LinkedIn tracking pixel

The Search for Happiness

The Search for Happiness1

Alberto M. Piedra

All human beings are searching for happiness in this world of ours.  Historically this has always been true but, perhaps, even more so in our modern age when the possibility of acquiring material goods has been facilitated by modern technology and the process of continuous innovation; a process that is continuously making available new products to the consumer.  Nevertheless, I believe it is fair to say that this increased material wealth and prosperity does not seem to satisfy the unlimited desires for happiness that lie innate in the depth of men’s hearts.  Using an economic term, the law of diminishing returns sooner or later sets in, and man realizes that there is still a vacuum in his search for happiness that needs to be filled.  The reason for this is that the desire for pleasure is insatiable.  Experience tells us that It can never be satisfied with material goods only.  

Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher of the fourth century BC, wrote in his Nicomachean Ethics that to pursue pleasure directly is to lose it.  The wise man, he continues, must learn to restrain his desires and seek them with what the French call “le sense de la mesure.2  Otherwise, he will soon become the slave of his appetites.  If the acquisition of material goods does not fulfill man’s appetite for pleasure, what will fill the vacuum in his quest for happiness?  Can it then be said that it can only be filled, even if only partially, by living, as Aristotle claimed, a virtuous life?  Aristotle defined happiness as “a certain kind of activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.”  Pleasure cannot be sought for directly. It is a by-product of activity that has a more ultimate object than pleasure itself. The happy man, he claimed, should live well and do well, as happiness is in fact a kind of living and doing well.  Only by being virtuous, insists Aristotle, can man be as happy as it is humanly possible to be.3


Above: Aristotle, painted by Raphael

Let us jump a few centuries and analyze in more detail the nature of happiness.  To do so, it is necessary to look, even briefly, into the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, the great Christian theologian and philosopher of the 13th century.  He is perfectly suited to enlighten us on this important issue: the search for human happiness.  Aquinas dedicates a large part of his monumental Summa Theologica to the nature of happiness.  In this brief paper we will limit our analysis to a brief comment of Part IIA of the Summa, in particular, to Chapters I-IV.4

According to St. Thomas, all men seek what they seek for one reason: they think it will satisfy them; they believe that the accomplishment of their desires will make them happy.  Happiness is the goal of all human activity; precisely because it is a human objective, it is free and deliberate.  The tragedy of man is not that he cannot find happiness, but that he looks for it in the wrong places.  Because the desires of man are boundless, no particular good, whether outside himself (power, wealth, health, virtue etc.) or in himself (science, prudence etc.) can perfectly satisfy him.  Not even some particular perfection of the soul can totally please him.  Thus, we must conclude that the only object which can completely satisfy all human desire is the absolutely universal good which is external to man, even outside the whole created world.  Nothing can satisfy man completely, except the universal good, which gives total rest to his appetite, and this is to be found, not in any creature but in God alone. Briefly, God is the ultimate object (goal), the ultimate end of all man’s desires.

Experience tells us that perfect happiness cannot be found in this world.  The perfect road toward happiness is the path of goodness and virtue.  The road map which enables man to distinguish the right from the wrong road is law.  It is crucial for man in his path to happiness to analyze his truly human acts to see whether they will lead him to his goal or turn him away from his goal.  This is only possible to man who, endowed with freedom of choice, can choose between good and evil.  He is the only agent in nature who can know a goal as a goal and recognize the relation or suitability between a means to a goal and the goal itself.  A man can know that his final goal is the good in general or happiness in general. As a result, no temporary, partial good can satisfy him fully. Because a man can know that treason will not bring him perfect happiness, he can refuse the bread which is the price of treason.  Man not only moves himself to his own acts, as the dog may be said to do, but he can move himself to his acts with the knowledge that they will lead him to his goal or turn him away from his goal.  In his truly human acts, man enjoys freedom.  The secret of each man’s final destiny lies in the proper use of his freedom, in the proper direction of his control over his own acts.

