Happiness as the end of man: Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) and the Beatific vision



1. Why Are We Here?

This life often does not make sense to us. It can seem like a wildly fun ride one moment, and a terrifying roller coaster the next. Undeserving people often seem to have it easy, while “the really good ones” can get thrown to the ground over and over again.

So what gives? I think that a lot of our issues derive from misguided expectations. We (rightly) desire happiness, and it seems like life is kind of pointless if we can’t get it. It’s easy enough for a Christian to say, “Oh but we have heaven to look forward to!”, but in the face of real suffering, especially when it seems pointless, that can ring rather hollow. As has often been pointed out, suffering can prepare us for something better.

But what is this “something better”?

For the answer to this question, we can learn from Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), whose answer was (ultimate) happiness.


2. Thomas Aquinas: “Treatise on Happiness”

Thomas’ magnum opus, Summa Theologica, has three major sections: (1) God and his Creatures, (2) Man’s Happiness in General and Particular Virtues & Vices, and (3) Jesus Christ (who can account for 1 and 2). Sections I-II, q. 1-5 are known collectively as The Treatise on Happiness. Here Thomas deals with the subject of what mankind is “here for.” After this, Thomas considers things in which man’s happiness consists. This will be briefly summarized below.

2.1. Acting Toward “Ends”

“Now the end is the principle in human operations, as the Philosopher states. Therefore it belongs to man to do everything for an end.”  Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)


All people are moved by their will toward some goal. If this were not true, then we would not do one thing rather than another. We could not make choices if we had no means of doing so, nor any standard by which to know which choices to make.

Our wills have an “appetite” for goodness. Whenever we choose to do something, we are always doing so for some good that our mind apprehends. Even if what we do is a bad thing, we still do it for some good that we wish to obtain (e.g. stealing to obtain money). That’s just how the will is, I don’t think any elaboration is necessary here.

“According as their end is worthy of blame or praise so are our deeds worthy of blame or praise.” – Augustine (354–430), De Mor. Eccl. et Manich. ii, 13


Our acts are considered human acts (not just acts of humans – like sleeping or breathing), when they proceed from a deliberate will. The principle of human acts is the end. This is to say that human acts are judged according to their goals. For example, if I drown trying to save a drowning child it is not considered suicide and punished, but rather heroic and rewarded. Thus, whenever we do something we:

  1. have a reason for doing so
  2. that reason is for some good (N.B. – not necessarily a moral good)
  3. our acts are judged based on the reason for doing them (their end)

2.2. An Ultimate “End”

If we try to trace out the good our wills seek, we must realize that it is not possible to proceed indefinitely in the matter of ends. If there were no last end (intent), nothing would be desired, nor would any action have its goal, nor would we ever come to see an act as truly finished.

This is exemplified well when toddlers keep asking why something is the case. At some point you just have to say “because.” It cannot go on ad infinitum, or there would be no reason at all.

Further, this ultimate end must be one. The will cannot be directed to many things at the same time if all of them are ultimate. Chaos would ensue, decisions could not be made. It would be intolerable, for our will’s appetite would never really be satisfied. It may seem like this is the case anyway, but keep reading – this is actually part of the evidence for Thomas’ ultimate conclusion.

Finally, the ultimate good presupposes intermediate goods. Our wills can tend toward these as well, for we desire all under the aspect of good even if it is not the perfect good, and therefore it follows that one need not always be thinking of the last end.

2.3. Identifying the Ultimate End

“All men agree in desiring the last end, which is happiness.” – Augustine (354–430), De Trin. xiii, 3


It might not seem like everyone could agree on an ultimate end. Different people have different desires. However, they all desire those different things for the same reason – the thing in which the last end is realized. In other words – everyone wants what they want because it is good, and possessing good things makes us happy.

Thomas notes that Aristotle (384–322 BC) says, “man’s ultimate happiness consists in his most perfect contemplation.” (Ethic. x) But above this happiness there is still another, which we look forward to in the future. This is perfect happiness, what Thomas calls Beatitude, or the Beatific vision. It is the ultimate perfection of our intellect and will – full knowledge and full goodness, leaving behind no remainder for these appetites to “hunger” for. All other things that people might consider as their ultimate end turn out to be means they use to attempt to attain this true end. Let us then look at these “other things” and finally at the Beatific vision.

External Goods

For example – what about external goods?

