The world has had as many theories of happiness as there are people that inhabit it with such varying opinions of what it takes to make humans the happiest. Saint Thomas Aquinas explained his view from a theological perspective as compared to a philosophical perspective. He compares wealth, honors, fame, power, bodily good, pleasure, good of the soul, and created good to help decipher the essence of happiness.
On wealth, Saint Thomas Aquinas says “It is impossible for man’s happiness to consist in wealth” (Kreeft 132-133). He goes onto say that natural wealth should serve to replace the natural wants. Peter Kreeft’s analysis of Aquinas’ passages is that greed is a great spiritual danger; that there will never be enough money for the greedy whereas natural wealth can be satiated. According to Psalms 8:8 which is referred to in “The Shorter Summa”, all things are below man and have been made for him. The very thought that man is the reason for all life seems very egocentric which it would seem that Aquinas is actually preaching against.
Honor is not a way to achieve happiness either according to Aquinas. Achieving honor for the sake of being honored is not noble. From the Kreeft interpretation, Aquinas is saying that honor is external whereas happiness is internal. Aquinas states that honor can come from happiness but not the reverse. Many cultures feel that honor is the most important part of a man’s integrity. To live life without seeking honor would be meaningless much in the same line as Objection number 3 (Kreeft 136).
The praise of being well-known, famous, is another example that Aquinas uses to explain what happiness is not. Fame is your name being bandied about, knowing that where ever you are, people will know you. This is probably the easiest to get a mental grasp of, especially in today’s society where famous people are constantly in trouble, into drugs and drinking, and many other forms of self destructive behavior. It would seem that they are being punished in some sort of way for their desire for fame. Not all famous people end up in the swirl of the drain and those who do not end up there must have some other redeeming quality.
Power is the next on Aquinas’ list of unhappiness. Again he states that power is external. Power is evil in the wrong hands and those hands usually hold this power by unethical means. Power in anyone’s hands can end up going astray. The need for power is what drove Hitler and Saddam Hussein to the extremes. The need for power of oil is what has driven President Bush to send thousands of innocent military men and women to the Middle East. Only those in pursuit of power would not agree with Aquinas’s opinion.
In his ramblings of bodily good, Aquinas states that good of the soul is better for happiness than external goods or even goods of the body. His reasoning for this is that “it is with reason that the good of the body is preferred to external goods, which are signified by riches, just as the good of the soul is preferred to all bodily goods” (Kreeft 144). In today’s society it is necessary to have “riches” in order to get by. Though everything should be in moderation, to say that you should not have to have external good in order to be happy would actually make you dead.
In his attack on pleasure, Aquinas states that happiness does not consist of delights. That delights are of the body, not of the soul and are therefore external and as he stated previously stated in the other articles, happiness cannot be gained from external means. As pleasure is surely necessary to be happy, this whole article makes little or no sense. Of all the animals on Earth, man is able to seek pleasure for happiness. This article is contradictory of other articles that put man above all other animals.
In the seventh article, Aquinas states that all happiness should be derived from the soul and consists of goods in the soul. If this were true, why are we here? Shouldn’t we all just be in heaven to begin with and forget the middle ground that we are in.
Aquinas’ views on happiness are to say the least extreme. If all we had for happiness was in the soul, then no one would ever have depression. Happiness can be found in a game of Mad Gab with your friends, when your garden does well this year, when the cookies you made are a hit at the office, the first time your baby smiles at you. Aquinas would argue that these are all external sources of happiness but what is happiness without them?
1) Aquinas, St. Thomas. A Shorter Summa: The essential Philosophical Pasages of St Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. Ed. Peter Kreeft. San Francisco:Ingatius Press, 1993