Thomas Aquinas’ Views Featured in TIME Magazine

I am delighted with the feature article for the most recent Time Magazine.  I love it when an article substantiating everything Thomas Aquinas said 800 years 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, however, is not so much about ethics but rather, positive psychology, which I also talked about here.

Positive psychologists are interested  not just in what makes us depressed, but also in what makes us happy.  Or as Martin Seligman, the new president of the American Psychological Association, describes the goal of positive psychology: “It wasn’t enough for us (psychologists) to nullify disabling conditions and get to zero. We needed to ask, What are the enabling conditions that make human beings flourish? How do we get from zero to plus five?”  Seligman and others like Edward Diener, Ray Fowler, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi have been pushing scientific studies to determine what makes us happy, but for a Thomist, the conclusions are not news.

Turns out, wealth doesn’t make us happy.  As described by this accompanying Time Magazine article, scientific research indicates that people with above-average incomes are not much happier than others and that loss of wealth is usually only accompanied by a short term loss in happiness, if overal happiness is affected at all.

But Aquinas already said that happiness did not reside in the acquiring of wealth (I-II, Q. 2, art. 1) because wealth is meant to serve something else like the satisfaction of needs.  Even wealth that buys us not just what we need but all the things in the world that we may want does not satisfy our insatiable human appetites, as Aquinas explains:

in the desire for wealth and for whatsoever temporal goods . . . when we already possess them, we despise them, and seek others: which is the sense of Our Lord’s words (John 4:13): “Whosoever drinketh of this water,” by which temporal goods are signified, “shall thirst again.” The reason of this is that we realize more their insufficiency when we possess them: and this very fact shows that they are imperfect, and the sovereign good does not consist therein.

Positive psychologists are also discovering that education, fame, goods of the body, and even pleasure don’t make us happy.  All of Question 2 of the Prima Secundae, however,  is dedicated to proving this exact fact.

Positive psychologists have also discovered that friends are conducive to happiness.  Aquinas derives this notion from Aristotle, making this insight even more ancient:

If we speak of the happiness of this life, the happy man needs friends, as the Philosopher says (Ethic. ix, 9), not, indeed, to make use of them, since he suffices himself; nor to delight in them, since he possesses perfect delight in the operation of virtue; but for the purpose of a good operation, viz. that he may do good to them; that he may delight in seeing them do good; and again that he may be helped by them in his good work. For in order that man may do well, whether in the works of the active life, or in those of the contemplative life, he needs the fellowship of friends (I-II, Q. 4, art. 8 )

Religion also seems to make us  happier, which I talked about here.

But it also turns out that even the happiest people are sad some of the time.  According to Aquinas, this is because the happiness of this life is only imperfect happiness.  True happiness consists only in contemplating the Divine Essence, which is the only sort of happiness that cannot be lost.

Like I say, I am delighted that positive psychology is confirming all of these great Thomistic insights.  As valuable as positive psychology is, however, it can only tell us about imperfect happiness, which by its very nature will always be a little dissatisfying.  Maybe those like Martin Seligman and Edward Diener who are on the quest for happiness will, in their dissatisfaction with what positive psychology concludes, lead others to the theology of Thomas Aquinas which concludes that “final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence” (I-II,  Q. 3, art. 8).

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2 comments so far

  1. erik on

    Great entry. Really shows your abiding interest in psychology as well as Thomism. But beware of too much sarcasm, could mislead people into thinking that you are criticizing psychological research for ignoring Aquinas as an authority, etc….

  2. everydaythomist on

    Looking back on this article, I realize you are right to point out my sarcasm. To clarify, I find positive psychology very useful, and the developments in the field will be important for my own work. My sarcasm was not meant to criticize positive psychology, but rather, the idea that the conclusion “wealth doesn’t make you happy” could be considered news. It’s great that positive psychology is confirming what Aquinas (and so many others) have said before, and if it helps people to realize this fact, then bravo to TIME for featuring an article on it. I still shake my head at people who might be surprised by this.

    In addition to my appreciation for positive psychology, I am also aware of its limits. Thomas’ moral psychology is theological through and through. At one point in the Prima Pars, the prologue to Q. 84, in fact, he says that he will talk only about some powers of the soul, “because the others do not come under the consideration of the theologian.” See my new post on free will to see a more detailed account of how theological (how grace-focused) his moral psychology is.

    Positive psychology and Thomistic moral psychology overlap, but they aren’t the same thing. Positive psychology will be analyzing those features of the soul which do not come under the considerations the theologian and Thomistic theologians will be analyzing grace, which does not come under the consideration of the positive psychologist. But in some matters, the two fields will overlap, and it is my hope that this overlap will lead to a better understanding of human nature and behavior.


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