Thomas Aquinas

Above: Stained glass window of St. Thomas Aquinas, Cathedral of Saint-Rombouts, Mechelen (Belgium)

Morality or ethics is what shows man the rightness or wrongness of human acts.  Thus, a human action will be good or evil depending on whether they are suitable or conducive to his ultimate destiny, the attainment of perfect happiness.  Morality shows us the foundation of the path to happiness.  It is through human reason that man recognizes what is suitable for him in the pursuit of happiness.  But, the judgment of human reason on the morality of human actions is only a reflection of the human mind in the eternal, unchangeable mind of God (the Eternal Law).  Natural Law, a reflection or participation in the unchangeable mind of God (Eternal Law), is the moral compass that guides man on his path to happiness.  But, how can human reason evaluate the goodness or evil in a human act?  St. Thomas responds “… by measuring the suitability of the act from the point of view of: 1) the object of the act, 2) the end or human purpose of the act and 3) the circumstances of the act.”  Let us look at some examples:

1) The object of the human act is the natural purpose accomplished by the act.  The purpose accomplished by eating, as far as the act of eating is concerned, is the health of the body.  Human reason can see that some acts are good because their natural purpose is good, what they accomplish is good, and that other acts are evil because their natural purpose is evil, what they accomplish is evil.  To give alms to the poor is always a good object.  To steal is always a bad object for a human act.  In an equal manner the purpose of a man training in a gymnasium is to be healthy and agile.  Physical exercise is good in itself and, as a result, can be considered the basic determining factor of the morality of the human act. 

2) However, the object, the natural purpose, of a human act is not the only source of morality. The person doing the act can direct its natural purpose to some further goal. Thus, the man who spends hours training in a gymnasium may intend not only to be healthy and agile but also to use his acquired strength and agility to commit a series of second-story burglaries. Though physical agility in exercise is a good in itself, here the man’s intention to use it for an evil purpose makes his acts in acquiring it evil.  An evil intention can make evil an act whose natural purpose is good.  The contrary, however, is not true.  A good intention cannot make an evil act good.  A man cannot steal five thousand dollars to help the poor.  Though his intention is good, his act is evil in itself.  

3) The circumstances of the human act can help determine its moral character. Sometimes, the circumstances of an act may play a larger role in the morality of an act.  Circumstance may be so important in the mind of the man acting that it really becomes the object or part of the object of his action.  Murder is evil, but is only one sin, the sin of murder.  But when a man who hates God and religion kills a priest precisely because he is a priest, then it is not only murder but sacrilege, an act of irreverence and hatred for God Himself. 

Thus, in the pursuit of the good which constitutes happiness, man determines the morality of his actions by the judgment of his reason on the object or natural purpose of his act, the end or human purpose of his act, and the circumstances of his act.  If reason judges that all these elements of the act are good, that is, suitable to man as a creature seeking happiness, then his act is morally good. But if his reason judges that the act is unsuitable, evil from any of these points of view, then the act is sinful and will not lead to happiness. 

This, of course, is not the whole story of goodness or evil in human actions.  When human reason has given its verdict on the goodness or evil of a proposed human act, there is still the act of the will choosing or rejecting the act, and, beyond the internal act of the will, there may be the external action itself.  Both the will and the external action are related to the morality of man’s actions. In the last instance, it is the will, as the commanding power, the active source of good or evil.  The external actions of man are the means he uses to accomplish good or evil in the world.5

The secret of each man’s final destiny lies in the proper use of his freedom, in the proper direction of his control over his own acts.  Experience shows us that men normally must make innumerable free choices in the course of a lifetime. And the proper direction of freedom is either hampered by opposing forces or given direction by the conditions in which the free act is made.  The compass that shows the direction that guides man’s free actions toward the authentic good is called Natural Law.  The morality of an act is defined as the relationship of man’s freedom with the authentic good.  The authentic good is established by Divine Wisdom which orders every being towards its end; this Eternal Law is known both by natural reason (known as “natural law”), and – in an integral and perfect way – by God’s supernatural Revelation (hence it is called “divine law”).6  Acting is morally good when choices are free and in conformity with man’s true good and thus express the voluntary ordering of the person toward his ultimate end: God himself, the supreme good in whom man finds his full and perfect happiness.   The rational ordering of the human act to the good in its truth and the voluntary pursuit of that good, known by reason, constitute morality. 

