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Lecture: Pater Edmund Waldstein:
“Whether it is Sinful to Desire Happiness”

Posted: April 2, 2019

Whether it is Sinful to Desire Happiness:
Martin Luther’s Critique of Aristotelianism


By Pater Edmund Waldstein, O. Cist. (’06)
Member of the Institute of Moral Theology
Hochschule Heiligenkreuz
Lecture, Thomas Aquinas College
March 29, 2019 [1]

For Roy Coats and Caleb Cohoe


Audio | Podcast

I. Thomas Aquinas College’s Discipleship to Aristotle

Monks are supposed to despise honor and worldly ambition. But I must admit that it has long been my ambition to speak here at my alma mater. And I am deeply sensible of the honor. The College’s newsletter often interviews alumni, who explain how the education they began here has helped them in their professional lives. You know the sort of thing: “The habit of critical thinking that I acquired at the College has been such a help to me in my career as a management consultant.” No offense to the people who say such things, but they surely recognize themselves that there is something comical about praising a liberal education for the help it gives them in servile occupations. Nevertheless, I want to begin by imitating them and asking whether my education here at the college was a good preparation for monastic life. Superficially, no it wasn’t. As a Cistercian I am supposed to live according to the Holy Rule of St. Benedict. The Rule is a means to living a life of discipleship. And St. Benedict begins the Rule by urging the disciple to listen to the master. “For to speak and to teach becomes the master, to be silent and to listen beseems the disciple.”[2] Superficially considered, TAC did not exactly fit me for such discipleship—as my novice master, were he still alive, could surely testify; “to be silent” during his lessons was not my strength. But in a deeper sense, TAC does fit one for a life of discipleship. Marcus Berquist, one of the founders of this College, gave a Friday Night Lecture here in 1996 called “Learning and Discipleship.” Mr. Berquist said in that lecture that TAC is “nearly unique in that it defines itself by discipleship.”[3] By discipleship he meant the belief in a certain teacher as someone who knows, and submission to that teacher’s direction in order to learn from him. The teacher of Thomas Aquinas College is St. Thomas: “We not only call ourselves Thomas Aquinas College,” Mr. Berquist said, “but we define ourselves by discipleship to Saint Thomas.”[4] Although learning at this College takes place dia-logou, through speech, and TAC students are talking constantly all day, nevertheless in another sense the program does teach us to be silent and to listen. To silence the common opinions of our times, and to listen to what St. Thomas has to teach us.

Now, Berquist goes on to claim that an effect of this discipleship to St. Thomas is a philosophical discipleship to Aristotle: “because Saint Thomas is by every sign a philosophical disciple of Aristotle, we define ourselves by discipleship to Aristotle also.”[5] In this the College is now indeed very nearly unique. There was a time when all the universities in Christendom gave Aristotle a similar role. But that time has passed. The program here at the college gives careful attention to those thinkers through whom Aristotle came to lose his place in the universities of Christendom— especially the thinkers of the so-called Scientific Revolution: Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton. The juniors read those authors with great care and are led to see that their case against Aristotle is not as strong as is widely supposed. That, in fact, as rational argument, the case fails. They are led to see, therefore, that the College is justified in defining itself by discipleship to Aristotle.

Today I want to speak about a thinker who made a strong case against discipleship to Aristotle decades before Bacon was born: Martin Luther. I am very glad that my classmate and friend Caleb Cohoe is here today. When we were students here, Caleb wrote an article in a student magazine, arguing that Luther should be added to the program. And, together with our mutual friend Roy Coats, he organized a seminar in which we read Luther’s On the Liberty of a Christian. Today I learned that Luther has in fact been added to the program—and, in fact, the very text that we did that seminar on. But I am going to consider something that doesn’t come out so strongly in that text, although it does in others, namely Luther’s main objection to Aristotle. I think it an objection eminently worth considering. In considering this objection, and responding to it, we can come to a deeper understanding of the truths to which Aristotle was pointing.

In this lecture I will therefore first explain what Luther’s objection to Aristotle was, and then why his objection fails. The reply to the objection will be the main part of my talk. I then conclude with reflections on the sources of Luther’s misunderstanding, and on whether St. Thomas is really a disciple of Aristotle or not. You have a hand-out with some of the texts that I will be considering.

II. Luther Against Aristotle[6]

In his Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation in 1520, Luther launches a violent attack on the universities of his time, because, in them “the blind, heathen teacher Aristotle rules far more than Christ.”[7] The teachings of Aristotle are both false and unintelligible:

[N]othing can be learned from [Aristotle] either about nature or the Spirit. Moreover, nobody has yet understood him, and many souls have been burdened with fruitless labor and study, at the cost of much precious time. … It grieves me to the quick that this damned, arrogant, villainous heathen has deluded and made fools of so many of the best Christians with his misleading writings. God has sent him as a plague upon us on account of our sins.[8]

TAC freshmen, struggling through the Posterior Analytics, might be inclined to think he has a point. But Luther actually admits that Aristotle’s works on logic might have some utility.[9] It is the principal works, the Physics, Metaphysics, De Anima, and Ethics, which he thinks should be “completely discarded.”[10] He emphasizes that he had himself studied Aristotle deeply, and understood him better than the most famous scholastic theologians, so that his opinion is not really comparable to a disgruntled freshman:

No one can accuse me of overstating the case, or of condemning what I do not understand… I know what I am talking about. I know my Aristotle as well as you or the likes of you. I have lectured on him and have been lectured at on him, and I understand him better than St. Thomas or Duns Scotus did. I can boast about this without arrogance, and if necessary, I can prove it.[11]

The work of Aristotle’s that offends Luther the most is the Ethics: “[H]is Ethics is the worst of all books. It flatly opposes divine grace and all Christian virtues.”[12] What exactly does this mean?

