Happiness — A Thomistic Consideration (Part II)

Continued Reflections on Summa Theologiae I-II, Q 1–5

Introduction to Part II

The three pillars of Catholic social teaching, which springs from natural law and human nature, are human dignity, common good, and subsidiarity. Within societal structures with hierarchical poleis (e.g., federal, state, local governance) the things that the lower entity does best for its community has priority of governance over the higher entity. Providing a military, for instance, is best done at the highest, federal, level. On the other hand, education and emergency services, for example, are best done at the lowest level. This is subsidiarity. If we allow the drill-down to get to the level of the individual person, even there, or especially there, subsidiarity holds sway. The human person has the first responsibility to govern itself (morally) and by doing so corresponds to all upward-level governance. It is here, at the level of the human person within community, that we find fertile ground for human flourishing. Human dignity has an inherent empathetic bond; the dignity of this person must always correspond and coexist with the dignity of that person. The responsibility of this empathetic bond is what initiates common good. Together, the bond of human dignity and the common good is what makes for community. When the bond of human dignity is not maintained, the common good is diminished and vice versa. Community is not a collective of individuals who come together to proclaim their individualism and diversity; a community is a collective of individuals who come together to form a common identity, assimilation with common moral values, common institutions and activities, both productive and as leisure. It is this latter collective, the authentic human community, that defines culture. And, in continuance with the previous sequence, when the community is less than authentic, at worst it has no culture and in the very least its culture is fragmented. When this has become the status of the community, there is a need for cultural renewal. What we call for when we call for cultural renewal is a return to the interrelatedness of human dignity, common good, and subsidiarity. It is a call to reinstate the conditions for maximum human flourishing; a return to the pursuit of happiness. Ultimate human flourishing, therefore, is the movement of the community, by the moral collaboration of its persons, toward God by way of its culture.

What Is Happiness (Q3) and How Can It Be Said that God Is the Fulfillment of Man’s Happiness?

In the first article of question three (“What Is Happiness?”), the question is posed: “Whether happiness is something uncreated?” St. Thomas begins by breaking open the primary question and incidentally answers the sub-question;

Our end [happiness] is twofold. First, there is the thing itself which we desire. Secondly, there is the attainment, possession, or enjoyment of the thing desired. In the first sense, then, man’s last end [ultimate happiness] is uncreated good, namely God, Who alone by His infinite goodness can perfectly satisfy man’s will. But in the second way, man’s last end is something created, existing in him, and this is nothing else than the attainment, possession, or enjoyment of the last end. Now the last end is called happiness. If, therefore, we consider man’s happiness in its [final] cause or object, then it is something uncreated; but if we consider it as to the very essence of happiness, then it is something created. (ST.I-II.Q3.a1.corpus)

Here we have to look closely at what Thomas is saying. It is easy to see that God is the extrinsic object of our happiness and the pursuit of friendship with God the intrinsic aspect of our happiness. Of this latter part, however, Thomas refers to it as “the very essence of happiness.” Later he will say that “God is happiness by His Essence.” (a1.rep1) He is not contradicting himself as it may seem at first. Our happiness does not simply consist of the existence of God. Our happiness, as Thomas has posited above, is twofold, (1) the object of our desire and (2) the pursuit, attainment, and enjoyment of that object. Hence, he can say that the essence of our happiness is the intrinsic aspect, without which we cannot be happy. Happiness, in other words, does not just come upon us, we must pursue, attain, and enjoy the object of our desire in order for happiness to be actualized. Furthermore, the existence of the object and the existence of the desire will not actualize happiness; the desire must be moved from potentiality to act.1 This movement is the gradual process of perfecting. We attain varying degrees of happiness, proportionate to the progress of the movement. Ultimately attained and enjoyed, happiness is made perfect in the Beatific Vision. The movement of pursuit, however, can afford us brief and even sustained happiness through an intentional contemplative or spiritual life.

This is the formulation that responds to the second article of question three, “Whether happiness is an operation.” Whether happiness is a process enacted by the person. In the above narrative the point is made that it is indeed the operation, the person acting, that brings the desire and the object together, therefore, as Thomas says, “man’s happiness must of necessity consist in an operation” (Q3.a2.corpus).

