The Moral Law and Happiness

Travis Cooper

This essay is highly synthetic – it is an attempt to bring together many different foundational truths in philosophy and theology.  More specifically, it’s an attempt to look at the foundations of the moral law so as to understand its relationship to our happiness.  In this respect, it is theoretical (in the old sense of that word: “looking at how things are”).  But, as is always true of foundational truths, and particularly when it comes to the moral law, it is of the utmost importance for practice, for our actions, for our “lived lives.” 


I want to begin with a passage from St. John Paul II’s landmark encyclical Veritatis splendor:

Those who live “by the flesh” experience God’s law as a burden, and indeed as a denial or at least a restriction of their own freedom.  On the other hand, those who are impelled by love and “walk by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16), and who desire to serve others, find in God’s Law the fundamental and necessary way in which to practice love as something freely chosen and freely lived out.  Indeed, they feel an interior urge – a genuine “necessity” and no longer a form of coercion – not to stop at the minimum demands of the Law, but to live them in their “fullness”.  This is a still uncertain and fragile journey as long as we are on earth, but it is one made possible by grace.[1]

Now, our fallen nature inclines us to view all law as merely a form of coercion, as an arbitrary demand being imposed upon us externally, which we, for the sake of some other good, are to submit to.  This tendency is exacerbated by our current cultural and political climate, going back many years: we in Western society have tended for a long while now to think of law as encroaching upon our lives, as inhibiting our actions, for the sake of some good that is not our own good but someone else’s.  We think of freedom and law as being at odds.  We see them as a kind of zero-sum game: the more free I am, the less law rules me; the more I am subject to the law, the less free I am.  When applied to the moral law, this is to think of obedience to God’s law as a form of heteronomy (“law from outside” or “another’s law”), that is, as John Paul II puts it, as if the moral life were subject to the will of something all-powerful, absolute, extraneous to man and intolerant of his freedom. . . . a denial of man’s self-determination or the imposition of norms unrelated to his good.[2]  Even this, the most sublime law – viz., God’s – is thought of as the imposition of His will upon us, contrary to our freedom and thus also to our happiness.  On this view, God is basically a maniacal but trustworthy tyrant: he imposes on us a host of demands, many or all of which run against our desires, keeps a tally of how well we’ve kept those demands, and finally, in light of that tally, gives us either an eternal reward or eternal punishment.  According to this view, our mission in life is to keep His demands, forfeiting happiness here below for the sake of avoiding an eternally painful life and gaining instead an eternally pleasant life in heaven.  The moral life is a kind of game: how long can we keep up a life contrary to our desires and natural happiness?  Or, it’s a war of attrition: who can hold out to the end?

We’ve all at least heard this view expressed in many different forms and venues, but I suspect many of us, if not all of us, also partake in this view to some extent.  I should note here that there is much truth in, or at least behind, this view; the point I intend to make is that it is theologically and metaphysically incomplete, in consequence of which we acquire a skewed and unhealthy attitude not only toward God and the moral law but also toward ourselves (the attitude, viz., which I was just describing).  Again, our partaking in this view is, as the initial quote from John Paul II states, certainly in large part due to our being fallen creatures, but it seems to me to be exacerbated by our Western way of life, intellectual heritage, and political and moral vocabulary.  I would like to spend the rest of this essay elaborating and defending another view, the view handed down to us in inchoate form by the ancients, especially Plato and Aristotle (but including also Herodotus), and revealed to us in its fullness through Scripture and Tradition.  In elaborating and defending this view, the shortcomings and incompleteness, and thus the error and danger of the all-too-common view will, I think, become apparent.


Let’s start with what we can come to know by reason itself.  As the traditio (the what-is-handed-down) of the pre-Christian Greeks bears witness, man can through his reason come to know something of his nature and thus his end (that which by nature is good for him).  Plato and Aristotle saw and gave an account of the end or ends that constitute the natural good of man.  They did so by observing, contemplating, and elaborating the particular nature of man, a being who they realized is both animal and divine, both material and immortal.  What follows is a very basic philosophical account of man, one that is neither new nor idiosyncratic but rather is the common account developed in the Western intellectual tradition beginning with Plato and running through the Middle Ages; it is an account that the Church recommends be taught in seminaries, for as the legitimate fruit of rational argumentation not only is it in accordance with Divine Revelation but it is in some ways presupposed by that Revelation.