Two years earlier, in the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, Luther had defended a thesis contrasting human and divine love. Whereas human love comes into being through that which is pleasing to it, the Divine love is not caused by what pleases it, but rather makes that which it loves pleasing. This thesis is in itself not surprising. St. Thomas says exactly the same thing. But for Thomas there is nothing blameworthy about this dissimilitude between human and divine love. For human beings, as creatures, it is suitable that their love be caused by the attraction of the good. For Luther, however, this moved character of human love is blameworthy. Consider Luther’s proof of the thesis:

Human love comes into being through that which is pleasing to it… for the object of love is its cause, assuming, according to Aristotle, that each power of the soul is passive and material and active only in receiving something. Thus, it is also demonstrated that Aristotle’s philosophy is contrary to theology since in all things it seeks those things that are its own and receives rather than bestows something good.[13]

The power of the soul in which love is principally found, namely the will, is passive and receptive in this sense: it is moved by the attractive power of the good pleasing to it. It tends, in other words, towards happiness. And for Luther this implies that the movement of the will is self-centered. “It seeks those things which are its own”— this is for Luther the very definition of sin. Luther is not disagreeing with Aristotle about how human beings de facto act. Their wills are in fact moved by the attraction of the good. But, he thinks that Aristotle is here describing human nature as corrupted and depraved by original sin.

On Luther’s view, the scholastic theologians have made the fatal error of taking Aristotle’s account of fallen nature as normative, as though it expressed nature as originally created by God. Grace, on this scholastic view, would presuppose, heal, elevate, and perfect nature. But this is to neglect the fact that fallen nature is essentially perverse. In his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, Luther had written, “Man is by nature unable to want God to be God. Indeed, he himself wants to be God, and does not want God to be God.”[14] Since everything that man does, he does in order to perfect himself, in order to receive some good perfective of the faculties of his soul, he is himself the final end of all that he seeks. In a later sermon (1521), Luther argues that if man seeks reward from God, and flees pain, then he is not really seeking God for God’s own sake: “For why a man does something— that is his God.”[15] If the why, the final cause, of a man’s action is the reward of eternal happiness that he wants for himself, then his final goal is really himself— he is his own god. Therefore, Luther sees any attempt to seek salvation through meritorious works as necessarily idolatrous. Scholastic theology, insofar as it understood the grace of God as elevating, and perfecting man’s natural desire for happiness, by enabling man to hope for the beatific vision of God, falsified the Gospel. This is what Luther calls “the theology of glory,” which has learned from Aristotle that “lovable things are to be loved,” and delights in self-perfective activity, and he contrasts it with his own theology, the “theology of the Cross,” which delights in self-destructive suffering.[16]

What is true of the will is also true, mutatis mutandis, of the other powers of the soul. Thus, the intellect insofar as it is passive with regard to its object, and can only know what actually exists, is perverse and sinful:

[F]or the object of the intellect cannot by nature be that which is nothing (that is, the poor and needy person) but only that of a true and good being. Therefore it judges according to appearances, is a respecter of persons, and judges according to that which can be seen, etc.[17]

As the Lutheran theologian Rochus Leonhardt summarizes the Lutheran position, “God’s grace […] does not correct the direction of our striving for perfection; it unmasks the sinfulness of that striving.”[18]

I want to point out one more aspect of the young Luther’s position, that comes out particularly strongly in his lectures on Romans (1515-1516), delivered before the start of the Reformation. Here Luther interprets St. Paul’s saying that he could have wished even to be cut off from Christ himself for the sake of his brothers (Romans 9:3) to mean that the true love of God implies “utter self-hatred” with no thought of one’s own advantage “neither here nor in the life to come.”[19] In explicating Paul’s contrast between the prudence of the flesh and the prudence of the spirit (Romans 8:6), he explains this opposition by a reference to the common good. The prudence of the flesh seeks its own happiness, its private good, but the prudence of the spirit seeks the common good:

The ‘prudence of the flesh’ chooses what is to selfish advantage and it avoids what is harmful to the self. Moreover, it rejects the common good and chooses what harms the common spirit… It enjoys only itself and uses everyone else, even God; it seeks itself and its own interests in everything: it brings it about that man is finally and ultimately concerned only for himself. This is the idolatry that determines all he does, feels, undertakes, thinks, and speaks. Good is only what is good for him and bad only what is bad for him… The ‘prudence of the spirit’ chooses the common good and seeks to avoid what can harm the common life. It rejects self-interest and chooses what is disadvantageous to the self. For it directs the love that ‘seeks not its own’ (1 Cor 13:5) but that which belongs to God and all his creatures. It regards as good only what is good to God and everyone and as evil what is evil to God and everyone.[20]

Luther, in other words, sees a strong opposition between seeking one’s own good, and seeking the common good. And to seek happiness is to seek one’s own good, and subordinate the common good, and even God Himself, to oneself.

