Thomism, Happiness, and Selfishness in a post on Republican VP candidate Paul Ryan’s much ridiculed claim to be a follower of St Thomas Aquinas rather than Ayn Rand has linked to an article pointing out that Ayn Rand herself was an admire of the Angelic Doctor. It seems that she admired his epistemology mostly. I haven’t read much Rand, but as far as I can tell her ethics bear a resemblance to a certain influential, though disastrously  wrong, interpretation of St Thomas and Aristotle. Take this passage of “The Objectivist Ethics“:

The basic social principle of the Objectivist ethics is that just as life is an end in itself, so every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others—and, therefore, that man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. To live for his own sake means that the achievement of his own happiness is man’s highest moral purpose.

This does actually look a bit like certain readings of Aristotelian-Thomist eudaimonism. My father recently pointed me to the following passage from Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation:

The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it […] for the object of love is its cause, assuming, according to Aristotle, that all power of the soul is passive and material and active only in receiving something. Thus it is also demonstrated that Aristotle’s philosophy is contrary to theology since in all things it seeks those things which are its own and receives rather than gives something good.

Theodor Dieter has argued that Luther is here rejecting the whole teleological account of the good, and thus the whole synthesis of Greek and Christian Logos central to Patristic and Scholastic theology. For Luther Aristotle is describing sin itself which consists in subordinating everything to oneself: in omnibus quaerit quae sua sunt. Now, if Luther’s reading of Aristotle were correct than one would certainly side with him. And Dieter argues that Luther’s reading is fair; after all, Aristotle says that the final end of man, to which all his actions are ordered, is his good and his happiness. Luther’s reading is totally wrong, but surprisingly common; both among those (from the disciples of Dietrich von Hildebrand to nice Jesuit seminarians) who attack Aristotle and St Thomas for their selfishness, and those (from Albert Jay Nock to Mortimer Adler) who praise them for it. They even cite IaIIae 1,8, that the end is twofold the thing itself in which is found the aspect of good (God Himself), and the use or acquisition of that thing (eternal beatitude) to show that God is really only loved for my happiness. 

The problem with this reading is that it is wrong. So, so wrong. A complete misunderstanding of what St Thomas (and Aristotle) teach. It is worth taking a detailed look at why it’s wrong, even though this will mean some heavy scholastic arguments. I shall shall concentrate on St Thomas, who spells these things out much more than Aristotle. In fact, St Thomas explicitly takes up this objection in IIaIIae 26,3 (“Whether out of charity, man is bound to love God more than himself?”) obj.2:

One loves a thing in so far as it is one’s own good. Now the reason for loving a thing is more loved than the thing itself which is loved for that reason, even as the principles which are the reason for knowing a thing are more known. Therefore man loves himself more than any other good loved by him. Therefore he does not love God more than himself.

Here is St Thomas’s very brief reply:

The part does indeed love the good of the whole, as becomes a part, not however so as to refer the good of the whole to itself, but rather itself to the good of the whole.

What does that mean? The respondeo explains a bit more:

I answer that, The good we receive from God is twofold, the good of nature, and the good of grace. Now the fellowship of natural goods bestowed on us by God is the foundation of natural love, in virtue of which not only man, so long as his nature remains unimpaired, loves God above all things and more than himself, but also every single creature, each in its own way, i.e. either by an intellectual, or by a rational, or by an animal, or at least by a natural love, as stones do, for instance, and other things bereft of knowledge, because each part naturally loves the common good of the whole more than its own particular good. This is evidenced by its operation, since the principal inclination of each part is towards common action conducive to the good of the whole. It may also be seen in civic virtues whereby sometimes the citizens suffer damage even to their own property and persons for the sake of the common good. Wherefore much more is this realized with regard to the friendship of charity which is based on the fellowship of the gifts of grace. Therefore man ought, out of charity, to love God, Who is the common good of all, more than himself: since happiness is in God as in the universal and fountain principle of all who are able to have a share of that happiness.

The key term here is of course the “common good,” and that is why Luther and all moderns have misunderstood this passage. Because, as De Koninck has shown, St Thomas’s teaching on the common good depends on a metaphysics of participation, which Luther and all moderns (in Ockham’s wake) reject.

The good is convertible with being, but there are distinctions between them. St Thomas points out (Ia,5,1,ad1) that a thing is said to “be” simply speaking on account of substance and only in a certain respect on account of accidents. Thus when we say a man “is” 6 ft, “is” does not signify being simply speaking, but rather being in a secondary sense. But with “good” it is just the opposite. A man is not called “good” simply because he exists as a substance, although one can say he is good in a certain sense insofar as all being is good. But one only calls a man simply speaking “good” when he has been perfected by certain accidents (namely the virtues).