We humans are inclined toward particular external things by our very natures.  That is, like all other living things – plants and animals – we want and seek certain external things.  As wanted and sought, these external things are goods.  They include food and drink, physical comforts, the opposite sex, pleasant sights and sounds, friendship, truth, God, etc.  What does this say about what it is to be human?  Let’s start by taking some of these goods one at a time.  We humans want to maintain our existence as living beings, and so we want sufficient food and drink.  This desire presupposes one power and sets in motion another: desire for food and drink presupposes a power that is not currently fulfilled (viz., the power of consuming food and drink) and it sets in motion the power we have to move ourselves.  So, there is a power needing fulfillment (digestive); an object that fulfills it (food); a desire for that object (hunger); and the power or ability to acquire that object (self-motion).  Take another example: we take delight in, and therefore seek, pleasant sights and sounds (whether flowers, or animals, panoramic vistas, sunsets, art, music, etc.).  This desire presupposes we have a power for these objects – viz., our five senses – and, of course, also the ability to acquire them.[3]  Now our five senses are particularly interesting, for not only do we need them in order to get objects we absolutely need, like food and drink, but also we take delight in the bare enjoyment the senses afford us.  That is, our senses incline us to external things not merely as things to be used for our survival but things to be enjoyed for a comfortable, pleasant, delightful life.  But there is still more: some of the goods we are inclined to are non-sensible.  Perhaps most obvious among these are truth and friends.  Once again, that we desire these goods presupposes a power fulfilled by these goods: this is our intellect, our mind, our intelligence, by which we can possess truth (i.e., know things) and have friends (i.e., enjoy goods with other human beings).  Here, too, we enjoy making use of our power: to learn is pleasant (perhaps not the process, but the result!), to be with friends is pleasant.  So, our examination of various goods that we desire, seek, and obtain reveals fundamental truths about us as humans, for we see the kinds of powers we have and what needs or wants drive us to fulfill these powers.

Now Plato and Aristotle went further.  Not only do we have various kinds of powers and desires and corresponding goods, but also there is an order, a hierarchy, among these.  This order is made clear when we group together the powers in their appropriate categories.  So, first, like plants and animals we have what philosophers call “vegetative” powers, the powers of growth and reproduction: we use food and drink to maintain and grow our bodies, and we are able to reproduce members of our species.  Second, like animals we also have sense-powers (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch) and the power of self-motion.  Third, unlike anything else in the natural world we also have rational powers (intellect and will).  These three categories or levels of powers make possible three kinds of basic activity over and above sheer existence: life, sensation, and understanding.  Merely to be alive is to have the vegetative powers: growth and reproduction.  But to have the sense-powers is also to have the vegetative powers: whatever senses also lives.  So plants are alive but do not sense, while animals sense and are therefore also alive (i.e., they grow and reproduce, like plants).  Lastly, to have the rational powers is also to have the sense-powers and the vegetative powers: humans have intellect and will, and the five senses, and the powers of growth and reproduction.  Put another way: the natural world does not present us with some beings that have life, others that have merely sensation (without life), and others that have merely understanding (without sensation or life).  Rather, where sensation is, there is life; and where understanding is, there is life and sensation.  So, since understanding includes both life and sensation whereas sensation includes only life (but not understanding), understanding is the greatest of these powers.  The greater includes the lesser.

This same conclusion – that understanding (the rational power) is the greatest power we have – can be reached by another argument.  The scope or reach or extent of each of these three activities is progressively greater – plants interact with their environment, animals move about in it and have sensory awareness of material things around them, and humans understand the natures of these things and inquire about reality as a whole (even about non-sensible things).  So humans, in virtue of their unique power, embrace more of the world, and embrace it more deeply, than animals or plants can.  Leon Kass, a modern biologist, is wonderfully insightful on this point.[4]  He elaborates in detail upon how even just the physiognomy, the structure and order of the face of a living thing, expresses these differences: (1) plants, of course, have no face (they have no cognitive relationship to what is around them); (2) animals, structurally speaking, are generally oriented toward what is near, often the ground, and toward the objects of the lower sense-powers like smell; (3) we humans, in contrast, walk upright, behold things at a distance, have sight as our dominant sense, and have our mouths ordered to speech, not merely to eating or feeling.  Therefore, from such considerations it is clear that the supreme activity among these is understanding.

