by Trevor Anderson
In this and some following posts, I’d like to highlight what I see to be some notable convergences between the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century “common doctor” of the Church, and Pastor John Piper, whose philosophical theology exerts considerable influence on New Calvinist thought.
Christian Hedonism and Practical Reason
First, here is Pastor John describing his discovery of a foundational tenet of his “philosophy of life,” Christian Hedonism:
During my first quarter in seminary, I was introduced to the argument for Christian Hedonism and one of its great exponents, Blaise Pascal. He wrote:
All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.
This statement so fit with my own deep longings, and all that I had ever seen in others, that I accepted it and have never found any reason to doubt it. What struck me especially was that Pascal was not making any moral judgment about this fact. As far as he was concerned, seeking one’s own happiness is not a sin; it is a simple given in human nature. It is a law of the human heart, as gravity is a law of nature. (p. 19)
This statement of Pascal’s was absolutely convincing to Pastor John; it was almost as if to know the terms of the statement was to agree with the statement. It fit his deepest longings, fit the data of his experience, and was essentially ‘indubitable’ – unable to be doubted. Pastor John came to see it, with Pascal, as ‘a simple given of human nature’. Note that Pastor John says this is prior to any ‘moral judgment’ – that is, this was not a condition that was ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but rather seems to be the way reality is necessarily structured. It is a ‘law’ of the human heart–as basic to reality as gravity’s role in natural motion.
Thomas Aquinas states what seems to me to be essentially the same insight in the following way, albeit with a bit more Scholastic terminology:
Now as “being” is the first thing that falls under the apprehension simply, so “good” is the first thing that falls under the apprehension of the practical reason, which is directed to action: since every agent acts for an end under the aspect of good. Consequently the first principle of practical reason is one founded on the notion of good, viz. that “good is that which all things seek after.” Hence this is the first precept of good, that “good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.” All other precepts of the natural law are based upon this... (ST I-II, 94, a. 2, resp.).
In other words, ‘Being’ is the object of our intellect, and ‘Goodness’ is the object of our wills. Just as our intellect is necessarily ordered toward truth, our wills are necessarily ordered toward good. We cannot help but seek after what we perceive as good–that is, what we think will make us happy. This is necessarily so; it is the structure of the human being for our intellects to seek truth, and our wills to desire what will do us good. No one intentionally believes what one knows to be false, and no one intentionally pursues what they think would be an evil for them.
This maxim, “That good is to be sought and evil avoided,” is commonly referred to as the first principle of practical reason. It is a principle, not a rule. In other words, it is not an order that we are commanded to follow. Rather, it is a principle that informs all our action. As we act, we discover that we do, in fact, always try to pursue what appears to us to be good and avoid what seems evil. Like Pastor John, Aquinas sees this principle as a basic feature of human nature (and, in fact, animal natures as well), and specifically of our practical, as opposed to theoretical, reason. In other words, this principle speaks to how humans will particular actions.
Later in Desiring God (p. 28), Pastor John lists the central tenets of Christian Hedonism. The first three of these tenets are:
1. The longing to be happy is a universal human experience, and it is good, not sinful.
2. We should never try to deny or resist our longing to be happy, as though it were a bad
impulse. Instead, we should seek to intensify this longing and nourish it with whatever will provide the deepest and most enduring satisfaction.
3. The deepest and most enduring happiness is found in God. Not from God, but in God.
We are meant to seek our happiness, says Pastor John; and the proper place to seek that happiness is in God (thus the term Christian Hedonism). Not all people will, in fact, seek this happiness in God; but that does not make the longing to be happy wrong, nor does it mean that other finite good things apart from God will satisfy those looking for happiness.
Likewise, for Aquians the pursuit of human fulfillment is directed not merely to finite, temporal good things. Rather, humans are oriented to seek fulfillment in their final end. We may seek other, lesser things as goods, and that is fine. But those are also subsumed under our overarching purpose of achieving our ultimate good:
Man must, of necessity, desire all, whatsoever he desires, for the last end. This is evident for two reasons. First, because whatever man desires, he desires it under the aspect of good. And if he desire it, not as his perfect good, which is the last end, he must, of necessity, desire it as tending to the perfect good, because the beginning of anything is always ordained to its completion (ST I-II, 1, a. 6, resp.)
Thus, for Thomas, “happiness means the acquisition of the last end.” And what is this last end? “[M]an and other rational creatures attain to their last end by knowing and loving God” (ibid., a. 8, resp.).
As one gathers from reading the introduction to Desiring God, this point about the first principle of practical reason is certainly not unique to Pascal, Piper, and Aquinas. Pastor John also cites C.S. Lewis and Jonathan Edwards to this effect, and one could read many other Christians who concur with this interpretation of reality (as Pastor John has in fact done in several other publications). However, given the constraints of my own expertise, as well as the relative importance of both figures to their own theological traditions, I’ll continue to focus on such concurrence between St. Thomas and Pastor John. Of course there are nuances of both thinkers that I am (and will be) glossing over, but with any luck I’ll be putting my finger on essential convergences that survive the differences peculiar to each man’s thought. Stay tuned.