St Thomas Aquinas as a Model of Happiness

A Sermon Preached at the Katholische Hochschule ITI on the Feast of St Thomas Aquinas, Trumau, January 28th, 2023

I called upon God, and the spirit of wisdom came upon me: And I preferred her before kingdoms and thrones, and esteemed riches nothing in comparison of her. (Wisdom 7:7-8)

The Greek historian Herodotus recounts that Solon, the lawgiver of Athens, travelled through the world and saw many things. On travelling through Asia Minor, he visited the fabulously wealthy king Croesus of Lydia. Croesus had his servants show off his many treasures to Solon. Then Croesus asked Solon who the happiest man whom Solon has seen in all his travels might be, expecting that Solon will say that none is happier than Croesus himself. Solon, however, answered that Tellus the Athenian was the happiest, for he lived at a time when his city prospered, he had excellent sons and grandsons, and he died at last a glorious death fighting for his city. Rather surprised, Croesus asks him who the second happiest of men might be, expecting to at least get the second prize. But Solon answers that two Argive athletes, the brothers Cleobis and Biton, were the next happiest. These two had achieved a great feat of strength that gave great honor to their mother, she prayed to the gods that they might receive the greatest gift that mortals can receive. The gods heard her prayer and granted her sons the gift of death. Solon explains to Croesus that we should call no man happy until he has reached his end (telos), because only then is he out of reach of the capricious cruelty of the jealous gods. Whoever is lucky enough to escape misfortunes in life, and to prosper and see his city and his relatives prosper, and then die before his blessings can be snatched away from him: this is a happy man.[1]

The greatest of philosophers agree that we should call no man happy until he has reached his end, but by end they do not mean so much his death, as Solon did, but rather his purpose as a human being. To actualize the highest potentials of human nature, to exercise his human faculties, to be excellent in doing what only a human being (of all earthly beings) can do—this is happiness.[2]

Shakespeare’s Hamlet gives us a famous exclamation on the excellence of those human faculties:

What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason? How infinite in faculties, in form and moving, how express and admirable? In action how like an angel? In apprehension, how like a god?[3]

Today we celebrate the Feast of St Thomas Aquinas, Sanctus Thomas holy Thomas, whose commentators also call him Divus Thomas, godlike Thomas,or felix nimiumque felix Thomas happy and most excessively happy Thomas.[4]

I want to reflect on the happiness of Thomas, on Thomas as a model of true happiness, by looking at how he actualized the potentialities of human nature.

“What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason?” Hamlet says. Reason is the definitive, the distinctive, the differentiating faculty of human nature. Later in the play, Hamlet gives the following exhortation to use reason:

What is a man
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.
Sure he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and godlike reason
To fust in us unus’d.[5]

The end of man cannot be found in sleeping and feeding, activities that he shares with the beasts, but only in reasoning, which is a godlike capability given us by God, a capability for large discourse that understands before and after. That is, that understands order.[6]

St Thomas agrees with Hamlet on this account of reason, as he writes:

The Philosopher says… it belongs to the wise to order. The reason for this is that wisdom is the greatest perfection of reason whose property it is to know order.[7]

This noble capability to know order: to know the relations of before and after of many to one beginning or principle.

Order is one of the most remarkable things about St Thomas’s Summa, which begins with a discourse that looks to God, the ultimate beginning the principium of all things. Thomas tells us that God is the one who possesses absolute fullness of being in the complete simplicity of His essence. He tells us that there is nothing lacking in God, no division in Him, no distension of Him, no limit to Him. He is the pelagus infinitum substantiae, the infinite ocean of being, complete perfection. And He possesses this unbounded perfection all at once in the eternal instant of His infinite life. There is no unrealized potential in God; He is pure act. And therefore He is infinitely and completely good. In the unspeakable happiness of the trinitarian life, God’s infinite perfection is known, expressed, loved, and given between three persons who are each the one God.

It is because He is good that God wills to be the principle, the beginning, of a vast multitude of created things, in which His goodness is shared by representation. Thomas traces for us the way in which creatures proceed from God, in beautiful order of grades of being and governance, and then return to Him as the goal and last end of their lives.

“How infinite in faculties…” Hamlet says. The human soul is in a certain manner all things, insofar as it is united to the forms of all things by knowledge. And there are few human souls that have had so broad and deep a grasp on reality as the soul of St Thomas.

