Aquinas’s Vision of Divine and Human Happiness

St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us that only the pure of heart see God without distortion … Sharing the mind and heart of Christ, we share the eternal happiness of his vision.


Holy Trinty by Rubens

We all have some vision or other of God (Ultimate Reality), humankind, the world, and salvation attainable in the concreteness of our experience, which, in turn, is irradiated at every level of our being. Our vision permeates our thoughts, desires, interests, ideals, imagination, feelings, and body language; it is our worldview, our sense of life, our basic orientation towards reality. Our vision gives rise to our character, our style of life, to the tone of our being in the world. Vision is always the way in which we grasp the complexity of life; it is the way we relate ourselves to the things of life; it involves the meaning and value that we attach to the complexity of life as a whole and to the things of life in particular.

Each person incarnates a definite vision of God, world, humankind, and salvation. Each person is a unique relationship to God, a metaphor for God, world, humankind, and salvation. Within varying degrees of truth and falsity, each person embodies a kind of judgment about the God, world, humankind, and salvation which he or she experiences within the consciousness of his or her vision. Inevitably, each person communicates the effects of all that is given to him or her in the experience of that vision. Even the affirmation that one sees no meaning or value to a world that one judges to be an absurdity communicates the reality of a personal vision. The experience of vision is fundamental to human life; it does not preclude a change in, or deepening of, one’s vision. Our vision unfolds in the particulars of our spatio-temporal experience; in the context of our maturing sensibility. It embraces what has been and is experienced in the concreteness of our lives.

It is in this context that we can benefit from Aquinas’ vision of divine and human happiness. St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us that only the pure of heart see God without distortion. He reminds us that there is a unity of vision, and sensibility attained, in a process of lifelong conversion/purification, revealed as our ultimate possibility for the beatific vision in Christ, crucified and risen. Sharing the mind and heart of Christ, we share the eternal happiness of his vision.

St. Thomas affirms that the love God has for people, and that people have for God, is properly expressed as the love friends share (ST I-II q. 65, a. 5; ST II-II q. 23, a. 1).  The communication that establishes friendship between humankind and God is God’s sharing with us his very happiness (ST II-II q. 23, a. 1).  God’s happiness consists in the friendship among the persons of the Trinity.  For God to be happy is for God to be God, and for Aquinas this means being a Trinity of friendship.  Therefore, what God communicates, when he “befriends” us through grace, is the life of eternal friendship which is God (ST II-II q. 24, a. 2).

Thomas affirms that “in God alone is it true that his very being is his being happy” (ST I-II, q. 3, a. 2). Whatever God is, is God’s happiness.  God’s happiness is not something extrinsic to God, but is his very life, the eternal activity that is God.  This activity is the friendship and love of the everlasting community that is the Triune God, where love is eternally reciprocated.  For God to be happy is for him to be God as a Triune communion of eternal friendship.

Thomas affirms that God is the prime mover, absolutely.  It is by his motion that all things are turned to him in that general tendency to the good, by which everything freely tends towards likeness to God in its proper mode.  But God turns the just to himself as to a special end, to which they tend, and to which they desire, to cling as to their own good (I-II, q. 109, a. 6). This special end is the properly intentional one of friendship with God, to which rational creatures are radically open, and for which grace disposes them.  This new disposition involves a transformation that is properly called a “new creation.”

God is the Happiness that moves us, giving us the tendency or desire for happiness.  God is the Truth that moves us, giving us the tendency or desire for truth.  God is the Knower that moves us, giving us the tendency or desire to know.  God is the Lover that moves us, giving us the tendency or desire to love.  God is the Joy that moves us, giving us the tendency or desire for joy.  God is the Goodness that moves us, giving us the tendency or desire for goodness.  God is the Communicator that moves us, giving us the tendency or desire for communication, community, and communion. God is the Friend that moves us, giving us the tendency and desire for both divine and human friendship.

The Church, as the body of Christ and temple of his Spirit, is a primary recipient of God’s self-communication to his creation. The Church is the communication of God’s glory to creation. The life of the Church, as the body of Christ and temple of his Spirit, is a participation in God’s own knowledge, love, and enjoyment of himself. Our sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit of Christ and his Father, enabling our participation in the knowledge, love, and joy of the Triune God.

