Happiness — A Thomistic Consideration (Part I)

A Reflection on Summa Theologiae I-II, Q 1–5


At some point in the life of every human person the great questions arise in their ponderings: “Where did I come from?” “Why am I here?” “Where am I going?” These questions encompass the ultimate question of our own mortality: “What is the meaning of life?” — which gives way to: “Is this all there is?” The answers given by the nihilistic perspective of modern philosophy is that life is random, it came about by chance, and it ends definitively with death (the “lights-out” perspective). The simple fact that the human mind ponders the aforementioned metaphysical questions contradicts the nihilistic answer. The human being is a rational creature, one that thinks of things beyond its senses — and in doing so indicates a more positive possible answer. The human heart rejects nihilism, although the human mind, influenced by such modern thinking, can and does override the heart and sometimes settles on the negative answer.

Modern philosophy has its starting point in the rejection of religious influence. It is adamant in holding fast to non-belief in anything that cannot be proven by measure or evidence. Therefore, according to modern thinking, God and any belief in God’s existence, let alone His Providence, is foolishness, so they say, since none such belief can be proven by scientific method. The irony is that the idea of God and the immortality of the human soul are concepts of ancient philosophy and the ponderings of such non-religious men as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (circa 399–350 BC). On the other hand, to say these men were non-religious would be to say they were not philosophers. Of course, modern philosophers would deny that religion is part of philosophy, yet religion, what is called natural religion, is the result or, one could say, the “endgame” of philosophy, which is simply the human mind seeking to know ultimate reality; and for the ancients this means not limiting the mind to material reality (physics) but going beyond physics (metaphysics), which ultimately leads rational thinking to God. That the soul lives on beyond the death of the body was the comforting confidence of Socrates as he drank the hemlock imparting the death sentence given him by the Athenian court. Aristotle, in succession to Socrates and Plato, says that it is most rational to think that everything that exists comes into existence by the effect of something other than itself, that is to say that a thing cannot have caused its own existence. It follows rationally that there cannot be an infinite regression of causes; therefore, Aristotle posits, there must necessarily be an uncaused cause (a first cause). More specifically, for Aristotle, an unmoved mover, one who moves (changes) things into form and order. It would simply be irrational to think otherwise! Modern philosophy, of course, contradicts this and basically says that it is perfectly rational to be irrational and that one need only to frame a metaphysics as a phenomenon within physics. For example, the way modern philosophy deals with the transcendent human soul, which it inevitably encounters in its search for reality, is to equate it with consciousness, which is a function of neurological science (i.e., the brain). This “metaphysics” of convenience, neatly accounts for non-material substances (e.g., the soul) without acknowledging their non-materiality, maintaining the search for reality within the material realm. Nice trick, wouldn’t you say! At least in rejecting not only religious thought, but also ancient philosophy, modern philosophy takes up its rational process post-creation, or assuming that the universe itself is eternal and therefore the question of an uncaused cause is irrational (according to modern thought). In other words, accordingly, everything that is, comes into existence due to the transforming (evolving) dynamics of an eternal universe. Now back to reality . . .

St. Thomas, of course, sides with Aristotle and takes up the great question of the meaning of life. Aristotle gives us this starting point: “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” The Greek word eudaimonia used by Aristotle, that is translated most often as “happiness,” can also, and more properly, be translated as “to flourish.” We will continue our discourse as a consideration of “happiness,” but the underlying concept, “to flourish,” is a given or, more precisely, the meaning of happiness. The meaning of life is happiness; the meaning of happiness is to flourish. To be happy, we can then say, is to flourish; to be productive, to expound in our experience of life, or simply and metaphysically, to become more (both in our affectivity in community and the world and in our own personal growth), or simply to become. This is what is known as an existential concept; to become or flourish within the experience of our own existence. Although this is true and the starting point of our investigation into the Thomistic idea of happiness, this idea of becoming was taken up in error by the philosophy of Existentialism that developed in the mid–twentieth century. Promulgated for the most part by Jean Paul Sartre from conversations in the sidewalk cafes of the Left-Bank of Paris, Existentialism, according to its own manifesto, claims essence (what we are) proceeds from existence (in other words, existence first, then essence). This error of Existentialism is most acute in today’s culture of gender theory or gender ideology. In justifying gender as a choice, the ideologues have stated that the concept of human nature (essence), is something imposed upon society. This in effect denies human essence and supplants it with becoming who or what we choose to be based on the experience of our existence (essence following existence). In other words, we exist, and from the experience of our existence we decide (rather than discern) what our essence is, then develop or “become” this chosen essence. Within this error it follows that I can be one thing (e.g., gender) one day and decide another day to be something else.

