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Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 3.4 (2000) 169-194

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Aquinas on the Ultimate End of Human Existence

Russell Pannier

St. Thomas Aquinas maintains that there is an ultimate end of human existence and that it consists of conscious union with God. 1 Of course, Thomas follows orthodox Christianity in this regard. This claim, if true, is obviously of overriding importance for all of us, at least if interpreted in a sufficiently strong way. This paper seeks to clarify at least part of Aquinas's intended meaning. His analysis is extraordinarily complex and profound. Only a few aspects of it can be discussed here. I shall begin with an analysis of the necessary conditions Aquinas articulates for being an ultimate end and then move to an examination of the question, "To what extent is the ultimate end of human existence, as conceived by Aquinas, a unified end?" In the course of discussing the latter question, I shall distinguish four degrees of unity and argue that Aquinas can be plausibly interpreted as maintaining that the ultimate human end is unified in the highest degree.

Some may challenge my assumption that there is anything here to be "clarified." In contrast to other aspects of Aquinas's thought (for example, his concepts of essence and existence), isn't his discussion [End Page 169] of the ultimate end of human existence perfectly clear? All I can say in defense at this point is that I haven't found it so. Aquinas's discussion of the ultimate human end is deep and illuminating, and there are many transparent passages. But there are also difficult passages in which the claims and arguments are susceptible of more than one plausible interpretation, or at least so it seems to me. I say this, not out of any sense of disrespect, but rather from a strong sense of gratitude for Aquinas's pathbreaking efforts in the ongoing struggle to more adequately understand the essential human condition. It seems to me that we pay Thomas the greatest possible respect by taking his arguments seriously, just as he took those of his philosophical predecessors and contemporaries. What is it to take a philosopher seriously? At the very least, it is to examine the arguments and claims as carefully as we can in order to build upon them, if we can.

A. What is Aquinas's conception of an end?

In order to understand what Aquinas means by "ultimate end," we must first understand what he means by "end."

Aquinas does not confine the term to just the human realm. He applies it to both the entire organic and inorganic orders. 2 In this very general sense of "end" everything in the universe has at least one end. I shall restrict my focus to Aquinas's discussion of the human case.

In that regard, Aquinas states,

In the case of things which obviously act for an end, we call that toward which the inclination of the agent tends the end. For, if it attain this, it is said to attain its end; but, if it fail in regard to this, it fails in regard to the end intended, as is evident in the case of the physician working for the sake of health, and of the man who is running toward a set objective. 3

This passage seems to have at least four implications. 4

First, ends can be characterized as possible objectives of human actions, where objectives are understood as actualizations of possible [End Page 170] states of the world. 5 Human agents choose actions in order to actualize particular possible states of the world. The physician chooses to act as a physician in order to actualize the possibility of human health; the runner chooses to run in order to actualize the possibility of winning a race. On Aquinas's account, there is a metaphysically necessary correlation between ends and actions.

Second, ends are intended by human agents in their choices of actions. Actions have intentional structures. They are essentially constituted by directedness toward...


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