Consequently, the moral life has an essential “teleological” character, because it consists in the deliberate ordering of human acts to God, the supreme good and ultimate end (telos) of man. Clearly, such ordering must be rational and free, conscious and deliberate, by virtue of which man is “responsible” for his actions and subject to the judgment of God, the just and good judge who rewards good and punishes evil. 

But, as mentioned earlier, on what does the moral assessment of man’s free act depend?  How can man qualify, from the moral point of view, his freely determined acts?  What is it that ensures this ordering of human acts to God?  Is it the intention of the acting subject, the circumstances – and in particular the consequences – of his action or the object itself of his act?  This is what is traditionally called “the source of morality.”

The deontological ethical theories (proportionalism, consequentialism), while acknowledging that moral values are indicated by reason and by Revelation, maintain that it is never possible to formulate an absolute prohibition of particular kinds of behavior. According to these theories, the morality of an act would be judged on the basis of the subject’s intention in reference to moral good, and its rightness on the basis of a consideration of its foreseeable effects or consequences and of their proportion.  These theories take into account the intention and consequences of human action.  Certainly there is need to take into account both the intention and the goods obtained and the evils avoided as a result of a particular act.  Responsibility demands as much.  But the consideration of these consequences, and also the intentions, is not sufficient for judging the moral quality of a concrete choice.

The weighing of the goods and evils foreseeable as the consequence of an action is not an adequate method for determining whether the choice of that concrete kind of behavior is “according to its species” or “in itself,” morally good or bad, licit or illicit.  The foreseeable consequences are part of those circumstances of the act, which, while capable of lessening the gravity of an evil act, nonetheless cannot alter its moral species.  The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the “object” rationally chosen by the deliberate will.

It is not licit to do evil that good may come of it (Rm 3,8).  Intrinsic evil cannot be justified. It is, thus, necessary to reject the thesis characteristic of certain teleological and proportionalist theories which hold that “it is impossible to qualify as morally evil according to its species the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behavior or specific acts without taking into account the intention for which the choice was made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of the act for all persons concerned.”

In conclusion, it can be said that if acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain “irremediably” evil acts; per se and in themselves, they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person.  St. Augustine writes: “As for acts which are themselves evil (cum iam opera ipsa peccata sunt) like theft, fornication, blasphemy, who would dare affirm that, by doing them for good motives (causis bonis), they would no longer be sins, or, what is even more absurd, that they would be sins that are justified.”  It is important to point out that acts of war, so much discussed in our age, are not exempt from these ethical rules.7


Above: St. Augustine, painted by Antonio Rodríguez

Furthermore, an intention is good when it has as its aim the true good of the person in view of his ultimate end.  But acts whose object is “not capable of being ordered to God” and “unworthy of the human person” are always and in every case in conflict with the good.  Consequently, respect for norms which prohibit such acts and oblige semper et pro semper, that is, without any exception, not only does not inhibit a good intention, but actually represents its basic expression.

The doctrine of the object as a source of morality represents an authentic explicitation of the Biblical morality of the Covenant and of the commandments, of charity and of the virtues.  The moral quality of human acting is dependent on this fidelity to the Mosaic Law of the commandments, as an expression of obedience and of love.  For this reason – we repeat – the opinion must be rejected as erroneous which maintains that it is impossible to qualify as evil according to its species the deliberate choice of certain kinds of behavior or specific acts, without taking into account the intention for which the choice was made or the totality of the foreseeable consequences of that act for all persons concerned.  Without the rational determination of the morality of human acting as stated above, it would be impossible to affirm the existence of an “objective moral order” and to establish any particular norm the content of which would be binding without exception.  To reject the reality of Natural Law and the importance of virtue in the everyday activities of man not only contributes to the decline and fall of societies but also runs counter to man’s search for happiness.

The pagan Aristotle and the Christian St. Thomas were right when they proclaimed that the only path leading to the relative happiness that can be attained in this world is by leading a virtuous life and by following the norms dictated by Natural Law.   No wonder Aristotle dedicated one of his most important works to the study of ethics and in particular to virtue.  But, as he wrote, the most important thing is not to “study and to know the nature of virtue but to become virtuous ourselves.”8  Let me conclude by quoting the following two phrases from two well know pagan author/philosophers: “We may safely then define a happy man as one whose activity accords with perfect virtue” (Aristotle)9 and “To live each day as though one’s last, never flustered, never apathetic, never attitudinizing – here is the perfection of character” (Marcus Aurelius).10  Maybe young and old should pay more attention to the writings of the Greco-Roman classical authors who, through natural reason, had already discovered some of the fundamental truths which form part of our Judeo-Christian heritage.

