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St. Thomas’s Prologue to Question 1 - Man’s Ultimate Purpose

from Question 1 - Man’s Ultimate Purpose

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 October 2020

J. Budziszewski
Affiliation:
University of Texas, Austin

Summary

From a Thomistic point of view, those who say that happiness is not the ultimate purpose, or that happiness is not an end in itself, are usually making at least one of two mistakes. Either they are confusing happiness with pleasure, and saying that pleasure is not an end in itself, which is true; why pleasure cannot be our ultimate purpose is explained in Question 2, Article 6. Or else they are failing to distinguish the ultimate purpose in the sense of the thing itself that is to be attained (which is God) with the ultimate purpose in the sense of the attainment or enjoyment of that thing; this distinction is discussed in Question 1, Article 8, Question 2, Article 7, and Question 3, Article 1.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2020
TEXTPARAPHRASE
[1] In this matter we shall consider first the last end of human life; and secondly, those things by means of which man may advance towards this end, or stray from the path: [2] for the end is the rule of whatever is ordained to the end. [3] And since the last end of human life is stated to be happiness, we must consider
  1. (1) the last end in general;

  2. (2) happiness.

  • Let us reflect on the ultimate purpose of human life, then on the means by which man either makes progress toward this purpose or deviates from it. For in everything that pertains to a purpose, the proper guide is the purpose itself.

  • We call supreme happiness the final purpose of human life, so it is fitting to consider two things: First (Question 1), the general idea of man’s ultimate purpose, and second (Questions 2–5), supreme happiness itself.

  1. [1] This is a “division of the topic,” a traditional way of presenting an outline. Rather than presenting the entire outline at once, it focuses on the very next step, situating it in the context of the whole: For example, “We will discuss I, then II, then III. Under I, we will discuss A, then B, then C. Under A, we will discuss i, then ii, then iii. Under i, we will discuss a, then b, then c. Now let us turn to I.A.i.a.” For the outline of the Treatise on Happiness and Ultimate Purpose as a whole, see the Analytical Table of Contents at the beginning of this book.

  2. [2] This may sound like a tautology – “The end is the rule of whatever the end is the rule of” – but it isn’t. St. Thomas is simply pointing out that if an end or purpose is to be attained, then everything must be planned with a view to that end.

  3. [3] The term “happiness,” which is unavoidable in this book, gives but a pale and pallid sense of what St. Thomas is talking about. The word that he uses is beatitudo. Expressions such as “blessedness” and “supreme happiness” convey fair impressions of its meaning; the expression “flourishing” would be even better, if only we could keep in mind that the sort of flourishing we are thinking about is neither that of a plant, like a cabbage or artichoke, nor that of an animal, like a cat or a turtle, but that of an embodied rational being who has dominion over his own actions. Other Latin words for aspects of happiness are laetitia, which is especially suggestive of joy and fruitfulness, and felicitas, which is especially suggestive of good fortune.

From a Thomistic point of view, those who say that happiness is not the ultimate purpose, or that happiness is not an end in itself, are usually making at least one of two mistakes. Either they are confusing happiness with pleasure, and saying that pleasure is not an end in itself, which is true; why pleasure cannot be our ultimate purpose is explained in Question 2, Article 6. Or else they are failing to distinguish the ultimate purpose in the sense of the thing itself that is to be attained (which is God) with the ultimate purpose in the sense of the attainment or enjoyment of that thing; this distinction is discussed in Question 1, Article 8, Question 2, Article 7, and Question 3, Article 1.

  • [1] Under the first head there are eight points of inquiry:

  • [2] (1) Whether it belongs to man to act for an end?

  • [3] (2) Whether this is proper to the rational nature?

  • [4] (3) Whether a man’s actions are specified by their end?

  • [5] (4) Whether there is any last end of human life?

  • [6] (5) Whether one man can have several last ends?

  • [7] (6) Whether man ordains all to the last end?

  • [8] (7) Whether all men have the same last end?

  • [9] (8) Whether all other creatures concur with man in that last end?

