St. Thomas’s Never-Fail Guide to Happiness

One of the most intellectually compelling things I’ve ever read on the problem of pain and God’s existence was a reflection by my friend Bryan Cross on the death of his two-year-old son. Amidst his anger and grief, Cross realized a kind of trilemma: Either God did not exist, or God was evil, or God was good.  

If God does not exist, Cross’s complaining was pointless, because no one was listening. If God is evil, his complaints were also pointless, because there’s no point complaining to an evil deity about ill treatment. Thus the sheer act of complaining to God about injustice only makes sense if God is good. Moreover, says Cross: “The only intelligible option of the three was that the goodness I longed for, and which inasmuch as I was aware of it was the fire behind the anger driving me to pummel the center of my steering wheel, was the very goodness at the heart of all things, the goodness by which I lived and breathed at that moment.”

What Cross was doing in that moment was applying the sort of disinterested, logical analysis that is required to evaluate important questions like “How can a good God allow suffering?” That’s not to say that such an approach stoically ignores emotions as inconsequential. Rather, it recognizes that however important emotions are in the human experience, they are unreliable guides when trying to answer questions about meaning and happiness. St. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps more than any other, perfected this method of intellectual inquiry, as Catholic apologist Matt Fradd concisely and persuasively explains in his new book How to Be Happy: Saint Thomas’ Secret to a Good Life.

Fradd introduces his subject with a combination of personal testimony and quotations from some of the most perceptive minds who have contemplated the question of human happiness: Blaise Pascal and C. S. Lewis. The quotation from Lewis is well-worn, but perennially relevant: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Or, as Aquinas would put it, because all things have objects to which they tend (what philosophers call final causality), and because man’s intellect and will are immaterial, and because the object of man’s will is the universal good, man’s end must necessarily be some infinitely good, immaterial end, namely, God.

Yet readers unfamiliar with Aquinas perhaps will be skeptical that a thirteenth-century monk would have much relevance to communicate to a twenty-first century audience. Here Fradd explains that St. Thomas has been called “the most brilliant light of the church” (Pope Pius V) and “a master of thought and a model of the right way to do theology” (Pope St. John Paul II). He’s also the second-most cited saint in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (St. Augustine takes first prize). His Summa Theologiae represents the gold standard for Catholic theological study of the divine.

If God is the universal good, then it is in Him that we will find our true happiness. Yet Fradd knows that for the non-religious this will be a hard sell. Thus the second section of his book considers what will not make us happy: sin, bodily pleasures, and interior pleasures. Using Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae as a guide, he examines the capital sins of pride, anger, lust, envy, gluttony, avarice, and sloth and how they are all dead-ends to happiness. The same can be said of money, possessions, or sex, all of which expose their inadequacies when we consider how ephemeral are their pleasures, and how unhappy are those who enjoy these things even to the extreme. So too honor and fame, though that doesn’t stop us from pursuing them, even on our social media feeds! All of them, we must acknowledge, fail to ultimately satisfy.

Rather, says Fradd (channelling Aquinas), it is the interior life, cultivated through a relationship with God in which we know Him and are truly known, that brings true happiness. Part of this process is through the development of our “moral muscles,” or the cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, justice and courage. If you are familiar with the Summa, it’s obvious that Fradd is closely following Aquinas’s argumentation on the subject. For each of these virtues, Fradd offers a highly accessible treatment, explaining how prudence is the ability to navigate the many goods that daily present themselves to us; that courage does not equal recklessness, but is rather curbing fear and moderating daring.

Yet even the development of these virtues is not sufficient for true happiness. For that, we must also possess the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, which are given to us in baptism. Fradd cites Aquinas’ argument that it is irrational to not have faith in God, because it is through faith we realize true happiness. So too hope is not vain wishing, but a trust in a source (God) that has proven Himself worthy. Finally, in love we will the preeminent good, which is God, by desiring to possess Him, both through the Eucharist and ultimately in the Beatific Vision. 

The book’s final section offers helpful advice on how to control our passions (Fradd has quite a bit of expertise in this given his anti-pornography ministry), what to do when life hurts, and how to address scrupulosity. Aquinas recommends the enjoyment of true pleasures, tears, friends, contemplation, and sleep and baths (yes, baths). He also reminds us that we can know that we are in a state of grace when, “delighting in God, and of despising worldly things, and inasmuch as a man is conscious of any mortal sin.” The sacrament of confession, of course, helps provide objective criteria for us to be able to know we are not in mortal sin. In times of doubt, we must also consider the exhortations of St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Faustina Kowalska, which remind us of God’s abundant, inexhaustible mercy even in our sin. 

Fradd’s concise reflection on happiness according to St. Thomas is an excellent gift, both for non-Catholics and those (like me) who need a reminder of where true happiness is found. That Fradd can take someone often viewed as intellectually dense and inaccessible and make him understandable to those who have never opened the Summa demonstrates his strong comprehension of the angelic doctor. And in finding the intellectual answers we seek in the divine, we realize, as Cross, Fradd, and Aquinas have, that there too is the fulfillment of our heart’s desires.

Editor’s note: To learn more about how St. Thomas can help you to live the good life, check our interview with Dr. Kevin Vost which you can stream below or find Catholic Exchange wherever you listen to podcasts. Also, check out the following articles by Dr. Vost:

image: detail from Triumph of St. Thomas fresco in S. Maria Sopra Minerva (Rome), photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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Casey Chalk is a senior contributor at Crisis and a freelance writer. He holds a Masters in Theology from Christendom College.

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