Looked at another way: plants can take in food and continue their living existence; animals can go to their food, so as to continue existing, but can also enjoy other pleasant goods like shade, comfortable grass, sunlight, etc.; but we humans supersede both plants and animals in that we can attain spiritual goods like truth, beauty, and friends and can use our rational powers to acquire and elevate the lower goods that we have in common with plants and animals.  What do I mean?  I mean that, unlike plants and animals, we can use our mind to do things like find food, find a mate, and maintain our health, and that in so doing we can raise up those goods to a higher level than they exist for plants and animals.  For example, using our senses and mind, we can not only make our own food (and even genetically modify it) but also prepare our food: by means of the culinary arts we make our food and drink both more pleasant and able to be enjoyed with other humans, thereby elevating this good into the good of community (which is a spiritual good).[5]  Another example: by means of the art of medicine we can keep our bodies healthy and even make use of this good for a higher end like athletics or military defense.  These and a whole host of other everyday realities show clearly that our rational power is the highest of the powers of living things, because by it we can not only acquire the lower goods that plants and animals acquire but we can perfect them and make use of them in higher activities. 

All this means that the goods that correspond to the rational powers and desires are higher goods than those that correspond to the lower powers and desires.  And indeed not only Christian thinkers but also Plato and Aristotle both saw this and argued persuasively for it.  The goods that we are inclined to through our rational powers – goods like truth, friends, culture – are superior to, higher and more important than, the goods of our lower powers – food, drink, money, etc.  In fact, these lower goods help us to achieve the higher goods: they are ordered to the higher goods, not vice-versa.  For example, to enjoy truth and friends and culture, I need a sufficiently healthy body (sufficient food and drink) and enough leisure time to pursue these things (which means sufficient money).  So, while we need such material goods to be happy (at least naturally speaking), they don’t as such make us happy.

In fact, Plato and Aristotle even saw that to pursue these material goods as if they constitute our happiness, as if they are our chief end, is disastrous, i.e., makes us miserable rather than happy.  To put it another way, only if the rational powers and desires rule in us can we be happy; if the lower powers and desires rule us, we are miserable, for the good of the man as a whole can only be seen by, and thus only (if at all) achieved by, the rational power, which ascertains the nature and objects of the lower powers and desires and their respective place in the good of the man as a whole.  To put it another way, it is through our intellect and will that we see and choose all our goods, that we see all our goods in their true order of importance – the lower powers cannot decide, because they cannot see, what makes us truly happy, even though they can be persistent and urgent in moving us to the lower goods.  Without the rule of the rational power, the desires of the lower powers (what we often call “the passions”), which tend either to violence or to pleasure, take charge and submit all the other powers and desires to their demands, i.e., they ordain all toward their very limited objects: honor and glory, or power, or money, or food, or drink, or sex, etc.  But these objects are not man’s whole good, they are not our chief end, and thus they can’t bring happiness.  That this is so is clear from human experience, reflected in great literature (Dmitri Karamazov, to take one example), and shown through philosophical argumentation (as Aristotle, Boethius, St. Thomas, and others have done).  Fundamentally, the reason these lower goods can’t satisfy us if we pursue them as our chief end is that they don’t fulfill us as human beings: they can satisfy the animals and the plants, but we have higher powers and desires and thus higher goods that must be achieved if we are to be happy.  Thus, the good of man as a whole can only be achieved when his highest part, reason (the rational power), rules the lower parts, forming them so that they achieve their goods in harmony with our other powers and goods.  (This formation is a kind of taming, according to the analogy Plato uses in his Republic, about which more later.)  Again, the human good – happiness (naturally speaking) – does not consist in the goods sought by the lower powers: the goods of man as rational are higher goods, and the lower goods serve these higher goods.  Put concretely, food and drink, money, honor, etc. are ordered to, are to be enjoyed in support of, the achieving of the properly human goods like truth and friends and God.  In fact, not only Scripture but also these pre-Greek philosophers claim that we become animals when we pursue the goods we have in common with animals as if they were our chief end.  (For Aristotle, in fact, we ultimately become worse than animals: they achieve their end, but we forfeit our proper end and instead make ourselves like them.  In doing so we live a lie: we live as if we were animals and as if doing so could make us happy.)  What is established in the soul is a tyranny of the lower powers/desires, which seek their own good only, rather than a benevolent kingship of reason, which seeks the good of all the parts and of the man as a whole and thus under whose reign alone there can be peace and happiness in man.  To put it concretely, if we let our desire for food or drink or the like control our lives, we will pursue neither knowledge of the truth nor real friendship: we will be indifferent to truth, and we will not have any true friends, since everyone around us would be merely means to fulfilling our particular desire.

