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  • The Protreptic of Summa theologiae I-II, qq. 1-5
  • Adam Eitel

WHAT IS HAPPINESS? What is the best and happiest life that a human being can live? On what sort of good would a life like that be founded? What other goods would it require? Or is happiness even something that creatures like us in a world like ours should hope to achieve? Modern readers have been ineluctably struck by how nearly Thomas Aquinas's answers to these questions resemble those of Aristotle. It is not difficult to see why. The sheer frequency of citations to the Nicomachean Ethics in Summa theologiae I-II, questions 1-5—Thomas's so-called "treatise on happiness"—indicates that Thomas himself saw some semblance of Aristotle's account of the human good in his own considered view on the subject. It would be foolish to deny those Aristotelian semblances. Nor do I need to rehearse here all the ways those semblances can deceive.1 A single example will suffice.

Contemporary exegetes remain intractably divided over what Aristotelian happiness (eudaemonia) entails. One camp argues that Aristotle identifies human happiness exclusively with the exercise of the virtue of wisdom (sophia)—specifically, in divine [End Page 183] contemplation (theôria).2 A second contends that happiness consists in an "inclusive end" composed of theôria, the moral virtues, and various "exterior goods," such as honor, wealth, and leisure.3 Significantly, many of Thomas's contemporary readers purport to find something like the second, inclusivist account of happiness (beatitudo) in the treatise on happiness.4 [End Page 184] But such readings face a crucial problem. According to Thomas, Aristotle's view more nearly resembles the exclusivist account: commenting on book X of the Nicomachean Ethics, Thomas thus notes that "contemplative activity clearly belongs to the intellect according to its proper virtue—namely, wisdom. . . . And that happiness consists in such an activity seems to agree both with the things said in Ethics I and indeed with the truth itself."5 The ironies that follow are delicious. When contemporary readers insist upon the "Aristotelian" character of Thomas's notion of happiness, they ascribe to him a view that Thomas himself took Aristotle to deny. Consequently, the extent of Thomas's debt to the Ethics is made to depend on the extent to which he alledgedly misread it.6 [End Page 185] Irony has its uses. It can give us new eyes to see. Yet my purpose in what follows is not to show how little questions 1-5 of the Prima secundae recall the Nicomachean Ethics. I rather want to show how nearly these questions recall one of Thomas's own experiments in sapiental persuasion. I will argue that the immediate textual antecedent to these questions is book III of the Summa contra Gentiles. Proceeding on this basis—and by surfacing a dense proliferation of rhetorical figures that modern readers have yet to notice—I will argue that questions 1-5 of the Prima secundae comprise a protreptic to the contemplation of God. The aim of protreptic discourse is to turn or convert another toward a specific end. Since, for Thomas, the best and happiest life is principally founded on contemplation, it is especially this activity that he urges upon the reader of the Prima secundae.

The novelty of this argument invites a number of questions. If these questions comprise a protreptic, how is it meant to succeed? Does Thomas aim to persuade the reader by proposing an end unknown, or by hastening the pursuit of an end already known and already desired? Does the suasion turn on reasoned [End Page 186] argument alone, or is there also some appeal to the passions? Grappling with these issues will require coming to grips with Thomas's rhetorical inheritance. But I must begin with a more basic question: why does the Prima secundae begin with five questions on happiness?

I. The Setting of Questions 1-5 of the Prima secundae

The significance of the question must be clarified. The first step toward clarity is to be reminded that these questions are not, in fact, a "Treatise on Happiness." They cannot be, since, contrary to modern editorial...


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