The Notion Of Happiness In Aristotle And Thomas Aquinas

The Notion Of Happiness In Aristotle And Thomas Aquinas (A Comparative Study)



It is indispensably in the nature of man to be happy.  This necessarily follows from his nature as a ‘homo rationis’ (reasoning animal).  By the virtue of his reason, man has the capacity to make a choice of an action.  His choice of action is predominantly determined by some desired good, which serves as an end.  As




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After payment, text the name of the project, email address and your names to 08064502337 soon as this desired end is met, man’s face brightens.  He feels to some extent fulfilled.  But what actually is going on in him? He is happy.  But if the contrary were the case, man becomes unhappy. This is simply because he has not realized that end which prompted his choice of that action.

Consequently, the concept of happiness can be said to be as old as man.  It always lies irresistibly behind our choice of actions.  Even the actions that we refrain from are undeniably motivated by this inexplicable but irrepressible desire for happiness.  This nature of man was long discovered by Aristotle when in the beginning   of his Nichomachean Ethics, he writes:

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that which all things aim 1

Unveiling this nature in man, he identified happiness as, “the highest of all goods achievable by action”2.  This he said following his discovery that every human action is a means to an end, which is seen as a good.  He however noticed that some of these ends are sought not as ends themselves but only as a means to further ends.

Having identified happiness as the highest of all goods that can be achieved by human action, he remarked immediately the existence of a unanimous acceptance of this fact about happiness.  But at the same time, he commented that there is no general agreement on what happiness is.  This problem of general agreement on what happiness is has remained a philosophical problem till date.   This can be seen in the different actions exhibited by human beings even till date. People steal, and even kill in order to get that which they want so as to be happy. Also some people are known for their habit of over-eating or over-drinking. Such persons, when asked, also claim that they want to be happy. There are still some others who are involved in embezzlement of funds, human trafficking, addictions of various kinds, sexual abuses and perversions, prostitution, and other debasing actions. These actions are motivated by the quest for happiness by those concerned.

Experience has shown that such persons have never achieved a lasting happiness. The much they have always attained is only the pleasure that lasts only a few moments, and leaves them with much more to be desired because they are not yet satisfied. To such persons, the common saying that, the joy of having increases by having, is always applicable. Hence, there is the need to continue to ask such questions as: What actually is happiness?   In what does it consist?  By the way, is happiness attainable?  If so, where, when, and how can one attain it?

In the thirteenth century, another philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, took up this question of human happiness.  He followed the methods of Aristotle in his approach. However, he did not accept completely Aristotle’s notion of happiness especially as it concerns ‘when’ and ‘where’ happiness can be attained. Like Aristotle, he understands happiness as the last end to which all human actions tend. But unlike the former who believes that happiness is attainable in this life, Aquinas believes that what is attainable in this life is momentary happiness. He believes therefore that ultimate happiness can only be attained in the vision of God, Beatifica Dei .We can then say that, in his efforts, he tried to Christianize Aristotle’s ideas who himself was a pagan3.


Since man cannot but desire happiness, it is observed that he performs various actions, not excluding the non- pleasant and bad ones, just to be happy.  Happiness therefore means various things to various persons, even among philosophers.  Besieged by these varying and sometimes contradictory notions of happiness, one has no other option than to ask: what does this happiness mean?  Secondly, in what does it consist?  That is to say, ‘when’ and ‘where’ can we find it, if at all it is realizable?  This problem was identified by Aristotle when he wrote:

… But with regard to what happiness is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise4

1.2              PURPOSE OF STUDY

As the modern world continues to soar higher in technological advancements, it also records a great clamour for freedom.  The freedom in question is not just from rules and regulations or laws, but also the freedom to perform any action or activity.  These actions, according to Aristotle, are aimed at the attainment of some good the highest of which is happiness.