To summarize: there are various natural goods we seek, and desires and powers corresponding to these goods, and there is a natural order among these goods, desires, and powers.  Our natural happiness requires fulfilling these goods according to their intrinsic order, i.e., seeking the lower goods as ordered to the higher goods, thereby respecting the natural order among human goods.  Thus, not to live according to this order – not to pursue these goods according to this order – is to forsake human happiness.  For us to be happy, reason must rule our lower desires: if it does not, we cannot achieve the higher human goods (truth, friends, etc.), we put our desires at war with each other, and indeed we even fail to enjoy satisfactorily the lower goods. 


The pursuit of both the lower, material goods and the higher, spiritual goods inclines and even impels us humans to political society, i.e., moves us to live in community with others.  For even a life lived according to one’s animal desires needs community, for the full enjoyment of goods like food and drink requires others who can produce and provide these goods.[6]  Of course, though, it is the higher goods that manifestly require community, for without community knowledge of the truth, culture, and friendship are impossible.  Either way – or better, both ways – community is natural to man, and community requires organization, order. 

Why am I bringing up human society at this point?  Because philosophers have seen not only the destructive character of living according to one’s animals desires but also a way of protecting against this inclination.  This bulwark against moral degradation, against man living like an animal, is education in the broad sense of the word, the taming or formation that I referred to a little bit ago.  Education, in this sense, is ultimately political, i.e., it is a good to be aided in its achievement by the community.  The family, and more universally the political community, aim at achieving a right order within the souls of their respective social members.  And here is where law comes in.  Now although it is the moral law that I am most concerned with, I want to say a few words about human or civil law.  The ancient tradition of philosophy argues for the very existence of law as what accomplishes this right order within souls, and it makes this argument on the basis of the good of the soul.  What do I mean?  The good of the individual person, and likewise of the human society (the political community), is the good of the whole (not of one power or part to the detriment of the others): this good of the whole is happiness, whether of the individual or of the political community.  In the case of both the individual and human society, happiness is achieved by the proper functioning of each power or part, i.e., each part’s doing what it is inherently ordained to do.  The greatest threat to this good is faction, dissension, in-fighting; conversely, the one thing needed for this good is unanimity (which means, literally, “being of one soul”!).  This unanimity, as we have seen, is possible only when the highest natural power rules the others, when the rational power – reason – rules the soul and the political community.  For, again, it is reason that can look at the good of each part and of the whole and ordain all toward that good; the lower powers cannot see the good of the whole and thus cannot ordain man to his good.  Now, the ordaining that follows upon seeing is brought about, in part, by law.  (I say “in part” because there are other means: good habits or customs and philosophy being two such means.)  For reason determines what is good versus what is evil, and law is the result of that determination as commanded or forbidden. 

This may sound novel or strange, for it is to claim that human or civil law is aimed at establishing proper order within the souls of citizens, i.e., establishing virtue in them, rather than being aimed at defending their rights or providing them with material goods (of course it does these, too, but it does or should do so for the sake of establishing virtue).  This understanding of law is, in fact, the traditional philosophical and theological account.  But let me turn now to the moral law, and more particularly to the natural moral law.

Here I will be following the account of law given by St. Thomas Aquinas,[7] the Church’s most respected theologian and the one She constantly recommends us to follow and look to.  Through a careful process of argumentation, he defines law as follows: it is a command of reason, for the sake of the common good, promulgated by whoever is in charge of the community.  Following Scripture, St. Thomas begins with the eternal law, which is the directing of the entire universe, by God’s reason, to the universe’s common end.  In other words, the eternal law is the idea or plan God has for governing created things.  Here, I suspect, there is a danger.  For a variety of reasons, among which are political and intellectual presuppositions and customs, we are inclined to have a false impression of eternal law and law in general, one that proceeds from having a vague, un-thought-through image of it.  Meaning, when someone describes the eternal law (as I just did), we might vaguely imagine it as a certain set of commands that God dictates and created things obey (or disobey, in the case of some rational beings): that is, we might of law as merely an external command obeyed by the beings under that law.  Or, if we were more thoughtful and realized that most of the beings in the universe can’t be said to obey anything, because they don’t have free choice (they just do whatever they’re commanded to), we might think of eternal law as a certain set of commands that God utters and then proceeds to fulfill by forcing non-rational created things to act in accord with those laws.  Here, undoubtedly, the image evoked is one of God “pushing” things to certain actions and outcomes.  But this is still an understanding of law as merely external, and St. Thomas rejects this, for he states that law is present not merely in the lawgiver but also in those ruled by the lawgiver.  So the eternal law, which is present in God as the idea or plan He has for governing created things, is present also in created things – IN created things! 