God is Happiness Itself, working out our sanctification as a participation in the boundless happiness of God’s knowing, loving, and enjoying himself. We have been created by Happiness Itself for the purpose of Happiness Itself, because God enjoys making others happy.

Happiness Itself is self-communicating, giving us its Spirit, enabling both our vision, in the eye of love that is faith, and the gaze of love that is contemplation, to enjoy our relational existence (with self, others, the world, and God) in communion with our Triune origin, ground, and destiny. The Spirit of Happiness Itself enables us to participate in the cognitive and affective consciousness—or life of Happiness Itself. It enables us to enjoy the beauty of the true goodness of Happiness Itself, resplendent in its creation.

The Spirit of Happiness Itself descends at the Incarnation and Pentecost that we might ascend into the fullness of its joy: “…I shall see you again, and your hearts will be full of joy, and that joy no one shall take from you” (John 16:22); “But now I am coming to you (Holy Father) and I say these things in the world to share my joy with them to the full” (John 17:13).

Our desire for happiness, the dynamic structure of human intentionality, is not of our own making; rather, it evidences for Christian faith that we have been structured or preprogrammed by Happiness Itself for Happiness Itself. We are the effects of the Uncreated Cause, this Happiness Itself, which is effecting us—its will for us always being its loving self for us.

Our basic faith in the reality of Happiness Itself leads us to seek educators of that faith who might lead us to it. Jesus Christ, as the educator of Christian faith, affirms that he is the Way, the Truth/Reality, and the Life, all of which is Happiness Itself—the self-gift and invitation of Happiness Itself to all humankind.

We are aware of ourselves as participants in an ongoing drama of existence that we did not originate, and that will continue after we are gone. We experience ourselves as sharing in a reality that is common to all, while at the same time recognizing that we are not identical. Our participation is not a matter of choice; it is simply given. As long as we are willing to regard the universe as a given—in the mathematical sense of “given” which presupposes no giver—we can take existence for granted, as little more than a floor for anything that is. On the other hand, we may realize that a universe of givens presupposes the Giver, who is generously giving them, the One originating source of all that is, the very principle of unity for a “universe.” Hence, the very “to-be” of creatures is the “to-be-related to” the One from which our existence derives: our created to-be is a relation to our uncreated source, to-be-itself—Happiness Itself.

God is Happiness Itself
God does not have to go outside himself to be happy because he is Happiness Itself. God does not create us to be happy; rather, God creates us because he is happy. He does not need us for his happiness; rather, we exist because of his happiness. Happiness Itself is our origin and ground and destiny. God freely and happily creates us.

We have been preprogrammed by Happiness Itself for Happiness Itself. The longing in every human heart for happiness is our preprogrammed longing for God. We did not give ourselves our longing for happiness; rather, God implanted it in our hearts.

Where do we look for the happiness we desire?  We inevitably look to others to show us the way. The Christian community of faith believes that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, the Life of Happiness Itself.

God is the reality whose center is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere. Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is within or among you. No local motion is necessary to reach it.

Happiness Itself knows, loves, and enjoys what it is creating: the truth, goodness, and beauty of things. Whatever is true or good or beautiful communicates, respectively, what Happiness Itself knows and loves and enjoys. Each human being, therefore, is a sacrament or visible sign of what God is happily knowing/thinking, happily loving, and happily enjoying.

Nothing/no one can exist without God’s knowing, loving, and enjoying it. Nothing exists independently of Happiness Itself. (Evil is always a lack of existence/truth/goodness/beauty. Evil is the absence of the true, the good, the beautiful. It is obliviousness to the truth and goodness and beauty of things.

Our experience of true knowledge, true goodness, and true beauty is a form of communion-community-communication with Happiness Itself. We are in touch with one another.

We are the created effects of what our uncreated Creator is effecting in every moment of our existence. Every person is a sacramental sign of what God thinks, loves, enjoys (See Mt.25).

We exist because Happiness Itself is Generosity Itself, happy to share its knowledge and love and enjoyment with us. There is no limit to how God can bless or amaze us (e.g. Good Samaritan). God regards us in his self-regard, loves us in his self-love, and enjoys us in his self-enjoyment.

Heaven occurs when we see ourselves as God is seeing us, love ourselves as God is loving us, and enjoy ourselves as God is enjoying us. Hell occurs when we fail to see ourselves as God see us, to love ourselves as God loves us and to enjoy ourselves as God enjoys us.