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Both Aristotle and Aquinas wrote from different backgrounds, which, no doubt, influenced them. While the former wrote from a pagan background, the latter wrote from a Christian background.  By juxtaposing their notions of happiness therefore, the researcher aims at pointing out the way to human happiness.  He also wants to examine, in the light of those philosophers, whether the actions of the modern man such as: struggle for power and fame, merriment, alcoholism, drug and sex abuses, quest for wealth, etc, are capable of giving man happiness.  If they are not, then one would at least be able to say at the end of this work what happiness is, and in what it consists.


In order to successfully and efficiently arrive at the desired end of this work, the techniques employed are expository, analytical, critical, and evaluative.


Different people in different ages and at different times have different views about what it means to be happy.  A lot of philosophers have also written about happiness.  But for the sake of this work, I have restricted myself only to the notions of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.  Nevertheless, a brief mention shall be made in the course of this work, about the views of some philosophers on happiness.


This work is systematically arranged into five chapters.  Chapter one is the introductory stage of this work. It contains the general introduction, the statement of the problem, purpose of work, methodology used, the scope covered, and the explanation of the contents of each of the chapters.

Chapter two takes care of the views of some philosophers and those of the man on the street about happiness.  In it also is unveiled the major influences on Aristotle and Aquinas. In chapter three, the notions of Aristotle and Aquinas on happiness are ex-rayed, while chapter four outlines the similarities and disparities between these notions, and necessarily contrasts them. Finally, chapter five brings the whole work to a conclusive end.  But before the final conclusion, it would evaluate critically the notions of Aristotle and Aquinas on happiness.



The concept of happiness is not unfamiliar to even the least of common men. In other words, its use is not restricted to any set or status of human beings. Consequently, the expressions such as: ‘Yes, I am now happy’, ‘He is not happy’, ‘Are you happy?’ ‘I shall make you happy’, etc, are very often heard from very many people. In the recent times, people even take happiness as a name, while some are given such as a name by their parents. What exactly then does a person mean when he or she says, ‘ I am happy? In other words, what is the meaning of happiness?

2.1       Ordinary Usage

The expression, “I am happy”, presupposes the realization or actualization of something desired, or the fulfillment of an expectation. It indicates a fortunate encounter or a satisfaction following a previous fortune or favour. For instance, a hungry man presented with a deliciously prepared favourite is favoured by a fortune. He ordinarily becomes happy. This also is the case with a child who took the first position in his class after their examination. Each of them is happy because they have each been favoured.

Etymologically, the word, ‘happy’, ‘comes from the noun, ‘hap’, meaning what just happens, chance, luck, good hap, fortunate, lucky, etc”[1].  To be happy therefore can mean, in simple terms, to be satisfied, glad, or fulfilled. A happy person is that to whom, good things have been bestowed. Happiness therefore “has to do with one’s state of mind (e.g. one is glad, cheerful), or one’s situation (e.g. one is fortunate), or typically with both”[2] Following this etymology, happiness is therefore associated with good fortune, man’s welfare or well-being. Well-being is precisely the meaning of the Greek word, Eudaimonia3, which is also translated as happiness.

2.2.0    Philosophers’ Views

Philosophers down the ages have also tried to understand this nature of man called, ‘happiness’. While some of them dwelt extensively on divulging the meaning of happiness, some others mentioned it in passing. For a better appreciation of this work, it is pertinent that a review be made of the notions of some other philosophers apart from Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. The various notions of other philosophers have been arranged according to four major periods the ancient era, medieval era, modern era, and contemporary era.

2.2.1    Ancient Era

In this age of the cradle of philosophy, some of the prominent philosophers who pondered on happiness were Gorgias, Socrates Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Epicureans, etc.

As early as around 427 B.C, Gorgias, a pre-Socratic philosopher, was associated with a task of describing who a happy man was. He was therefore said to have attributed the happiest man to he ‘who has no evil in his soul”4

Socrates (470-399) B.C understands happiness as an inescapable desire in man. In his view, the goal of human life is happiness, and the only way that leads to this goal is virtue. However, he sees virtue as being equal to knowledge. Hence, he believes that if a man knows what is good he cannot but do it, and if he knows what is evil, he cannot but refrain from it5.

