Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas – The Good Life

So this is a classwork assignment. Rough draft. Blah blah blah. I didn’t want to put in what I really thought about Augustine, so, you know, I called him a book end


Augustine and Thomas Aquinas serve as bookends to the period in Western history known as the Dark Ages, but they share something in common before their Christian faith; they both discovered the use of Aristotle in forming the Christian mind. All saw in humanity a purpose, albeit differently. Beginning with Aristotle, we find that the ancient Greek master believed that humans had a purpose, and that that purpose was for the good. While Augustine and Aquinas may have called it heaven or the blessed life[1], for Aristotle, this good life was eudaimonia. To this goal, all human actions must aim beginning with his intellect, reason and rationality. It is little wonder why this appealed so strongly later to Christian theologians, as for Aristotle, the logos was Reason, the mind of the human.

Aristotle writes, “[T]he good for man is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, or if there are more kinds of virtue than one, in accordance with the best and most perfect kind (Ethics, 1.7).” This energeia, or activity, would have encompassed the complete person, including the mind, so that the virtue which leads to the good life is not just an activity, or an action, of the body, but the very cognitive processes which directed that action. Thus, the good life is almost teleological in that it sees the result against the action, but continues to focus on the individual, in that virtue may be cultivated to produce the desired result, the good life. This virtue, then, is the complete human, and it was unique to our species. Of course, even within the uniqueness of humanity, Aristotle divided out women, slaves and others who could not by their own inclination choose to do virtue. By the negative, the good life is that much more accomplished when one chooses virtue, something only those who were free to do so could do. One accomplished the good life when they used the logos, or rationality, which is the purpose of humanity.

Augustine, writing during a time of social change, and writing through a time of intense personal change, begins to use Aristotle and his notion of happiness (eudaimonia) to help shape the Christian mind in ethics. Like Aristotle, contemplation of the rational was involved in pursuing the good life. For Augustine, the intellect was the pursuit of God, and turning our will back towards him and in the direction of our love. Wogaman, in his article The Moral Vision of Saint Augustine, writes that Augustine saw that God was the source of all being and that everything in Creation was an expression of God’s will. Evil and sin, then, is the moving away from the full expression of humanity, which was corrupted in the Fall. Evil, then, is moving away from God through a misdirected love of something that isn’t God. This produces sin which is “based on a mistaken conception of what is good for us.”

Augustine writes, “Man indeed desires happiness even when he does so live as to make happiness impossible… Why this paradox, except that the happiness of man can come not from himself but only from God, and that to live according to oneself is to sin, and to sin is to lose God.” To prevent this, Augustine develops the four cardinal virtues, Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude. Like Aristotle before him, these virtues are dependent upon the soul ruling the body (XIX.25, City of God). Both agree that virtue can be an exercise, as I suspect Augustine had tried throughout his Christian life. He would allow, however, that the good life could not be completely achieved in life, “For this reason there is no perfect peace so long as command is exercised over the vicious propensities, because the battle is fraught with peril while those vices that resist are being reduced to submission.” I suspect, then, that this is why the virtues were ordered in the way that they were by Augustine, especially in preventing “bodily delights.”

Aquinas arrived at a time of scholastic renewal. As Wogaman notes, “the intellectual quickening of the late Middle Ages may have reflected more the felt need to reach beyond a complacency that had become tinged with corruption.” Thus, the thinkers of this time began to turn to the ancient Greeks, via the Arabic scholarship of the time, and reexamine theological principles. Aquinas, like Augustine before him, found Aristotle, but did so with an Augustinian tint. From Aristotle, he received the notion of the human teleos, or goal. Everything was to be considered within this light, but the end of humanity is God. For Aquinas, the good life is not happiness in activity, but in the actual realization of the event. Or rather, the desired goodness of Aristotle is Aquinas’ desired contemplation of God in the eschaton much like Augustine before him. Counter Augustine, Aquinas sees evil, then, as imperfection of the teleos, not just turning away from God. Unlike Aristotle’s view, nature and things contained therein[2] also had a teleos for Aquinas which according to Wogaman, pushed together the notion of natural and super-natural.

Aquinas saw virtue against the human agency in that our rationality may be tempered through exercise which would create good morals. Unlike Aristotle, however, God acted on the rational mind to bring about good habits, affording us a divine teleos. If God is acting upon our rational mind, then we are being pushed to the ultimate end. To this, Aquinas adopted Augustine’s four virtues, albeit with a different understanding and emphasis. Prudence is first because it is the virtue most comporting with Reason. From Prudence springs Justice, Temperance and Fortitude. Adding to this are the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love. The former are “developed through human action” (Wogaman) while the latter comes from God, pushing us to our perfect, and thus non-evil, teleos in God.

Augustine and Aquinas found in Aristotle a way to combat the irrationality of the depraved human experience, and sought to use him as a means to order the Christian ethical existence to achieve more fully the good life. Each of them saw Reason and Rationality as central to achieving the good life and happiness, but they also realized that perfection (sinlessness or non-evil) was impossible in this life. For Augustine and Aquinas, the Reason sanctified by God would be the key to make it possible, albeit only after this life. Ordering a life to these principles requires one to start first with the Reason sanctified by God. Augustine was right, that it was a certain lowliness of mind which will bring the mind up, as an exalted mind doesn’t leave room for God. One must be prepared not to be perfect, to exercise the Reason to morality, and finally, to exercise the mind.

[1] Augustine, City of God XIX.11: “It follows that we could say of peace, as we have said of eternal life, that it is the final fulfillment of all our goods.”

[2] For Aquinas, “human beings are both biological and spiritual” which allowed for a varity of teleosi to develop which accorded themselves to the empirical world.

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Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

5 thoughts on “Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas – The Good Life”

  1. Is the period between Auggie and Aquinie really known as the Dark Ages or have professional historians largely abandoned that term as misleading?

    No mention of Augustine’s Platonism?

  2. Dearest Joel,

    Nice article. I come across your article because I am writing a thesis on the influssion of Augustine to Thomas in the concept of happiness. Can you be of help to my research especially in finding titles of books and articles? By the way, I am Froilan, a priest from the Archdiocese of Lipa in the Philippines. I am presently doing my licentiate in Patrology in Rome, in Augustinianum.

      1. Thank you for the reply. Can you give me a list of possible books and articles that I can consult in order to see the influence of Augustine to Aquinas on the conception of happiness? I have found some books and articles here, but they are all in italian. I want also to consult english titles, or any books written in other languages. My gratitude to you in anticipation.

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