To sum up, Luther rejects Aristotle’s teleological understanding of the soul and its powers, and the ethics based on that teleological understanding, because he sees such an understanding as essentially self-directed.[21]

III.. Reply to Luther’s Objection: Participation and the Good[22]

I now want to reply to Luther’s objection to scholastic Aristotelianism. I will do this by considering three Aristotelian principles, which, rightly understood, show that Aristotle’s philosophy is not self-centered in Luther’s sense:

  1. The Good is in Things.
  2. An honorable good is naturally loved more than the act whereby we attain to it.
  3. The common good is naturally more loved than the private good.

A. The good is in things.

Our first notion of the good is “that which all things desire.” The late Duane Berquist manifests this definition by having us imagine asking a little boy “What is good?” The boy answers: “ice cream is good, pizza is good, movies are good, football is good, vacation is good.”[23] What do food, movies, sports, free time etc. have in common? They are all things that a little boy wants or desires. We can now ask: Is this a definition of good from its cause or from its effect? That is, is it desire that makes something good, or do we desire things because they are good? The first possibility has a great initial plausibility: it seems that if someone wants something, then it is good for them. If so-and-so wants to live in Los Angeles, then it seems that it is good for him to live there. But there are also reasons to doubt the idea that it is wanting something that makes it good. Haven’t we all had the experience of wanting something which we ourselves then admitted was not good? I wanted that last drink at the party, but afterwards I admit that it was not good for me. I wanted to drive 100 mph down the winding road, but later, on my hospital bed, I admit that it was not good. If wanting something made it good, then my wanting the last drink would have made it good for me.[24]

Aristotle identifies the good with a cause: the final cause.[25] The end and the good are the same thing, but considered differently. The end is “that for the sake of which,” while the good is “that which all desire.” The more fundamental notion is “good”; the causality of the end is derived from the attractive power of the good, which moves desire. That is to say, when I define the good as “that which all desire,” I am defining it by an effect of its goodness. The intrinsic goodness of a thing causes desire; desire is not the cause of a thing’s goodness. This is the Aristotelian teaching to which Luther is referring when he writes “Human love comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.” But Luther is mistaken about the implications of this teaching. In fact, the implication is really the reverse of what he thinks. If things were in themselves neutral, and were only called good because of our desire, then to desire a thing would really be to make it a means to one’s own activity or pleasure. That would be self-centered. We can see that self-centeredness in the subjectivist philosophy of our own day, which is founded on precisely such a relativistic understanding of good. But since the good is in things, (cf. Metaphysics 1027b), arousing our desire, it follows that in desiring something[26] we are really ordering ourselves to the good, not visa-versa.

B. An honorable good is naturally loved more than the act whereby we attain to it.

That we order ourselves to the good, and not visa-versa is strictly speaking true not of useful and pleasant goods, but only of good in the full sense, what Aristotle calls the “noble” good (to kalon), and St. Thomas calls the “honorable good” (bonum honestum): goods such as friendship, wisdom, justice that are willed for their own sake. Aristotle uses this distinction to distinguish different kinds of goods, but St. Thomas shows that in every desire for the good all three kinds are involved. When we consider a desired good, we can distinguish three objects of desire: the means used for attaining the thing, the thing itself, and the pleasure or delight that arises from the attainment of the thing.[27] If the good being sought is really a good in the full sense, then it is the primary object of desire among the three. The means are chosen only for its sake, and the pleasure that follows from it is entirely secondary with respect to the real end that is the good itself.

In another place St. Thomas distinguishes a fourth object of desire. Looking at the good itself, he distinguishes between that good, and the activity whereby I attain to that good.[28] For example, he would distinguish between a truth known and my activity of knowing that truth; between a friend and the activities of friendship with a friend. In the movement of our will these are not to separate objects; they are willed by a single act. But in thought we can distinguish them. Here again, since the good is in things, the primary object of desire and love is the good object itself, and only secondarily the activity of attaining to that object. The real end is the object. Nevertheless, the attainment of the end can (analogously) be called the end. Thus Thomas writes, “happiness is called man’s supreme good, because it is the attainment or enjoyment of the supreme good.”[29] In her senior thesis here at TAC, my mother put it like this: “To act for the sake of happiness is not to order all things to oneself, but rather to order oneself to the good.”[30]

Still, a doubt might remain. Luther could respond: This shows only it is natural to love the Supreme Good more than one’s own attainment of it in the order of concupiscence, the love of a desirable thing. But more important than the love of concupiscence is the love of friendship or benevolence. That is, the love of the person for whom one desires some good. For whom does one desire the God as the Supreme Good? Is it not for oneself? That is, Luther could say: maybe you do love God more than anything else, even your attainment of him, by a love of concupiscence. But by love of friendship you really love only yourself. It is for yourself that you want the good that God is. This brings us to the third principle:

C. The common good is naturally more loved than the private good.

In a question on whether man is bound to love God more than himself, Thomas raises an objection that reads like an anticipation of Luther:

One loves a thing in so far as it is one’s own good. Now the reason for loving a thing is more loved than the thing itself which is loved for that reason… Therefore man loves himself more than any other good loved by him. Therefore he does not love God more than himself.[31]

