St. Thomas and Christian Hedonism: Desiring Good

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.

Desiring Go(o)d

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.

12 thoughts on “St. Thomas and Christian Hedonism: Desiring Good

  1. I’m tuned in.

    In the past, I’ve been perplexed about Piper’s account of “pleasure.” I wonder, though, if his view of pleasure is closer to the Aristotelian account of happiness than it is, say, to Epicurus’ (let alone Aristippus’) view of pleasure.

    Back in the fifteenth century, the Italian humanist Lorenzo Valla presented an account that some have also referred to as Christian hedonism. While a Thomist can find a significant number of convergences between Thomism’s Christian eudaimonism and Piper’s Christian hedonism, Valla’s Christian hedonism (arguably) presents what one might expect of Christian *hedonism* (i.e., one that uses a more bodily (?) account of pleasure – though this is a debated point in the scholarship on Valla).

    Valla’s discussion of bodily pleasure, food and drink, etc., in heaven – towards the end of this selection from his work – suggests how Valla might instrumentalize salvation with respect to a heavenly pleasure that is merely a more intense and long-lasting version of earthy pleasure. If so, Valla’s version of Christian hedonism breaks with the Thomistic account where God (in Himself and propter se) is the good that brings supreme happiness (here, here, and here).

  2. Trevor, you write:

    “Just as our intellect is necessarily ordered toward truth, our wills are necessarily ordered toward the Good. We cannot help but seek after what we perceive as good. This is necessarily so; it is the structure of the human being for our intellects to seek truth, and our wills to seek what is good.”

    How does that square with what Paul writes about sinful human nature in Romans 1, for instance? Calvinists have really problems with talk about good coming naturally or even by necessity. Even Jesus said “no one is good except God alone” (Luke 18:19).

  3. Matt, great question.

    It seems to me that one of the main things Piper has been at pains to clarify is that our joy (which I do think Piper intends to map onto a sort of eudaemonism) is found “not in God’s gifts, but in God himself.” He acknowledges that the label he gives might not strike all the right chords which his audience: “If you must, forgive me for the label. But don’t miss the truth because you don’t like my tag.” So, what’s the truth behind the label? To me, Piper is unequivocal in affirming that God in himself and propter se is the good that brings us happiness. Some quotes:

    Indeed there are ten thousand gifts that flow from the love of God. The gospel of Christ proclaims the news that he has purchased by his death ten thousand blessings for his bride. But none of these gifts will lead to final joy if they have not first led to God. And not one gospel blessing will be enjoyed by anyone for whom the gospel’s greatest gift was not the Lord himself. (God is the Gospel, p. 12).

    Until the gospel events of Good Friday and Easter and thegospel promises of justification and eternal life lead you to behold and embrace God himself as your highest joy, you have not embraced the gospel of God. You have embraced some of his gifts. You have rejoiced over some of his rewards. You have marveled at some of his miracles. But you have not yet been awakened to why the gifts, the rewards, and the miracles have come. They have come for one great reason: that you might behold forever the glory of God in Christ (Ibid., pp. 37-8).

    “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). And when we get there, it is God himself who will satisfy our souls forever. Everything else in the gospel is meant to display God’s glory and remove every obstacle in him (such as his wrath) and in us (such as our rebellion) so that we can enjoy him forever. God is the gospel. That is, he is what makes the good news good. Nothing less can make the gospel good news. God is the final and highest gift that makes the good news good. Until people use the gospel to get to God, they use it wrongly. (Ibid., p. 42).

    all the saving events and all the saving blessings of the gospel are means of getting obstacles out of the way so that we might know and enjoy God most fully. (Ibid., p. 47).

    Piper, I think, uses terms like pleasure, delight, satisfaction, treasuring, enjoying, etc. rhetorically (rather than, say, strict philosophically) as a way to communicate to the “common listener” the truth he’s trying to get through to his audience (he’s very conscious that he is first and foremost a pastor). He chooses the word ‘hedonism’ in part I think for its mild shock-value, as a way to wake people up: “No, seriously, you’re supposed to enjoy, be happy, take pleasure in God!” How does that sit?