So each substance has a natural tendency toward perfecting itself through the good. “The good is that which all things seek, insofar as they seek their own perfection.” The key question is what does “their own perfection” mean? Luther takes it to mean the perfection of the individual as an individual. But this is not at all what St Thomas means. As De Koninck argues at great length, St Thomas means by a things “own perfection” not only its perfection as an individual, but a more universal perfection to which it is ordered. St Thomas writes:

Nature’s operation is self-centered (reflectitur in seipsum) not merely as to what is proper, but much more as to what is common; for everything is inclined to preserve not merely its individuality, but likewise its species. And much more has everything a natural inclination towards what is the absolutely universal good.

De Koninck shows that St Thomas distinguishes four levels of a thing’s “own perfection”. The first level is the good of the individual as individual. This is the good that an animal seeks when it seeks nourishment.

The second level is the good of a thing that belongs to it on account of its species. This is the good that animals seek in reproduction. Is this really a thing’s “own perfection”? Is it not the perfection of another? No says De Koninck:

The animal prefers ‘naturally’, that is to say, in virtue of the inclination which is in it by nature (ratio indita rebus ab arte divina), the good of its species to its singular good. ‘Every singular naturally loves the good of its species more than its singular good.’ [Ia, q. 60, a. 5, ad 1]. That is because the good of the species is a greater good for the singular than its singular good. Therefore, this is not a species which abstracts from individuals and desires its proper good against the natural desire of the individual; it is the singular itself which, by nature, desires the good of the species rather than its singular good. This desire for the common good is in the singular itself.

The context of the text to which De Koninck is here referring is a passage where St Thomas argues that a natural part always loves the whole more than its self. In the corpus of the article St Thomas argues as follows:

Now, in natural things, everything which, as such, naturally belongs to another, is principally, and more strongly inclined to that other to which it belongs, than towards itself. Such a natural tendency is evidenced from things which are moved according to nature: because “according as a thing is moved naturally, it has an inborn aptitude to be thus moved,” as stated in Phys. ii, text. 78. For we observe that the part naturally exposes itself in order to safeguard the whole; as, for instance, the hand is without deliberation exposed to the blow for the whole body’s safety. And since reason copies nature, we find the same inclination among the social virtues; for it behooves the virtuous citizen to expose himself to the danger of death for the public weal of the state; and if man were a natural part of the city, then such inclination would be natural to him. (Ia, q. 60, a. 5, c)

The idea is that a part always prefers the good of the whole to its own good. But “part” seems to have several meanings here. A hand is not a substance, it exists only as a part;  a citizen on the other hand is not only a part– he is also a whole with a good proper to him as a whole substance. “Part” seems to have yet a third meaning when applied to an individual with respect to a species. And yet St Thomas claims that in all of these cases of “part” the good of the whole is more desirable. The real reason for this only becomes clear when one considers the next two levels of of a thing’s “own perfection”.

The third level is the perfection that belongs to a thing “ratione generis” (on account of its genus). What is meant is the good of “equivocal causes”, that is of causes that cause something of a different species from themselves. That is to say, the perfection of an effect is found in its equivocal cause. The highest of these equivocal causes (which is the one that we are most certain of) is where the fourth level of a thing’s “own perfection” is found: namely God Himself, who causes all things, but is entirely other from them. God is each creature’s “own” perfection, his “proper good” „ratione similitudinis analogiae principiatorum ad suum principium“, that is, on account of the similitude that exists between the effects and their cause. Every perfection found in created things is a reflection of the perfection of God, and therefore there is an “analogy” and similitude between God and creatures. This is the true key to understanding why a thing’s “own perfection” is found more in the common good than in its private good.

Creatures are not parts of their Creator, and yet they are ordered to their Creator the way parts are ordered to a whole. The perfection that they have is a participation in His perfection, and therefore St Thomas can consider the love of creatures to the Creator as love of parts for a whole:

Consequently, since God is the universal good, and under this good both man and angel and all creatures are comprised, because every creature in regard to its entire being naturally belongs to God, it follows that from natural love angel and man alike love God before themselves and with a greater love. Otherwise, if either of them loved self more than God, it would follow that natural love would be perverse, and that it would not be perfected but destroyed by charity. (Ibid.)

Each creature “belongs to” God on account of what it is. That means that each creature is for the sake of  God the way a part of a substance is for the sake of the whole substance. St Thomas further explains this in replying to an objection against the thesis that each creature loves God more than itself. The objection points out that each thing only loves those things that it is united to by nature:

Such reasoning holds good of things adequately divided whereof one is not the cause of the existence and goodness of the other; for in such natures each loves itself naturally more than it does the other, inasmuch as it is more one with itself than it is with the other. But where one is the whole cause of the existence and goodness of the other, that one is naturally more loved than self; because, as we said above, each part naturally loves the whole more than itself: and each individual naturally loves the good of the species more than its own individual good. Now God is not only the good of one species, but is absolutely the universal good; hence everything in its own way naturally loves God more than itself. (Ibid. ad 1am)

Created perfection is just a participation in and imitation of the Divine Perfection. As St Thomas explains in  De substantiis separatis, c. 12:

The perfection of each and every effect consists in this, that it is made like to its cause, for that which according to its nature is something generated is then perfect, when it reaches the likeness of its generator. Artifacts are likewise made perfect when they achieve the form of the art.

