Beatitude

Aquinas’ ethics begins with and is founded on the end.  He introduces the Secunda Pars of the Summa Theologica with a treatise on man’s last end which he describes as “last in the order of execution but first in the agent’s intention.”  What he means is that the end of an action is the last thing achieved in acting but the reason for acting is nevertheless the end.  Think of spending several hours baking and decorating cookies, which I recently did for Christmas.  The time mixing the dough, rolling it, cutting it into shapes, baking the cookies, and finally, painstakingly decorating them was all motivated by the last thing “in the order of execution of baking cookies,” which is the eating and enjoying of them.  In the same way, Aquinas says that the ultimate end of all actions, which he will define as beatitude ,is the first in the order of intention for all human action.  In other words, all human action is motivated by the desire to be happy.  The reason I baked the cookies at all is because in some way, I thought that baking cookies, and watching my family enjoy eating them, would make me happy.

Another way of stating this is that the final cause is the first in the chain of causes.  We think of what we want to achieve by acting before we act.

Aquinas says that there are two ways to think of the end.  The first is the thing itself in which the end exists (beatitude) and the second is the use or acquisition of that thing.  A glutton’s end is food, and the use of that end consists in the pleasure that comes from eating.  According to Aquinas, the ultimate end of human existence in the first sense is God “who alone by His infinite goodness can perfectly satisfy man’s will.”  In the second sense, the last end for human beings is the enjoyment of this last end which Aquinas calls “beatitude.”

The word beatitude is a difficult word to understand in English.  Sometimes it is translated as “happiness,” but beatitude is a long-lasting happiness, not something that can be easily lost.  “Happiness” does not connote the steadfastness of beatitude.  Sometimes beatitude is translated as “flourishing” which again does not fully convey the full meaning of what Aquinas means by the word (mainly because we don‘t really use the word flourishing in our everyday speech and nobody really knows what it means).  What we can do is identify what beatitude is not.  Aquinas says it is not wealth, honor, fame and glory, power, good of the body, or pleasure.  It is not something external, not something that can be easily lost, not something arbitrary like luck, and not any created good.  Beatitude, according to Aquinas, is not even a good of the soul because if it were, the object of happiness would be human beings, which would mean that human beings could be loved for their own sake, which is contrary to what Christians hold to be true.

Beatitude, is, however, uncreated.  It is not something we have, it is something we do.  Aquinas speaks of beatitudes in two senses–its cause or object and its use.  Beatitude in the first sense (the thing in which beatitude consists) can only be God, and in the second sense, beatitude can only be the enjoyment of God:

“Final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence.”

How does Aquinas back this up?  First, he says that nobody can be perfectly happy as long as there is something left for him to desire.  Nothing on earth leaves us without some other desire to be fulfilled.  It is almost a truism to say that just because a person has everything doesn’t mean that person is happy.

Aquinas’ second observation about happiness is that human beings are constituted to seek out the cause of things.  If we see mold growing on a piece of fruit, we seek out the chain of causes behind this occurrence until we arrive at the ultimate cause.  Our human nature is constituted to seek out the ultimate cause of our happiness.  However, simply knowing that God is behind our happiness is not enough for our intellect; we want to know the essence of God and this is beyond what the human intellect on its own can accomplish.  We need something else, some power outside of ourselves which Aquinas calls grace to elevate our intellect to know God in this way and to open our eyes to see God in this way.

In light of all this, Aquinas thinks that we can never achieve perfect happiness in this life.  We can, however, achieve “imperfect beatitude.”  This imperfect happiness is analogous to perfect happiness.  It is stable and lasting, it doesn’t exist in external goods like money, fame, or power.  Both types of happiness are “operations” or acts, not things.  The major distinction between perfect happiness and imperfect happiness is that perfect happiness consists in contemplating the Divine Essence, which we can’t do on our own, and imperfect happiness consists in the exercise of virtue, which we can do without any external supernatural aid.

Happiness in this life is often unstable and subject to the vicissitudes of fortune.  I knew somebody who had found great happiness–this person this person (we will call him Job) had friends, career success, a comfortable and even  luxurious existence.  People commented on how happy Job seemed going into the holiday season.  About two weeks or so before Christmas, Job suffered a great disaster resulting in the loss of his home and possessions.  Even if Job was a virtuous person and had all the right values and gave thanks to God that he still had his life, Job is still less happy in his homeless, possession-less existence.  Aquinas’ treatment of happiness echoes Jesus saying to “store up treasures in heaven” because only in heaven can we ever find true happiness.  In fact, this is the definition of heaven in Aquinas’ book–total happiness.

Some people say that Aquinas has an otherworldly understanding of happiness that does not allow for any sort of happiness in this life.  I do not believe this is the case.  Aquinas thinks that we can flourish in this life in different ways but he wants to keep us from thinking that this life is it.  No matter what we do, no matter how hard we work and how good we become, there will always be something else that we desire in order to be happy.  Augustine expressed this sentiment in his Confessions when he said, “My heart is restless until it rests in you.”  We always hunger for God as the ultimate Giver of all good things, and until we get him, we stay a little bit hungry.

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3 comments so far

  1. […] the infused moral virtues because human beings are given a supernatural end of eternal happiness (beatitude), which we cannot reach by our own effort, as well as a natural end of happiness in this life, […]

  2. […] We can also know God as the source and the end of our quest for happiness.  All people desire happiness (beatitude) which is found ultimately only in God, a conviction that provides the foundation for Aquinas’ moral theology.  However, this knowledge regarding God as the source of our ultimate happiness is also confused because not all people know what their happiness consists in, some believing it to be riches or fame or pleasure (which I talked about here). […]

  3. […] is considered “news.”  The Time Magazine article is all about happiness, which I talked about here in my article on beatitude as providing the foundation of Aquinas’ ethics.  This article, […]


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