Textual Analysis and Critique: Beatitude and Evil in Summa Theologiae by Thomas Aquinas

The concept of moral philosophy ad preponed by Thomas Aquinas brings together aspects of Christian theology and those of Aristotelian eudemonism. Aquinas affirms Aristotle’s thinking that acts are good or bad depending on whether they promote or undermine the ability of human beings to achieve a proper end or the final aims which all human beings wish to reach. Aquinas brings in the Christian Theology part where he equates the Aristotle’s eudemonia to beatitude. Beatitude is the supernatural union with the supreme being.   

Aquinas claims that “For since beatitude is a ‘perfect and sufficient good’, it excludes every evil and fulfills every desire (Aquinas 43).” This means that evil is perfectly excluded where people go beyond their human capacities. For Aquinas, absolute perfection or happiness is achieved where people realize beatitude. However, beatitude cannot be achieved within the natural capacities. Aristotle’s ideas come in when connecting human beings to beatitude. In order to connect with the supreme being, people need to have virtues. Apart from these virtues, one requires God to transform their nature to perfect. Human beings are imperfect by default because of their link with sin. Aquinas believes that all human beings inherited sin from Adam, their first parent. However, the whole nature of a person is not corrupted by this sin. Sin only diminishes the righteousness and puts the will of human beings at enmity with God (Emerson xx). It is through grace that human beings acquire divine virtues and gifts that eventually result in beatitude. The statement above by Aquinas effectively combines his two foundations of knowledge: Christian Philosophy and Aristotle’s eudemonism.

Aquinas states that in life, it is not possible to exclude all the evil. This can be interpreted to mean that it is not possible that a person can enjoy beatitude all their life. According to Aquinas, the eternal law derived from ST IaIIae 93.3 states that the ability to provide order to all created things is provided by the supreme being: God. This ability is also referred to as the light of natural reason. God made a decision to ordain human beings by implanting in them an inclination towards goodness and general knowledge. These two aspects are aimed at helping human beings achieve final happiness. Aquinas believes that the eternal law is woven into the very fabric of the nature of human beings. It is what gives people the desire to obtain the goods that create their willingness and means to prosper into better, moral people.

By stating that beatitude is the perfect exclusion of evil and that evil is not excludable in the lives of humans, Aquinas implies that it is impossible to attain permanent beatitude. This necessitates that philosophers look at things that delink human beings to beatitude and the power that the individuals have over them. According to Aquinas, human beings reason according to what is referred to as “first principles.” First principles are made up of aspects like the law of excluded middle and the principle of non-contradiction. These principles are not acquired from demonstrations and neither can they be arrived at through argument and /or reasoning (Emerson 170). The human reason relies on the first principles to determine the truth. Therefore, a person has no capacity to reason out whether the principles are true or not. This may mean that beatitude is completely beyond the reach of the human beings and they only enjoy it if the will of the supreme being allows them to.

This text does not present a very convincing argument on the control that the humans have on evil and the desire to do good.  Aquinas notes that life is subject to many evils which cannot be avoided (Aquinas 43). However, he also argues that all human behavior depends on the precept that evil should be avoided at all times and good should be done. According to Aquinas, the latter precept cannot be avoided. It defines how practical action and thought are coordinated in all creatures, including human beings. Human beings have a natural inclination towards certain goods. Aquinas agrees with what is provided in ST IaIIae 94.2 as goods for which people have active inclination for: civil social order, knowledge, life and procreation. Preference for the rest of the goods relating to the natural law depends on their contribution towards the rational perfection of human beings. The introduction of rationality complicates Aquinas argument. It introduces questions such as whether the perception of the goods based on the rationality of human beings is subjective or objective.

Human beings construe the positive goods of life using their minds. The argument on whether an individual is rational is not guided by any specific rules or principles. Often, individuals interpret the naturally desired goods in a manner that leads to self-interest, excessive passion, perfection and unreasonable fear. In such instances, the manner in which they construe the goods may be distorted when compared to the common standards (Emerson 170). For instance, sexual pleasure is regarded as a naturally desired good. However, excessive desire for sexual pleasure distorts a person’s understanding of the role that it should play towards doing good. Self-protection is also a good that all human beings value as positive. However, unreasonable fear can lead people to act in a manner that undermines their safety and that of other people. For instance, suspicion that other countries have nuclear weapons has always led to feuds and invasions that have resulted in loss of lives and property. Therefore, making of competent judgements is key in helping human beings draw lines between good and evil. Competent judgements can only be made where the individuals have both intellectual and moral virtues. Moral and intellectual deficiencies inhibit rational perfection and prevents individuals from achieving the final end.

In the text, Aquinas claims that the desire for the good cannot be fully satisfied. He notes that every person wishes that the good they possess should be permanent (Aquinas 43). Aquinas’ depiction of full happiness differs from that of Aristotle. However, Aquinas agrees with Aristotle that virtues are necessary for achieving happiness. According to Aristotle, beings achieve some forms of eudemonia that are permanent. For instance, a plant will move towards life and water with the aim of achieving growth. Once the plant is grown, the situation is permanent and cannot be reversed. From the perspective of Aristotle, happiness, or events tied to it, can be permanent (Sedley 123). For instance, once an individual goes through a curriculum and gains academic credentials, they possess them for the rest of time, even after death.

Aquinas construes end as beatitude, which is a supernatural link with the supreme being. He appreciates that beatitude cannot be solely achieved through virtuous efforts. Aquinas further divides happiness into two: complete and incomplete happiness. Incomplete happiness can be achieved using human abilities. Human beings become more satisfied and happier than they would otherwise be. Perfect happiness is beyond human understanding and abilities (Emerson xx). It is only achieved when a human being links to the supernatural.

Aquinas argument leads to a conclusion that a person’s ability to achieve happiness is limited. Some of the things related to happiness cannot be controlled by man. Aquinas notes “For a man naturally desires that the good he possesses should be permanent…but the goods of the present life are transitory, since even life passes away, despite the fact that we naturally desire it and want it to endure forever; for man naturally recoils from death. Therefore, it is impossible that genuine beatitude should be had in this life (Aquinas 43).” This quote shows that human beings have no control over permanent good. Despite the natural tendency to practice what is good and shun what is evil, individuals do not possess perfect judgement that can help them to always achieve this natural desire. Lack of this perfect judgement also compromises the ability of an individual to establish a permanent relationship with God.

Aquinas philosophy brings together Aristotelian ethics and Christian moral theology. Aristotelian ethics gave less attention to role that judgmental imperfections play in compromising the achievement of happiness. Aristotle felt that human beings had full control of their destiny. The text is in contrary to this argument on the basis that there is no permanency in happiness. Aquinas notes that even life, which is the greatest recipe for happiness, passes away. The general theme in the text is human beings can never attain final or complete happiness in the course of their lives. 

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