The perfection that each creature desires consists in an ever greater likeness to the Creator. But that means that the perfection that they desire only ever exists in a secondary way in themselves. It exists fully only in God. Thus to love one’s “own” perfection means to love God more than oneself. Further, it means to love the intrinsic good of the universe, the order of the whole which reflects God’s glory more than any one creature, more than one’s private good. (In practice this means loving the peace of the Church, through which the order of creation is to be restored). And then it means loving the common good of the human species, the common good of the state, the common good of the family, and only then one’s own perfection qua individual. A less selfish philosophy could scarcely be conceived.

16 thoughts on “Thomism, Happiness, and Selfishness

  1. Maritain suggests at the end of his work ‘Moral Philosophy’ that Aristotle, unlike St Thomas, didn’t entirely get free of a sort of ‘transcendental egoism’ in his account of eudaimonia. If that is so, it would be an example of how revelation is in fact necessary for fallen man to reach truth which are de iure naturally knowable.


    • Hmm, I would like to see Maritain’s argument for that. St Thomas reads Ethics I,2 in accordance with his own interpretation of Eudaimonia, and I can’t find anything wrong with his interpretation. There are also other pagans who seem to get this right. Eg. Cicero, De Finibus III,64: Again, they hold that the universe is governed by divine will ; it is a city or state of which both men and gods are members, and each one of us is a part of this universe ; from which it is a natural consequence that we should prefer the common advantage to our own.


  2. This is the passage I had in mind (actually from the end of the section on the Greeks, not from the end of the whole book):-

    “Aristotle, in agreement with Socrates and all the Greeks, identifies the sovereign Good and Happiness. Now Happiness is, so to speak, the subjective side of the Good; in the concept of Happiness the notion of Good refers back to the subject. If there is no good which is desired and loved more than Happiness, it is inevitable that Happiness should be desired and loved for the sake of the subject it beatifies.

    “There are many things, according to Aristotle’s conception of happiness, which man loves and desires for their own sake and for their intrinsic goodness — in a way which transcends his own interest, even when his own interest is involved: contemplated truth, wisdom, virtue, all that which depends on the beautiful-and-good (bonum honestum). It even happens that he loves them more than his own life. But from the moment that they are included in the overall idea of Happiness, subordinated to that idea, and desired as ingredients of Happiness, from the moment that Happiness takes precedence and becomes purely and simply the supreme End, this whole which is Happiness and which is desired and loved as such can only be desired and loved for the sake of the subject whom it perfects. Even in the case of the philosophic contemplation of truth and of things divine, it would be for the good of my own intellect that I loved them if I loved them only as an ingredient of my happiness. Implicitly, the ethics of Happiness was an ethics of the Good. But this fact remains implicit, veiled. He never makes explicit and precise the distinction between the Good and Happiness which, as a matter of fact, his own metaphysical system requires (since for him it is the Thought of Thought attracting to itself the whole universe which constitutes the absolute End, and thus the supreme Good-in-itself), and which is in a very real way operative in his own ethical judgments and in his moral system. As a result, because this distinction between the Good and Happiness is nowhere clearly elucidated in his moral system, Aristotle leaves us in a state of ambiguity. In spite of everything, in the last analysis his moral teaching leaves us enclosed in love of ourselves. It is my good that I love and will in willing and loving Happiness as the supreme Good supremely loved, that is to say the Good taken subjectively, the Good as a perfection of the subject and a resonance in the subject or as a fulfillment of human life. It is a good which I will propter me, for my own sake, for love of myself. It is impossible for Aristotelian ethics to escape from the embrace of the Self, from a kind of transcendental egoism. Within the moral perspective of Happiness as the supreme Good, I cannot deliver myself, I can never be delivered of myself, I can never be freed from my egoistical love of myself. And yet in the end it is just such a deliverance that we long for.”

    the whole chapter is available here:-


    • I disagree with Maritain on this. The problem is not that Aristotle “never makes explicit and precise the distinction between the Good and Happiness”, but rather that Maritain makes the distinction between them too sharp. Happiness and the good are two sides of the same coin; the former is nothing more than the attainment of the later. Thus if the good that one attains is a common good, one’s happiness is not egotistical. “For even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete whether to attain or to preserve; though it is worth while to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states.”


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  10. It seems to me that in the end, right conduct does require self-awareness. That’s why there’s one maxim that epitomizes everything: The Golden Rule. You must understand yourself and understand the things that make you truly happy – by studying yourself, you will know how to treat others.

    Liked by 1 person

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