  4. Darryl,

    Using your term ‘sinful human nature,’ I think Aquinas would make a distinction between (1) ‘human nature’ meaning “what it is that makes a thing a human” and (2) ‘sinful human nature’ meaning “the de facto situation humans are in after the fall.” I should have made this distinction more explicit in my post, but I think both Piper and Aquinas are speaking to (1) and not to (2) when they say that all people necessarily desire happiness / what seems to them to be good. Obviously Piper/Pascal don’t think that hanging oneself is actually the right way to pursue happiness, so the way in which the desire is carried out can be deficient, while the desire itself remains a necessary part of the structure of the human being.

    For Aquinas, what makes a thing a human is that it is a union of soul and body that is able to reason. Without the ability to reason, we would be brutes rather than humans. So Aquinas doesn’t think that sin destroys–in the sense of complete elimination–our reason or the consequent desire to fulfill our nature (i.e., our desire for good). Since being rational is what makes us capable of sinning, the complete elimination of our faculty for reason (presumably by sin) would paradoxically prevent us from being able to sin: “Now sin cannot entirely take away from man the fact that he is a rational being, for then he would no longer be capable of sin. Wherefore it is not possible for this good of nature to be destroyed entirely” (ST I-II.71.6). Aquinas does think, however, that sin prevents us from choosing what is actually good for us, and that our reason is deprived of what is true on account of sin:

    As a result of original justice, the reason had perfect hold over the lower parts of the soul, while reason itself was perfected by God, and was subject to Him. Now this same original justice was forfeited through the sin of our first parent, as already stated (81, 2); so that all the powers of the soul are left, as it were, destitute of their proper order, whereby they are naturally directed to virtue; which destitution is called a wounding of nature.

    Again, there are four of the soul’s powers that can be subject of virtue…viz. the reason, where prudence resides, the will, where justice is, the irascible, the subject of fortitude, and the concupiscible, the subject of temperance. Therefore in so far as the reason is deprived of its order to the true, there is the wound of ignorance; in so far as the will is deprived of its order of good, there is the wound of malice; in so far as the irascible is deprived of its order to the arduous, there is the wound of weakness; and in so far as the concupiscible is deprived of its order to the delectable, moderated by reason, there is the wound of concupiscence. (ST I-II.85.3).

    But again, these effects of sin do not destroy what it means to be human, or else we would literally stop being the thing we are (humans) and be something else.

    I’m not sure who you have in mind when you refer to “Calvinists,” but Calvin himself draws a distinction between the innate desire for the good vs. the sinful inability to pursue the proper object of that desire. First he writes:

    undoubtedly, if you attend to what this natural desire of good in man is, you will find that it is common to him with the brutes. They, too, desire what is good; and when any semblance of good capable of moving the sense appears, they follow after it.

    Then, of course, he goes on to make the point that on account of sin, we’re unable to achieve that good that we all desire:

    Here, however, man does not, in accordance with the excellence of his immortal nature, rationally choose, and studiously pursue, what is truly for his good. He does not admit reason to his counsel, nor exert his intellect; but without reason, without counsel, follows the bent of his nature like the lower animals. (Institutes II.2.26).

    I don’t deny here that Calvin’s treatment of free will in this section doesn’t map straight onto Aquinas’s treatment of the same subject, but I’ll leave that for another day.

    On the quotation from Luke, Aquinas would agree completely with the words of Christ that no one is good but God, but having a natural ordering toward the good doesn’t make someone good–it makes them ordered toward the good. Further, Aquinas would say that even pre-fall, without sin, it would still be true that no one is good but God, since God is the source of goodness and is Goodness itself.

  5. Trevor, since the Reformers were part of an academic movement to return to the sources, wouldn’t Paul’s epistles trump Aquinas? No disrespect to medieval theologians, but they aren’t the word of God. And one of the “yuge” debates of the sixteenth century has to do with the authority of bishops vs. Scripture, or tradition vs. Scripture.

    In which case, Aquinas is interesting but what does appealing to him settle (at least for a Protestant)?

    Keepin’ it real.

  6. Great article, thank you Trevor.

    I was a member of Piper’s church when I was a young teenager and I think I recall him mentioning Pascal. I don’t specifically recall Piper addressing Pascal’s Catholicism, but I do remember some of Protestants justifying their reliance on Pascal as a theological source by saying things like “Pascal was a heretical Catholic” [in the sense of he believe doctrines condemned by the CC] and “Pascal was Catholic but really did believe in the gospel.”