In considering the two seemingly contrasting assertions on the essence of happiness; that “God is happiness by His Essence” (Q3.a1.rep1), and that the intrinsic human desire and pursuit-as-action is “the very essence of happiness” (Q3.a1.corpus), Thomas explains that “God is not happy by acquisition or participation of something else, but by His Essence.” In other words, God is happiness. Just as St. John the Evangelist tells us, “God is Love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him” (1 Jn 4:16). God is love, is happiness, is goodness, is beauty, is truth; these are what St. Thomas and others refer to as the attributes of God, while at the same time saying that God is simple, not complex, not made up of various attributes. “Attributes,” however, is the only way to express how God’s essence comes to us according to our receptivity. Our receptivity is our participation in God’s expressive essence. In St. John’s verse sixteen, remaining in love, remaining in God, and God in him; this is participation in God’s essence expressed and received as love. We can say from this that, whoever remains in happiness remains in God and God in him. To remain in love or happiness presupposes attainment through pursuit. Here, then, is the latter of the contrasting assertions of the essence of happiness; the intrinsic desire actualized by act and sustained (remaining in) as process or operation of seeking the object of our desire. God’s essence is Happiness (supreme), our desire, pursuit, and enjoyment of His essence as Happiness, our participation in Him as Happiness, is the essence of our happiness. No contradiction at all; Happiness with a “big H,” and happiness with a “little h.”

So, the primary question of question three — “What Is Happiness?” — is answered by St. Thomas’s twofold concept: man’s happiness consists of God and the active process of man seeking and attaining union with God. “How can it be said that God is the fulfillment of man’s happiness?” is a question that arises in our minds, “between the lines,” so to speak, as we read and learn of St. Thomas’s assertive reasoning. An atheist, for example, might read Thomas’s arguments and say that it is foolish to posit God as the object of our desires when there are so many things of this world that can make us happy! St. Thomas, in fact, takes a leap of faith (seemingly) from saying happiness consists of an object of man’s desire and the pursuit of said object, to saying God is that object and our response to an intrinsic desire is to pursue friendship with God. St. Thomas is surely a man of faith in the highest degree, but his faith is a reasonable, rational faith. So the seeming “leap of faith” is really a rational sequitur.

In replying to objection one of article two, Thomas says this:

Life is [understood] in two senses. First [as] the very being of the living. And thus happiness is not life [simply]: since it has been shown that the being [existence] of man, no matter in what it may consist, is not [what makes for] man’s happiness; for of God alone is it true that His Being is His Happiness. Secondly, life means the operation of the living, by which operation, the principle of life is made actual: thus we speak of active or contemplative life, or of a life of pleasure. And in this sense eternal life is said to be the last end, as is clear from John 17:3: “This is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God.”

The desire for happiness is intrinsic to every human person, including the atheist. The response to that desire is actualized in the pursuit of its object through an active life, a contemplative life or a life of pleasure. In any of these categories of life, the wrong object can be pursued or the correct object (God) can be pursued in the wrong way. Even an atheist may consider immortality to be a good to be pursued, and on the other hand a contemplative life which pursues “oneness with the universe” is mistaken about the object of its desire. A pleasure seeker, of course, is mistaking happiness as pleasure which is only a façade of happiness and always fleeting.

In closing this section suffer me to posit an analogy that ultimately limps and falls apart, but which may give some insight into how it can be said that God is the fulfillment of our desire. Suppose for this moment that one finds within himself a desire to become a snow skier. As a beginner one might not know, as the proficient do, that Aspen Colorado is the ultimate snow skiing experience. The beginner pursues his desire in lesser means, unsatisfactorily, and turns his pursuit to other things similar to snow skiing. He may pursue water skiing or mountain biking, or other things that give the thrill of motion. Yet to no avail, the desire to snow ski remains. Friends tell him of this wonderful place where the ultimate experience of snow skiing can be had. The beginner scoffs them off as trying to impose their own preferences upon him. Besides, he says to his friends, how do I know that such a place exists, can you prove it to me. Well of course this is where my analogy falls apart, the friends simply need to take the beginner to Aspen to prove that it is the fulfillment of his desire. But has the analogy really fallen apart after all.