You might be asking: What does that mean?  How can the law be present within those under the law?  This is a crucial point in this essay.  St. Thomas says: all things participate to some degree in the eternal law, in that from its being imprinted on them they have their inclinations to their proper actions and goods.[8]  St. Thomas is proposing that the right understanding is this: the eternal law, the divinely rational directing of creatures to their proper goods, is present in them as natural inclinations to those actions and goods.  How beautiful this is!  God wills the common good of the universe and, in light of that, creates things with internal, inherent inclinations to various actions and goods proper to each of them, the fulfillment of all of which constitutes the common good of the universe.  Put very succinctly, what God commands He inclines things toward: He gives rocks, plants, animals, and humans their particular natures with internal inclinations to do certain things and achieve certain goods (in the case of rocks, to fall, for example; for plants, to grow and reproduce; etc.)  The eternal law is inscribed in the very nature of things.

The natural law is our version of this.  It is the presence of eternal law in us rational beings, i.e., the eternal law expressed in our natural inclinations toward our proper actions and ends.  Here is where the second section of this essay comes in, for the natural inclinations God implants in us are those three kinds or levels of inclinations we identified earlier: the vegetative powers, aimed at our continued existence; the sense-powers, aimed at our sensible goods; and the rational power, aimed at our rational goods.  All of these inclinations pertain to the natural law.  So, the point is that these natural inclinations that we have (and can attend to and put in their proper order) are the presence of the eternal law in us: the content of the eternal law, in us, is the powers and desires present in us naturally and the actions and goods toward which those powers and desires naturally strive.

Now, what is special about we humans is that we knowingly participate in this eternal law: i.e., we can perceive the eternal law present in us.  As St. Thomas says:

what our reason naturally apprehends to be the human good [or evil] belongs to the precepts of the natural law as what is to be done or to be avoided. . . . everything to which we humans have a natural inclination reason naturally apprehends as good and consequently to be pursued by actions, whereas the contraries of these are apprehended as evil and to be avoided.  Thus the order of the precepts of the natural law is according to the order of natural inclinations.[9]

There’s a lot here, needing to be unpacked slowly.  Plants and animals and inanimate things are directed (by God’s eternal law) to certain goods through built-in inclinations (as argued earlier), but they do not perceive this direction present in them.  We humans, however, through our rational powers naturally perceive the goods to which we are inclined as human beings (i.e., the goods to which God has ordained us by nature).   We perceive these things to which we are inclined as good and thus as to be pursued and attained through our actions (on the flip side, we perceive the contrary of these goods as evil and to be avoided by our actions), and along with this we perceive the order among these goods and actions (i.e., which goods and actions are more or less important).  These goods and the order among them, which I laid out in the second part of this essay, are, St. Thomas is claiming, perceptible to us by nature.  The philosopher may make these things clear, and he may provide powerful arguments for them, but they are accessible to all of us as human beings with reason. 

Now, because reason perceives these goods as to be pursued according to their proper order (and their contraries, likewise, as to be avoided), it commands such pursuit or avoidance.  These commands, which are made according to the order of our natural inclinations, stand as the fundamental principles of the moral life (the natural dictates about what is to be done and what is to be avoided).   This is the natural law.

To put it more concretely: by our reason we perceive food and drink and shelter and the opposite sex and friends and truth as good for us and for other humans; we perceive that these goods and the desires and powers for them are ordered amongst themselves from lowest to highest; by our reason we naturally command pursuing these goods according to that order.  On the flip side, starvation, exposure, loneliness, destruction of community, and ignorance are evil for us and for other humans, and reason commands them to be avoided according to the order of their corresponding goods and powers.

So what is the significance of all this for happiness?  It is this: natural law (and human or civil law) is not rightly thought of when we think of it as inhibiting our natural happiness, much less when we think of it as an arbitrary imposition to be grudgingly accepted.  Rather, it consists in the fundamental commands of reason that correspond to our natural inclinations and the order of these inclinations, helping us to achieve the goods proper to our nature, i.e., helping us to achieve natural happiness.  The fact that we sometimes or even often experience such law as inhibitive, as difficult and seemingly contrary to our happiness, is due to our failure fully to see and wholeheartedly to embrace law for what it truly is, viz., again, as something that directs us to right action and goods and thereby leads us to happiness.


