Thomas Aquinas on Man’s Last End as Happiness

‘Not in any Creature, but in God Alone’

First Article of the Series, “Retrieving Happiness”

Current Christians of the American evangelical ilk may attribute “Christian Hedonism” to John Piper, but the idea of happiness in God spans throughout church history in many theologians. One of whom is Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274). While many everyday, American evangelicals might shrink back at the name of Aquinas (perhaps due to valid reasons),[1] there has been a recent academic, Protestant retrieval of his thought,[2] and the opportunity for Christian Hedonists is ripe to plunder his thoughts in this renewal. In his massive work, the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas philosophically (and theologically) treats man’s last end, drawing from philosophers, earlier theologians, and the Scriptures. So, what does Aquinas say about man’s last end that might support the current threads of Christian Hedonism? Aquinas argues that man’s last end is happiness in God. 

Author Note: If you haven’t seen or read Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, you can read more about it here.

Locating ‘The Last End’ in the Summa Theologiae

Thomas Aquinas does not treat “man’s last end” for quite some time in the Summa. In the Prima Pars (First Part), Aquinas first treats the nature of sacred doctrine (Ia.Q1). He then talks of the existence of the one God who causes all things to be (Ia.QQ.2–26). Next, Aquinas discusses this one God’s being from the aspect of his triunity (Ia.QQ.27–42/43). So, questions 2–42 speak of God’s internal being. To close, Aquinas talks about God’s external works. First he discusses the missions of the divine persons (Ia.Q.43). Then he covers the doctrine of creation, including the cause of evil (Ia.QQ.44–49). Finally, Aquinas spills much ink over discussion of angels, order of creation, and man (Ia.QQ.50–119).

To open up Prima Secundae (First Part of Part Two), Aquinas spends the first five questions on man’s last end as happiness in God:

Prologue: The Last End
Question 1: Of Man’s Last End
Question 2: What Man’s Happiness Consists in
Question 3: What Is Happiness
Question 4: Of Those Things That Are Required for Happiness
Question 5: Of the Attainment of Happiness

So, even though this essay treats questions 1–2, Aquinas really treats this topic in 5 questions.

In sum, Aquinas first talks about the one triune God in himself; then he covers God’s external works, specifically creation; moving on, he discusses angels, man, and the order of creation; then he comes to the matter of this essay: man’s last end. Now, we can move on to exposition of Prima Secundae questions 1–2.

Exposition of Prima Secundae QQ.1–2

In this section, I will simply exposit and summarize Aquinas’s work to show he insists that nothing other than happiness in God can be man’s last end.


In the prologue to Prima Secundae, Aquinas states that since he has already treated the exemplar (God), he should move on to treat man—God’s image who also wills his own actions.[3] Here, it is important to note that Aquinas calls God “exemplar” and says that man toois the principle of his operations. This should recall to mind that God is cause of all things—not just exemplary, but also final, in which Aquinas ends question 2 saying, “some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.”[4] 

Question 1: Of Man’s Last End

Question 1 of Prima Secundae covers “Man’s Last End.” Here, Aquinas includes a prologue and eight articles to set the foundational work to show that man can have one last end, which acts as a foundation that man’s last end—happiness—is found only in God.

Prologue to Question 1

The prologue of question 1 tells the reader what Aquinas will cover in this and the subsequent questions: “we shall consider first the last end of human life; and second, those things by means of which man may advance towards this end.”[5] From this, Aquinas makes a blunt claim that will direct questions 1–2: “the last end of human life is stated to be happiness.”[6]  Consequently, Aquinas says “we must consider (1) the last end in general; (2) happiness.”[7] With this in mind, Aquinas then moves on to his eight articles on man having a last end.

Articles 1–3[8]

Man is a principle of his own actions[9] as a willing, rational agent.[10] All actions involve the will, and the will has an object in which it moves towards. Hence, “the object of the will is the end and the good. Therefore all human actions must be for an end.”[11] Hence, “Every agent, of necessity, acts for an end,” according to Aquinas. Rational agents do not move without with an end.[12] Since man has a rational will, he chooses to move towards something—an end. And this end specifies man’s work. That is, an end man works towards classifies his act as a particular act.[13]

Articles 4–5[14]

Aquinas writes, “good is that which has the nature of an end.”[15] If this is so, there must be one last end which man moves toward, for an indefinite end is to deny that it is supremely good, and there would be no last end.[16] This must also mean that one thing is the last end—not multiple things. For it is “necessary” that the lastend is last, “Which is not possible, if something else be required for his perfection. Consequently it is not possible for the appetite so to tend to two things.”[17] 

Article 6[18] 

Aquinas says, “Man must, of necessity, desire all, whatsoever he desires, for the last end.”[19]  This is so because whatever man wills, he will unto an end. Hence, all of his actions are for some end called “good,” even if it is misplaced good.

