A Thomistic Argument from Desire: Part II

In Part I, we established that:

  1. All humans have ends for the sake of which they act, and these ends are “goods” which we desire.
  2. Every object/end/good that we desire is desired either for its own sake, or for the sake of some further end.
  3.  There cannot be an essentially ordered infinite regress of desires that are for the sake of some further end; so, for any ordered series of desires, there must be some ultimate end, which is desired for its own sake, and towards which all the other desires are directed. This final end underlies all the other desires, and points them to itself. It is the “principle moving the appetite”.

The next question is whether there could be multiple “last ends” corresponding to various different series of desires. It seems clear that for any series of desires there must be a last end, but we often have different series of desires. For example, one morning I may desire to eat breakfast, and I desire that because I desire satisfaction for hunger, and I desire that because I desire health, and I desire health because I continue to desire living. At some point I will have reached the end of that particular chain of desires. But later that day I might desire to read a book, and I might desire that because I desire to gain knowledge, and I desire that because I desire to understand the nature of things, etc. This is a distinct chain of desires from the previous one, and so the question becomes whether these distinct chains can arrive at distinct ends, or whether all the chains will ultimately converge on one single, ultimate, last end.

It seems that the answer is the latter option, rather than the former; and there are a number of reasons to be offered in support of this conclusion. The first, and perhaps most direct, is experiential. As we mentioned at the end of the previous post, Aquinas, as well as many other classical thinkers including Aristotle and St. Augustine, took happiness to be the last end of humanity. And this seems undeniably true, just from our own experience and reflection. We all have an innate drive for happiness, fulfillment, flourishing, etc. that drives almost all that we do, either consciously or subconsciously. It seems that even our most fundamental desire, the desire to be alive, is directed ultimately to our desire for happiness; for the profoundly tragic fact of suicide (especially in modern society) demonstrates that human nature is not content with mere survival — the human mind really can deem certain existential states as “not worth” living in. We desire to more than just exist; we desire for our existence to be meaningful, flourishing, for something.

(Which is perhaps one reason why, as a side note, we find the concept of hell so profoundly disturbing. Human beings can have amazing propensities to endure unbelievable amounts of suffering, but our ability to do so is almost always rooted in at least a slim, subtle hope for the future. But hell in essence is an existence that is rendered completely meaningless, completely unhappy, and with absolutely no hope for future freedom. We intuitively find the concept of an unending existence without relief from suffering or hope of happiness abhorrent).

And as St. Augustine points out, we all readily recognize the desire for happiness in ourselves and in others:

“The desire for happiness is . . . found in everybody. If we did not know this with certain knowledge, we would not want it with determination in our will. But what does this mean? If two people are asked if they want to serve in the army, it may turn out that one of them replies that he would like to do so, while the other would not. But if they are asked whether they would like to be happy, each would at once say without the least hesitation that he would choose to be so. And the reason why one would wish to be a soldier and the other would not is only that they want to be happy. Is it then the case that one person finds joy in one way, another in a different way? What all agree upon is that they want to be happy, just as they would concur, if asked, that they want to experience joy and would call that joy the happy life. Even if one person pursues it in one way, and another in a different way, yet there is one goal which all are striving to attain, namely to experience joy” [1].

In a similar vein, Aristotle wrote:

“What . . . is the highest of all the goods achievable in action? As far as its name goes, most people virtually agree; for both the many and the cultivated call it happiness, and they suppose that living well and doing well are the same as being happy. But they disagree about what happiness is” [2].

The fact that all people undertake different actions/seek different things does nothing to undermine the fact that what they ultimately seek is happiness. Even if different people understand happiness to be something different, there is at least some fundamental basis to the general concept of happiness which all people grasp and automatically are inclined to desire. Even if they do not consciously and actively plan out a path towards achieving happiness, all at least recognize that happiness is what they do indeed want. Everyone wants to lead a good, healthy, flourishing life which lacks suffering and evil and is marked by joy and gladness. In fact, this is so axiomatic that Aristotle could even just define happiness as that which all desire. If you were to go up to a hundred different people and ask what they want most in life, you might get a hundred different answers. But underlying all their answers would be the understanding that the reason why they gave that answer is because they believe that answer to be that which will make them happy.

