Jacques Maritain Center : A First Glance at St. Thomas Aquinas / by Ralph McInerny


Somewhere in a passage I can no longer find Chesterton wrote that the young man knocking on the brothel door is looking for God. It sticks in the mind. It surprises with its rightness. Every human agent is seeking the good, however mistakenly, but we all want what is really good. God is our real good. So no matter what we are doing we are seeking Him.

Implicitly, of course. The young man's query when the door is opened is scarcely theological.

The ultimate end is not sought instead of other ends; it can only be sought through them.

Let us end by returning to the matter of the relationship between philosophical and Christian morality.

The Supernatural

The Christian faith in the fall and redemption of man is not that Christ's sacrifice restored us to the condition lost by original Sin. The good news is better than that. We are now, thanks to Christ's grace, called to a good that far exceeds our nature, one we could not dream of let alone attain, save by his saving grace. Our last state is far better than it would have been if our first parents had not sinned. This is why Augustine was emboldened to call Original Sin a happy fault.

This destiny and the special means needed to achieve our new and gratuitous end is the basis of talk about the supernatural order. It does not refer to things above man, angels, say, but to a human capacity with the aid of grace to surpass what belongs to our nature. The supernatural order does not destroy the natural, but presupposes and builds upon it. Hence the prefix. It is this central teaching of Thomas that is the basis for exchange between believers and nonbelievers, between Christians and pagans, between Thomas and Aristotle.

For the Christian, the natural remains part of the package though by and large believers don't sort out from what they think they ought do things that anyone, believer or not, ought to do. They will be more prompted to this if they live in a society containing large numbers of nonbelievers. The sorting can easily be faulty, and it may be that Christians will lay on others obligations which only follow from accepting as true what Christ has taught. Non-Christians, however, in attempting to lay out a "natural ethics" will make mistakes of a parallel kind, unwittingly including precepts only a Christian is likely to acknowledge.

What could be better than to have the effort of a pagan to lay out what the human good is and what is needed to attain it? Thomas did not have to imagine what an ethics apart from religious belief would look like. He could read the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle. And he did. He even wrote an interlinear commentary on it, probably at the same time he was writing the moral part of the Summa theologiae.

How does what Aristotle said about the ultimate end of human striving compare with what Thomas said about the same subject?

Imperfect Felicity

After his conversion, Graham Greene wrote several essays on Henry James in which he discovers hitherto overlooked interests of the Master in religious matters. What he finds is really there but it is doubtful that a reader lacking Greene's suddenly sensitive antennae would have picked them up. There is something similar in Thomas's noting that Aristotle admits the happiness he sketches falls short of the notion of happiness.

What is to come is unclear to us, and we hold that felicity is an end in every way complete. If this is so, we shall call happy those among the living who are and will be as described -- but happy as men are happy (1101a17-21)

Happy as men are happy. That is what Thomas seizes upon as a recognition by Aristotle that the felicity achievable by living men is imperfect. For one thing, it can be lost. It is subject to forces over which we have no control. Aristotle has set down the characteristics of happiness and they can only be imperfectly achieved in this life.

That is what the text says, as any reader can see, but it took a Thomas to find there the recognition by Aristotle that whatever happiness we achieve in this life falls short of the ideal. Our perfection or fulfillment, insofar as we can attain it, is imperfect, unfulfilled.

Why is this important? Because the believer's claim that the natural happiness Aristotle speaks of is only part of a larger package was in some implicit way recognized by the great pagan philosopher himself.

This is not, of course, to say that Aristotle had an intimation of the beatific vision and thereby had a measure according to which what he was describing as happiness fell short. When Aristotle defined happiness as a state that is final and self-sufficient and cannot be lost when gained, he was spelling out what he took to be implicit in all human striving. It is as if the logic of our actions reveals that our acts cannot perfectly achieve their aim. That is all. It is from Thomas's perspective that this passage takes on a deeper significance.

How Many Ultimate Ends?

By now you may wonder what is going on. An ultimate end, one would think, is last and final, the end of the chain, that after which nothing more is needed. But haven't I been suggesting that for Thomas there is another end beyond the ultimate end of Aristotle? Has Aristotle's ultimate end now become a penultimate end?

Remember Thomas's distinction between the definition of ultimate end, on the one hand, and what saves that definition on the other. The first is formal: the complete and fulfilling good which is sought at least implicitly in any particular action with its quite particular end or good. As to what actually fills the bill, there is disagreement among men. Some think the ultimate point of action is power, other pleasure, other wealth. The assumption is that they are agreed on the definition of ultimate end but differ on what saves the definition.