In his reply to the objection Thomas refers to the relation of part and whole:

The part does indeed love the good of the whole, as becomes a part, not however so as to order the good of the whole to itself, but rather so as to order itself to the good of the whole.[32]

Why does Thomas refer to part and whole here? Is God a whole of which man is a part? No, not exactly, but God is the common good of His creatures. In the body of the article Thomas writes:

The fellowship of natural goods bestowed on us by God is the foundation of natural love, in virtue of which not only man, so long as his nature remains unimpaired, loves God above all things and more than himself, but also every single creature, each in its own way, i.e. either by an intellectual, or by a rational, or by an animal, or at least by a natural love, as stones do, for instance, and other things bereft of knowledge, because each part naturally loves the common good of the whole more than its own particular good. This is evidenced by its operation, since the principal inclination of each part is towards common action conducive to the good of the whole. It may also be seen in civic virtues whereby sometimes the citizens suffer damage even to their own property and persons for the sake of the common good. Wherefore much more is this realized with regard to the friendship of charity which is based on the fellowship of the gifts of grace. Therefore man ought, out of charity, to love God, Who is the common good of all, more than himself: since happiness is in God as in the universal and fountain principle of all who are able to have a share of that happiness.[33]

The good is that which each thing seeks, insofar as it seeks its own perfection. But, as Charles De Koninck argued at great length in his classic interpretation of Thomas, On the Primacy of the Common Good: Against the Personalists, “its own perfection” does not mean only a thing’s perfection as an individual, but rather a more universal perfection to which it is ordered.

De Koninck shows that Thomas distinguishes four levels of a thing’s “own perfection”. The first level is the good of the individual as individual. This is the good that an animal seeks when it seeks nourishment.

The second level is the good of a thing that belongs to it on account of its species. This is the good that animals seek in reproduction. Is this really a thing’s “own perfection”? Is it not the perfection of another? No says De Koninck:

The singular animal prefers ‘naturally’, that is to say, in virtue of the inclination which is in it by nature the good of its species to its singular good… For the good of the species is a greater good for the singular than its singular good.[34]

The context of the text to which De Koninck is here referring is a passage where Thomas argues that a natural part always loves the whole more than itself. In natural things, Thomas argues, everything that belongs to something greater loves that greater to which it belongs. Thus, a part of the body naturally exposes itself for the sake of the whole body. Without deliberating, by natural instinct, a hand is raised to protect the body from a blow. And similarly, a virtuous citizen is willing to suffer death for the sake of his city.[35]

In other words, a part should always prefer the good of the whole to which it belongs to its good as a part. But “part” seems to have several meanings here. A hand is not a substance, it exists only as a part; a citizen on the other hand is not only a part– he is also a whole substance with a private good all his own. “Part” seems to have yet a third meaning when applied to an individual with respect to a species. And yet Thomas claims that in all of these cases of “part” the good of the whole is more desirable for the part itself.

The third level, discussed by De Koninck, is the perfection that belongs to a thing on account of its genus. What is meant is the good of “equivocal causes”— that is, of causes that cause something of a different species from themselves. The perfection of an effect is found in its equivocal cause, but in a more eminent mode. In Aristotelian physics, for example, the heavenly bodies are the equivocal causes of natural forms, and any perfection found in sublunary things is found in a more eminent way in the things above. The highest equivocal cause is where the fourth level of a thing’s “own perfection” is found: namely God Himself, who causes all things, but entirely transcends them. God is each creature’s “own” perfection, his “own” good on account of the likeness (analogy) that exists between the effects and their cause. Every perfection found in created things is a reflection of the perfection of God, and therefore there is an “analogy” and similitude between God and creatures. This is the true key to understanding why a thing’s “own perfection” is found more in the common good than in its private good.[36]

Creatures are not parts of their Creator, and yet they are ordered to their Creator the way parts are ordered to a whole. The perfection that they have is a participation in His perfection. To participate is to take part in something without removing a part from it. My reflection in a mirror partakes of my form, without depriving me of any part of my form. God does not have parts, but creatures share in Him in an incomplete, that is, a partial way. Therefore, Thomas can consider the love of creatures for the Creator as love of parts for a whole:

Consequently, since God is the universal good, and this contains the good of man and angel and all creatures, because every creature in regard to its entire being naturally belongs to God, it follows that from natural love angel and man alike love God before themselves and with a greater love. Otherwise, if either of them loved self more than God, it would follow that natural love would be perverse, and that it would not be perfected but destroyed by charity.[37]

Each creature “belongs to” God on account of what it is. That means that each creature is for the sake of God the way a part of a substance is for the sake of the whole substance. Created perfection just is a participation in and imitation of the Divine Perfection. As Thomas explains:

The perfection of each and every effect consists in this, that it is made like to its cause, for that which according to its nature is something generated is then perfect, when it reaches the likeness of its generator. Artifacts are likewise made perfect when they achieve the form of the art.[38]

The perfection that each creature desires consists in an ever-greater likeness to the Creator. But that means that the perfection that they desire only ever exists in a secondary way in themselves. It exists fully only in God. Thus to love one’s “own” perfection means to love God more than oneself. This is a “self-centered” love only in the sense that it is centered on the good in Whom one participates— God is, as it were, the “true self” of His creatures. But in another sense this is a thoroughly ecstatic love, in which one transcends oneself toward a good infinitely better than one’s individuality, a beloved to whom one can give oneself without reserve.[39]

We see, therefore, that Luther’s objection fails. The teleological nature of the powers of the human soul, does not mean that they are self-directed. On the contrary it means that they are directed towards God.