If flourishing is the becoming of what or who we were created (or came into being, as the moderns would say), if flourishing is our authentic becoming, then it must needs be a process of perfecting. St. Thomas’s questions of happiness, therefore, will consist of the manner and means of this perfecting; furthermore, the question boils down to what is or will be the conclusion of this process of flourishing. Flourishing itself can provide happiness, as we will see, but it being a process, a process of perfecting, the end or goal of such a process has to be perfection, to be perfect (as our heavenly Father is perfect; cf. Mt 5:48).

Oops, spoiler warning!

Without further ado, however, but with these philosophical concepts in mind, we must get back to our look into St. Thomas’s questions of happiness. Before we proceed however, there needs to be clarification of two words that are used repeatedly by St. Thomas as well as philosophy and theology in general. The first is the word end (Latin: terminus). In this we are to perceive some concept of purpose; however, this does not in itself give the best meaning of the use of the word end. St. Augustine, by way of preparatory explanation, says, “In speaking of the end of good we mean now, not that it passes away so as to be no more, but that it is perfected so as to be complete.”1 The end of human existence, or a particular human person, is to be perfected or complete. The concept previously described as authentic existential becoming (as opposed to that of Existentialism) can now be said to be the process of being perfected. The ultimate end of being perfected, therefore, is to become perfect or complete, as has been pointed out above. The second word to be clarified is order, ordered, or ordered to. This can be thought of as orientation, but more so as ordered to or oriented by nature. Subsequent to these terms is last as St. Thomas uses it, to denote ultimate or primary. We will see how Thomas contrasts last end with secondary ends in his discourse on happiness; ultimate happiness, as opposed to happiness found in secondary things as ends in themselves; and more so how secondary happiness can be false or true according to whether it is ordered to ultimate happiness or last end.

The Five Questions

  1. Man’s last end.
  2. Things in which man’s happiness consists.
  3. What is happiness?
  4. Things that are required for happiness.
  5. The attainment of happiness.2

The Moral Act — An Act of Deliberation

In developing a solution to article 1 of the first question (an article being a sub-question), Thomas asks, “Does it belong to man to act for an end?” In other words, is an act of human behavior always ordered to an end? Is there a purpose for any particular act? To answer this, St. Thomas first divides human behavior into two categories. First there are “actions of a human,” which Thomas distinguishes from actions properly called human actions. In short, acts of a human vs. human acts. The first category, acts of a human, are acts that are a natural response to a condition. Being hungry, we eat; when we sweat, we wipe our brow. In a word these are involuntary acts. This is not to say that these acts are automatic, but that they are a response without deliberation. The second category, on the other hand, human acts, are actions taken willfully or after deliberation. St. Thomas says these are properly called human acts because they are an act of the will, which is part of reason. Humans, being rational creatures, can think: “should I do this or that?” “should I do this or not do this?” — in short, the rational creature deliberates on “what ought to be done.” It is these acts, acts of the will from rational deliberation, that are human acts, which he equates as moral acts. They are moral due to the concept of ought.

It is true that when we are hungry we can decide not to eat. Fasting, rather than eating, is certainly a response to hunger, but because it is an act from deliberation, it is a human act as opposed to eating as a response to hunger, which would be an act of a human. To make it clear, consider a dog or other animal; when a dog is hungry, it eats. A dog cannot “decide” not to eat if there is food available and it is hungry. A dog can certainly refrain from eating if it is sick, or sad, but here, then, not-eating is a response to the illness or the sadness, not a deliberate act not to eat.

It is these acts of the latter category, human acts, acts from deliberation, moral acts, that are in question here and in all questions of morality. This consideration of human acts begins here in article one: “Is it proper to man to act for an end?” Now the question can be asked in a different form, “Are human acts acts of the will, ordered to an end?” St. Thomas answers in the affirmative in this way: because the will, a faculty of the human soul, is part of reason, the will is a rational appetite. That is to say that, as the intellect is always ordered to the truth, the will is always ordered to the good. Working together as reason, the will desires something as good, and the intellect confirms that it is true that what is desired is good. The first thing here in response to the article-one question is that the will doesn’t simply desire, but desires something. Therefore, to deliberate on whether or not to act is to deliberate on whether or not to act to attain what is desired. The object desired and therefore the object of the act is indeed the end of the act or that which the act is ordered to. Therefore, yes, it is proper to man, acting deliberately, that the human act, the moral act, is always ordered to an end.