  • Wealth? No. Our ultimate happiness cannot consist in material wealth because money is only sought for the sake of acquiring something else,
  • Honour? No. Honour is given to a person because of some excellence that is in the person honoured. Being excellent certainly makes one happy, but if such an excellence is already possessed, honour does not add to it.
  • Fame? No. Man’s happiness cannot consist in human fame or glory because in order to attain it, others must know of that which would give one fame. Because knowledge often fails, human glory is frequently deceptive.  As Boethius (c. 480–524) puts it, “Many owe their renown to the lying reports spread among the people. Can anything be more shameful?” (De Consol, iii).
  • Power? No. It is impossible for ultimate happiness to consist in power because power can be used for both good and evil, and evil, by definition, cannot be the ultimate good.

Happiness is man’s supreme good, it is incompatible with any evil, but all the above (and others alleged ultimate goods) can be found both in good and in evil people. Further, ultimate happiness cannot lack any needful good, but after acquiring any one of the foregoing, one may still lack many goods that are necessary to him. Furthermore, one could lose wealth, honour, fame and power – which causes fear of loss. Thus none can bring ultimate happiness.

Bodily Goods

Perhaps once external goods are eliminated as being truly ultimate, personal goods such as the body itself may be considered. After all, the external goods are mostly means to attaining goods for the body, right?

No, Thomas says this will not do either!

It is impossible for man’s happiness to consist in the goods of the body, because while humans surpasses all other animals in regard to happiness, in bodily goods we are surpassed by many animals. This is not usually considered a problem, for things differ in what is good for them depending on what they are. It would not be considered a good, for example, for a human to wallow in the mud, but it is a good for a pig.

Now, humans are composed of soul and body (some would argue for a trichotomy of body, soul and spirit, which is another discussion altogether, but this dichotomy of soul and body will suffice ad hoc). While the body depends on the soul, the soul does not depend on the body. Thus, the soul has a primacy for us that it does not for animals, which cease to exist upon death. Because bodily delights require a body, and the body is not the highest principle of a human person, no goods for the body can be the human being’s ultimate good.

The Good of the Soul

It might seem like we have now reached the end of our quest for the ultimate end. If not in our own soul, then where? Thomas does not think so, though, because the soul is made for other things. We attain happiness through our souls, but not because of them (otherwise simply being a human would be perfect happiness, as being human requires having a soul). Thus Thomas concludes that, ”happiness is something belonging to the soul; but that which constitutes happiness is something outside the soul.”

Uncreated Goodness

If nothing external, nor internal, to us can be the ultimate good that will make us ultimately happy, then what is left? Those two categories cover all of creation! It must not, then, be something that is created.

Here is Thomas’ step-by-step explanation:

  1. Happiness is the perfect good, which would not be the last end, if something yet remained to be desired.
  2. Now the object of the will, i.e. of man’s appetite, is the universal good; just as the object of the intellect is the universal true.
  3. Hence it is evident that naught can satisfy man’s will, save the universal good.
  4. This is to be found, not in any creature, but in God alone; because every creature has goodness by participation. God is goodness per se.
  5. Therefore, God alone can satisfy the will of man.

3. The Ultimate End: Happiness in God

God alone constitutes man’s happiness. God is the ultimate end of man and, indeed, of all other things. Eternal life is said to be the last end, as is clear from John 17:3: “This is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God.”

Because humans have the two appetites of the intellect and will – truth and goodness – God, who alone is infinite truth and goodness, alone can perfectly satisfy man’s intellect and will. Therefore, if we are to attain our last end and ultimate happiness, we must know and love God, thereby satisfying both the intellect and the will.

But love is the desiring of good as well as unity with the good sought. Man is not perfectly happy, so long as something remains for him to desire and seek, and while on earth we can only attain the finite goods offered to us by creation (one reason why idolatry is so tempting – cf. Romans 1:18-23). But “When He shall appear, we shall be like to Him; and we shall see Him as He is.” (1 John 3:2). Final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence – which we will get in heaven. And this is the Beatific vision.

Thus can Thomas conclude:

“Consequently, for perfect happiness the intellect needs to reach the very Essence of the First Cause. And thus it will have its perfection through union with God as with that object, in which alone man’s happiness consists.” – Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)

Augustine (354–430) stated it so memorably in his Confessions, I.i:

“Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee.”

And lest we forget, the answer was in the Bible all the time:

“And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” – Revelation 21:3-4