Articles 7–8[20] 

Aquinas closes question 1 with articles 7–8 which respectively discuss if all men have the same end and if other creatures share this last end. Aquinas drew from Augustine, and says “that all men agree in desiring the last end, which is happiness.”[21] Since men are on of nature, then tend to one common end.[22] This end is none other than happiness, but man seeks this in different ways and in different things. Finally, other creatures can and cannot participate in this depending on what we mean by “end.” If we mean “end” as in a thing, then all creatures have the same end.[23] But if we mean “end” as a thing as something acquired, then only rational creatures can partake in this manner.[24] After Aquinas says happiness is man’s last end (article 7), he says, “God is the last end of man and of all other things. . . rational creatures attain to their last end by knowing and loving God.”[25] 


In question 1 of Prima Secundae, Aquinas shows that man indeed has one last end. This last end is nothing other than happiness—a thing in itself and a thing sought after. To close out this question, Aquinas leaves clear hints that this happiness is God himself.[26] 

Question 2: What Is Happiness

In question 2, Aquinas moves on “to consider happiness, because happiness is attaining the last end.”[27] This question has 8 articles of similar nature, asking the question: “What does happiness consist in?” In article 8, Aquinas gives his explicit answer of where man’s last end is found.

Articles 1–7[28] 

Articles 1–7 ask if happiness consists in wealth, honor, glory, power, bodily goods, pleasure, or some good of the soul. Aquinas says that all these things are happy in some measure, but these never bring man to a final happiness itselfof which is constituted outside of man.[29] That is, these can be means of happiness, but only a happiness that does not last, and so, cannot be man’s last end.

Article 8[30]

Article 8 is the culmination of question 2. Aquinas asks whether any created good constitutes man’s happiness. He says no created thing can be man’s last end as happiness, for nothing created can fully “lull” man’s appetite[31]—“save the universal good.”[32] Only the universal, infinite good can satisfy man and thus be his last end. This universal good “is to be found, not in any creature, but in God alone; because every creature has goodness by participation.”[33] Only “God alone can satisfy the will of man.”[34] Thus, Aquinas closes, “Therefore God alone constitutes man’s happiness.”[35] 

Historical Context: Aristotle and Scholasticism

It is not novel to point out that Aquinas uses Aristotle—whom he refers to as “the Philosopher,” in the Summa.[36] It is not a secret that some wondered how Aristotle would affect Christianity when his works were recovered. When Aquinas said that man’s last end is happiness,[37] it appears he does use notions from Nichomachean Ethics, Book I.[38] To say Aquinas used Aristotle is accurate, but to say he was governed by Aristotle is improper.

Aquinas’s use of Aristotle was not necessarily the new thing of his era. Other Medievals like Anselm or Peter Abelard followed the example of those who came before to show the compatibility of reason and faith by answering the questions of faith with reason.[39] Given that the Summa was written to aid pastors in the context of the rediscovery of Aristotle and Medieval Scholasticism of showing that reason does not threat the faith, it seems that Aquinas uses Aristotle and philosophy to support Christian claims and thus be a help to men who would encounter the use of reason. An important text that supports this is in the Summa itself:

This science can in a sense depend upon the philosophical sciences, not as though it stood in need of them, but only in order to make its teaching clearer. For it accepts its principles not form other sciences, but immediately from God, by revelation. Therefore it does not depend upon other sciences as upon the higher, but to the defect of our intelligence.[40]

Thus, Aquinas calls philosophy and other sciences “handmaidens of [sacred doctrine].”[41]  Hence, Aristotelian tones in the Summa are driven as a Medieval attempt to help pastors encounter the philosophy of the day and clarify our weak minds.

Conclusion: Learning from Thomas Aquinas

Aquinas left a helpful example for Christians then and now. He ranks as one of the most influential theologians, and his work on man’s last end exemplifies why he is among the top theologians of the world. But Christians today, at least in my own circles, do not experience the delight in reading him. So what can evangelical Christian Hedonists learn from Thomas Aquinas’s work?