“…in form and moving, how express and admirable?” Hamlet continues. Thomas was absolutely clear that the goods of the body are as nothing compared to the goods of the soul. And yet, he himself was of remarkable appearance and bodily strength. Thomas was a Neapolitan, of a people not famous for bodily stature, but his mother was descended from the Norman conquerors of Sicily, and this ancestry was evident. He was tall, broad, strong, and extremely fat (pinguissimus—although he only ate once a day) with a huge head crowned with blonde hair. It is recounted that when he walked in the fields the peasants would abandon their work to stare at the “imposing stature of his body and the beauty of his human features.”[8]  

“In action how like an angel?” Hamlet says. St Thomas was not a man of action, he was a man of contemplation. And yet he had virtues of action, moral virtues, to a remarkable degree. He was especially excellent in the virtue of truth or veracity. Stricter even than St Augustine in rejecting even jocose lies as sinful. But this did not mean that he was without humor. His student Remigius of Florence (later one of Dante’s teachers), recalls how amused St Thomas was at the way the people celebrated St Martin with more festivity than St Peter.[9]

St Thomas was especially like an angel in his purity, his total freedom from any slavery to sensual lust. One effect of St Thomas’s purity was his tranquil attitude toward women. His views on the inferiority of the female sex were typical of a 13th century Aristotelian, but they were free of the aggressive misogyny that we find in one of his teachers.[10] Misogyny, especially in religious circles, often has its origins in frustrations arising from struggles against temptations of the flesh. St Thomas’s mind, unclouded by lust, was tranquil and objective in thinking about women. Moreover, he had many female relatives with whom he had cordial relations. Suffering from exhaustion after his vision on the Feast of St Nicholas 1273, St Thomas was sent to stay with his sister Theodora, Countess of Marsico, and a little later, during his last illness, he stayed with his niece, Francesca, Countess of Ceccano, before moving on to the nearby Cistercian Abbey of Fossanova, since he wanted to die in a monastery, rather than a lay household.[11]

In apprehension, how like a god?” Hamlet says. Thomas was most godlike in His complete concentration on the contemplation of the first truth, for whom our souls thirst and pant like the deer for water. But he was also like a man in this respect. He knew that in this mortal life our contact with the divine is mediated through sensible signs, words, relics, and above all those life-giving signs, the Sacraments. It was above in the Blessed Sacrament, the Sacrament of Sacraments, that Thomas found the greatest encounter with God possible in this life. On his deathbed in Fossanova, he received Viaticum, while making the following confession of his faith in the Blessed Sacrament:

I receive you, price of my soul’s redemption, I receive you, viaticum of my pilgrimage, for love of whom I have studied, watched, labored; I have preached you, I have taught you; never have I said anything against you, and if I have done so it is through ignorance and I do not grow stubborn in my error; if I have taught ill on this sacrament or the others, I submit it to the judgment of the Holy Roman Church, in obedience to which I leave now this life.[12]

Then he went to his end, his telos, in Solon’s sense of death, but his death was the beginning of true and eternal life, the entrance into true and perfect happiness. The prayer with which he ended the Adoro te devote was answered, and we pray that it might through his intercession be answered at some day for us as well:

Jesu, quem velatum nunc aspicio,
Oro, fiat illud quod tam sitio:
Ut te revelata cernens facie,
Visu sim beátus tuæ gloriæ. Amen.

Jesu, whom now veiled, I by faith descry,
What my soul doth thirst for, do not, Lord, deny,
That thy face unveiled, I at last may see,
With the blissful vision blest, my God, of Thee.

[1] Herodotus, Histories, I,30-32.

[2] See: Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I.

[3] Act II, Scene II.

[4] Antoine Massoulié, Divus Thomas sui interpres de divina motione, et libertate creata, tom. 1 (Rome: 1707), Commendatio doctrinae D. Thomae.

[5] Act IV, Scene IV.

[6] See: Duane Berquist, “Wisdom and Reason,” (accessed January 26th, 2023).

[7] Sententia libri Ethicorum, lect. 1.

[8] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. 1, The Person and His Work, trans. Robert Royal (Washington DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2005), p. 279.

[9]Et quomodo rustici propter beneficia pretulerunt beatum Martinum beato Petro apostolo, ut lusorie referebat magister meus frater Thomas de Aquino; in festo enim beati Petri omnia bona videntur deficere que in festo beati Martini inveniuntur habundare.” (Torrell, Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. 1, p. 281).

[10] See: Sr. Prudence Allen, RSM, The Concept of Woman: The Aristotelian Revolution, 750 B.C. – A. D. 1250 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), pp. 361-407.

[11] Torrell, Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. 1, pp. 12, 290-291.

[12] Torrell, Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. 1, p. 293.


3 thoughts on “St Thomas Aquinas as a Model of Happiness

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