “good.” Occasionally, we are mistaken in our approximation of what that “good” might be, however that does not change the fact that our pursuit of said “good” is genuine. With “good” being our destination, it would then stand to reason that the road to this “good” is “good” in and of itself. According to Aristotle: “Human good turns out to be an activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and, if there is more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete” (Nicomachean Ethics 7). It is the pursuit of good, the virtue that we foster in doing so, and the end result, that leads to happiness. “The happy man lives well and does well; for we have practically defined happiness as a sort of good life and good action. The characteristics that are looked for in happiness seem also, all of them, to belong to what we have defined happiness as being…  Happiness then is the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing in the world (Nicomachean Ethics 8).

As was previously mentioned, Aristotle believed that many goods could build upon one another for a greater, more enveloping, end. Thomas believed that our works of good, and the virtue and happiness that resulted, were the fruits of toiling toward a single all-encompassing end unattainable on Earth; God.  The happiness that comes as a result of the virtue built in pursuit of good is the manifestation of our freely drawing nearer to God, and more closely realizing our nature as beings created in His divine image:
Man is said to be made to God's image, in so far as the image implies an intelligent being endowed with free-will and self-movement: now that we have treated of the exemplar, i.e., God, and of those things which came forth from the power of God in accordance with His will; it remains for us to treat of His image, i.e., man, inasmuch as he too is the principle of his actions, as having free-will and control of his actions (ST I-II, pr.).
With free will at our disposal we are blessed with the opportunity to reach eternal happiness in the hereafter. We do this through action, spiritually and physically. Our inability to achieve truly transcendent eudaimonia in the here and now is a testimony to the frivolity of trying to fill the empty spaces within ourselves with Earthly comforts when the yearning we feel can only be satisfied by the divine:
Since Happiness surpasses every created nature, no pure creature can becomingly gain Happiness, without the movement of operation, whereby it tends thereto… man obtains it by many movements of works which are called merits… Works are necessary to man in order to gain Happiness; not on account of the insufficiency of the Divine power which bestows Happiness, but that the order in things be observed (ST I-II, Q. 5, Art. 7, co.).
Actions that seem positive but lack virtue cannot lead to happiness or salvation. An example of this from my own life is the wrong-headed approach I used to take when it came to Church participation. While I was an active and involved member of my Church community, my intentions were not pure. At one point I had taken my focus off Christ and my participation in the Knights of Columbus and as a Catechist became an exercise in self-congratulatory aggrandizement. The appearance of piety did not contribute to my happiness or forge a life of virtue with the Kingdom of Heaven as an end. I was in pursuit of an apparent, faulty, good, as opposed to a real good. My moral compass was broken. Through Christ I was able to right my course and continue in these pursuits. In doing so, my faith deepened and my happiness has increased tenfold.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle: Morality and a Means to an End

Each and every moment of our waking lives involves a choice. That choice can be made for the glory of God or for our own personal gratification. It could be argued that in pursuing personal gratification we may also
work toward the glory of God, but this debate is self-defeating in that the action ceases to be selfish when it is done with Godly aspirations.  With these thoughts we enter a centuries long dialog about the teleological nature of man.  Like many of the great theologians of antiquity, Saint Thomas Aquinas was particularly taken with Greek philosopher and scientist, Aristotle. The Aristotelian tendencies found in the works of Aquinas are tempered by the influence of Saint Augustine and others, but there is no doubt to the great effect that Aristotle had on Thomistic moral philosophy. Both Thomas and Aristotle deliberated exhaustively on the nature of ends, means, and goods. In studying these teleological viewpoints we must understand the basic arguments that these philosophical luminaries were making and take into account how they are illustrated in our own lives.

Aristotle, and therefore Aquinas, both believe that human activity and aspirations are teleological. What this means is that our behavior is driven with a goal in mind.  Aristotle deemed this goal, or end view, as “good.” More importantly, he believed that there was a “chief good” which served to inform the whole of our decision making with that goal in mind:
If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is, and of which of the sciences or capacities it is the object (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 2).
The ultimate objective which Aristotle was alluding to was none other than eudaimonia-happiness. He believed that happiness is achieved through the pursuit of good. The destination is reasoned to be good, because of the necessity for moral decision in pursuing this end point and what he believed to be our natural inclination toward moral behavior. Being that the errors of humanity are apparent and many, we run into the necessity for clarification between “apparent good” and “real good.” An apparent good is a goal that we undertake with the belief that it is going to help one achieve happiness only to find that it is, in fact, not. An example of this from my own life (that I have thankfully overcome) is gluttony. I understood that food tasted, and made me feel, good. Unfortunately, my pursuit of the next great meal resulted in poor health, damaged self-image, and ultimately, sadness. “Real good” is a goal that we set that, in the end, is virtuous. To better illustrate this I will once again borrow an example from my own life. As a young marine I sought to foster and create a healthy relationship with a young Catholic woman who shared the same religion, moral ideologies, and family plans. Today we have been married for eight years and have two happy healthy young boys. The end goal was, and is, good. Naturally, in following this path, several aims were met. Multiple different ends came together to inform the greater goal. While my end was virtuous, I could have easily been led down the path of unrighteousness had the means by which I attained my objective been morally circumspect. Had I chosen to lie my way into what has become a fruitful relationship, the fruits that I have come to enjoy would surely not have come to be. In order for a farmer to yield a bountiful crop he cannot forego irrigation, fertilization, and hard work. Thomistic teleological arguments follow Aristotle insofar as he believes that an ultimate good is our end point. His moment of divergence comes when he suggests that true good and happiness is unattainable in this life, and may only be found in God. It is only through the attainment of the universal good that we can achieve solace. God alone is universally good. Therefore, God is our one and only true path to happiness.