Aquinas on Human Flourishing

by Joseph Wawrykow


The question of human flourishing is central to the intellectual enterprise of the great 13th-century Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas. What does it mean to be human and in what does human fulfillment lie? Much of Aquinas’s magnum opus, the Summa theologiae (ST), can be said to be concerned with human flourishing. As students of Aquinas’s moral theology are keenly aware, human flourishing is front and center in the ST’s Second Part, on the movement of the rational creature to God as beatifying end. But, a hearty discussion of being human and appropriate human action that is authentic and truly fulfilling threads as well through the Christology of the first fifty-nine questions of the Summa’s Third (III) and final part. The theme as developed in the Summa III is much less frequently remarked in the literature. That is unfortunate. In discussing Christ and his human acting, Aquinas has put the finishing touches on his theological anthropology.

The Second Part of the Summa is indeed a magnificent accomplishment, well worth the study. The Second Part is itself divided into two parts: the first (I-II) looks at the movement of the rational creature to God as beatifying end in general; the second (II-II) treats one by one the main virtues (the three theological virtues; the cardinal virtues) that figure in that movement to God by which humans are fulfilled. In the Second Part, Aquinas expresses his most fundamental ideas about what it means to be human, the actions that are crucial for development and growth towards God as end, and the conditions for such action. Flourishing, and the movement towards full flourishing, involves the whole person, body and soul. Thus, while he certainly pays close attention to volition and intellection, outlining the acts of knowing and willing that are proper to being human, Aquinas also attends to body and the passions, which can be conducive to spiritual thriving, or detract from that.

The account of fulfillment is resolutely positive. To be fulfilled is to know and to love what is most worthy of knowing and loving, which is God; final knowing and loving will come in the next life, in the immediate presence of God; what one does now, what one knows and loves now, should prepare one for that full flourishing, readying the person for entry in the next life into the direct presence of God. Acting, however, presupposes capacity, and acting well out of that capacity. Aquinas knows of several impediments to flourishing. The God who beatifies transcends the natural powers of soul; and people live in a fallen world and know sin in themselves and others as well as the consequences that follow on sin. In the moral theology of the Summa’s Second Part, God meets such need. The God who creates humans and orients them to the end that is God, also provides them with the means to attain their beatifying end. God directs by law; God offers new capacity to the person, to elevate to the supernatural level, and to heal of the problems of sin. ‘Habit’ runs through the talk of capacity and the correct acting out of that capacity. Grace itself is habitual, perfecting the essence of the soul; the virtues infused with grace—the theological virtues, infused moral virtues—are by definition ‘habits’ (a virtue is a ‘good habit’ that disposes one to acts of a kind); the gifts of the Holy Spirit by which the possessor is made more prone to the promptings of God’s grace to virtuous action conducive to attaining God are habits as well. Talk of ‘habit’ that is infused serves a double function. A habit is rooted in a human being; the grace, infused virtue, and gifts belong to that person who has received them, and it is by the added capacity established by those habits that the person can know and love in a way pleasing to God. But, these habits are gifts, not one’s own accomplishment; the attaining of the beatifiying God is very much a gift of God, who remains present in this giving. Human flourishing involves God’s sharing; it is on that basis that humans form community with God, in this world and in the next.


The journey as portrayed by Aquinas is of the individual, and the habitual enhancement of capacity is of an individual. And, this journey reaches its term not in this life, but in the next. However, there is very much a social dimension to the Summa’s comments on the virtuous life, and virtue’s expression will indeed matter to this world. To reflect on two of the virtues, each architectonic in their way: Justice means to render what is owed to another, to God in the first place, but to others as well. And, with charity, one can recall here the double love command of scripture, to love God above all things and to love others as they relate to God as to their beginning and end. And so life in this world does have a value, and not simply as a preparation for the next world (although it is that). One is flourishing, and on the way to final flourishing, by loving God and others in God, now; in working for justice, in giving others their due, now; by building now the loving and just community with others in God that God seeks of humans.

Thomas’s accomplishment in ST III is equally remarkable. The Christology discloses a profound encounter with the scriptural witness to Christ, and with the post-scriptural Christian tradition that comes to especial expression in the early ecumenical councils. The Christology is incarnational, affirming hypostatic union. The person of Jesus is the second divine person, who from eternity is a distinct person in God and one and the same God as the Father, as the Holy Spirit. Without loss to itself as fully divine Word of God, the Word has taken up a second nature—human nature—and instantiated that nature. The incarnate Word is truly human; and the actings and sufferings of the truly human Word (as incarnate) are of momentous significance for other people. It is through Christ that God works out human salvation, meets the challenges of human existence, provides the capacity required for appropriate action that is conducive to human flourishing. As Aquinas puts it succinctly, near the beginning of the Summa when he explains that structure of the work (ST I.2 prologue), Christ as human is the way to God as end.

In this incarnational Christology, it does matter that the Word is God, and that the Word is that divine person, with the characteristics of that person (distinct from those of the Father or of the Spirit). And it definitely does matter that the Word was made flesh, is as incarnate truly human. One sign of Aquinas’s skill as a theologian is his ability to give each aspect of Christ—the divinity; the divine personhood; the full humanity—its due, playing up what is most relevant at given points of his Christological analysis. And thus, when it comes to Christ’s personal holiness, to his good willing and acting, and suffering, Aquinas focuses on the genuine humanness of the incarnate Word. He is God; but it is not because he is God that Jesus is holy, acts well, and acts unfailingly well. Rather, his success as moral agent is due to the grace that he has received, to the infused virtues, including charity and justice, to the gifts of the Holy Spirit that make him fully responsive to the promptings of grace. Compared to other humans, there is a difference in degree: his grace and virtue and gift are to the full, in keeping with his salvific mission. But, what holds of others—flourishing as predicated on proper relation to and reception from God—holds of him.


And so in the Christology of ST III, Aquinas can play up the exemplarity of Jesus, both ontological and, not incidentally, moral. He is truly and fully human, and in his acting and suffering, he can thus show what it means to act in a way that is appropriate to a being who stands in correct relation to God and acts in a way that is in keeping with the will of God for beings of this sort, and thus flourish. In comparison with the account in the Summa’s Second Part, the move is to the specific, to the concrete expression of the human life well-lived, out of grace, virtue, and gift.

Aquinas’s account of human flourishing, put in a Christological key, may well be of interest to a broad range of readers. There is a certain beauty in the portrayal of this human in ST III, and Aquinas’s presentation of Jesus, who stands in this relation to God and exemplifies the virtues that Aquinas plays up, may end up appealing to many readers (at least those who strive to eschew reductionist accounts of the human; who continue to take seriously will and intellect and the whole person, body and soul; and who are not averse to considering how others may figure in the flourishing of an individual). That presentation can also prove challenging, in a good way. Aquinas is not alone in describing human flourishing or urging its pursuit. His account of human flourishing, including the virtues conducive to that, will differ in small or significant ways from that proposed by others, Christian and non-Christian. Aquinas’s Jesus, the true human, is not Aristotle’s contemplative sage; and other Christians, wed as is Aquinas to the scriptures, may put the stress elsewhere in accounting for human fulfillment. Comparative work, bringing this Aquinas into dialogue with other versions, is thus in order, in the search for ever more adequate accounts of what it means to be human and to thrive as human.

Joseph Wawrykow
Associate Professor of Theology
Fall 2011 NDIAS Fellow







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