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Analysis of Thomas Aquinas’ Views on Happiness

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Every activity and choices man makes aims at some good. The good in this case is that which all other things are directed to; it can be an activity or a product of some activity which becomes an end in itself. This end is neither determined nor explained due to its intrinsic value and unlimited nature but still remains a focus for man. In this undetermined and unexplained state, a substantial objective goal is derived whose attainability yields happiness. Happiness therefore is that which is sought for as an end; that which sums up an individual’s aim of goodness.

Aquinas developed this idea in a more philosophical and theological way. He emphasized on the meaning of happiness, whether it is attainable in the present life and the conditions for its attainability. I will give the critical and clear detailed explanations on the above central axiom according to Aquinas with a slight consideration of the works of other philosophers but before that I will look on Aquinas’ life, philosophical influences and his writing methodology which lead to the development of this notion.

The life of Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas was born in 1224/5 in the castle of Roccasecca, Italy, his father Landolfo was the count of Aquino. At the age of five, he started his elementary studies under Benedictine monks of Monte Cassino where he remained under their care for several years before Emperor Fredrick II expelled them. He returned to his home after the monks were expelled and went on to study liberal arts at the University of Naples where he was attracted to the order of preachers (Dominicans) which he joined in 1244 despite constant objection and an arrest attempted by his family members who wanted him to be a Benedictine.

Thomas later accompanied Albert the Great to Cologne where the latter was to found a study house for the Dominican Order. And in his close contact with Albert the Great, he gained much familiarities of Aristotelianism which he later utilized as an instrument of analysis in both theological and philosophical ideologies.

In 1252, Thomas went to Paris from Cologne to continue with his studies, he also offered lectures on the scriptures as Baccaulaureus Biblicus and on the sentences of Peter Lompard as Baccaulaureus Sententiarius. This period too, he got his license to teach in the faculty of theology. He travelled to Italy to teach and where he wrote numerous of his works like Summa Contra Gentiles, the De Potentia as well commentaries on Aristotle: For example, those on the physics, the Metaphysics, the Nicomachean Ethics. Later again, he travelled to Naples to erect a Dominican study house. In the continuation of his teaching profession at Naples, Pope Gregory X sent him to Lyons to take part in the council; unfortunately, he died on his way on the 7th March 1274.

The Thomistic Method

Thomas Aquinas’ philosophical stand is considered to be a rethink of Aristotelianism with meaningful influences from Stoicism, Neo-Platonism, Augustianism and Boethianism. His logical thoughts are driven from the speculative and practical philosophies of his predecessors with an imprint of his own intelligence and an influence of religious commitments which elevates reason by faith; uncommonly uniting theological knowledge sharply with a disciplined philosophical mind which fashioned the rethink of Aristotelian terms in a more Christian way.

Meaning of happiness 

Aquinas developed the notion of happiness in his second work of his writing The Summa Theologica which he entirely dedicated to the idea of happiness. Here, he handled systematically the questions of what happiness is, what it consists of and whether it can be obtained in this life. His ultimate answer of the impossibility of perfect happiness (Beatitudo) but a possibility of imperfect happiness (Felicitas) on earth created a divided line between his predecessors; Aristotle and Augustine. Aristotle taught and believed that a complete happiness is possible in our lifetime while Augustine taught that happiness is impossible because humans live thrive for a heavenly afterlife.

Summa Theologica as the title suggests, is a theological work whose goal is the knowledge of God; God as an end, perfect happiness. In this consideration, Aquinas accords man who conforms to the rational principle a Central position, a position where goodness and performance seems to reside and where activities are determined rather than rational elements merely possessed. This will power or rationality is the driving mechanism that directs man towards happiness. Happiness therefore, is of the one who acts proper to his function, of one who possesses the reasoning power and exercises the psyche’s capacities with accordance of practical reason.

According to Aquinas, not all that man does is rationally defined (done voluntarily and with deliberation) but all he does (actions and intentions), are driven towards a perfect specified end. This specified end i.e. Health in the case of medicine, house in the case of building and happiness in the case of virtuous living are first in the order of intention but last in the order of execution: executed distinctively and as a result of knowledge towards the inclined end. The execution act therefore, makes happiness an intelligible activity that leads to the realization of God’s essence. 

Aquinas deploys other further possibilities of what happiness may consists of; in his possibilities, he asks whether happiness lies in riches, honor, fame, power, pleasure, bodily endowment or in any endowment of the soul. He despised all this as they are means to man’s self-realization and sighs that cannot be constituted to perfect finality and completion since their orientations are into becoming something else rather than happiness. What is happiness then?

In a practical human understanding, a person favored by fortune, good luck or who is well off is considered to be a happy person. ‘Fortune’, ‘good luck’ and ‘well off’ are perceived to be the basic meaning of the word happy which cuts across in most other languages like Eudaimonia in Greek which means to be prosperous or to be well off. But in as much one is considered to be prosperous or well off, he cannot be said to be happy as Aquinas speaks of happiness. According to him, happiness is an activity of the human person who is conditioned in the present life connecting himself to God.

Happiness as an activity is constantly interrupted because of the manmade principles which are intellectually oriented towards the present life. In this life, the heaven above is forgotten while the heaven below becomes an imaginative reality of passing happiness which comes along with hardship and disaster cutting short the heart’s enduring happiness. But despite this existing challenge, a new life is begun which delights the will giving it a rest at the end.

In his Summa Contra Gentiles, Aquinas took a position similar to St. Augustine, that perfect happiness is not possible in this life. He says; “final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence.”[footnoteRef:14] Thus agreeing with the assurance of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13: 12 “For now we see in the mirror dimly, but then face to face” but despite the humans considerations of several ends which remain fully unsatisfied, God gives us a perfect knowledge of knowing him which is hidden in our mortal bodies. This true knowledge of seeing him directly is only possible by a complete purification of our souls which makes us gain satisfactory of our every desire. 

Unlike St. Augustine, Aquinas maintains that a kind of happiness can be achieved in this life what he calls “Imperfect happiness”. In this, he fully accepts the influence of Aristotle who argued that happiness depends on the actualization of one’s faculties; the faculty of reason. For Aquinas, the only way one actualizes the faculty of reason is by the proportionality of his level of truth. Truth to him is the faculty of reason that happiness lies at. He writes:

Indeed, this is the only operation of man which is proper to him, and in it he shares nothing in common with the other animals. Also, it is not directed to any other end since the contemplation of truth is sought for its own sake. In addition, in this operation man is united to higher beings (substance) by knowing them in some way. Since this is the only human operation that is carried out both by God and by the separate substances (angels).

Aquinas says strongly that true happiness can only be found in the knowledge of God which is a beatific vision to the person resulting from delight. He still disposes the will as I had mentioned early as a necessary tool in attaining happiness. The intellectual power and the will are the conditions necessary for one to attain happiness.


According to Aquinas, all men in general seek happiness, since all they desire is satisfied. Though the desires vary in intensity and functionality, they both seek satisfaction that lead to happiness. Happiness to him is a last subjective state that exists only in an intellectual being and which is directed to the attainability of absolute perfection. He concludes that, nothing below man can make him happy but only something above can do so, and this is God. Therefore, to him, God is required to satisfy all man’s desires since all perfections are found in the infinite.

However, Aquinas’ insistence of perfect happiness is questionable because it is possible to purify our souls in this lifetime and possess that ultimate reality, the oneness with God. The saints and prophets throughout history had once experienced this oneness; they had thus attained that perfect happiness. Aquinas himself is a perfect example for he had achieved that beatific vision of God, a vision so strong that he rendered his works and words obsolete.

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