As I said earlier, there is a deep-rooted reason for our failure to understand law properly: viz., original sin.  The serene rule of the natural law in us has been upended by the work of the enemy of man, Satan, who has sown in us an alternate law, the law of concupiscence: we rebel against even the natural dictates of reason.  As St. Thomas says, the law of concupiscence frequently corrupts the natural law and the order of reason.[10]  This corruption is not present merely in our lower desires and powers; it poisons our reason as well.  Plato and Aristotle both speak to this point: habitual action contrary to the commands of reason leads to the adoption of new commands, commands not given by right reason but by our lower desires.  Rather than the benevolent rule of right reason, an insatiable tyranny of the lower powers reigns in our souls.  We begin to see our wrongful actions as right, to call what is evil “good.”  We blind ourselves to the true good.  In fact, as we know from even our childhood catechism, we are born darkened in mind and weakened in will.  To rectify this, God has given us the divine law, which consists of the Old Law and the New Law.  To put it in more obviously Scriptural terms, we are inclined to see ourselves as the masters of good and evil, which is to believe the lie taught us by the father of lies.  We are blinded to our true natural good, and God alone can heal us (as the Book of Proverbs emphasizes repeatedly).  Now there is yet another reason for God’s giving the divine law to us: natural law orders us to our natural good (natural happiness), and God has willed to call us to something far greater and more glorious, a supernatural good.  So the divine law serves not merely to indicate the path of right reason to us but also, and most beautifully, to direct us toward a happiness beyond our natural happiness.  “O felix culpa,” “O necessary sin of Adam,” indeed!  

Scripture has very much to say about the moral law and our happiness.  In fact, it’s probably right to say that that’s principally what Scripture speaks about.  Usually, or at least very often, happiness is indicated by or included under the word “life,” which is among the handful of most important words in Scripture.  The Old Law exists so that the Israelites may have life, and Christ came so that we might have life abundantly.  The Wisdom Books are particularly helpful here: what brings life is wisdom, which one obtains by submitting oneself to God (because we are natively foolish).  In fact, even in the Old Testament God is teaching the Israelites that HE is their life, their happiness, and that the righteous (those that follow God’s Law) will have true life/happiness.  Human happiness consists in adhering to God the Supreme Good, without Whom all else is as ash, leading to misery and death.  (As St. Augustine so rightly emphasizes, following the Letter to the Hebrews, this is why we are sojourners [viatores] in this life: our true home, our happiness, lies beyond.)  There’s a passage in the Book of Jeremiah (2:13) that I think is crucial in this regard: My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.  The Lord identifies Himself as the fountain of living waters – all life, all good, comes from Him, so that separating oneself from Him entails being separated from all good (here, in particular, the goods promised by the covenant, viz., prosperous life in the Promised Land).  The attempt to have a life of earthly goods without God, without the Law, is futile and vain: it is trying to hold water in broken cisterns.  It’s not as if God is some distant being who meddles in earthly affairs and gives His favorites worldly goods and denies them to those He dislikes: rather, all worldly goods come from God, so that separating oneself from God is separating oneself even from worldly goods, i.e., from worldly goods as life-giving, as satisfying our desires.  One might object by saying that the wicked prosper (the heart-rending cry of Job and the Psalms): they get worldly goods, they don’t always endure famine, persecution, exile.  But, as Ecclesiastes points out, their enjoyment of these goods is fruitless, vain, and ultimately illusory (they will not be satisfied), because only the righteous man who fears the Lord and follows His laws can enjoy worldly goods, since he alone sees them as they are, for what they are.  Furthermore, the end of wickedness is death (as Proverbs repeatedly states) – the way of the wicked leads, though they do not know it, to death; only the wise man, the righteous man, sees this.  Considering all this, and the teaching of the Psalms, gives us the following picture: the wicked are, right now, dead (though they may sometimes appear alive and happy), whereas the righteous are alive (though they may sometimes appear oppressed and in misery), and all this will be cleared up, made open, made apparent, only after death. 