IV. The Shadow of Voluntarism

There was an obstacle that prevented Luther from seeing the true implications of Aristotelianism. It arose out of controversies about the nature of the will in the medieval universities. Mr. Berquist used to apply Heraclitus’s saying about war being the father of all to the life of the mind: “Without contradiction, objection, and counter-argument, it is very difficult for anyone to advance beyond his original indistinct view of things to a firmer and clearer understanding.”[40] Nevertheless, the heat of polemic can sometimes obscure the truth. Not all 13th century Aristotelians agreed with Thomas’s reading of the implications of a teleological understanding of the will. Siger of Brabant, for example, held that it is impossible to love the common good more than oneself.[41] Now, in reaction to Aristotelians such as Siger an intellectual movement arose often called “voluntarism.” It is called “voluntarism,” because it was developed out of a concern for the freedom of the will. This concern led voluntarists to attack the Aristotelian account of the will as rational appetite. They thought this “intellectualist” account made the will too passive, and therefore obscured important Christian truths about culpability and merit. A key early figure in this development was the Franciscan theologian Peter of John Olivi (ca. 1248–1298). Olivi explains his concern as follows:

Therefore the first thing in which Catholics differ from certain pagans and Saracens, namely that free acts are totally produced by the will or that free choice, or the will insofar as it is free, is totally an active power, should necessarily be maintained both according to the Catholic faith and according to right reason. For as is evident from the preceding question it is necessary that free choice may have the ratio of a first mover so that it is able to push and move and pull back itself and other powers and active virtues subject to it—and this not only when nothing is pushing it to the contrary, but also when there is something inclining to the contrary.[42]

Olivi’s concern was taken up by one of the most influential Franciscan theologians: Blessed John Duns Scotus (1265/66–1308). Unlike Olivi, Scotus was hesitant to abandon Aristotelian psychology altogether. With considerable subtlety, he worked out a sort of compromise between activity and passivity in the will. Scotus’s key move is the positing of two inclinations in the will. Borrowing terms from St. Anselm, Scotus calls these inclinations “affection for advantage” (affectio commodi) and the “affection for justice” (affectio iustitiae). The affection for advantage is the will’s natural inclination to happiness. The affection for justice, on the other hand, is the freedom that the will has to obey the objective dictates of right reason and the commands of God, without out any reference to the self.[43]

Unlike Luther, Scotus does not think that the desire for happiness is necessarily sinful, but he does think that it has to be moderated by the affection for justice to keep it in accordance with right reason. Scotus explicates this in discussing the sin of Lucifer, which he sees as a sin of immoderate affection for advantage:

Now imagine, in keeping with Anselm’s thought-experiment in On the Fall of the Devil, that there is an angel who has only the affection for the advantageous and not the affection for justice—that is, an angel having intellectual appetite merely as such, and not as free. Such an angel would not be able not to will advantageous things, or even not to will them supremely. Nor would this willing be imputed to the angel as a sin, since that appetite would be related to its associated cognitive power as the visual appetite is in fact related to vision: it would necessarily follow what is shown by its cognitive power and its own inclination to the best thing shown to it by that power, since it would not have the wherewithal to moderate itself. So that affection for justice, which is the first controller of the affection for the advantageous—both as to the fact that the will need not actually desire that to which the affection for the advantageous inclines it, and as to the fact that it need not desire it supremely… that affection for justice, I say, is the will’s innate freedom, because it is the first controller of the affection for the advantageous.[44]

Scotus argues that the natural inclination to one’s own happiness is not able to love the good for its own sake—this only becomes possible through the affection for justice:

As for the claim that one cannot fail to will advantageous things, I respond that the good angels were neither able nor willing to will-against happiness for themselves… But they did not will happiness for themselves more than they willed God’s well-being for God’s sake; rather, they willed their own happiness less, because thanks to their freedom they were able to moderate that willing in that way. Now you might object that if that’s true, they weren’t really desiring happiness for themselves in the right way; they were merely moderating that desire in the right way. I reply that having a perfect act of desiring a good for oneself, so that through that act the object is loved more for its own sake, comes from the affection for justice.[45]

Scotus explicitly raises the position that in loving a good by natural inclination a person loves the good in itself, more than himself as the one for whom he loves the good, but he rejects the position:

Granted, among things that are desired for the sake of the one loving, happiness is desired the most; but it is not loved the most. Rather, the one for whose sake happiness is desired is loved the most (just as an end is loved more than things that are for the end).[46]

Scotus also considers an argument similar to St. Thomas’s for why the desire for happiness is indeed consistent with loving God above all things: namely, that a part desires the good of the whole more than its good as part. But again he rejects the argument:

[The] examples don’t show what they are meant to show. They show only that the whole loves its own good, or its more important parts, more than it loves the good of a less important part… The hand does not put itself in the way of harm for the sake of the whole body as a result of the hand’s own appetite; rather, the human being who has these parts—one more important and another less important—puts the less important part, which he can lose without endangering the whole, in the way of harm in order to save the whole and the other part, whose loss would mean the complete destruction of the whole. And so what you can conclude on this point is that God loves the well-being of the universe—or even his own well-being—more than the well-being of any one part… But there is no basis to conclude that any creature loves God’s being or the being of the universe more than the creature’s own being, just as, in those examples, the part would, if left to itself (that is, considered only in terms of its own inclination), never put itself at risk of non-being for the sake of another. The analogy fails in another respect as well. Suppose it were true, as the examples assume, that these parts are something that really belong to the whole, and that by saving the whole they save themselves because they have being in the whole. Creatures are not parts in that way: they do not belong to God in the sense that God has them as a part, though they do belong to God as his effect or as participating in God.[47]

According to the great Lutheran theologian and historian Karl Holl, “No one before Luther had so worked out the contrast between morality and the quest for happiness.”[48] But in Scotus we do already see the beginnings of such a contrast. Scotus does not condemn the inclination to happiness, but nor does he found morality on it. Morality is founded rather on the moderation of that inclination through an impersonal, non-teleological inclination to justice.

Scotus’s voluntarism was carried even further by another Franciscan: William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347). Ockham was particularly important to Luther, because Luther’s own teachers were Ockhamists. Contrary to what certain Thomist polemicists have claimed, Ockham did not deny that there is an objective hierarchy of goods (perfections) in things. Nor did he even deny that the good in things exercises a certain attraction on the will. But he did deny that the attraction of the good is a cause or even a necessary condition for willing. The attraction of the good does make willing easier or willing-against more difficult, but the will remains so free that it can always act against such attractions. The will can will evil as evil and misery under the very ratio of misery, and it can will-against good as good, and will-against happiness as happiness.[49] Ockham does thus separate the notion of the good from the notion of the final cause. The will is able to make anything its final cause, regardless of whether it considers that thing as good or not. “The causality of the end,” he writes, “is nothing other than its being effectively loved and desired, so that what is loved is effected.”[50] He thus gives the created will a kind of Godlike freedom: its love is not caused by what pleases it. A good rational creature will exercise this freedom in accordance with right reason. It will freely choose to follow the commands of the supremely great God. Such a decision will always be an act of purely disinterested love. As Marilyn McCord Adams puts it, “the liberty of indifference allows God and rational creatures to be assimilated in performing mirroring acts of self-transcendent love.”[51]

Luther rejects this teaching of Ockham’s on the liberty of the will. One could phrase Luther’s rejection as follows: If the will were good, it would be as active as Ockham says, but since the will is depraved and corrupted by original sin, it is as passive as the Aristotelian intellectualists say: it is in bondage to its desire for happiness which makes it seek its own in everything. Luther, in other words, rejects the voluntarist account of the will, but his view of the alternative is darkened by the shadow of voluntarist polemics against intellectualism. This is why he can only see an Aristotelian rational appetite as belonging to the perverse selfishness of fallen nature. We, however, have already seen that Aristotle’s position does not entail selfishness. Or have we?

V. Whether St. Thomas was a Disciple of Aristotle

One doubt might remain. Could one not say that while the defense that I have offered of the desire for happiness shows that St. Thomas can be defended from the charge of selfishness, the same cannot be said for Aristotle? For, in explaining St. Thomas’s position I appealed to the doctrine of participation, which is a teaching that St. Thomas took chiefly from Platonist authors such as St. Augustine and Dionysius. That position, distinguishing Thomas from Aristotle, has in fact been taken by scholars such as Jacques Maritain[52] and Rochus Leonhardt.[53] But they are in error. For, the three principles regarding the good that we considered are directly from Aristotle. Aristotle himself teaches that the good is in things (Metaphysics 1027b), that the noble good is loved for its own sake (Ethics 1174a), and that the common good is more lovable than the private good because it is more divine. Consider his formulation of the third point:

For, even if the good is the same for one person and for a city, that of the city appears to be greater, at least, and more complete both to achieve and to preserve; for even if it is achieved for only one person that is something to be satisfied with, but for a people or for cities it is something more beautiful and more divine.[54]

Now, it is true that St. Thomas is able to give a fuller account of “more divine” by using Platonic notions of participation. Nevertheless, Aristotle himself does teach that there is something divine in human life, that has a similitude to the divine first cause. The love of the divine in human life is thus really primarily directed at the first cause. Aristotle is therefore much closer to the Platonists than is often thought. In De Anima II,4 (415a-b) he is surely echoing Diotima in Plato’s Symposium (207d), when he argues that everything that natural things do according to nature is for the sake of participating (μετέχωσιν) in the eternal and divine, and that therefore reproduction is the most natural of actions. To desire participating in the divine through the preservation of the species is not a self-directed desire in Luther’s sense, since the individual animal does not benefit from it qua individual.