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Similarly, Plato (428-348 B.C) who was a disciple of Socrates conceives happiness as ‘the true goal of human life’6. He identifies happiness with the possession or acquisition of good things. At the same time, he recognizes the indispensability of the place of reason in attaining happiness. Thus, he assigns to the rational part of the soul the task of seeking this ultimate goal. For Plato, happiness can be attained by living a good life, hence, he says, according to Stumpf:

Everybody wants to achieve well-being and happiness, and whenever one chooses a mode of behaviour, one always assumes that one’s act will bring such well-being7

The Cynics believed that man would be happier if he renounces all artificialities and complications of life, and returns to nature with only virtue as his possession. Like Socrates, they upheld virtue as a sine qua non for happiness. Describing them, Omoregbe notes that they advocated a return to nature and the abandonment of all artificial inventions of man, possessions, institutions, cities, law, religions, etc.8

Like the Cynics, the Stoics advocate that man should conform to the laws of nature, and (in addition) live according to reason. For them, the purpose of life is happiness. However, they hold that this happiness must be sought through reason by suppressing the passions, affections, emotions, desires, etc, which to them are irrational. Warning that human desires are insatiable and lead to unhappiness and frustration, the Stoics admonish man to attain inner tranquility, which, for them, leads to happiness. Happiness, for them, cannot come from those external attachments but from within, through self-detachment and self-control. Seneca, who is a later Stoic, holds also that happiness does not come from outside of man but from within. Consequently, he advocates self-detachment from material acquisitions.

The Epicureans are popularly known for their pleasure principle, with a triple formula of eating, drinking, and merriment. To Epicurus their founder, writes Stumpf, ‘the chief aim of human life is pleasure’9. Epicureanism is therefore said to be hedonistic, meaning that it bases the standard of morality on pleasure. Nevertheless, pleasure, for Epicurus, does not mean sensual gratification. Hence, in order to guide people to the happiest life, he distinguished between various kinds of pleasure. Unlike the Stoics, the Epicureans did not say out-rightly that happiness can be attained by a life of virtue according to reason. However, Epicurus’ idea of pleasure is that of inner calm, peace of mind and mental tranquility, while upholding and discouraging self-contentment and accumulation of material possessions respectively. No wonder Omoregbe says of him that, ‘he refrained from luxury and comfort and lived an ascetic life, living on bread and water ’10

The philosophers’ concern for man’s desire for happiness continues into the next stage of philosophy, which is the medieval era.

2.2.2     Medieval Era

The medieval era witnesses the confluence of philosophy and theology. This, no doubt, would subsequently influence the notion of philosophers of this age about happiness. This is because they were mainly Christians. Such philosophers include: St Augustine, Boethius, St Anselm, St Thomas Aquinas, etc.

St Augustine describes human nature as restlessly seeking an ultimate satisfaction, which he calls happiness. For him, it is not by chance that man seeks happiness. Rather it is in man’s very nature as both rational and finite being. Any created thing cannot satisfy this natural desire. Thus he exclaims in his Confessions: ‘Oh God, Thou hast made us for thyself so that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’11

Writing on Augustine’s notion of happiness, Omoregbe summarizes thus:

Man, according to St. Augustine, has a deep natural yearning for happiness; the human heart is restlessly seeking happiness and it will remain restless until it finds the perfect happiness it seeks. But the happiness it seeks is perfect happiness, and no transitory and imperfect happiness will satisfy this natural yearning. God alone can satisfy this natural desire, for God alone can be the object of perfect happiness, nothing else can provide man with this perfect happiness that he seeks restlessly12

Augustine sees this earthly life as imperfect, and therefore says that the present life without the hope of a perfect life is a ‘false happiness, and in fact an utter misery’13

Another great philosopher of the middle age, called Boethius, views happiness as, “a state made perfect by the aggregate of all good which lulls the appetite together”14. In his Consolation, Boethius remarks that only by being like God, can lasting happiness come to man15. Boethius says that a man should turn to his inner self if he seeks happiness. This is because, for him, happiness and truth are only found from within.

