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Concept of Happiness Vis-À-Vis St. Thomas Aquinas

A Critical Appraisal of the Concept of Happiness Vis-À-Vis St. Thomas Aquinas

1.0                       BACKGROUND OF THE STUDY

No epoch has succeeded as ours has in presenting its knowledge about man in such a fascinating and effective way, or in communicating this knowledge in so rapid and easy a way. Yet, it is true that no epoch has known less than ours what man is. Never has man assumed so problematic an appearance as he has in our times.[1]

          The aforementioned existential truism asserted by Martin Heidegger points to the complexity, dynamism and inexhaustibility of the human person. According to Battista Mondin, man is gifted with a superlative dynamism. This dynamism of man is manifold; biological, emotive, technological, logical etc. Amidst these divergent aspects that constitute man’s complexity, stands an over-arching characteristic which encompasses all these various aspects and via which we can permeate and understand, to some extent, this complex being. This characteristic is: “Action”. Man is a being that acts.

          Various fields study the actions of man to discover, as well as to have a better understanding of what man is. But in the present study, we shall be slanting more towards an ethical analysis of the acts of man: not simply to discover what man is, but more fundamentally, why man is. Why does man act at all? What is the goal of man’s actions? What is its end? That every action is directed towards an end, a goal, a purpose, is quite an indubitable fact. Nothing acts for nothing. To assert that anything acts for nothing, would invariably be to deny it of some aspect of its essence and consequently, to deny its being.

          When speaking of the end of an action, we do not merely mean some immediate goal. For instance, for one who is cooking some food, the immediate end of such action could be to eat or to feed some other. But here, we refer, not to such immediate ends or to, as in the words of Aristotle, ‘ends which themselves serve as means to other ends’, but to ends which are ends in themselves.

Prior to the cosmocentric period of philosophy, man had always tried to discover the purpose of these his multifarious actions and, indeed, of his existence – “the act of all acts”[2]. These inquiries found mythical answers especially as seen in the works of Homer and Hesiod. The cosmocentric period, though not completely neglecting the purpose of man, didn’t really focus interest on such an inquiry. It was with the advent of the sophists, and culminating in the philosophy of Socrates that the question of man’s end was directly dealt with. Socrates through the mouth of Plato, re-directed the attention of philosophy from the world, to man. Continuing from Socrates and Plato who proffered a eudaimonistic end for man, various other philosophers jumped into the debate, presenting their various views on what exactly should constitute the end of man. Some threaded the same path with Socrates; proffering happiness to be the end of man’s actions, some others proffered pleasure, while others: self-realization, virtue etc.

          Although this study upholds the eudaimonistic view, yet within this eudaimonistically inclined philosophy, different philosophers make varied expostulations as to what true happiness should consist in. The fact is that only with an unclouded grasp of the true concept of happiness and in what it consists, can one decipher the means of its attainments. Affirming this, Francis Njoku writes:

By desiring the good, people invariably desire happiness, but since not all know in what happiness consists, then not all desire it, partly because some seek it where it is not. No wonder men have sought it in different imperfect things; hence given inadequate definitions of happiness because they understand it… at the level of natural appetites.[3]

          And so, it is on the background of these contentions that the very sui generis view of Augustine stands out.

          St. Augustine, who was born in the year 354 A.D in North Africa to a father; Patricius and his mother; Monica, was a bright student in his early ages and excelled in the study of Latin classics. During the course of his studies especially at Carthage in 370, he was misled by so many distractions, entertainments and vices often associated with a port city. He lived a thoroughly materialistic life and a life of carnality; leading him to live with a mistress, who gave him an illegitimate son – Adeodatus. Augustine, his immorality notwithstanding, always sought intellectual and spiritual fulfillment. This quest led him in and out of some religious cum philosophical sects including; Manichaeism and the Academics. Augustine finally, influenced by St. Ambrose, by the works of Plato and the neo-platonic writings of Plotinus, as well as by some influential friends, got hold of himself and began a discovery of the truth and the real essence of life.

          The happiness which we wish to analyze and expatiate here is a fruit of Augustine’s apprehension of the truth. It was not just what he produced out of theoretical speculations nor was it simply something revealed to him, but it was also a result of his personal, excruciating confrontation with experience.