    Do you know of any specific examples of this in Piper or others?

  7. Darryl,

    Certainly Scripture “trumps” Aquinas, but my post tries for the modest goal of pointing out a similarity between Piper’s thought and Aquinas’s thought; it doesn’t speak to the relation between tradition and Scripture. As you’ll note, I don’t even argue in the post that Aquinas and Piper are right; only that, right or wrong, they seem to be saying the same thing. Whether what Piper and Aquinas say on this point squares with Paul is a separate question–a good one, but one that would have taken me beyond the bounds of this post. Certainly both of them do think this understanding of human nature is warranted by Scripture, but showing that would be a different project. (Even in the surrounding context of the quotation from the Institutes in my response above, Calvin doesn’t explicitly cite any Scripture, though of course he would say that he thinks his view accords with it.)

    My post is not trying to prove and settle things, but rather to “highlight a convergence.” I’m not “appealing” to Aquinas as much as just reading him in relation to Piper and vice versa. I don’t imagine that this post would “settle” anything for a Protestant any more than it should for a Catholic. Maybe that makes for a boring post, but so it goes.

  8. Citing Aquinas happened often, and it was a valuable–though obviously not definitive–thing to do in early-modern Protestantism, as a number of our posts have discussed (here and here, for instance). More pressing is the fact that it would be hard to clarify what Piper means or what Aquinas means–and how those meanings relate to one another–by referring to Scripture, even though both Aquinas and Piper were seeking to be faithful to Paul’s account of sin, man’s true purpose, etc.

    Also, it may be somewhat relevant to note that the role of theologians and scholars in relation to the “magisterium” has had a complicated history in the Latin West. The most important essays on the topic are cited here.

  9. Shaun,

    Interestingly, Piper is pretty comfortable gleaning from ‘staunchly’ Roman Catholic thinkers–the clearest example of this is his appreciation of G.K. Chesterton. Here, for instance, he acknowledges that Chesterton is a committed Catholic, and states which Catholic doctrines in particular he finds harmful to Christian faith, but doesn’t back down from his admiration. Similarly here, with Pascal, though he doesn’t comment on his being Catholic, only that he was “converted to Jesus Christ” through his mystical experience, which maybe is a sort of assertion that he wasn’t saved before that time of discovering joy in Christ. I don’t recall a place where Piper makes the same sort of claim you refer to, which I’ve also heard from time to time about different thinkers–i.e., reliability being inversely proportional to how good a Catholic the thinker is/was.

    It seems to me that there’s an interesting version of this that happens, though, with Piper and Doug Wilson’s (and others’) treatment of C.S. Lewis. Lewis holds to many doctrines that have no place in evangelical theology, but there’s ‘something different about him’ such that he is a reliable theological source (in many ways, not all) despite his belief in purgatory, prayer to the saints, some sort of universalism, the “BVM” (blessed virgin Mary), shaky view on inerrancy, etc. The subject of Lewis interpretation is very interesting, and something I may write more about.

  10. Matt, there’s a really interesting engagement with Piper at Prosblogion, here. An excerpt:

    Where does this leave us? I don’t think Piper’s Christian hedonism is enough like any of the standard hedonist views to be worthy of the name. It isn’t really about pleasure. It’s about one kind of pleasure. It isn’t some general theory that bases some important consideration on pleasure and pleasure alone, which is what all the versions of hedonism do. It’s a view about the one thing we should have the most pleasure in, not a view that some philosophical problem (such as what is good or what is right) has pleasure as the answer (or the basis of the answer). It’s thus not hedonism.

    I propose that Piper’s Christian hedonism takes the primary element to be evaluated as desire-fulfillment, and it evaluates it in terms of whether the desire is being fulfilled in the best way it can be fulfilled (which, as it turns out, is always going to be in seeking to fulfill it in God). This is just a general moral theory, one that I think is fairly interesting and uncommon.

  11. Matt, picking up the question about “eudaemonism.” In case you’re interested, here is a quotation from Justin Taylor’s dissertation, John Piper: The Making of Hedonist (2015), p. 240:

    Fuller not only served as a key academic and spiritual mentor and encourager for Piper, but he was the first living influencer he met who was advocating for the categories of Christian eudaemonism, using Lewis and Edwards for support.

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