What Thomas Aquinas can teach students about happiness (and theology)
One would expect a class on happiness to be fairly popular among high school students. In one way or other, every Catholic high school offers just this type of class—only we call it theology. St. Thomas Aquinas held that happiness is one of the foundational characteristics of the mind’s assent to God, and in this light theology is a discipline in which we seek not only to understand but ultimately to attain happiness.
Yet it is often difficult to get students engaged in theology, much less excited about it. I have been teaching theology in a formal setting for only three years. But in that time I have come to realize that many students have an overwhelmingly negative view of religion class. I teach freshmen who have come primarily from Catholic grade schools and parish religion programs. In our conversations there is nearly universal agreement that when religion class is reduced to religious information, it has 1) made them feel worse about themselves rather than better, 2) made them feel farther from God rather than closer and 3) caused them to think that faith is foolish and anti- reason, rather than thought-provoking and life-giving.
It seems their negative experiences of theology stem from two opposite poles. For many, religious education has been on the one hand too nebulous and vague or, on the other hand, overly authoritative. When nebulous, religious education is described as having the extremely vague goal of simply “growing closer to God.” Under this approach, theology becomes the “easy-A” course in grade school and parish education programs, where general statements like “Jesus is love” or “God is good” suffice for outstanding work. While statements like these are not wrong, failing to dig deeper into them with follow-up questions like “Why is God good?” “How is God good?” or “What does ‘good’ mean?” does a gross injustice to their richness and depth.
On the other end of the spectrum, religious education often has been justified with arguments from authority and tradition. At this extreme, religious educators hammer home to students that they must study theology “because that is what a religious school does” or that they “need to know this to fit in at church.” These demands for obedience and conformity manifest themselves in a religious education that is not much more than mechanical memorization of dogmas and doctrines, which may ultimately result in a robotic pseudo-relationship between the student and God. What is even more unfortunate is that many times these seemingly contradictory poles of intellectual laxity and blind obedience coexist in one school or classroom.
But these justifications for and experiences of religious education could not be farther from the actual goal of theology, particularly as articulated by Aquinas. The Thomistic commentator Thomas O’Meara, O.P., writes in his book Thomas Aquinas: Theologian that “the life of knowing, faith, and love has for its specifying goal not religious obedience but happiness.” While this statement is true, leaving it at that runs the risk of falling into the aforementioned pious imprecision. If religious education is to be a positive and meaningful experience for today’s students, we must rearticulate why theology is taught. To do this, we must wrestle with the important question Father O’Meara’s statement raises, which he succinctly formulates a few lines later: “But what is real happiness?”'
The demands for obedience and conformity manifest themselves in a religious education that is not much more than mechanical memorization of dogmas and doctrines, which may ultimately result in a robotic pseudo-relationship between the student and God.
Many False Paths
Consciously or not, all adolescents (and adults, for that matter) wrestle with this question every day. When it comes to how they spend their free time, why they study and what they envision for their life beyond the classroom, students are trying to pursue happiness. Too often, however, this wrestling does not go far enough. Hampered by the simple answers promoted in popular culture and the media, students can be misled about what will bring them lasting happiness. It is not surprising to find that St. Thomas Aquinas, with his deep understanding of human nature, speaks clearly to adolescents in the 21st century, although he wrote over 500 years ago. The First Part of the Second Part of his Summa Theologiae remains a masterful guide for all who seek to travel far along the path to happiness in this life and the next.
Aquinas first goes to great lengths to point out what happiness is not: it is not wealth, pleasure, fame, honors or power. Not only are these things not in themselves happiness, they often become obstacles to true happiness because they entrap the seeker with enjoyments that are ultimately fleeting and unsatisfying. Aquinas explains that wealth cannot contain happiness because the true value of wealth is that it can be used to buy other things (I.II.2.1). For example, a teenager may desire wealth in order to buy fashionable clothes. Now because the goal of the wealth is precisely something else—in this case, clothes—the objects wealth buys are more desirable than the wealth itself. Because wealth itself is not the final step in the pursuit of happiness, we cannot say that wealth is happiness.