1. This brief paper is based on the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas.  Many paragraphs are taken verbatim from his writings in the Summa.  See: Walter Farrell and Martin J, Healy. My Way of Life, Pocket Edition of St. Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Simplified for Everyone.  (Brooklyn, N.Y. Confraternity of the Precious Blood, 1952) Part IIA, pp. 155- 186. The pages mentioned refer to questions 1-21 in the Summa.  See also: John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor. Encyclical Letter, Chapter IV, The Moral Act, Nos. 108-128.  Most of the paragraphs that follow are taken ad verbum from the Encyclical.

2. Plato (428-348 BC) also emphasized that in the development of human character man must necessarily impose limitations upon his desires and impulses.  To be good, man must submit himself to discipline, an absolute necessity if society is to survive.  In his work Laws II Plato claims that it is pleasure which makes us do what is base, and pain which makes us abstain from doing what is noble.  Thus, he continues, it is important to have a certain training from the very early days, such training as produces pleasure and pain at the right objects; for this is the true education.  The author of The Republic was the disciple of Socrates and the teacher of Aristotle.  The pagan Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD) also stressed the importance of leading a virtuous life for the well being of society.  He wrote: “You cannot hope to be a scholar.  But what you can do is to curb arrogance; what you can do is to rise above pleasures and pains; you can be superior to the lure of popularity; you can keep your temper with the foolish and the ungrateful, yes, and even care for them.”  See Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Book Eight, No.8 (New York: Penguin Books, 1984).p.123.

3. “If happiness consists in virtuous activity, it is only reasonable to suppose that it is the activity of the highest virtue, or in other words, of the best part of our nature.”  See: Aristotle, op.cit., Book X, Chapter VIII, p. 343,  Plato, before him, had already written that “the attainment of the good life was the main objective of man.”  For him, the good man is the one who combines Wisdom, Temperance, and Courage. 

4. See: Walter Farrell O.P.S.T.M. and Martin J. Healy, S.T.D.,The Way of Life. Pocket Edition of St. Thomas, The Summa Simplified for Everyone. (Brooklyn, N.Y.:Confraternity of the Precious Blood, 1952).  The chapters mentioned correspond to question 1-49 of the Summa.  Many of the paragraphs that follow are taken verbatim et literatim from the Summa.

5. Many of the paragraphs included below are taken “verbatim” from Pope Paul II encyclical Veritatis Splendor.  See: John Paul II, The Splendor of Truth, (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana. 1993) Chapter Two, The Moral Act. 

6. The Roman Cicero (108-43 AD), a follower of Stoicism, defined true law as “right reason consonant with nature, diffused among all men, constant, eternal: which summons to duty by its command and hinders from fraud by its prohibition, which neither commands nor forbids good men in vain nor moves bad ones by either. To make enactments infringing this law, religion forbids, neither may it be repealed even in part, nor have we the power through Senate or people to free ourselves from it.  It needs no interpreter or expounder but itself, nor will there be one law in Rome and another in Athens, one in the present and another in time to come, but one law and the eternal and immutable shall embrace all peoples and for all time, and there shall be as it were one common master and ruler, the god of all, the author and judge and proposer of this law.  And he who obeys him not shall flee from himself, and in spurning the nature of human kind by that very act he shall suffer the greatest of torments, though he escapes others which men consider pain.”  Justice is conceived as the expression of this natural law.  The idea of an eternal, absolute universal, and immutable law has only be challenged in modern times.  Until the nineteenth and twentieth century, any law (positive law) that does not conform in principle and content to the dictates of right reason is not a true law.  See also Cicero: Selected Works. On Duties. III   (London: Penguin Books, 1960)

7. Perhaps the actions of the famous spy “Mata Hari” during the Great War is a good example.  Her actions cannot be ethically justified even if, supposedly, she was doing them in order to get information from the enemy. 

8. Aristotle, op.cit., p.44

9. Ibid., p.35

10. Marcus Aurelius, op, cit., Book Seven No.69