First, today’s Christians can realize that components of Christian Hedonism did not begin in 1980 or with Jonathan Edwards. That happiness in God is the end of man is part of the Christian tradition—not merely American evangelical ideas. And so, this case of Aquinas hopefully can show that while the tradition comes to us with some stains, it also has useful threads that can strengthen our own canvas of theological ideas.

Second, we can learn from Aquinas that philosophy is not all that bad. He clearly uses reason and the Philosopher to aid classic Christian hope, and therefore, morals. Further, the systematic order in logic, argumentation, and sequence is owing, in part, to philosophy.

Third, Aquinas raises a good question for those who accurately affirm that we should enjoy God’s gifts. He states that happiness does not consist in (bodily) pleasures, even though it results in some form of happiness.[42] This should give some reservation on how we are to enjoy God’s gifts. They are to be enjoyed with thanksgiving (1 Tim 4:4), but we must see that these things that bring bodily pleasure do not consist of true happiness. While many do say this, Aquinas calms hyper-hedonists in terms of natural pleasure.

[1]E.g., he appears to be the epitome of Roman Catholicism and gave the standard argument and explanation for transubstantiation.

[2]See for example, Manfred Svensson and David Vandrunen, Aquinas Among the Protestants (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2018).

[3]Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Latin/English Edition of the Works of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, eds. John Mortensen and Enrique Alarcón (Lander, WY: The Aquinas Institute, 2012), Ia-IIae.prol. All citations will be from the online version: 

[4]ST Ia.2.3.

[5]ST Ia-IIae.1.prol.

[6]ST Ia-IIae.1.prol.

[7]ST Ia-IIae.1.prol.

[8]A. 1: Whether it belongs to man to act for an end? A. 2: Whether it is proper to the rational nature to act for an end? A. 3: Article 3: Whether human acts are specified by their end?

[9]ST Ia-IIae.1.1 sed contra.

[10]ST Ia-IIae.1.1.

[11]ST Ia-IIae.1.1.

[12]ST Ia-IIae.1.2.

[13]ST Ia-IIae.1.3.

[14]A. 4: Whether there is one last end of human life? A. 5: Whether the will of one man can be directed to several things at once as last ends?

[15]ST Ia-IIae.1.4 sed contra.

[16]ST Ia-IIae.1.4 sed contra and resp.

[17]ST Ia-IIae.1.5. Cf. Matt 6:24: “No man can serve two masters” (STIa-IIae.1.4 sed contra).

[18]A. 6: Whether man wills all that he wills for the last end?

[19]ST Ia-IIae.1.6.

[20]A. 7: Whether all men have the same last end? A. 8: Whether other creatures concur in man’s last end?

[21]ST Ia-IIae.1.7 sed contra.

[22]ST Ia-IIae.1.7 ad. 3.

[23]ST Ia-IIae.1.8.

[24]ST Ia-IIae.1.8.

[25]ST Ia-IIae.1.8.

[26]ST Ia-IIae.1.8.

[27]ST Ia-IIae.2.prol.

[28]A. 1: Whether man’s happiness consists in wealth? A. 2: Whether man’s happiness consists in honors? A. 3: Whether man’s happiness consists in glory? A. 4: Whether man’s happiness consists in power? A. 5: Whether man’s happiness consists in bodily goods? A. 6: Whether man’s happiness consists in pleasure? A. 7: Whether some good of the soul constitutes man’s happiness?

[29]ST Ia-IIae.2.7 states that happiness is a good of the soul, but what constitutes happiness is something outside of man, so happiness cannot constitute man’s happiness.

[30]A. 8: Whether any created good constitutes man’s happiness?

[31]ST Ia-IIae.2.8.

[32]ST Ia-IIae.2.8.

[33]ST Ia-IIae.2.8.

[34]ST Ia-IIae.2.8.

[35]ST Ia-IIae.2.8.

[36]E.g., ST Ia-IIae.2.2 sed contra.

[37]E.g., ST Ia-IIae.1.prol; Ia-IIae.2.prol.

[38]Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, I (esp. I.1–3, I.7.8–9, I.9).

[39]Cf. Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, vol. 1 (New York, NY: HarperCollings, 2010), 369–380.

[40]ST Ia.1.5 ad. 2.

[41]ST Ia.1.5 sed contra.

[42]ST Ia-IIae.2.6.