Concerning the general idea of man’s ultimate purpose, we must pose eight queries:
  1. 1. Is acting for a purpose a property of man?

  2. 2. If so, is acting for a purpose a property of man because of our rational nature?

  3. 3. Should our acts be classified into species according to their purposes?

  4. 4. Has each human life some ultimate purpose?

  5. 5. Is it possible for a man to have more than one ultimate purpose?

  6. 6. Does a man direct everything to his ultimate purpose?

  7. 7. Do all men have the same ultimate purpose?

  8. 8. Do all other created beings have the same ultimate purpose that man has?

  1. [1] The eight queries correspond, respectively, to the eight Articles of this Question.

  2. [2] To act for an end is not merely to be pushed along by blind forces, but to act so that a purpose might be achieved. To ask whether it “belongs” to man to act for an end is to ask whether doing so is a thing that pertains to our nature – whether it is a characteristically human thing to do.

  3. [3] Supposing that it is a characteristically human thing to act for an end, we must still ask what makes it characteristically human. The suggestion behind the question is that perhaps it is connected with our rationality. Then is it?

  4. [4] To say that an act is specified by its end is to say that the purpose of the act tells us the species of the act – what kind of act it is. Determining the correct species of an act is not a mere intellectual game divorced from all connection with real life. For example, consider an act of abortion undertaken because the mother is upset about being pregnant. Should we classify the act according to its end or purpose, saying that species of the act is taking a life? Or should we classify it according to its motive, saying that the species of the act is giving the mother peace of mind? The answer affects moral judgment.

  5. [5] Not every end or purpose is a last end, an ultimate purpose. I may drink a cup of coffee to say awake, stay awake to study, study to pass the examination, pass the examination to pass the course, pass the course to get my degree, and so on. At each of these steps I pursue some good for the sake of some still further good. Does the chain ever reach an end? Is there some good that I pursue not for the sake of something else, but for its own sake?

  6. [6] Supposing that there is such a final and ultimate good, is there only one such thing? Or could it be that some acts are aimed at one final end, but others are aimed at another?

  7. [7] Supposing that there is only one such good, is everything that we do undertaken for its sake? Or could it be that some acts are undertaken for its sake, and others are not?

  8. [8] Could it be that for some people, one thing is the ultimate good, but that for others, something else is? Some people even think that one can choose what one’s ultimate good is to be. Are they right?

  9. [9] Whatever man’s ultimate aim may be, do other creatures such as dogs, cats, and centipedes have the same ultimate aim? Do they have different ultimate aims? Or do they have no ultimate aim at all?

Discussion

So Many Questions

St. Thomas might have abbreviated his inquiry. Some philosophers do, even good ones. Aristotle, for example, moved very quickly in his Nicomachean Ethics from the question of whether everything we do, we do for the sake of some good (which most people immediately answer “yes”) to the question of what that good is (which most people immediately answer “happiness”). Only then did he slow down, when he asked what happiness might be. St. Thomas’s discussion is much more ambitious than Aristotle’s, but a part of his task is to cover at a walk the ground that Aristotle covered at a run, digging up the soil with a spoon to make sure nothing has been too quickly assumed and nothing has been missed.

Figure 0

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Figure 1

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  • Man’s Ultimate Purpose
  • J. Budziszewski, University of Texas, Austin
  • Book: Commentary on Thomas Aquinas's <I>Treatise on Happiness and Ultimate Purpose</I>
  • Online publication: 16 October 2020
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108775526.003
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  • Man’s Ultimate Purpose
  • J. Budziszewski, University of Texas, Austin
  • Book: Commentary on Thomas Aquinas's <I>Treatise on Happiness and Ultimate Purpose</I>
  • Online publication: 16 October 2020
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108775526.003
Available formats
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  • Man’s Ultimate Purpose
  • J. Budziszewski, University of Texas, Austin
  • Book: Commentary on Thomas Aquinas's <I>Treatise on Happiness and Ultimate Purpose</I>
  • Online publication: 16 October 2020
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108775526.003
Available formats
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