As Karl Rahner has said that the way we treasure, or fail to treasure, ourselves and the things around us, is all of a piece with the way we treasure or fail to treasure God. Rahner can say that because personal existence is relational existence to myself, others, the world, and God. Everyone is someone’s child, born into a web of human relationships. The personal is always interpersonal. (The Holy Spirit of Love, poured into hearts (Rom 5:5), enables us to see our interpersonal existence with the eye (which is faith) and the gaze (which is contemplation) of that Love, creating and sustaining a universe in which each of us is a self, together with all others, under the sovereignty of Love Itself.

If you do not treasure the life that God is giving you, you do not treasure the God who is giving it to you. The Giver is in his gifts. To reject the gift is to reject the Giver. To enjoy the gift is to enjoy the Giver. We glorify God by enjoying God.

The story of Matthew’s transformation from a grasping tax collector, to a hospitable banquet giver, tells how Jesus, through the gift of his Spirit, transforms selfish persons into generous persons, revealing the goodness of  the Generous One whose own are generous.

The parable of the prodigal son—especially in the older brother’s refusal to participate in his father’s festivities at the return of his son—associates our unhappiness with our inability to understand the joy and generosity of God through our reconciliation with God. The parable tells us that everyone is on God’s guest-list for the happiness of his banquet community, but not all accept God’s self-giving hospitality. It tells us that for God, all things are possible that are impossible for persons without God: forgiving the humanly unforgivable. “God alone is good” (Mk 10:18). The crucified Jesus does not say: “I forgive,” but rather: “Father, forgive …” Only in our communion with the all-loving, and all-forgiving, Father is forgiveness possible.

Happiness Itself Encompasses Creation
Creation manifests the all-encompassing goodness and beauty of its Creator who sustains it in being, here and now, and at any moment in which we are considering the question of his existence. The claim that God made the world is more like the minstrel made music, than the blacksmith made a horseshoe. That is to say, creation is an ongoing activity rather than a once-and-for-all event. While the shoe might continue to exist, even when the blacksmith dies, the music necessarily stops when the minstrel stops playing, and the world would necessarily go out of existence if God stopped creating it. In this context, persons of faith are those who hear the music; they have eyes that see and ears that hear their Creator—the uncreated cause of the creation that he is effecting.

For the community of faith, the all-encompassing goodness of the Creator works for their goodness and happiness. Created by Happiness Itself for Happiness Itself, the community of faith affirms that the Creator’s will for us always expresses the Creator’s love for us.  For the Christian community of faith, Jesus’ calling us friends reveals that we are not objects that the Creator needs, but friends the Creator enjoys.  St. Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, invites us to envision all creation as the expression of the Creator’s loving service for our happiness and fulfillment.

God’s pleasure and joy is pleasure and joy in himself. As Happiness Itself, or “Ipsa Felicitas” (S.T. I-II, q. 3, a.2) in the words of Aquinas, God does not have to go outside himself for joy and happiness. God’s happiness in knowing his truth, loving his goodness, and enjoying the beauty of his true goodness, is the ultimate happiness of all the blessed, knowing themselves in God’s truth, loving themselves in God’s goodness, and enjoying themselves in the beauty of God’s true goodness.

The happiness of the Triune God, knowing itself in its Word, and loving itself in its Spirit, is externalized by being known and loved and enjoyed by Its creatures. Happiness Itself shares itself with all humankind in sending the Word of its truth and the Spirit of its love. This enables us to enjoy, with the eye of love—that is, Christian faith and the look of love that is Christian contemplation—the true beauty of its goodness in the body of Christ, and the temple of his Spirit, no less than in all creation.

God enjoys creating and giving to his creatures. God does not create because he needs creatures; rather, he creates for his pure enjoyment, for himself.  Happiness Itself is the generous origin and ground and destiny/fulfillment of all creation.

Just as God regards us in his self-regard, he loves us in his self-love, and enjoys us in his self-enjoyment. God enjoys regarding us in his self-regard/knowing; he enjoys loving us in his self-love; and he enjoys us in his self-enjoyment. God contemplates us with the love and joy with which he contemplates himself.