What Are the Things That Are Required for Happiness? (Q4)

In question two, Things in Which Man’s Happiness Consists, the articles ask whether man’s “happiness consists in . . .” wealth (a1) or honor (a2) or glory (a3) or power (a4) or any good of the body (a5) or any good of the soul (a6) or pleasure (a7) or any created good (a8). To these questions Thomas elaborates a firm “no” answer; in none of these does man’s happiness consist. Question two initially may seem similar to question four: “What are the Things that are Required for [Man’s] Happiness?” Closer consideration would show that question two is asking whether these things are ends in themselves, whereas question four, as we will see, is asking, “What are the things that make up man’s path to (pursuit of) happiness?”

As happens occasionally in the Summa and other of St. Thomas’s writings, words of similar meaning are sometimes used in contrast and sometimes used as synonyms. The example we find in these question on happiness is pleasure and delight. In fact, as we find it in question four, the word in the major question and outline of the articles uses the word pleasure: “Is pleasure required for happiness?” (Q4.a1) Then in the detailed exposition of article one, the question is posited as “Whether delight is required for happiness?” In question two, article six (“Does happiness consist in pleasure?”), Thomas resolves to a negative answer, and it is there in its resolve that we find Thomas’s distinction beyond similarity of pleasure and delight. Having made this distinction clear, he then proceeds in question four to use delight and pleasure interchangeably. Here then is his resolve . . .

In question two, article six, St. Thomas makes clear the distinction between “bodily delights” and “other delights [which] excel them.” We must look closely and carefully at this block quote from the corpus of article six. After making the distinction between “bodily delights” and “other delights,” it seems that Thomas continues in regards to “other delights” even though he continues by saying, “Because in everything . . .” Here everything might be construed to mean both types of delights. However, in the next paragraph of the corpus, he begins with “But bodily pleasures . . .” This implies that “because in everything” in the first paragraph pertains to other, non-bodily delights. Before this gets any more confusing, let’s now look at the block quote.

Note: I have redacted the text for clarity and added emphasis, e.g., italics and my comments in brackets.

Does happiness consist in pleasure?

Thomas says:

I answer that, Because bodily delights are more generally known, “the name of pleasure has been appropriated to them”, although other delights [non-bodily delights] excel them: and yet happiness does not consist in [either of] them. Because in everything, that which pertains to its essence is distinct from its proper accident: thus in man it is one thing that he is a mortal rational animal, and another that he is a risible animal [can be led to laughter]. We must therefore consider that every [non-bodily] delight is a proper accident resulting from happiness, or from some part of happiness; since the reason that a man is delighted is that he has some fitting good, either in reality, or in hope, or at least in memory. Now a fitting good, if indeed it be the perfect good, is precisely man’s happiness: and if it is imperfect, it is a share of happiness, either proximate, or remote, or at least apparent. Therefore it is evident that neither is delight, which results from the perfect good [nor from imperfect good], the very essence of happiness, but something resulting therefrom as its proper accident.

But bodily pleasure cannot result from the perfect good even in that way. For it [bodily pleasure] results from a good apprehended by [the] sense[s], which is a power of the soul, [that] makes use of the body. Now good pertaining to the body, and apprehended by [the] sense[s], cannot be man’s perfect good. For since the rational soul excels the capacity of corporeal matter, that part of the soul which is independent of a corporeal [sense] organ, has a certain infinity in regard to the body and those parts of the soul which are tied down to the body . . . . Consequently it is evident that good which is fitting to the body, and which causes bodily delight through being apprehended by [the] sense[s], is not man’s perfect good, but is quite a trifle as compared with the good of the soul. . . . And therefore bodily pleasure is neither happiness itself, nor a proper accident of happiness. (Q2.a6.corpus)

Okay, now that we are out of the deep water let’s see what we found there. First, this is in regards to the whether wealth, honor, power, etc., and pleasure are what man’s happiness consists of. In this context and in the company of these external worldly goods, pleasure is already being considered as “bodily,” or externally induced through the senses. In clarifying this, Thomas makes the distinction between bodily and other delights. One could say material vs. spiritual delights. The next and more significant point that Thomas makes is that delight, neither material nor spiritual, are in themselves happiness. Delight, particularly spiritual delight, is the result (the accidents) of happiness. Furthermore, since bodily delights result from the lower faculties of the soul (passion and appetite), they are not the accidents of any form of happiness. The essence of happiness is the proper good apprehended; whether the perfect good, God, or some partial good, which be a participation in that of God (e.g., beauty, truth, spiritual goodness).

