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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.

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