Commentary on Thomas Aquinas's Treatise on Happiness and Ultimate Purpose
- ISBN: 9781108477994
- Published By: Cambridge University Press
- Published: January 2020
The Commentary on Thomas Aquinas's Treatise on Happiness and Ultimate Purpose is an examination of and elaboration on a selection from Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae that addresses five questions about happiness, taking us through many related sub-questions, objections, replies, and assertions. J. Budziszewski provides a new translation that reorganizes and modernizes a translation similar to that of Daniel Sullivan’s The Summa Theologica of Saint Thomas Aquinas, University of Chicago, 1952. In addition, Budziszewski provides a line-by-line commentary on Aquinas that sharpens intertextual and intratextual connections, deftly showing the logic of Aquinas’s thought and the scholastic method with copious referencing from Latin and Greek philosophical and theological texts that is meant to illuminate the context and meaning of his thought. Moreover, Budziszewski provides discussions, which appears at various places and on various topics throughout the book.
Budziszewski’s discussions are animated, informed and wide-ranging, giving the reader a picture of Aquinas’s views on happiness in relation to issues in contemporary philosophy, science, and religion. For example, when elaborating on the objection that people act absent-mindedly – that is, without a purpose in mind, which would undermine Aristotle’s view that humans are, as a class, purposeful agents (13, Objection 3) – Budziszewski quotes the philosopher Michael Ruse and the biologist E. O. Wilson, “The Evolution of Ethics,” 1985. They had argued that human activity emerges from undeliberated and instinctual impulses fobbed off on us from evolution. In his discussion, Budziszewski replies that this goes too far, questioning whether or not it would have been more parsimonious for evolution to furnish us with truth rather than illusion: “Ruse and Wilson suppose that we will find false explanations of our behavior more comforting than truth” (20). A false explanation is, for example, that we act out of love when we marry or we cooperate, when in truth, it is evolution that furnishes us with feelings of love and cooperativeness merely to perpetuate the genetic line. Budziszewski, however, thinks the idea that we are programmed, so to speak, by our genes to fabricate falsities is unnecessary since that it would have been “more adaptive not to need false comfort” (20). One might say he defends an emotional realism: the phenomena of our feelings and motives should be taken as truthful unless we have a good reason to doubt them, but Ruse’s and Wilson’s concept of Darwinian evolution have not provided that reason, argues Budziszewski.
In addition to an examination of a slice of Aquinas’s thought, this book is also a deployment of the methods of scholastic philosophy and theology – and an argument for their usefulness in academia today, something Budziszewski mentions in his “Commentator’s Introduction” (xxvii). His book is steeped in a medieval pedagogy of questions and answers aimed at clarifying and defending a view. For example, when asking whether God requires man to “conduct himself in a certain way to receive happiness” (618), Aquinas makes the objection that St. Paul had said that “happiness belongs to the man whom God regards as righteous apart from his deeds,” from which the objector concludes that “human deeds are required to arrive at beatitude” (620, italics in original). Aquinas, however, argues on the basis of John 13:15 that, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (622). Budziszewski argues that Aquinas is not driving a wedge between the letters of Paul and the Gospels; rather, he uses this style of disputation to rationally examine doctrine. Aquinas concludes that “the will must be in the right condition to attain supreme happiness,” but what he means by this only makes complete sense by understanding the reasoning that got him there.
In Question 5, Article 5, Aquinas argues that man can naturally attain an imperfect happiness by the perfection of virtue, but assistance from outside—like the good council of friends and God’s grace—is necessary for perfect happiness (586-601). Is there a perfect happiness? Many of the discussions are based on his engagement with students, one of which said no, there is just more or less of it. Budziszewski argues that the notion of a final end implies a perfect form of happiness, and that Aquinas gave us a “standard” of what happiness is, and that by this we “grade things ‘more’ or ‘less’ in relation” – without this standard, he argues, it makes no sense to speak of happiness in terms of degrees, but one often does (79).
At times Budziszewski is both philological and philosophical; when asking whether supreme happiness lies in power, the author explains that the Latin word used by Aquinas, potestate, refers to the power to rule, administer, manage, or direct others, but not to the power to build, to prove, or to write—one can appreciate the fineness of the distinction, and attention to words. The author then skillfully turns this distinction towards administrators, managers, and leaders today, arguing that they frequently admit to desiring administrative roles, yet rarely do they admit to the desire to control others; Budziszewski thus highlights a contradiction in contemporary discourse on power, to which scholastic philosophy has something to offer (176). Sanskrit commentators also enjoy examining a word, showing the shades of meanings, and then using them to make a larger point. For Aquinas, the happiness derived from power (along with wealth, honor, and fame) is subordinate, lower on the hierarchy of various forms of happiness, but to make his point he quotes Exodus, upon which Budziszewski elaborates with commentary from Flavius Josephus and Philo of Alexandria (177); the discussion is richly historical and philosophical.
It is refreshing to see a historical and a constructive examination of theology and philosophy to be so lucidly and expansively developed by Budziszewski, a faculty member in the University of Texas at Austin School of Law; this demonstrates the interdisciplinary nature of religious studies today. What can be learned from Budziszewski’s commentary and how it can be used? One gets a long view of how Western civilization has thought about happiness that is mediated through Aquinas’s structurally complex and uniquely rigorous thinking, and one gets an exploration of how his ideas connect with contemporary issues among scholars, scientists, and students. It is advanced reading and ideal for course material on happiness, virtue, and the history of religion and philosophy.
Jonathan Edelmann is an assistant professor at the University of Florida.Jonathan EdelmannDate Of Review:August 18, 2022