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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.

2 comments:

  1. Thomas Aquinas always resonated with me. His teachings and philosophies can still be applied today. Summa Theologica, always a barometer for me. - Layce of royal essay.

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