So it seems that we have strong experiential justification for concluding that all our desires ultimately converge upon a single last end, which underlies and directs them all. But Aquinas argues that we also have further reasons for thinking so. Indeed, he states that “It is impossible for one man to have several last ends not ordained to one another” [3]. The reason is that Aquinas takes all of our desires to ultimately be rooted in our nature. To desire something is just to desire to be fulfilled in some specific way; we desire because our nature is directed towards its own fulfillment or “perfection”. So Aquinas writes that “Since everything desires its own perfection, a man desires for his ultimate end, that which he desires as his perfect and crowning good” [4]. In other words, since our nature is directed towards its own perfection, and since our desires are rooted in our nature, our desires are also directed ultimately towards the perfection of our nature; and this is the single last end which underlies and directs all desires. If our nature were ever perfectly fulfilled, then it would have nothing left to desire: “It is therefore necessary for the last end so to fill man’s appetite, that nothing is left besides it for man to desire” [5]. Or, as Aristotle put it, “But the best good is apparently something complete . . . [And] the complete good seems to be self-sufficient . . . We regard something as self-sufficient when all by itself it makes a life choiceworthy and lacking nothing” [6]. But suppose that we had actually three, or five, or ten last ends. Then, Aquinas points out, even if we achieved one of these last ends, but not all the others, our nature would still be unfulfilled, and so we would still have other, separate desires. So we cannot have three, or five, or ten last ends, because ultimately we desire even those things not for their own sake, but for the further sake of the perfection of our nature. And so all three, five, or ten of those ends themselves would converge upon this single, ultimate end.

So anything that we desire, we desire ultimately for the sake of our single last end, which is the fulfillment/perfection of our nature. We’ve already seen that every desire is for some object which it takes to be good, and that the object of every desire is sought either for its own sake or for the sake of some further end. Aquinas writes:

“Whatever man desires, he desires it under the aspect of good. And if he desires 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 . . . Wherefore every beginning of perfection is ordained to complete perfection which is achieved through the last end” [7]

To desire some particular good that is not our last end will not complete our natures, and hence must be ordained to the last end.

But now the question arises: what exactly is our last end? What is the fulfillment/perfection of our natures? We’ve already given a name to the last end: happiness. But what exactly is meant by happiness here? We often think of happiness as just an emotion, or perhaps an emotional state, marked usually by pleasantness, contentedness, enjoyment, etc. But Aquinas and Augustine and the classical tradition had a richer conception of the term.

Aristotle writes:

“Since there are apparently many ends, and we choose some of them (for instance, wealth, flutes, and, in general, instruments) because of something else, it is clear that not all ends are complete . . . We say that an end pursued in its own right is more complete than an end pursued because of something else, and that an end that is never choiceworthy because of something else is more complete than ends that are choiceworthy both in their own right and because of this end. Hence an end that is always choiceworthy in its own right, never because of something else, is complete without qualification.

Now happiness, more than anything else, seems complete without qualification. For we always choose it because of itself, never because of something else . . . Happiness, then, is apparently something complete and self-sufficient, since it is the end of the things achievable in action” [8].

And we can know what happiness is, he continues, “if we first grasp the function of a human being” [9]. And what is that function?

“For living is apparently shared with plants, but what we are looking for is the special function of a human being; hence we should set aside the life of nutrition and growth. The life next in order is some sort of life of sense perception; but this too is apparently shared with horse, ox, and every animal.

The remaining possibility, then, is some sort of life of action of the [part of the soul] that has reason . . . We have found, then, that the human function is activity of the soul in accord with reason . . . Moreover, we take the human function to be a certain kind of life, and take this life to be activity and actions of the soul that involve reason; hence the function of the excellent man is to do this well and finely.

Now each function is completed well by being completed in accord with the virtue proper [to that kind of thing]. And so the human good proves to be activity of the soul in accord with virtue . . . in a complete life. For one swallow does not make a spring, nor does one day; nor, similarly, does one day or a short time make us blessed and happy” [10].

For skeptical readers, there’s no need to get hung up on his use of “the soul”. As I’ve pointed out before, for Aristotle the soul is just the form of living things — he thought plants and animals had souls just as much as humans. The difference, of course, would just be the different functions; and the unique function of the human soul is reason. So happiness, in Aristotle’s view, is just whatever completely fulfills our human function, rooted in our human nature (just like we established above). But the way we complete our function is through virtue; so the happy life will be the flourishing life of virtue.

As we’ve already seen, Aquinas agrees with Aristotle that happiness is our last end, and that it is that which completely fulfills and perfects our natures. He also agrees that virtue plays a part in the happy life, but does not think that a virtuous life alone is sufficient for the full completion of our natures.

At this point, it might be helpful to take a step back, survey all that we’ve covered, and remind ourselves what our project is. I am exploring whether it is possible to formulate and defend a Thomistic argument from desire for the existence of God. So far, I’ve contended that humans have an innate, natural desire for happiness which drives all that they do and want; and that this happiness must lie in the complete fulfillment of human nature. But now we are exploring what exactly this happiness consists of; and, as should be fairly obvious, this is going to take us to a discussion of God. And this, of course, is where things are going to start getting more controversial.

