Does Man's Happiness Consist in Power? - Summa Theologiae I-II Q2 A4 by Thomas Aquinas
Happiness and Power
I have been doing a brief series on happiness from St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologiae. We have covered honor and wealth, and here are continuing with his article on power. Now one might be confused at Aquinas' arguing in these articles because it seems that he is shooting down all of these options for happiness, such as power, wealth, pleasure, etc. He is not saying that these things can provide no happiness when they are properly used and ordered in someone's life. Rather, Thomas is seeking after what could be called, man's last end or that for which man does everything else in his life. What is the highest end and happiness of a person? This is what Aquinas is after, and that is why he is shooting all of these things down very clearly. We are not meant to seek any of these created goods, but to seek the highest good, by definition, and that is God.
St. Thomas gives many reasons why power cannot be man's highest happiness or good, some of which are in principle the same as why wealth or honor cannot be man's last end, namely, because they are always achieved or gained for the sake of something else, not themselves.
For example, power is considered a principle from which man is able to achieve something else, but happiness must be the end itself which is attained. Therefore, power cannot be the end which man seeks, but some means to the end. In fact, power is a tool in the hands of the one who wields it, and it can be used for either good or evil. Happiness, though, is only consistent with the good, itself. Therefore, power must be aided by something else in order to achieve its good use, which St. Thomas identifies as virtue. And thus, virtue is closer to happiness than power is, and therefore, certainly cannot be man's last end.
"... It is impossible for happiness to consist in power; and this for two reasons. First because power has the nature of principle ... whereas happiness has the nature of last end. Secondly, because power has relation to good and evil: whereas happiness is man's proper and perfect good. Wherefore some happiness might consist in the good use of power, which is by virtue, rather than in power itself." Continuing this line of thought, the supreme good and happiness of man means that he would be lacking nothing good which could be added to him. If man simply has power then he does not have many good things which he would also desire, such as love or virtue.
Now Aquinas does recognize, like Aristotle, that one of the highest goods man can attain is to wield power for the sake of the many underneath them. To bring about the good for the body politic is that much more fulfilling than just for the self. And yet, again, power without the corresponding goodness and virtue can lead to corruption, evil, and despair. And so virtue in the exercise of power is greater than the act of power itself.
Part four of this series will be continued in the article on pleasure.
1 - Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae. Prima Secundae, Q2, A4.