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  • Aquinas & Sartre: On Freedom, Personal Identity, and the Possibility of Happiness
  • Eileen C. Sweeney
Stephen Wang. Aquinas & Sartre: On Freedom, Personal Identity, and the Possibility of Happiness. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2009. Pp. xxv + 298. Cloth, $79.95.

This well-written volume consists of paired chapters on human being, understanding, freedom, and happiness on Aquinas and Sartre. Stephen Wang's project is to use Sartre to reveal the more "radical" aspects of Aquinas's thought and to use Aquinas to "unlock the meaning" of Sartre's more radical claims (xiii). There is a great deal that is fresh and illuminating in this rapprochement between two thinkers most would not join together. Because the aim is to bring the thinkers into conversation, Wang avoids any temptation merely to repeat their technical language. Overall, his account is helpful as a counter to distorted readings of Aquinas that overemphasize the determination of human ends and actions by nature, as well as his intellectualism and realism. Similarly countered are extreme readings of Sartre as an irrationalist and radical voluntarist.

In the account of understanding, Wang points out that Sartre eschews both idealism and realism, arguing that, on the one hand, "consciousness adds nothing to being" but, on the other, it "reveals what is there through negation" (113). Aquinas occupies similar ground, Wang contends, holding that reason can observe the present reality in a number of different ways, not just one (211). The will decides which of the many ways something might be considered or ignored, choosing what to attend to. For both Aquinas and Sartre, then, what we know is prompted by human concerns and purposes.

In the account of freedom, Wang rightly resists the conclusion that for Aquinas, scope for freedom is created only by our lack of knowledge (that we simply do not know which path is the best) combined with the imperfection of any of the goods we choose, arguing for a more substantive freedom. However, it is hard to equate even this more libertarian version of Aquinas's position with Sartrian anguish at human existence undetermined by essence. Sartre would surely not accept Aquinas's claim that the will would be determined to choose the universal, perfect good, retaining only the option to will nothing at all (Summa Theologiae IaIIae, q.10, a.2).

The point at which the connection between Aquinas and Sartre becomes the most tenuous is in the discussion of happiness. While it is crucially true for both Aquinas and Sartre that true and complete human happiness cannot be found within the bounds of human life, Wang emphasizes this common ground to the detriment of the diametrically opposed conclusions they reach about what this means. Wang nudges Sartre toward Aquinas in two ways on the topic of happiness. First he argues that the freedom Sartre asserts is impossible without postulating some sort of transcendent goal (268); and further, he suggests a friendly [End Page 130] amendment to Sartre's claim that "we have an existential goal that cannot actually exist" to "we have an existential goal without understanding how it can exist" (269). What one must affirm about this amendment is that it pushes Aquinas towards the second formulation as well, over and against the all-too-common claim that for Aquinas we do understand how it exists. However, Wang tends to take the darkness out of Sartre's view. While we can say, with Aquinas, that the "human world only makes sense if there is something beyond the totality of the world," we have to admit that Sartre tried to think exactly the world as not making sense. And to howl in protest at its absurdity. Thus, Sartre's "philosophical melodrama" (42) is absolutely essential to him. Focusing on the common ground between Aquinas and Sartre tends to take the drama out of Sartre and produce anodyne claims to which they and many others could assent, e.g. that we are in time "choosing to become through free acts what we are not by nature" (57) and that "we are free to act because we are free to understand the world in different ways" (151). In this sense, the project...


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