The problems of morality, on the other hand, come from the effect of Original Sin. With Original Sin, human nature lost sanctifying grace which gives the noble faculties (intellect and will) dominance over the lower faculties of bodily appetites and passions. Without time for a lengthy discourse on Original Sin and grace, suffice it to say that our souls are redeemed by Christ making possible the restoration of sanctifying grace through Baptism (first) and the other sacraments as replenishment. According to St. Paul, however, “we groan within ourselves as we await the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23). What this means is that, although sanctifying grace working within the soul strengthens our intellect and will, our bodily appetites and passions (unredeemed) can, through free will, dominate noble reason. Put in colloquial language, if the body wants cake and ice cream for lunch and our intellect and will say that it is, instead, true and good to eat vegetables, our passion for the sweets can move us to say “no” to reason — even going so far as to create a seemingly rational thought process that justifies the (wrong) decision. This false rational process may result in a deceiving of reason, but graced reason is not deceived, rather it is overridden by human free-will deliberating against reason and influenced by bodily appetites and passions. Even graced reason, however, can be overridden, proportionally, in so far as grace has been diminished by sin. Sanctifying grace moves us in favor of the true and the good (veggies), but our free will (i.e., freedom to act based on reason or on passion) creates a moral deliberation to eat cake and ice cream or to eat a good, healthy lunch; the freedom of the person acting can choose this or that, “what ought I to do.” To have a “strong will,” as they say, means to have a will fortified by grace and the fortitude to respond to reason rather than bodily appetites and passions.

Happiness of Flourishing Short of Perfection — Happiness in Secondary Ends

Having now answered the question “Does man act toward an end?” and given the “oops” of leaking the answer as to what our ultimate end is, our perfect happiness (rest in God), it is only natural to think of the things that make us happy (or at least feel good) short of the Beatific Vision. In question one, article two (“Whether it is proper to rational nature [alone] to act toward an end”), in the body of the text, we find this premise:

Every agent, of necessity, acts for an end. For if, in a number of causes ordained to one another, the first be removed, the others must, of necessity, be removed also. Now, the first of all causes is the final cause.

In the case of the above premise, Thomas has affirmed that it is proper to man to act toward an end, and because acting toward an end is an act of deliberation, it is therefore an act only proper to rational nature. The premise cited above, found in articles two and four, leads us beyond that affirmation to the current consideration of multiple ends and whether the happiness encountered in the process of flourishing are proper ends in themselves, which will set up the next section on the specification of human acts.

Yet, lest I get ahead of myself, we should look at the premise of multiple causes ordained to one another. Are these considered as causes and/or ends leading to a final end? Or what of secondary ends as ends in themselves? Hold that thought! We will excerpt some of Thomas’s reasoning and see if we can then connect the dots, and allow him to answer our questions.

From article one of this first question, St. Thomas makes this assertion: “Although the end be last in the order of execution, yet it is first in the order of the agent’s intention” (Q1, a1, reply1). This is his reply to the first objection, to wit, “a cause is naturally first, but an end, by its very name, implies something that is last.” Thomas’s reply is that the end which we act to attain, by way of intentional act, is the cause of the act even though it is the last element in the sequence of acting.3 Earlier we said that a moral act (a deliberate act) is always an act toward an end. The will does not simply desire, but desires something. That something is the end toward which the act is ordered. It is the final cause, or the reason for acting. Now St. Thomas presents a series of acts ordained to each other, but in that ordering, all will be ordered to a final cause (initial motivation).

To begin to understand this let’s re-post the previous excerpt:

Every agent, of necessity, acts for an end. For if, in a number of causes ordained to one another, the first be removed, the others must, of necessity, be removed also. Now, the first of all causes is the final cause. (Q1, a2, corpus)

We can first look at a series of acts that do not terminate in our ultimate end, which is perfect union with God, but some temporal goal. For example, newlyweds whose vision of life together culminates in a home and family. The “thought balloon” above the bride’s and groom’s heads standing at the altar would contain a nice, modest house, a white picket fence, and four children playing in the yard. This is a good and worthy (temporal) goal. St. Thomas’s “number of causes ordained to one another,” the first of which would be the final cause; would go something like this in our example. The first of all causes, the final cause is the realization of the thought balloon. The cause of all their planning, the final cause, in other words, is the house, picket fence, and four children. Secondary causes, ordained to one another, all ordered to the final cause, would be things such as applying to various institutions applicable to education (or to get a good job), putting away money for a down payment, budgeting spending, and, by way of natural family planning, spacing out family pregnancies toward a desired family size, in this case four children. All of these now are “a number of causes ordained to one another,” according to St. Thomas’s assertion. Now, “if the first be removed,” St. Thomas says, “the others must, of necessity, be removed.” The “first” cause in our example, first in the sequence of intention, last in the sequence of accomplishment, is the actualization of the thought balloon (house and family). If that be removed, the others, the planning, job, savings, of necessity are removed. In other words, if the newlyweds were to say, somewhere along the way, “We really don’t want [house, fence, family],” all other efforts lose their purpose (cause).

