St. Thomas Aquinas Teaches Us How to Be Happy

“No one cares about reality anymore…”

A character in Terrence Malick’s 2015 film, Knight of Cups, uses that memorable phrase to describe a pleasure-soaked Los Angeles, in which the movie’s main character, a screenwriter played by Christian Bale, has lost himself. Numbed by malaise, he wanders as a passive observer from experience to experience and relationship to relationship. Nearly none of his friends or acquaintances seem to care about a wider reality than their particular pursuits of pleasure, wealth, or prestige — or even know that it exists.

The moral contours of Knight of Cups are extreme. Indeed, the film is framed through a parable about a prince who wanders to a faraway land in search of a pearl, forgets his mission, and gives his life up to dissolution and squalor. These larger-than-life elements noted, the ambivalence toward reality expressed by Bale’s character and others should be recognizable to anyone half-aware of contemporary life. The fruits of that ambivalence should also be familiar, namely alienation, aimlessness, loneliness, and fear.

As is often the case, a few words from St. Thomas Aquinas clarify the moral stakes. “Man’s salvation,” Aquinas writes, “consists in knowing the truth.” Besides avoiding confusion, knowing truth ensures that “man may not fall away from true happiness by pursuing wrong ends.”

The best way to avoid pursuing wrong ends, of course, is knowing what the right ones are. But to do that, one must first acknowledge that there is such a thing as right ends at all — that is, that aside from physical reality, there are also moral and spiritual realities. Put another way, “physics” (with its relatively consistent laws of cause-and-effect) exists for the moral life, just as it does for the material world. From this understanding of how reality works, the unhappiness of Bale’s character in Knight of Cups is as predictable as the outcome of throwing a bowling ball off a building.

But for contemporary people, anticipating a bowling ball’s flight trajectory comes far, far easier than conceptualizing moral or spiritual truth with the same degree of certainty. Our happiness suffers for it — but it doesn’t have to. The Christian intellectual tradition gives us any number of guides and tools for deepening our understanding of reality, human ends, and, finally, happiness. One such guide is St. Thomas Aquinas and one such tool is his masterwork, the Summa Theologiae.  

St. Thomas teaches us about reality. By doing so, he teaches us how to conform ourselves to it — to live in accordance with God’s plan for all creation. This education requires some work on behalf of the student, but its reward is sure. “Among all human pursuits,” St. Thomas tells us, “the pursuit of wisdom is more perfect, more noble, more useful, and more full of joy.” Through this pursuit, man “especially approaches to a likeness to God” and “joins…to God in friendship.”

My organization, the Thomistic Institute, recently launched a series of free online video courses called Aquinas 101. In total, the courses will span about 85 videos, each 3 to 10 minutes in length. Enrolling means getting two emails a week, each with a video lesson and supplementary reading and listening material. By the end of the courses, students will have mastered the basics of St. Thomas’ thought. The end goal is not simply familiarity with the ideas of a man who lived 800 years ago. Rather, we hope that St. Thomas will become for you what he is for us and for so many others up and down the centuries — a beloved guide to the truth of the Christian intellectual tradition.

St. Thomas and others participating in that same tradition boldly assert that this world is intelligible. This truth is something that many contemporary people have forgotten, a case of collective amnesia on display all around us and depicted memorably in Knight of Cups. The full truth about the order of reality and who we are is the pearl for which we are all seeking, whether we remember that search or not. St. Thomas can help us find it.

Photo by Ben Berwers on Unsplash


Caleb Whitmer is a campus program coordinator with the Thomistic Institute. He has worked previously as a journalist and Catholic school teacher.

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