1.1                       STATEMENT OF THE PROBLEM

          Man has certain tendencies, desires, longings, and man remains in a state of restlessness and an emptiness until these are satisfied. Now, the object which can satisfy such desires is called the good, and so long as the good is something striven for, it is called an end. Now, that conscious state of satisfaction which a person feels on the fulfillment of his desire by the possession of the good is called happiness.

          And so, the human will (whose object is the good), is not free as regards happiness. Man is so made that he must seek it. For so long as one desires at all, one desires happiness; for we cannot desire something without at the same time, wanting our desire to be fulfilled. Putting this in different words; man is a being, a composite being of both materiality and spirituality. In his material nature, he is a body. In his spiritual nature, he possesses both an intellect and a will. The object of the intellect is truth, while the object of the will is the good. Now, whatever ‘is’, is good; for goodness is a transcendental attribute of being. And so, man always desires the good for ‘it is’, and thus, its attainment is followed by a feeling of satisfaction; happiness. Thus, so long as man has a will and desires, he automatically desires to be happy. In the words of Thomas Aquinas: “… to desire happiness is nothing else than to desire that ones will be satisfied.”[4]

          But not all things possess equal goodness (essence being the measure of existence in an existent according to Luigi Boigiolo). To the extent a thing “is”, is to the extent it is good. As long as a thing has being, it is good, but its goodness is limited to the extent of its existence. So long as a thing is good, it is as well desirable for the good is the object of the will – and thus, can produce some degree of happiness, though, according to its limitation of goodness and of being.

The word ‘happiness’ is used here to reflect all forms of happiness including: those short lived and fleeting ones which some would rather call pleasure or joy, that more lasting one which Aquinas calls the relative perfect happiness and finally, the absolute happiness. These terms would be properly understood as we proceed in this work.

          And so, with the above clarification and explication, the main problem which we would like to treat in this work could be summarized in the following questions: (1) what is the true nature of happiness? (2) Is happiness intrinsic or extrinsic to man? Finally, (3) what is the surest path via which this true and perfect happiness can be attained?

          Thus, with the above questions properly clarified, we would then seek to find out how this happiness can be attained in our present world; for it isn’t enough to make so much noise on the theoretical possibility of happiness while what we experience in our daily existential circumstances run almost completely contrary to it. And so, since it is our belief that true happiness can be attained, we shall in this work attempt to explicitly present, via the thoughts of Augustine, its experiential applicability.

          These are the basic problems we would like to handle in this dissertation, and following basically the line of thought of St. Augustine, though with little contributions from various other scholars including Blaise Paschal, Thomas Aquinas and a host of others.

1.2                              PURPOSE OF THE STUDY

The multiple philosophical expostulations and religious propositions on what happiness is, and in what it consists , have left the man on the street, more confused than convinced of which path exactly he should thread that would win him this happiness. Consequently both those who heed to some of these philosophical cum religious advice, and also those who, heeding to no teaching, follow their blind instincts, most of the time, seek this in objects and via means that would land them nowhere close to true happiness. This has left many to conclude that true happiness is actually elusive and that anyone who searches for it is simply engaged in a wild goose chase. Thus many settle for momentary pleasures, while others retain a pessimistic view of the world and of life in general. Far from the truth, happiness is not an elusive concept; it is on the contrary attainable via very palpable means. The problem is that men search for happiness in the wrong objects.

          And so, our purpose in this dissertation is to, via the ingenious thoughts of St. Augustine, show in what exactly true happiness consists, and to point out explicitly the means of its attainment. It is our hope that at the end of this study, we would come out convinced of the practical possibility of happiness, even in the present misdirected confusion of materiality supremacy. It is our view that happiness is the end of man, and as an end of man, must be attainable; at least enough to satisfy his finitude.