Thus, when Aristotle argues in Metaphysics XII,7 that the first mover is the final cause of all things, moving the entire universe by the attraction of goodness, and that this mover is self-thinking thought—it is always in the “best state” that mortals are only in for a short time—we should understand this as meaning that the primary object of our love is the first mover Himself, and only by consequence our assimilation to Him. It is in this light that should understand Aristotle’s discussion of the divine and the human in his treatment of contemplation. Consider the teaching on contemplation in Nicomachean Ethics X:

But such a life would be too high for man; for it is not in so far as he is man that he will live so, but in so far as something divine is present in him; and by so much as this is superior to our composite nature is its activity superior to that which is the exercise of the other kind of virtue. If intellect is divine, then, in comparison with man, the life according to it is divine in comparison with human life. But we must not follow those who advise us, being men, to think of human things, and, being mortal, of mortal things, but must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us.[55]

As mortal we should not think of mortal things because the divine is more lovable to us than we are to ourselves. It is not primarily as “human good” that we love God, but as “divine good” in which we mortals participate only in a secondary way. Similarly, in the Eudemian Ethics Aristotle writes:

And so it is with the theoretic faculty; for God is… the end with a view to which prudence issues its commands. (The word ‘end’ is ambiguous, and has been distinguished elsewhere, for God at least needs nothing). What choice, then, or possession of the natural goods—whether bodily goods, wealth, friends, or other things—will most produce the contemplation of God, that choice or possession is best this is the noblest standard, but any that through deficiency or excess hinders one from the contemplation and service of God is bad.[56]

For Aristotle, therefore, as for St. Thomas, to love God as the end of human life is not to order Him to ourselves, but to contemplate and serve Him for His own sake. Although God has no need of us, nevertheless it is fitting and right that we order ourselves to Him. Thomas Aquinas College’s discipleship to Aristotle is therefore justified.


[1] Earlier versions of this paper were read at the conference The Common Good as a Common Project, Nanovic Institute for European Studies, University of Notre Dame, March 26th, 2017; the 25th Annual Roman Forum Summer Symposium, Setting Right a World Turned Upside Down: Transformation in Christ Versus a Sickness unto Death, Gardone Riviera, July 13th, 2017, and the International Theological Institute, Trumau, October 12th, 2017. My thanks to the organizers and participants on all three occasions for giving me the opportunity to present this paper, and for their insightful questions and comments. In particular, I would like to thank Rob Wyllie, John Rao, and Timothy Kelly.

[2] Saint Benedict of Nursia, The Rule, Prologue.

[3] Marcus Berquist, “Learning and Discipleship,” in: Aquinas Review 6 (1999), pp. 1-51, at p. 6. (Originally delivered as a Friday Night Lecture on September 13, 1996; audio of the lecture can be found online: ).

[4] Berquist, “Learning and Discipleship,” p. 49.

[5] Berquist, “Learning and Discipleship,” p. 50.

[6] For this section I am much indebted to the treatments of the Lutheran critique of eudaemonism in: Rochus Leonhardt, Glück als Vollendung des Menschseins: Die beatitudo-Lehre des Thomas von Aquin im Horizont des Eudämonismus-Problems (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1998); and in Johannes Brachtendorf’s Introduction to his translation of Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Happiness: Thomas von Aquin, Über das Glück – de Beatitudo, trans. Johannes Brachtendorf (Hamburg: Meiner, 2012), pp. lvii-lx.

[7] Martin Luther, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Improvement of the Christian Estate, trans. Charles M. Jacobs, revised by James Atkinson and James M. Estes, in: The Annotated Luther, vol. 1, The Roots of Reform, ed. Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), p. 448.

[8] Luther, To the Christian Nobility, p. 449.

[9] Luther, To the Christian Nobility, p. 450.

[10] Luther, To the Christian Nobility, p. 448-449.

[11] Luther, To the Christian Nobility, p. 449.

[12] Luther, To the Christian Nobility, p. 449.

[13] Martin Luther, The Heidelberg Disputation, trans. Harold Grimm, revised by Dennis Dennis Bielfeldt, proof of thesis 28, in: The Roots of Reform, p. 104.

[14] Martin Luther, Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, proposition 17, in: Martin Luther’s Basic Theological writings, p. 14.

[15]Den warumb der menscb etwas thut, das ist sein got.” Martin Luther, Ein Sermon von dreierlei gutem Leben, das Gewissen zu unter richten, in WA 7.801; cf. Leonhardt, Glück als Vollendung des Menschseins, p. 27.

[16] Theodor Dieter, Der junge Luther und Aristoteles: Eine historisch-systematische Untersuchung zum Verhältnis von Theologie und Philosophie (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2001), p. 64.

[17] Luther, The Heidelberg Disputation, proof of thesis 28, p. 105.

[18] Leonhardt, Glück als Vollendung, p. 38. Leonhardt is summarizing Jörg Baur’s Lutheran critique of Thomas Aquinas.

[19] Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans, trans. William Pauck (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961), pp. 261-262.

[20] Luther, Lectures on Romans, pp. 225-226.

[21] Cf. Dieter, Der junge Luther und Aristoteles, p. 48.

[22] Parts of this section are adapted from my papers “The Good, the Highest Good, the Common Good,” in: The Josias, February 3, 2015: (accessed March 23, 2017); and “Thomism, Happiness, and Selfishness,” in: Sancrucensis (blog), September 21, 2012: (accessed March 23, 2017).

[23] Duane Berquist, Lectures on Ethics: (accessed March 23, 2017).

[24] Berquist, Lectures on Ethics.

