Happiness is Rediscovering the Natural Law

Thomas Griffin (8/3/20)

Navigating the news cycles, social media spheres, and circumstances of everyday life can become overwhelming, exhausting, and downright depressing. Countless personalities, icons, and ordinary folk are clearly in a state of anxious impatience. We want a virtuous ethics to return to the light of day and dispel the darkness of might makes right in our streets.

The multitudes desire peace and an opportunity to prosper that can only come when we rediscover the only route to human flourishing, fulfillment and happiness. Oddly enough, the Christian prescription for this, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is law and order. Now, he does not prescribe these methods with the political undertones that they now carry in our current national climate. Thomas would say that order occurs through the law because following the pursuit of reason leads to virtue, which is the accomplishment of true happiness (not a fleeting emotional response to events, money or relationships but a disposition acquired through a habitual move towards the good).

Now, the good is something difficult to define. Aquinas says that the good is what perfects the human being, while evil is what is harmful to the human being. So, whenever we act we should follow the directions of what is perfective of myself, those around me and society and what is possibly harmful or destructive of myself, those around me and society. Thomas states that human beings can know what is good through the natural law, which is known by simply being a human being who is, by nature, rational.

Some may take Aquinas’ understanding of natural law as a strictly Christian worldview dependent on and viewed through a divine lens. For Thomas says that “just as man, by such pronouncement, impresses a kind of inward principle of action on the man that is subject to him, so God imprints on the whole of nature the principles of its proper actions” (S.T. Ia-IIae, qq. 93, a. 5).

This is not to say that God must reveal, in a supernatural fashion, what humanity ought to seek and do in order to obtain their final end. Aquinas is stating a matter of fact: the route to happiness, to the promotion of the good and the avoidance of evil is woven into the very nature of man. Thomas notes that this is self-evident and its truth is revealed to man by simply being man. 

“Now each thing is inclined naturally to an operation that is suitable to it according to its form: thus fire is inclined to give heat. Wherefore, since the rational soul is the proper form of man, there is in every man a natural inclination to act according to reason: and this is to act according to virtue” (S.T. Ia-IIae, qq. 94, a. 3). This inclination is not something that man is forced to commit nor is it a reality that he is mandated to view from the supernatural. The nature and form of man knows that he ought to act according to reason by the very fact of his existence. 

The knowledge of the natural law may be misunderstood or taken incorrectly, but the capacity to know it inside of man. “For every knowledge of truth is a kind of reflection and participation of the eternal law, which is the unchangeable trust…now all men know the truth to a certain extent, at least as to the common principles of the natural law” (S.T. Ia-IIae, qq. 93, a. 2). 

Human beings participate in the eternal law which is written in our hearts by God, but that does not mean that knowledge of this law is supernaturally revealed; it is simply known to humanity by its very nature. 

If individuals from our cities and suburbs to our city halls and newsrooms followed the pursuit of happiness as revealed to us by our very nature the world would be healed of division, our nation would obtain peace, and our hearts would accomplish a happiness that cannot be taken away.

What we need more than a change in politicians, news coverage, and institutional reform is a call to be on an individual mission to pursue the good at all cost. Then, the state of our households, relationships and families will produce a future where virtue and happiness can reign supreme. That is a hope worth fighting for.

Thomas Griffin teaches Apologetics in the religion department at a Catholic high school on Long Island and lives with his wife. He received a master’s degree in theology and is currently a master’s candidate in philosophy. He writes for several Catholic media outlets.

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