St. Thomas, on the other hand, is speaking with ultimate happiness in mind. Union with God in eternal life (salvation) is our ultimate happiness and there is much to be done to attain God’s promise. Eternal life with God in the grander thought balloon, is the final cause of living a moral life; responding to grace in making good decisions are the “number of causes ordained to one another,” all of which are ordained to that final cause. Even with our newlyweds, home and family become a secondary cause (purpose) ordered to the best possibility of attaining the ultimate final cause, which is being perfected in God. If we (i.e., society) remove that final cause, in removing God from the equation, all other goals and achievements fall by the wayside in regards to providing happiness or ultimate flourishing. Living a moral, good life in itself, therefore, cannot be the fulfillment of human existence. An atheistic moral life has no final (eternal) cause; therefore, other than affectivity within community, it has no purpose or ultimate goal to align the moral acts toward. A homeless person of faith can set his hopes on the promises of Jesus Christ and ultimately find his home in God. An atheist, good, bad, or indifferent, is ultimately homeless because he has no place to go; no ultimate (metaphysical) end. We will return to the idea of secondary cause later, when we consider St. Thomas’s questions (QQ3–4) “What is happiness?” and “What things are required for man’s happiness.” But first we should consider what Thomas has to say about the species of human acts, what makes a moral act good or bad.

Specification of a Human Act — What Makes an Act Good or Bad

Whether the act is morally good or bad depends on the object of the act, the object desired.

St. Thomas begins to answer this question of specification by defining movement toward the object. Movement toward an object Thomas divides into two categories: passion and action.

Now an action is voluntary [deliberate] in one of two ways: first, because it is commanded by the will, e.g. to walk, or to speak; secondly, because it is elicited by the will, for instance the very act of willing. . . . (a1, rep 2)

. . . Nevertheless it must be observed that a thing tends to an end, by its action or movement, in two ways: first, as a thing, moving itself to the end, as man [acting deliberately]; secondly, as a thing moved by another to the end, as an arrow [by an archer]. . . . Therefore those things that are possessed by reason [in the first case], move themselves to an end. . . . (a2, corpus)

These two assertions are linked by the two words “voluntary” and “movement.” If he then adds a third assertion, moving toward our understanding of specification, we first notice an interesting concept in Thomas’s sub-division of “movement.”

For since movements [moral acts] are, in a way, divided into action and passion, each of these receives its species from an act; action indeed from the act which is the principle of acting, and passion from the act which is the terminus of the movement. (a3, corpus; emphasis added)

Moral acts, voluntary movement, can be either a movement that is action or a movement that is passion. Wait a minute! How can a passion be a movement, or considered in the same moral category as action? To see this clearly, first we have to go back to the first assertion in this sequence:

Now an action is voluntary [deliberate] in one of two ways: first, because it is commanded by the will, e.g. to walk, or to speak; secondly, because it is elicited by the will, for instance the very act of willing. (a1, rep 2)

A voluntary action is either commanded by the will or elicited by the will. Here action is used where the previous assertion uses movement, rather than the action as a sub-category of movement. With that in mind, a movement that is commanded by the will, e.g. to walk, is an action movement. On the other hand, a movement that is elicited by the will is a passion movement. To understand where Thomas is going with this, a final excerpt may shed some light on this sub-division of moral movement. Prior to dividing moral movements into action and passion, and in the same grammatical paragraph, Thomas says this:

Each thing receives its [moral] species [as good or bad] in respect to act and not in respect of potentiality. (a3, corpus)

Here Thomas has compressed both sub-categories (action and passion) into the singularity of act. An action movement is an “action act;” a passion movement is a “passion act.” We have to look closely at the two previous excerpts to interpolate Thomas’s vocabulary.

Now, our first reaction might be that “potentiality” seems related to or even equated with “passion,” and if so, and if a moral act does not receive its species from “potentiality,” how can St. Thomas say that “passion” can be a moral movement (act) which can be assigned a species (good or bad)? The key is that “potentiality” and “passion” are not related or equated in respect to moral judgement. The fact is that passion as a moral act has moved out of potentiality into movement, even prior to it moving into action.