On a related but different level, Aquinas points out that pleasure also cannot of itself be happiness (I.II.2.6). This is primarily because pleasure is dependent on the senses. Good food is pleasurable because of the sense of taste, beautiful possessions are pleasurable because of the sense of sight and sexual gratification is pleasurable because of the sense of touch. As such, these pleasures are neither supreme nor eternal. Put positively, in order to be pleased by something that is beautiful or tastes good you must have good eyesight and functioning taste buds. If you are blind or do not have proper olfactory functions, less happiness will be found in these things. So while these are things that often give pleasure, they cannot be equated with happiness.
Next, Aquinas points out that happiness is not contained in honors because honor (or “reputation”) is given to a person as a result of some achievement or personal quality (I.II.2.2). Thus, the achievement or quality is primary because it precipitates the honor, in the same way that an object obtained through wealth is primary to the wealth itself. Likewise, Aquinas concludes that neither fame (I.II.2.3) nor power (I.II.2.4) contain happiness. This is because both fame and power are temporary and neither is self-sufficient. Likewise, it is very rare for a person who has power to retain that power ad infinitum. A teacher can simply show students a newspaper or magazine from a decade ago, or even a few months ago, to illustrate this point: From professional athletes to pop culture icons to politicians, there seems to be no shortage of people who reach great heights of honor, fame and power only to come crashing down into infamy or obscurity.
As he concludes his section on what happiness is not, Aquinas states that happiness cannot exist in any created good, because the ultimate object of our longings is supreme and eternal goodness and truth, which belong to the Creator alone: “For happiness is the perfect good, which lulls the appetite altogether; else it would not be the last end, if something yet remained to be desired” (I.II.2.8).
An Imperfect Pursuit
This is admittedly a lengthy explanation of what happiness is not. The purpose was not to evade the original question. In fact, it seems the largest impediment to happiness for high school students is that they believe they have already found it in the aforementioned categories; their quest to understand happiness ceases because they begin searching for things they think will bring happiness. Having removed these false leads, however, we can now direct our attention more positively to what happiness is. Aquinas says that there are ultimately two kinds of happiness, imperfect happiness and perfect happiness (I.II.4.5). We can obtain imperfect happiness (felicitas) in this life by growing in our knowledge of God through the “operation of the intellect.” Perfect happiness (beatitudo) is the “vision of God” (I.II.4.5), which, Aquinas argues, is not dependent on a body. This vision does not mean sight in the literal sense, since that would make it dependent on the eyes; rather it is a perception that transcends the senses. This logically makes perfect happiness supreme because it is not dependent on anything other than God. We could lose everything we know, even our own bodies, and the happiness of being with God still remains.
Moving one step further, since happiness is full perception of God, and theology is about studying God, theology contributes to happiness in the same way that learning about a friend or partner allows your intimacy with them to expand and deepen. Theology, when taught and understood properly, should contribute both to imperfect happiness—through the operation of the intellect—as well as ideally and eventually to perfect happiness at the end of a person’s earthly life. These are ambitious goals, to say the least. Additionally, simply stating these goals at the outset of a theology course will not necessarily change the subject matter itself. However, rearticulating these goals explicitly and directly for students will hopefully at the very least correct their orientation and at the very most increase their interest and efforts—not to mention those of their teacher.
Theology, when taught and understood properly, should contribute both to imperfect happiness—through the operation of the intellect—as well as ideally and eventually to perfect happiness at the end of a person’s earthly life.
In my own classroom, I have tried to take three concrete steps to bring this rearticulation full circle. First, I tell students that ultimately the point of learning theology is to be happy, and I discuss how we might see this in the content of a given course. How might understanding the Bible, its genres, nuances, literary devices and message add to a student’s happiness? How might understanding the growth, development and sometimes regression of the church over the course of history increase a student’s identification with his or her own faith? How might understanding ethics transcend merely “following the rules” and become an avenue for living a fulfilled life? Next, I explain how many common conceptions of happiness may “make us happy,” in the sense of pleasing us, but that happiness is about something much deeper, less dependent, more lasting—and rooted in God.
Finally, while I primarily help students entertain questions about happiness at a concrete level—using situations and examples from their own experiences—from that foundation, I encourage personal reflection and contemplation to propel the conceptual knowledge into the realm of prayer, because, as Father O’Meara says, “Ultimately God instructs not through epiphany but through presence.” When students realize theology class is not about “giving answers” but rather about “learning how to seek them,” I find they come to class more willing to engage openly and thoughtfully with the Catholic faith and tradition. And that is enough to make any theology teacher happy.