This teaching finds its fulfillment, it seems to me, in the doctrine of grace revealed in its fullness in the New Testament: as St. Thomas says, charity (the life of God in us) brings us happiness even in this life, even amidst adversity and suffering.  In fact, we can have eternal life right now, i.e., we can be with God; as John’s Gospel says, he who loves the Son and keeps His word will be loved by the Father, and the Father and Son will make their home with him.  1 John 5:13: I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.  The beatific vision is the continuation and fulfillment of this union with God here below.  If all of this sounds abstract and ideal, it is because we do not love sufficiently: only he who loves experiences the truth of this claim.  And here we are at the great paradox of life, one which was near and dear to St. John Paul II: to gain one’s life, one’s happiness, one must lose it; put another way, we must go out of ourselves to fulfill ourselves; only in love – i.e., seeking the good of another – can we be happy.  This is the full and final revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

            The New Law, then, shows us the sine qua non for our eternal happiness: the 10 Commandments of the Old Law are the initial condition for and proof of our love for God and neighbor, and the New Law interiorizes and reveals the fullest meaning of these commandments as ultimately ordered to our eternal happiness.  Since our eternal happiness consists in a knowledge that is love – this is eternal life, that they know You the only true God and Jesus Christ Whom You have sent (John 17:3) – achieving this requires acting from love.  Not to love God and neighbor is to fail to be happy.  The divine law, then, reveals to us precisely what we must do to be happy – not merely to “get” happiness in the next life, but to be happy now and in the next life.  This idea that we undergo and accept a miserable life of self-abnegation here and look for happiness in a pleasant life in heaven, that happiness is some pleasant life we receive later for following an arbitrary law now, is false and dangerous: it tends to contain, implicitly, a false view of ourselves and of God.  Meaning, it fails to see the connection between what is commanded (the Law) and our happiness; put another way, it fails to see that the eternal happiness offered to us by God is intrinsically bound up with the Law that He reveals to us.  Neither the natural moral law nor the divine moral law is arbitrary: the natural law corresponds to the order of our inclinations and directs us to our natural end – i.e., natural happiness; the divine moral law directs us to our supernatural end.  So the correct understanding is this: God offers us happiness here and now, for He offers us here and now a share in the life to come, and for this reason He gives us the divine law (which includes but perfects and goes beyond the natural law), so that we might know what is needful for our happiness. Put negatively, to reject God’s offer and His law is to become unhappy here in this life (and not just in the next).


The last major element of this essay concerns human freedom.  The temptation to think of freedom as distinct from and even opposed to both our nature and law is powerful.  And here, once again, the Greeks have something foundationally true and significant to say.  The historian Herodotus presents two divergent accounts of freedom.  One view – that of the ancient Persian king Xerxes, he says – is false and weakening: it claims that freedom is the ability to do whatever one wants to do.  This, he says, is both tyrannical and anarchical: tyrannical, because it looks to the good of the individual alone; anarchical because it leads to chaos.  Freedom is a principle of disunity; so any project requiring multiple people (particularly forming and maintaining human society) requires sheer compulsion, the curbing of freedom.[11]  Latent in this view is the notion that each man stands toward every other man as a tyrant, seeking to impose his will when he can.[12]  The other view of freedom, however, that of the ancient Greeks, is that freedom consists in the voluntary adherence to a common good and thus to the law that is set up to achieve that good.  On this view, the law is the common master.  So understood, freedom is a principle of unity, one that is disturbed by tyranny (whether individual or political) and sheer compulsion.  Note the enormous contrast between these two notions.  According to Xerxes, freedom is bare choice, untethered from any determinate goods present in human nature and from right reason as the ruler; freedom thus has merely an antagonistic relationship to law, for law exists precisely to bridle an intrinsically unbridled freedom.  According to the Greek account, however, freedom is ordered to a good, and indeed a common good, law is the expression of right reason as ordering things to that common good, and freedom is reason’s rational submission to that law as ordering human activity to an apprehended common good.  Put very briefly, for Xerxes freedom is ordered to what you will; for the Greeks it is ordered to the good.

            St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John Paul II, and a host of Christian theologians and philosophers in our intellectual tradition, deepen this Greek understanding in thoughtful contemplation of God’s revelation.  Central to their teaching, because central to Revelation itself, is the recognition that there are certain givens, certain realities that pre-exist human freedom and in light of which it must be understood.  And, in fact, this whole essay, up until this section, has been an elaboration of the principal elements of these givens or realities, viz., the intrinsic constitution of human nature and the place of mankind in God’s ordering of the universe to its common good.  These facts, these fundamental realities, must be taken into account when trying to understand, and of course when trying rightly to use, our freedom.  Failing to acknowledge these truths about human nature is what leads to the dominant modern understanding of freedom that we see all around us, and it ultimately leads to the pervasive and destructive moral theory according to which our acts are to be considered good or evil not according to any objective good, not according to whether they seek the right things in the right order, but rather according to whether they respect the right of others to determine for themselves what is good and evil.  But this is perversity and madness – it is the temptation of the serpent in Genesis – “you can be the determiners, the arbiters of good and evil.”  Or, the modern version: “That’s your truth / your religion / your morality.”