Presumably Aristotle wants to argue on behalf of what truly does save the definition of ultimate end. He does. It is an activity of soul in accord with perfect virtue. It is useful to know how he arrived at that.

If we ask when a man is a good man, the question is like asking when a car is a good car or a knife is a good knife or even when a golfer is a good golfer. A car is a good one if it fulfills its function, so is a knife and a golfer. It is when you know what something is for that you have a basis for saying whether or not it is a good one.

Now if man is for something, if he has what Aristotle calls a function, we will have a basis for saying when a man is a good man. How go about identifying the human function? Well, when we ask if the knife is a good one, we ask how it cuts, not whether it is a good paperweight. In other words, we ask about the knife as a knife. What is said of man as man? What is the specifically human activity?

There are some activities which are true of men, but not as men; they aren't peculiar to human beings. Fifi grows and digests, but so do plants and animals. She sees and hears, but beasts do that. To hear well is a good thing but not a basis for saying someone is a good person. It is reason that is peculiar to man, that is the activity that belongs to man as a man, and not to man as a thing or as a plant or an animal. So we are home free. To perform his distinctive activity well will make a man a good man.

The term 'virtue' is used to express the good performance of an activity. To do something well is to do it virtuously. The human good then is to act rationally well.

The function of a knife may seem simple enough, particularly if we specify carving knife or hunting knife or fish knife, but man's function is as complicated as that of the Swiss Army knife. Rational activity can mean the activity of reason itself, or other acts insofar as they come under the control of reason. It turns out that the phrase covers an ordered set. And the human good thus consists of a plurality of virtues. Hierarchically arranged. Aristotle teaches that contemplation, performing well the highest activity of theoretical reasoning, is the virtue for the sake of which all the other virtues should be sought.

Another short form of a long story, but it gives us some sense of how Aristotle speaks of what it is that saves the notion of ultimate end. And it is this, Thomas says, that Aristotle himself recognizes as fulfilling the definition only imperfectly. But it is the kind of happiness attainable by living men.

If this is imperfect happiness, what is perfect happiness? Union with God in the next life, a happiness which is complete and can never be lost once had. This is man's ultimate end, the beatific vision.

So: is Aristotle's ultimate end less than the ultimate end? Yes and no. it does not express what we are now called to, but how could it? Aristotle would have needed revelation to know what we are destined for a perfect happiness beyond this life. But what he has defined is ultimate this side of the grave for natural man.

This must be qualified, however, since it is possible to begin eternal life in this one. But as Aristotle said of the happiness of the living, as long as one is alive he can lose the state of grace. In this life, happiness is imperfect.

Once again, the upshot of Thomas's effort is to find a complementarity between philosophy and the faith. Not just any philosophy. His predilection is for the philosophy of Aristotle, though as we mentioned earlier his interest did not stop there.

St. Thomas was not, of course, surprised that there should be no conflict between reason and faith, but he marveled at the achievements of Aristotelian philosophy. He himself was primarily a theologian but he knew who the philosopher was.


Is Happiness Achievable?

Can man acquire happiness through his natural powers? I answer that the imperfect happiness which can be had in this life can be acquired by man through his natural powers, in the same way that virtue can, in whose activity such happiness consists. But the perfect happiness of man consists in the vision of the divine essence. To see God in His essence is not only beyond human nature but beyond all creatures, as we showed in Part One. The natural knowledge of any creature is according to the manner of its substance, as the Book of Causes says of Intelligence, "that it knows both what is above it and what is below it according to the mode of it substance." Any knowledge which is according to the mode of created substance falls short of vision of the divine essence, which infinitely exceeds all created substance. Hence neither man nor any other creature can achieve ultimate happiness through its own powers.

-- Summa theologiae, First Part of Second Part, Question 5, article 5

Do All Men Desire Happiness?

Happiness can be understood in two ways. First, according to the common understanding of happiness, and in this sense it is necessary that every man desire happiness. The common understanding of happiness is that it is the perfect good. Since good is the object of will, the perfect good of anything is that which completely satisfies its will. Hence to desire happiness is nothing other than wanting one's will to be satisfied. Which anybody wants.

Second, we can speak of happiness in a special understanding with respect to that in which happiness consists. But so considered not everyone knows happiness because they do not know what fits the common understanding. Consequently, in this respect, not all will it.

-- Summan theologiae. First Part of Second Part, Question 5, article 8

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