[25] See, for example: Physics II,3 1095a; Parts of Animals I,1 639a-640a; Metaphysics I,2 982a-b.

[26] Cf. Jean-Luc Marion, on value #####

[27] Summa Theologiae, Ia, q. 5, a. 6.

[28] Summa Theologiae, Ia-IIae, q. 1, a. 3, c.

[29] Summa Theologiae, Ia-IIae, q. 3, a. 1, ad 2; cf. Ia, q. 26. a. 3, ad 1. The translations from the Summa throughout are based on Laurence Shapcote, O.P.’s translation, available online (, but the translation has been modified when necessary with a view to the Latin.

[30] Susan Burnham [Waldstein], “Whether Happiness is the Ultimate End of Every Human Action” (BA Thesis, Thomas Aquinas College, 1978), p. 50.

[31] IIa-IIae q. 26, a. 3, arg. 2.

[32] Ibid. ad 2.

[33] Ibid. c.

[34] Charles De Koninck, On the Primacy of the Common Good: Against the Personalists, trans. Sean Collins, in: The Aquinas Review 4 (1997), pp. 10-71, at p. 18.

[35] Ia, q. 60, a. 5, c.

[36] De Koninck, On the Primacy of the Common Good, p. 19.

[37] Ia, q. 60, a. 5, c.

[38] De substantiis separatis, c. 12

[39] For Thomas’s teaching on the ecstatic nature of the love of God see: Peter Kwasniewski, “The Foundations of Christian Ethics and Social Order: Egoism and Altruism vs. Love for the Common Good,” in: The Josias, February 23, 2015: (accessed March 23, 2017); cf. Leonhardt, Glück als Vollendung des Menschseins, section 2.4.3. My argument up to this point has been in some ways similar to Pierre Rousselot’s [The Problem of Love in the Middle Ages: A Historical Contribution, trans, Alan Vincelette (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2001.]. Rousselot sees the importance of the part-whole analogy for understanding Thomas’s account of the love of God. But Rousselot does not fully see that such love is nevertheless ecstatic. This comes from the way in which Rousselot reads the relation of desire and the good. As Michael Waldstein has pointed out, Rousselot “does not begin with the good, with its power to cause love […] but with the naked fact of appetite as self‑interest rooted in the unity of a being with itself.” For Rousselot, “‘the good’ can be described in no other way than as the object of natural desires.”  And the “principle of direct and true love” is “unity,” that is, the unity of a thing with itself. [Michael Maria Waldstein, Glory of the Logos in the Flesh: Saint John Paul's Theology of the Body (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, forthcoming)]. In other words, on Rousselot’s account natural love can never escape a certain self-centeredness. It is therefore forever opposed to ecstatic love. But if one begins with the intrinsic worthiness of the good, then this opposition can be softened.

[40] Berquist, “Learning and Discipleship,” p. 4.

[41] See: Thomas M. Osborne, Love of Self and Love of God in Thirteenth-Century Ethics (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), pp. 114-117.

[42] Petrus Johannis Olivi, In II Sent. q. 58, r; translation following: Calvin G. Normore, “Ockham, Self-Motion, and the Will,” in: James G. Lennox and Mary Louise Gill (eds.), Self-Motion: From Aristotle to Newton (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), pp. 291-304, at p. 295.

[43] Cf.: John E. Hare, God and Morality: A Philosophical History (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009), ch. 2. My thanks to Caleb Cohoe for pointing me both to Hare and to the relevant texts in Scotus himself on this distinction.

[44] John Duns Scotus, Ord. II, D. 6, Q.2.; Thomas Williams (ed. and trans.), John Duns Scotus: Selected Writings on Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 114-115.

[45] Scotus, Ord. II, D. 6, Q.2.; Williams, p. 118.

[46] Scotus, Ord. III, D. 27, Q. un ; Williams, p. 170.

[47] Scotus, Ord. III, D. 27, Q. un ; Williams, pp. 169-170.

[48] Karl Holl, The Reconstruction of Morality, ed. James Luther Martin and Walter F. Bense, trans. Fred W. Meuser and Walter R .Wietzke (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1979), p. 69.

[49] See: Marilyn McCord Adams, “Ockham on Will, Nature, and Morality,” in:  P. V. Spade (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Ockham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 245-272.

[50]Circa primum dico quod causalitas finis non est aliud nisi esse amatum et desideratum ab agente efficaciter, propter quod amatum fit effectus.” Quodlibet IV, q. 1, a. 1; Venerabilis Inceptoris Guillelmi De Ockham: Quodlibeta Septem, vol. 9 of Opera Theologica, ed. Joseph C. Wey (St. Bonaventure New York: St. Bonaventure University, 1980), p. 293. I am grateful to Michael Waldstein for pointing out this text to me.

[51] Adams, “Ockham on Will,” p. 267.

[52] Jacques Maritain, Moral philosophy: An Historical and Critical Survey of the Great Systems (New York: Scribner, 1964), pp. 49, 78.

[53] Leonhardt, Glück als Vollendung des Menschseins, pp. 244-245.

[54] Nicomachean Ethics, I,2 1094b; trans. Joe Sachs.

[55] Nicomachean Ethics, X,7 1177b, trans. W.D. Ross.

[56] Eudemian Ethics, 1249b 13-21, trans. W.D. Ross, punctuation modified.


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