Monday, November 29, 2010

Happiness with Aquinas

"Why are you holding that pencil?" I ask a student.  "To take notes," she replies.  "Why do you take notes?"  "So I can learn better."  "Why do you want to learn these things?"  "To do well on the test."  (*sigh*)  "Why do you want to do well on the test?"  "To pass the class."  "Why do you want to pass the class?"  "To get a degree."  "Why do you want a degree?"  "To make money."  Yes, money always finds its way into this process.  In any case, I cut to the chase: "You wouldn't take up the pencil unless you wanted to take notes, and you wouldn't have taken notes unless you wanted to learn.  Every reason you've given for an action supposes a prior reason.  But that chain of reasoning can't go on forever, or you would never act from will at all.  You must have an ultimate desire.  Philosophers have long acknowledged this ultimate goal as Happiness, although they have not always agreed on what Happiness is.  But whatever it is, no one ever says, 'I want to be happy because I want to use happiness as a means to this other desire.' "

At the beginning of "Part I of the Second Part" (otherwise known as I-II) of Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas, after rehearsing this argument from infinite regression, defines and analyzes Happiness in a beautiful, pleasant, and useful way.  Happiness cannot consist of wealth, honor, fame, or power, he points out, for these are fleeting, do not always relieve care, and can be found in evil men as well as good.  Neither does Happiness for man lie in bodily good; we are more than bodies.  Happiness is held in the soul, but the object of Happiness must be outside the soul, greater than ourselves, nothing less in fact than the Universal Good.  Now we may not understand what the Universal Good is (indeed, we don't), so we miss the mark often through mere ignorance.  We can identify the Universal Good as God, but we still don't know exactly Who He is (although reading the first part of the S. T. will get you a little closer!).  We can have imperfect Happiness here by knowing Him as well as we can know Him, but perfect Happiness requires seeing his Essence and resting or delighting in that vision.

The distinction between the knowledge and the delight is important in Aquinas's view.  The first is an act of the intellect, the second an act of the will.  The first is directed outside ourselves to God; the second is an internal pleasure.  Because God Is Who He Is, Happiness as the Object of our Vision is the same for every blessed soul who sees Him.  But our Happiness, as the internal delight, can differ even in Heaven; the "extent" of our delight can differ depending on, he says, our resurrected bodies and the number of friends we have with which to share it.

Aquinas's distinction between knowing God and delighting in Him seems to solve some riddles.  Where some eastern religions teach that enlightenment or Nirvana annihilates individuality, Christianity has always valued individuality.  But how can we all reach the same goal and remain unique?  Aquinas's view provides a way for unity of Heavenly worship without uniformity of worshipers.  I should like to think that the extent of our delight will differ also depending on our knowledge of what He has saved us from, what tasks He has equipped us for, and the name He writes for each of us on a white stone.

Near the end of this treatise on Happiness, Aquinas says that, while sanctifying grace is given without previous works, works must precede final Happiness.  Man was designed to move toward Happiness; only God has no need to move toward Happiness, for with Him, Being is Happiness.  The temporal move to Happiness requires a right will, so it requires works that flow from that good will.  "God is at work in you both to will and to do his good pleasure."  Ultimately, the best reason to take those notes is that God wants you to study those things.

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