Does Happiness Consist of Honor? - Summa Theologiae I-II Q2 A2 - Thomas Aquinas

Happiness and Honor

This is post two of a seven part series of posts looking at Aquinas' teaching on happiness in the Summa Theologiae. For post one on wealth, see here. 

Does Happiness Consist of Honor? 

Let us begin with the arguments for this position that Aquinas presents, of which there are three. First, it is argued that happiness is the result of virtue or excellence in a particular field. And how do we reward those who are good at what they do? We reward them with honors. Therefore, happiness must be equivalent to those honors. For example, we pay highest honor to God, to the Apostles, to those who are successful in many types of fields. Likewise, don't we say that even if we were to lose all our material possessions that one should not give up their honor. And if it is most important and last of all to be given up, then it must also be the highest and most important. 

Now Aquinas transitions here from the popular opinions of the time to his own thoughts with a short but important distinction in his "On the Contrary." The distinction is that about the nature of honor. Honor is felt primarily in the person who gives the honor, not the one who receives it. If this is the case, then honor cannot be equivalent to happiness because happiness must exist in the one who is happy. "Happiness is in the happy. But honor is not in the honored, but rather in him who honors, and who offers deference to the person honored ...".

Moving to the heart of Aquinas' response, he fundamentally makes the claim that honor is given to someone based on their excellence as a person. Now, this excellence already entails having all goods in proportion, including happiness. Therefore, honor can be received from being happy already, but the two are not equivalent. In other words, "... honor is not that reward of virtue, for which the virtuous work: but they receive honor from men by way of reward, 'as from whose who have nothing greater to offer.' But virtue's true reward is happiness itself, for which the virtuous work: whereas if they worked for honor, it would no longer be a virtue, but ambition." 

In so many words, Aquinas is basically saying that honor is a side effect of already being happy and excellent. We praise those who are virtuous or good at whatever they are doing, and thus they receive honor. They do not seek honor for itself, but rather success for itself. Honor is given for the sake of something higher than itself, and therefore cannot be equivalent to happiness. 

This is similar to our previous post on wealth. Wealth cannot be equivalent to happiness because wealth is good when it is for the sake of some other good. We value wealth when it helps us get something else greater than itself. And so both wealth and honor have been shown to be subservient to some greater good. 1

This discussion will be continued in further posts on Aquinas' treatise on happiness in the Summa. 


1 - Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae. Prima Secundae, Q2, A2.