1.3                               SIGNIFICANCE OF THE STUDY

          Having presented the purpose of this study, it is quite palpable that this study is of great significance. Our age, the so called jet age, is one of so much contradiction and confusion. This is an age with staggering technological advancements and structural developments, an age of all forms of humanism and the age of anthropocentrism. Nevertheless, it is paradoxically also the age of man’s deepest anxiety about his identity and his destiny, the age of man’s abasement to previously unsuspected levels, the age of human values trampled on as never before. The rate of the psychological depression and of its ultimate culmination in suicide, of this age, has been on the increase. According to recent statistics in the United States, suicide has been noted to be the third leading cause of death among people of the ages 15-24. Suicide rate for these almost tripled from 1950 – 1990, going from a rate of 4.5 in 1950 to a rate of 13.1 in 1990. Many have given reasons for this paradox of our age. For instance, Conrad W. Baars says it is the result of an “atheistic Humanism”[5] of this age. Whether this or not, the basic fact here is that one leading a happy life, a truly happy life, would never think of committing suicide. It is actually the lack of happiness and thus, a miserable life that ends up in suicide. I strongly believe that since man is a composite being and since his spiritual aspect constitutes his essence, one who bases his interest on the material satiation, disregarding his spirituality cannot but fall into depression and a loss of identity; and this is the predicament of our age; an age of carnality, materialism and an atheistic humanism. For man to be truly happy, he must take due cognizance of not only his body and its material needs, but most importantly, of his intellect and will and their spiritual needs. And so, this is the significance of this study. It shows man that he can still find purpose in life, even in this age; he can still attain true and lasting happiness. Pope John Paul II, at a speech in Puebla Mexico in January 1979 said: “the truth that we owe to man is first and foremost, a truth about man.” And this truth we shall try as much as possible to expose in this work.

          Furthermore, this study would also show that man is not a being of chance. He didn’t come into existence by chance collision of atoms (as the materialists uphold), nor was he the resultant effect of some accident. Man is a being created or brought into existence for a purpose. He is not just all material and governed by the laws of physics as some automata, but he, as a matter of fact, stretches beyond the vegetative cum sensory nature of mere plants and brutes. Man is a transcendental reality. He is a composite of both materiality and spirituality i.e. body and soul. He is gifted beyond other creatures with an intellect and a will, whose objects are both ‘truth’ and ‘the good’ respectively. Thus, man does not just end up with finite, temporary and material ends, but stretches towards the infinite, immaterial and transcendental ends; ‘that which completely satisfies his whole desires.’

1.4                           SCOPE OF THE STUDY

          The issue of happiness is one of the most central points of all ethical studies. Thus, it touches on very many aspects. But due to the brevity demanded by the formality of this thesis, I would limit myself to major philosophers who spoke ingeniously and connectedly on happiness, but with concentrated attention on the works and views of St. Augustine. Though taking due cognizance of time and context of his views, it is our belief that Augustine’s views tear through the barriers of time and context and remains valid, even to the present historical and concrete situation.

          Rather than empty speculation and utopian theorizing, this study involves a more pragmatic presentation which hopefully, would permeate the actual existential reality of happiness.

1.5                                 METHODOLOGY

          In this study, we shall attempt a critical expatiatory method in our analysis of happiness, both from a general perspective and particularly, of the Augustinian philosophy. We intend not only to make an expose of his ethics, but also to present its pragmatic significance and applicability in the concrete life of man, and of his concrete existential situation.

          Our approach is largely critical, analytical and pragmatic (practical). The practical aspect of this study is quite important because it would actually be senseless to present man with unachievable goals. Happiness is not something to be thought, it is something to be lived. This is one unique feature of Augustine’s view on happiness; he doesn’t just end up in speculations, but you can easily infer its practicability.

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[1] M. Heidegger, Kant e il problema della metapisica(Kant and the problem of metaphyics), tr. It.,Silva, Genova1969, pp.275-276;as quoted by B. mondin, philosophical Anthropology,(Rome 1985), p7.

[2] L. Bogliolo, Metaphysics, (Bangalore: Theological Publications, 1987)pg. 5

[3] F.O.C Njoku, studies in ethics, (Lagos: claretian Publications. 2006) p 63.

[4] St. Thomas, Summa Theologica, (New York: Benziger, 1947) pp 1-11.

[5] A. Terruwa and B. Conrads, Psychic wholeness and healing, (New York: Alba House, 1981) pg viii.


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