In summary, the Greek tradition as deepened by the Catholic tradition argues for and affirms that our freedom is not an undirected faculty whereby we pursue whatever we want: rather, it is that by which we perceive and choose the good, in light of our nature and its true goods and the order among those goods, as these are illuminated for us by God’s Revelation.  For our nature and our good, our happiness, is a given thing, not something we make – it is objective, that to which God has ordained us, and it corresponds to, fits with, our nature.  Any attempt to create our own idea of happiness, to determine for ourselves what is good and evil – what Justice Kennedy proclaimed chillingly in the Planned Parenthood vs. Casey decision (At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life: how frighteningly satanic that is; it is indeed the way of despair, as Ivan Karamazov can tell you!) – any such attempt to be the masters of good and evil is, as I said, a re-enactment of the devil’s temptation and man’s fall in Genesis 2 and 3.  For, in fact, what is good and evil is given to us, and we are given the power to perceive and embrace and live according to that given, in doing which we will fulfill our natures (as natural or as elevated by grace) and attain happiness.  Put another way, freedom is fulfilled only in submitting to the moral law, whether present in nature as the natural law or revealed as the divine law, for it is only in this submission that we achieve what freedom exists for, viz., happiness.  As St. John Paul II says:

With this imagery [of the two trees in Genesis and the command of God], Revelation teaches that the power to decide what is good and what is evil does not belong to man but to God alone.  The man is certainly free, inasmuch as he can understand and accept God’s commands.  And he possesses an extremely far-reaching freedom, since he can eat “of every tree of the garden.”  But his freedom is not unlimited: it must halt before the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” for it is called to accept the moral law given by God.  In fact, human freedom finds its authentic and complete fulfillment precisely in the acceptance of that law.  God, who alone is good, knows perfectly what is good for man, and by virtue of his very love proposes this good to man in the commandments.[13]

Thus, freedom is not at odds with the moral law, nor does the moral law stand in opposition to happiness.  Herodotus saw this, Plato and Aristotle saw this, and in Revelation God expressed this truth in all its theological glory.[14] 

[1] August 6, 1993.  Par. 18.

[2] Par. 41.

[3] What is especially marvelous about man’s natural constitution, which is true also of living things in general, is that he desires what he needs and he has the power to obtain it.  That correspondence of need, desire, and ability is easy for us to overlook; we very often take it for granted.  This is a very elementary, simple, humble instance of order in the universe, that my continued existence is not merely a matter of random chance but that present in my very self are both the desire to achieve this continuation of existence and the tools to make it so.

[4] The Hungry Soul (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994, reprint, 1999), ch. 2, pgs. 62-75.

[5] See Kass, The Hungry Soul, chs. 3-5.

[6] In his Republic, Plato presents the city in speech as growing to its full size under pressure from the demands of the lower powers: Glaucon wants his “relishes,” i.e., not merely food sufficient in quantity and quality to keep one alive but tasty food – desserts, wines, spices, etc.  In this way Plato seems to be showing us that even a life lived according to one’s animal desires needs community: although the goods in question are not common goods, still, they are provided by other people. 

[7] Summa theologiae, Ia-IIae, qq. 90-96.

[8] Q. 91, a. 2, resp.

[9] Q. 94, a. 2, resp.

[10] Collationes in decem praeceptis, Prooemium.

[11] Xerxes cannot understand any other principle of governance (Histories, Book 7).

[12] Herodotus has, in this regard, anticipated Thrasymachus (especially the extension of his sophistical account as developed by Glaucon and Adeimantus in Republic, Book 2) and Hobbes.

[13] Veritatis splendor, par. 35.

[14] I think the Greek tragedians also saw this, intuitively rather than discursively, of course.  For the core insight of Greek tragedy, as far as I can see, is the necessity for man to accept the givenness of, and the limitations inherent in, the human condition – that we are not gods, that our knowledge and desires suffer from ignorance and disorder and thus need correction and direction from on high.