Here’s how we understand this. If the agent observes that something is desirable, there is first the opportunity for deliberation. Let’s go back to our cake-and-ice-cream lunch. At the moment of passing an ice cream shop or even thinking of ice cream and cake, the moment is still in potentiality. This potentiality must then cross the bridge of deliberation before it becomes a moral movement/act. Whether the bridge of deliberation leads to the ice cream shop or the veggie burger counter, desire has been translated into movement by the formulation of a plan or means to obtain what is desired or what is good; in either case, planning has now transformed potentiality into a moral movement/act of the category of passion. In Thomas’s terms, one or the other (i.e., the result of the deliberation) has been elicited by the will. The moral movement of passion is the inclusion of planning; do I have enough money for the food I have decided on, do I go to that vendor or another (for the same food choice), etc. The moral movement remains in the category of passion until the transaction with the food vendor commences, then the movement of passion becomes the movement of action (remembering that both, as movements, are acts). In either case, whether the passion transitions to action, a moral judgement (the assignment of species good or bad) can be made. If when you get to the head of the line and the food vendor has run out of the food we deliberated to purchase, and a transaction never occurs, and therefore the movement never transitions from passion to action, the moral judgement (assignment of species), however, is valid nonetheless. Furthermore, it matters not that a second food choice was involved. Following the line of ice cream and cake alone, for example, to distinguish between potentiality and passion, the lower faculties of appetite, as well as the noble intellect and will, together observe that ice cream and cake would be delicious, this is still yet in potentiality. To make this an “aha” moment, this is what we call temptation. There is nothing at this point to which a moral judgement can assigned. Once we begin to determine the means to attain that which is desired, we have given in to temptation and began the movement, the first stage of which is passion. This should call to mind Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount discourse on the fulfillment of the Decalogue, particularly the most familiar being the Sixth Commandment:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery,” but I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Mt 5:27–28)

The scary part is that it seems that simply observing the sensuality of a woman is breaking the Sixth Commandment. The key here is the words “with lust,” which implies a transition from observance (i.e., temptation) to pursuit; from potentiality to passion, whether or not this movement culminates in action. The simple observance of sensuality is not an act of either category.

Conclusion (of Part I)

In conclusion of this Part I, we can say that we have breached the fundamentals of moral theology. Even before going on to understand virtue as the web of moral value and the stepping stones to happiness, we here lay the foundation which is the natural pursuit of happiness. We may already be able to see the value of making prudent decisions about what we ought to do; to do the good even when the good of the act is not directly beneficial to me, the person acting. To seek out grace through friendship with God, to allow that grace to influence our deliberations in a way that the intellect and will work together to control the bodily appetites and passions.

Taking time now to go back and ponder the concepts laid out above; to consider the cause (motivation) of our deliberations, the object(s) of our potential acts, with discernment of what is true and good about those objects; we will be prepared to move on to details and specifics of what happiness is and what is required to attain such happiness. Much of this we have already touched upon but, as we can imagine, St. Thomas has much more to say on these matters.

  1. ST I-II, Q1, a5, corpus.
  2. ST I-II, QQ1-5.
  3. This gives us an opportunity to look at Aristotle’s Four Causes, upon which St. Thomas is founding his assertion.

    Aristotle’s causal building blocks give us the foundation of understanding the relation of arguments of cause and effect. The four Aristotelean causes are:

    • Formal Cause — That by which something is to be what it is.
    • Material Cause — That of which a thing is to be made.
    • Efficient Cause — That which brings a thing into existence.
    • Final Cause — That for which a thing is to be brought into existence.

    These definitions may not be the exact words of Aristotle, but close and better understood by example: a chair. The formal cause of a chair is the concept of what a chair is. Whether that be a blueprint, or the idea of a chair in the craftsman’s mind. In Platonic terms, it is the form of chairness. The material cause is simply the material used by the craftsman to make the chair. The efficient cause is the craftsman. The final cause is the purpose for which the chair was made, to sit. With this simplification in mind we can return to Thomas’s reply to the objection. “How can a cause be last?” goes the objection. Here’s how. There is a need to sit. There is the concept of an object to sit on (a chair). Wood is gathered to make the chair. The chair is made. Someone sits on it. The last act in the sequence of execution is to sit. But to sit is first in the sequence of causes, first in the initiation of the sequence of execution. Without the need to sit, the chair would not have been built. Once it was built, it was sat upon.

    I may have gone too far with this note, but it puts St. Thomas’s assertion in perspective of a final cause rather than an efficient cause, as the objector posits it.

Deacon Peter Trahan, MATh About Deacon Peter Trahan, MATh

Ordained in 2008 to the Archdiocese of Miami; MA Theology from The Augustine Institute, Denver, CO; Master Catechist with the Archdiocese and Coordinator of Adult Faith Formation at St. Bonaventure Parish. Member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.