God enjoys making us happy because God does what God is: Happiness Itself, who has freely elected to be Happiness with us, and for us, rather than without us. We experience something of Happiness Itself in all the persons who share Its Spirit, the Spirit of the Beatitudes, of the “makarioi,”or “the happy,” the blessed. The parables of Jesus tell of the divine Banquet Giver inviting everyone to share his happiness in the festivity of his banquet community. Everyone is on the guest life for the festivities of the messianic banquet community where Happiness Itself is the Host of all humankind. The same parables underscore our freedom to accept or decline the universal invitation. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the elder brother represents the freedom of the surly refuser of messianic festivity.  Jesus, as the gift and call of Happiness Itself, affirms the human tragedy of those who reject him: “You refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:40). Again, weeping over Jerusalem, Jesus says “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not” (Mt. 23:37).

We are free to enjoy Happiness Itself not because we are independent of Happiness Itself, but because we are, to some extent, independent of our fellow creatures. Sin is a free choice by which we prefer something less than Happiness Itself, a substitute or idol. We do not sin because we love evil, but because we do not sufficiently desire our own happiness in communion with our Origin, Ground and Destiny, that is, Happiness Itself.

Our happiness is not grounded in a power originating within us, but in a liberating power from outside ourselves. The advent of Happiness Itself enables our exodus, or freedom, for enjoying Happiness Itself. Our knowledge of God originates in God’s knowing us. Our love of God originates in God’s loving us. Our enjoying God originates in God’s enjoying us. There is no knowing God in the biblical sense apart from our enjoying the beauty of God’s true goodness. Such joy, the fruit of the Holy Spirit, is the sure sign of its presence. The advent of Happiness Itself ultimately enables us to know ourselves as we are divinely known, love ourselves as we are divinely loved, and enjoy ourselves as we are divinely enjoyed.

Just as God is the Reality without which everything that is would not be, God is the Happiness without which everything that constitutes human happiness would not be. Just as God is the being whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere, God is the Happiness whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. Because Happiness Itself encompasses and sustains all creation, Paul can write to the Philippians (4:4), “I want you to be happy, always happy in the Lord; I repeat, what I want is your happiness.” Paul urges Christians to recognize, and to welcome, Happiness Itself.

Human Happiness
There is a fundamental undergoing, responsiveness, and receptiveness—an immanent cognitive and affective activity in relation to our final end—at the heart of human happiness.  For Aquinas, the form of happiness consists in our knowing and loving God as befits our nature (Summa Theologiae, 1-2.1.a.8). We are not happy insofar as we exist, although to exist is good; we are happy insofar as what is potential to our existence becomes actual through activities that fulfill our natural desire. In other words, for Aquinas, our happiness is determined by the way we respond to the gift of human existence. Our response is an activity that perfects the agent inwardly.

Similar things have similar traits. The order and predictability of these traits suggest that they are held together by a principle of action that is called their “nature.” Hence, we can know natures—what things are—and we can know their desire by discerning the patterns of their motion toward absent objects. It must be added that the nature of an individual thing provides far from exhaustive knowledge of it.

Natural desires serve to benefit their subjects because nature supplies an inclination toward movement and action, not only for its own sake, but also for the perfected wholeness of the thing itself (St. Thomas Aquinas, Truth, 22.1, tr. R.W.Mulligan, J. V. McGlynn, and R.W. Schmidt, Chicago: Regnery, 1952-54). Things are guided from within by the inner necessity of what they are; it is the fullness, wholeness, and perfection that they desire naturally.  Natural desire ensures that things will find their way through the world, where, as Aquinas says repeatedly, that “natural desire cannot be in vain” (S.T.l.75.a.6).

The natural order is not devoid of death and catastrophe. There are obstacles in the way of desire reaching its end. The point is that natural desire is an aspect of nature that cannot be put under human control, because the natural desire of a finite thing precedes our understanding and use of it. Nature and its desires are intractably given. The desire for human happiness is a given: what we are, what we are to become, the ordinate range of means—all are outlined by our nature. Hence, our pursuit of happiness is an active and ordinate response to natural desire.