St. Bonaventure argues that the soul naturally seeks perfect happiness. By perfect happiness, he means eternal happiness. He believes that no one can be perfectly happy if he is afraid of losing this happiness some day. For him, happiness comes only in the possession of the highest good, which is God16.

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The efforts by philosophers to define human happiness did not end with the Christian philosophers of their medieval era, no; it lingered beyond, to the modern period.

2.2.3     Modern Era

The Modern era was characterized by the existence of philosophers who questioned the already existing traditions. There is noticed in this era, a considerable divorce between philosophy and theology, as man clings tenaciously to his reason. Consequently, man, rather than God, becomes both the terminus a quo and the terminus ad quem of every philosophical enquiry.

Spinoza, one of the rationalists, believes strongly that happiness cannot be attained outside the use of one’s reason. He contends that our greatest happiness consists in the knowledge of God alone, which is the greatest freedom17

Another philosopher, Immanuel Kant conceives happiness as an agreement or compliance of a person’s will and physical nature. Trying to answer the question, ‘what is the highest good (summum bonum), he discloses that happiness concurs with morality and necessarily accompanies virtue. He then says that the greatest good, summum bonum, is the complete agreement of the will with the moral law and the happiness that is proportionate to it18. He concluded implicitly that man cannot, on his own, provide himself with a happiness that is proportionally corresponding to his morality. In the opinion of M. Maher, Kant is inclined to an over-ready acceptance of the Hedonistic identification of happiness with sensuous pleasure, and for this reason, he is opposed to your working for our own happiness whilst he allows us to seek that of others19.

Happiness means a totally different thing to the Utilitarians. They have no demarcation between happiness and pleasure. Happiness, for them, means pleasure and absence of pain, while unhappiness means pain, and the privation of pleasure. Thus, their ethical principle is based on ‘the greatest pleasure of the greatest number20.  ‘By this principle’, Stumpf adduces, ‘they mean that, good is achieved when the aggregate of pleasure or happiness greater than the aggregate of pain’21.

Jeremy Bentham, one of the proponents of utilitarianism holds that pleasure is the only thing people should seek. For him, it is the only thing desirable for its own sake. Little wonder, he was classified by Omoregbe as a hedonist22. J. S. Mill emphasizes however that the happiness with which utilitarianism is concerned, is not necessarily the happiness of the doer of an action, but the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. He sees pleasure as an integral part of happiness and insists that the quality of pleasure must be considered as well as the quantity.  Hence, he urges that it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied23.

2.2.4         Contemporary Era

Unlike the ancient and medieval philosophers who were very much concerned about the end of man, the contemporary philosophers are more interested in advancing the means of making life easier and more comfortable for humanity. Although human happiness is not a common subject among contemporary philosophers, one nevertheless may not be very correct to say that the philosophers of this era overlook human happiness. This is so when one considers the fact that some of the philosophical speculations of this era are implicitly motivated by the desire to attain man’s well-being or happiness, especially in a society. For instance, Karl Mark advocates the dethronement of Capitalism to put an end to the suffering of the poor masses24.  Omoregbe notes that as a humanist, though also an atheist, Marx is concerned that humanity be liberated from exploitation, alienation, and slavery to which the capitalist system has condemned it, so that it can be happy25.

The question of human happiness is a philosophical question, and philosophy is said to be perennial. Having ex-rayed the views of some philosophers on happiness, we shall in the next chapter, unveil the notion of Aristotle and that of St. Thomas Aquinas on happiness


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