The True Ultimate End of Human Beings: The Kingdom, Not God Alone

Article excerpt

THOMAS AQUINAS HELD that the true ultimate end of human beings is God alone, attained by the beatific vision (a thesis I will call "TUEGABV"). In this article, I first set out his case for that thesis. Next, I describe an earlier attempt of mine to refute it and deal with three critics' responses to that attempt. I then offer five arguments to show either that Thomas's case for TUEGABV is unsound or that the thesis itself is untenable. Finally, I sketch out my views on what can be known naturally about the ultimate end toward which human beings should direct their lives and what divine revelation adds.


The following six paragraphs summarize those elements of Thomas's treatise on beatitude in the Summa theologiae that are essential to understand his defense of TUEGABV and the arguments I propose against it.

(1) Thomas argues that human beings always act for an end, and that, while proximate ends often are sought for the sake of ulterior ends, human beings must always act for some ultimate end. (1)

(2) In proposing the first of three arguments to show that individuals cannot will more than one ultimate end at the same time, Thomas argues that it is necessary that human beings' ultimate end so fulfill their whole desire (appetitum) that nothing more remains to be desired. (2)

(3) Thomas says that the expression ultimate end refers to both the idea (ratio) of the ultimate end and to the reality in which that idea is found (id in quo finis ultimi ratio invenitur). He explains that, "as to the idea of the ultimate end, all agree in their desire of the ultimate end, since all desire their own perfection to be fulfilled--which is the idea of the ultimate end, as I have said. But as to that in which their perfection will be found, not all agree, for some desire riches as the consummate good, others pleasure, and still others something else." (3)

(4) Again, Thomas distinguishes between two senses of end: the reality in which the idea of good is found (res in qua ratio boni invenitur) and the use or attainment of that reality; for instance, we say "an avaricious person's end is either money (as the reality) or having money (as the use)." Thomas holds that God is the ultimate end of all creatures in the sense that all of them are directed toward divine goodness, but not all in the same way. Only rational creatures, including human beings, attain their ultimate end by knowing and loving God. (4)

(5) Thomas argues that the good that ultimately fulfills human beings--the good whose attainment he calls "beatitude"--is in God alone:

The beatitude of human beings cannot possibly be in any created good. For beatitude is the perfect good, which completely satisfies desire; it would not be the ultimate end if it left something more to be desired. But the object of the will, which is the human appetite, is the good universally; just as the object of the intellect is the true universally. Plainly, then, nothing can satisfy the human will except the good universally. And that is not found in anything created, but only in God, since every creature has participated goodness. So, only God can satisfy the human will.... Therefore, the beatitude of human beings is found in God alone. (5)

(6) Thomas argues that, for their beatitude, human beings must attain God by an intellectual vision of the divine essence. One premise of that argument is, again, that "a human being cannot be happy as long as there is something more for him or her to desire and seek." The other premise is that the human intellect, made aware by created realities that God exists, would remain unsatisfied if it did not understand what God is in himself. (6)


In a 2001 symposium, I sketched out an account of natural law and dealt with, among other things, TUEGABV. (7) Toward the end of that paper, I focused on Thomas's claim that people necessarily tend toward fulfillment in a good they expect will satisfy them so completely that they will be unable to desire anything more. …