What gives natural desire its end, aim, or direction?  For Aquinas, the first intelligent agent, God, gives creatures their permanent intrinsic principle of movement, inscribing on them their inclinations toward actions and ends .Both nature and existence are given by God in creation. A thing’s nature includes its inclinations, its passive urge that requires the action of other agents to reach perfection. In short, all things need to be acted upon (Antonius Finili, O.P., “Natural Desire,” Dominican Studies 1, 1948, 344). All entities are passive to something, with the exception of the first agent, God. How a subject responds to this actuality, how it brings this potency to act through the efforts of its own agency, raises the question in humans of receptivity and responsiveness.

Free and voluntary action is the necessary, but not sufficient, condition of human happiness. A happy life is one that we must freely contribute to; for among the goods belonging to human happiness is our effort at attaining it. Nevertheless, happiness for Aquinas is primarily a state of being acted on, an undergoing, a responsiveness. First, human nature, and its natural desire, is a product of divine art. Secondly, the ordinate pursuit of happiness is a way mapped out by that nature. Thirdly, it is by gratuitous divine action, not human effort alone, that a person possesses perfect, eternal happiness. God’s love relieves human love of its task of surpassing the capacity of human nature. Both in the order of grace, and of created nature, our human efforts are dwarfed by God’s self-giving generosity. Perfect happiness requires our reception of grace and our concomitant transformation.

Human happiness occurs because of a “concursus” of powers: those belonging to human nature, and those belonging to the divine nature (S.T. 1-2.2.a.3). Human nature’s inclination toward an end includes its capacity to be acted on, as well as its capacity to act. Our capacity for receptive agency, for being receptive and responsive, makes these converging actions possible. It witnesses the distinction between human existence, and existence itself. The theology of grace implies this same distinction in the relationship between gratia operans and gratia cooperans, where God’s love is operative in our cooperation.

Human happiness truly belongs to the creature. “Happiness is in the one who is happy” (S.T. 1-2.2.a.2). Although its cause and its object belong to God, happiness must still be regarded as something created (S.T. 1-2.3.a.1). Human action remains because the meaning of human fulfillment includes the fact of our agency.

Happy persons can undergo emotions of sadness and joy while struggling toward their goal Our emotions help dispose us toward happiness in this life and the next. They are provisional, preparatory, and subsidiary to the spiritual joy and delight of our eternal happiness in communion with God.  In the tension of our irresistible desire for a supernatural end and our natural inability, the alternative of despair belongs only to those who freely refuse the promptings of nature and grace.

The end of human life, eternal happiness/God, already exists; it is not waiting to be made. God is not one good thing to be possessed among others. Happiness is not a mere collecting of goods: human action requires that there is a dominant and supreme end—even if it is only the vision of the kind of person we want to be, the kind of life we want to have. Jesus’ giving sight to the blind is a metaphor for the eye of love that is Christian faith, enabling the integrating vision of the ultimate Good that guides our choices and directs our lives.  Our passion for happiness is, ultimately, a passion for Happiness Itself, God. It begins as a response to the unsolicited gift of one’s existence.

The church, as the body of Christ and temple of his Spirit, is a primary recipient of God’s self-communication to his creation. The church is the communication of God’s glory to creation. The life of the church, as the body of Christ and temple of his Spirit, is a participation in God’s own knowledge, love, and enjoyment of himself. Our sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit, of Christ and his Father, enabling our participation in the knowledge, love, and joy of the Triune God.

God is Happiness Itself, working out our sanctification as a participation in the boundless happiness of God’s knowing, loving, and enjoying himself. We have been created by Happiness Itself for Happiness Itself, because God enjoys making others happy.


avatar About Fr. John Navone, SJ

Fr. John Navone is an emeritus professor of theology at the "Gregrorian" in Rome, the Pontifical Gregorian University, where he taught from 1967–2010. He is now at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. Pope Francis acknowledged the impact of Fr. Navone's "theology of failure" on his thought in his interview with S. Rubin and E.F. Ambrogetti, Il Nuovo Papa Si Racconta, Milano, Salani Editore, p. 65. Articles published March 29th in both Italy’s Corriere della Sera and Il Foglio also made note of it. Pope Francis had read the book in the Italian translation, La teologia del fallimento, Paoline, 1978). Navone is the author of more than twenty-five books; his most recent is Atheism Today: A Christian Response (2012).


  1. avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    This presentation byFather Navone is an everlasting monument that shows that humankind is able to be happy with the happiness of God and keep connected to the Tradition of the Church.


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