The first step in making the leap to God as the Supreme/Best/Final Good, as that which satisfies all our longings and fulfills our whole nature, is again experiential and reflective. Some people do really have a conscious desire for God and the Divine, but many others really do not. In our reflection, then, we must account for the actual desires which people have, which drive them and in which they seek happiness and fulfillment. Aquinas considers a number of immediately obvious possibilities, including wealth, fame, power, pleasure, etc. We will briefly ask along with St. Thomas whether ultimate happiness can consist in any of these things, and survey with him why the answer must be no for each.

  1. Wealth: Wealth has been perhaps one of the most desired objects in human history. But it seems abundantly clear that wealth could never be the last end of man, even though many seem to seek it as such. For piles of gold or stacks of green paper have no inherent value in themselves; they are valuable only in relation to an economic system and only insofar as they are able to acquire other goods. Aquinas divides wealth into two categories: natural and artificial. Natural wealth just consists of those goods which serve our natural wants, such as food, drink, clothing, shelter, etc. But we don’t desire things such as food for their own sake, we desire them for health or pleasure or some other end. Artificial wealth is just the arbitrary currency used by societies for exchange. But artificial wealth is desired even less so for its own sake; it is rather desired for the sake of natural wealth. And so, “It is impossible for happiness, which is the last end of man, to consist in wealth” [11].
  2. Power: Again, it seems fairly obvious that power could not be the last end which is sought for its own sake. For one thing, power is a type of ability, i.e. we often desire power because of the extended freedom of abilities it gives to us. For another, happiness is intrinsically a good, since it is the ultimate good of human nature; but power is neutral to good and evil. Indeed, power often seems more inclined to fall into the hands of the wicked, rather than the virtuous. And when it does fall into the hands of the virtuous, and is used by them for good, it is the virtue, and not the power itself, which is primarily the cause of the good.
  3. Pleasure: Pleasure is the most difficult, because it seems that very often pleasure is sought for its own sake. But pleasure is also the easiest to denounce: one has only to survey the course of history, or the great literature, or take to heart the advice of the vast majority of the great thinkers, to know that pleasure could never be equivalent to happiness. Pleasure is a significant danger because it is so easy and immediate and so powerful; but if one takes seriously the wisdom of the saints and other great men, one will be wary of pleasure above all else. Pleasure is singular and fleeting, while happiness is complete. Pleasure can consist in any number of activities, whether good or evil, whereas happiness is intrinsically good, and must consist at least to an extent in virtue. Indeed, often the most pleasurable activities are those which are worst for us: getting drunk, abusing drugs, indulging in junk food, sexual immorality, etc. Furthermore, bodily pleasure is apprehended by bodily senses, and can exist in the beasts just as much as in humans. But happiness, as Aristotle pointed out, must be unique to the human function, i.e. the rational soul. So pleasure cannot be our last end; and, as Aquinas declares, “is quite a trifle as compared” with true happiness [12].

What’s important to recognize here is that even though humans all have a natural desire for happiness, not all humans are directly conscious or aware of what exactly that happiness consists of. Plenty of people really do think that wealth will make them happy, or power, or pleasure, or other such goods. But both reason and experience reveal that none of these things in themselves can satisfy/fulfill our nature, that none are desired for their own sake, and hence that none of them can be what happiness consists in. Aquinas writes:

“All agree in desiring the last end: since all desire the fulfillment of their perfection, and it is precisely this fulfillment in which the last end consists . . . But as to the thing in which this aspect is realized, all men are not agreed as to their last end: since some desire riches as their consummate good; some pleasure; others, something else” [13].

This alone, admittedly, does not take us to God. Instead, we will need further, positive arguments to show that God alone is man’s beatitude. But this just helps clear the way, as it were, by ruling out more common misconceptions.

In the next post, we will argue that God is indeed man’s happiness, and based on this that God must actually exist.



[1]. Augustine. Confessions. Translated by Henry Chadwick. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. 198.

[2]. Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Terence Irwin. 2nd edition. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1999. 1.3, 1095a16-21.

[3].Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. 1265-1274. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Coyote Canyon Press, 2010. ebook. I-II, 1.5.

[4]. Ibid.

[5]. Ibid.

[6]. Aristotle. Ethics. 1.7, 1097a27-1097b16.

[7]. Aquinas. Summa Theologica. I-II, 1.6.

[8]. Aristotle. Ethics. 1.7, 1097a26-1097b22.

[9]. Ibid., 1097b25.

[10]. Ibid., 1098a1-21.

[11]. Aquinas. Summa. I-II, 2.1.

[12]. Ibid., 2.5.

[13]. Ibid., 1.7.

Header Image: Philipp Veit [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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