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Beatitudo Imperfecta: An Anthology of the Concept in Aquinas and Renaissance Thomism (c. 1550 – c. 1650)

Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) famously distinguishes between perfect and imperfect happiness. Both types of happiness lie in the perfection of human nature, but perfect happiness is possible only in the afterlife through the vision of God’s essence, whereas imperfect happiness is possible even in this life, be it through intellectual virtue and the contemplative life or moral virtue and the active life. This life’s imperfect happiness is the focus of the present project, which includes four peer-reviewed studies under the theme of this happiness as found in Aquinas and his Renaissance interpreters (c. 1550–c. 1650). The project’s composition reflects the manner in which Renaissance Thomists commonly viewed this life’s imperfect happiness. They believed this happiness could be either natural or supernatural, not natural alone, as many scholars believe it to be today. Accordingly, the first two studies deal primarily with imperfect supernatural happiness and the second two imperfect natural happiness.


Chapter 1 illustrates how Aquinas is logically committed to an imperfect supernatural happiness. The procedure followed involves three stages. In the first stage, the logical division of imperfect happiness implied by the prima secundae is diagrammed, but on the assumption that this happiness is essentially natural. Imperfect happiness is therefore depicted as an essentially natural genus dividing into contemplative and active species. In the next stage of the argument, the initial division is updated to reflect Aquinas’s words at the end of the secunda secundae, where he founds the contemplative and active lives on the infused theological virtue of charity. The first division therefore becomes one of imperfect happiness as an essentially natural genus dividing into species that are essentially supernatural. In the argument’s final stage, this last division is analyzed according to Aquinas’s principle that what is essential to a genus should always be predicable of the species of the genus. Applying this principle reveals that the division reflecting Aquinas’s words at the end of the secunda secundae is illogical. Because it is only by positing an imperfect supernatural happiness that this problem of an illogical division can be solved, Aquinas is logically committed to this happiness. Consequently, it is logical analysis that is shown in this first study to support one of the most important theses of Renaissance Thomists on imperfect happiness, which is that, within a Thomistic eudaimonism, there has to be a supernatural happiness we can attain in this life.


Chapter 2 addresses the issue of Aquinas’s historical position on imperfect supernatural happiness. The main objective is to clarify what exactly is at stake in whether Aquinas historically believed in this happiness. Would it make any difference if, contrary to many contemporary scholars, Renaissance Thomists were actually right that Aquinas assigned a special kind of happiness to the life of infused virtue? A second objective is to uncover some of the passages to keep in mind when attempting to settle Aquinas’s historical position. Thus, this second study is strictly preliminary; it does not settle Aquinas’s historical position but aims only to guide and motivate future work on the question. Regarding the study’s first task, it is argued that the question of Aquinas’s historical position has implications that are historical, doctrinal, and methodological. The question stands to impact how we understand Aquinas’s reception of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The question bears as well on Aquinas’s doctrine of happiness as twofold and his doctrine on the relationship of philosophy and theology. The question also bears on the use of the Summa commentaries in Aquinas research. For the study’s second task, Aquinas’s Summa and other works are consulted, including De veritateDe virtutibus cardinalibus, and Aquinas’s commentary on the Psalms. The analysis shows that, while there are textual difficulties with the way in which Renaissance Thomists answer the question of Aquinas’s historical position, their answer to the question can still be supported by textual analysis.


Chapter 3 defends a view that, though unpopular today, was common among Renaissance Thomists: this life’s natural happiness is impossible apart from the life of supernatural grace. This view is defended by way of a defense of its foundation, which includes a supporting thesis that past scholarship discusses but leaves open to a serious objection. The thesis holds that, for one’s acquired virtues to be united through prudence, the ingratiating grace of God (gratia gratum faciens) and supernatural finality are both necessary. Ingratiating grace is necessary for the healing it effects on fallen nature otherwise unable to perform all the obligatory works of virtue, and supernatural finality is necessary because, without an orientation to one’s supernatural end, one cannot be ordered to one’s natural end as united acquired virtue presupposes. A problem for this virtue thesis arises from the fact that Aquinas equates necessary and essential predication. Earlier Thomists are therefore made to appear as having to hold, incoherently, that united acquired virtue is essentially supernatural. To defend these Thomists, three metaphysical distinctions are used—that of moral and absolute necessity, per se and per accidens efficient causation (with emphasis on the concept of removens prohibens), and intrinsic and extrinsic finality. Together, the distinctions explain why earlier Thomists are free from trouble on both the modal and causal levels of their virtue thesis, showing in turn that their view of this life’s natural happiness, which depends on their virtue thesis, can be supported by metaphysical analysis.


Chapter 4 turns to a Thomist controversy over imperfect natural happiness. While no Thomist was so radical as to deny that Aquinas ever spoke of this kind of happiness, many were willing to call into question its possibility. Could one really be naturally happy? That was a question that, by the Late Renaissance, came to divide Thomists in three ways. Some skeptics, like the Jesuit Gabriel Vázquez, argued that natural happiness is categorically impossible. Other skeptics thought like the Augustinian Hermit Gil da Presentação, who believed that natural happiness is impossible in a state of elevation. Most Thomists, however, opposed both forms of skepticism, such as seventeenth-century Spain’s most eminent Thomist Pedro de Godoy (1608–1677). The purpose of this study is to examine how Godoy defends himself with a view toward uncovering his method and originality. It is found that Godoy’s arguments, which are seven in all, are fairly diverse, with some relying on human history, like the philosophers of antiquity, or human experience, like our desire for happiness. Other arguments rely on the possibility of other worlds, the angels, and the knowledge and love of God. Closer scrutiny reveals, however, that Godoy primarily argues on account of one thing—the relation of happiness to human psychology, as he repeatedly appeals to the natural abilities of intellect and will. Thus, it was mainly by psychological analysis that Godoy defended himself and, on the real possibility of natural happiness in this life, led the Thomist School in preserving one of its most popular teachings.


Collectively, then, what the works of this anthology help explain is how support can be found for some of the most characteristic teachings of Renaissance Thomists on imperfect happiness. Support can be found through logical, psychological, textual, and metaphysical analysis. Understanding the different ways in which the teachings of earlier Thomists on imperfect happiness can be supported is valuable. It helps establish the methodological options for explaining these teachings, establishing in turn how better to bring into dialogue Renaissance and contemporary readings of Aquinas on human happiness.

Date:18 Sep 2014  →  28 Jan 2019
Keywords:Aquinas, Thomism, Renaissance, Happiness, Virtue
Disciplines:Theory and methodology of philosophy
Project type:PhD project