Thus Thomas concludes: “therefore bodily pleasure is neither happiness itself, nor a proper accident of happiness.”

Whereas spiritual delights, although not happiness itself, are the accidents of happiness.

In this way Thomas moves us from the negation of material or worldly pleasures in question two to question four, which pertains to the Things that are required for happiness. Which is where we are now in this discourse, as a reflection on Thomas’s consideration of happiness rather than a systematic analysis of each of the questions and articles.

The key to question four is Thomas’s explanation (article one) of whether delight (spiritual pleasure) is required for happiness. In this article, Thomas implicitly returns to the theme of question two, article six, as we found it above. To say that spiritual delight is “required” for happiness, however, seemingly implies that delight comes first, then happiness. On contrary, however, it is as though Thomas is saying that delight is the evidence of happiness. Finding that we are in a state of delight, we can know that happiness has occurred. Thomas’s analogy of heat and fire should not be taken as in heat causing fire, but rather that fire produces heat; i.e., happiness produces delight. Let’s look again at Thomas in his own words.

I answer that, One thing may be necessary for another in four ways. First, as a preamble and preparation to it: thus instruction is necessary for science. Secondly, as perfecting it: thus the soul is necessary for the life of the body. Thirdly, as helping it from without: thus friends are necessary for some undertaking. Fourthly, as something attendant on it: thus we might say that heat is necessary for fire. And in this way delight is necessary for happiness. For it is caused by the appetite being at rest in the good attained. Wherefore, since happiness is nothing else but the attainment of the Sovereign Good, it cannot be without concomitant delight. (Q4.a1.corpus)

Looking at each of the four ways “one thing may be necessary for another,” it is not until Thomas says of delight that “it is caused by . . .” that we get the proper ordering of the delight-happiness relation. “For it [delight] is caused by the appetite being at rest in the good attained. Wherefore, since happiness is nothing else but the attainment of the Sovereign Good, it cannot be without concomitant delight.”

From this consideration of question four, we can now bring together much of what has been said up to this point. True and proper happiness is the appropriation of God to the soul. Ultimately this refers to eternal life in the Beatific Vision. However, as Thomas explains in question five, along with many of the spiritual writers of the Church, this can occur partially or imperfectly during earthly life, as God presents himself to us through revelation and spiritual encounter.

This brings to mind certain of Jesus’s words and others.

By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. . . I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. (Jn 15:8–9, 11)

The Advocate, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name — he will teach you everything and remind you of all that [I] told you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. (Jn 14:26–27)

Then there is St. Augustine’s opening exaltation from The Confessions:

Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.2

Conclusion and Recapitulation

Although St. Thomas does not carry this to its actualization in community, it can be assumed that he does so implicitly. This is so because we know he is expounding on the philosopher’s (Aristotle’s) discourse on happiness which, as mentioned previously, is understood as human flourishing. Human flourishing happens in community, although it springs from the subjectivity of personal happiness, personal flourishing. In the course of the cultural renewal project this personal-communal (communio) is fundamental. It so fundamental that without it there can be no authentic culture, and therefore without it there can be no cultural renewal.

Personal happiness in the midst of community, as was said at the outset, is what we call for when we call for cultural renewal. It is, by necessity, a return to the interrelatedness of human dignity, common good, and subsidiarity. It is a call to reinstate the conditions for maximum human flourishing; a return to the pursuit of happiness; personal happiness tempered by the empathetic bond (communio) of human dignity wherein the dignity of this person corresponds and coexists with the dignity of that person. This is what makes for community and therefore human culture. Ultimate human flourishing, it must be said, is the movement of the community, by the moral collaboration of its persons, toward God by way of its culture.

Our heart is restless, O Lord, until it rests in you.

Indeed, our heart is restless . . . In man’s restless pursuit of happiness there are many things that falsely present themselves for our consideration. Only through spiritual discernment, which comes through authentic prayer, can we go beyond the things of this world and find the things that lead us to God, who is our ultimate happiness.

  1. See Part I of this discourse (section: “Specification of a Human Act . . .”) on Thomas’s distinction and division of act as action (principle of the act) or passion (pursuit of the act). Cf. Q1.a3.corpus.
  2. St. Augustine, The Confessions, Oxford World’s Classics, Kindle edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 3.
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.