Is St. Thomas’s thought egoistical?

by Patrick Lee

I have frequently heard at FUS the idea that St. Thomas Aquinas’s thought is egoistical, that is, that Thomas’s thought does not really recognize the fact that we sometimes care for someone for his own sake, as opposed to merely as a means toward our own fulfillment. Or perhaps, it is said, since Thomas was a great saint, he did recognize this occasionally, but this insight does not square with the basic tenets of his philosophy or theology.

Why not? Well, the idea is that he taught that every agent always acts for its own perfection or fulfillment, and that whenever a rational agent acts deliberately the agent acts for his her own happiness. And so if Thomas’s views were correct, the argument goes, every time we acted toward other persons we would be viewing them as mere means, and not as ends in themselves.

This is a serious misinterpretation. To show this, I will briefly examine two of Thomas’s ideas: beatitude and love of benevolence.


Thomas says that (when acting deliberately) we always act for beatitudo.   This is often translated as “happiness,” but I think it should better be translated simply as “beatitude.” The term “happiness” often today denotes a state of feeling contented, whether one is really fulfilled (perfected) or not.

Thomas defines beatitude, following Boethius, as follows: “the state perfected by the possession of all goods” (status omnium bonorum aggregatione perfectus). So, according to Thomas, whenever we choose we are acting, implicitly at least, to contribute to an ideal condition, the condition we conceive as being ideal. But different people, and even the same person at different times, may effectively place their beatitude in different conditions. That is, not everyone (and not even the same person at different times) acts for the same ideal condition, but everyone has some ideal condition or other he or she aims at in each deliberate act.    

Thomas is concerned also to explain what we should aim at as our beatitude, that is, what our beatitude really or objectively is. This condition, beatitude in the objective sense, involves our real fulfillment or perfection (our complete beatitude also includes supernatural communion with God, which is over and above our natural fulfillment, but I abstract from that issue here). But according to Thomas we are not simply individuals. We are, by the nature of the case, members of communities: friendships, family, city, Church, eventually, the whole universe, of which God is the ruler.

That is, in what we are, we are in communion with other persons. Therefore, our real fulfillment, our beatitude, cannot consist merely in our individual perfection. Therefore, to act for my beatitude in a morally upright way is to act not just for my own individual fulfillment, but also for the fulfillment of all those people with whom I am in communion in these various communities. My fulfillment includes the fulfillment of my wife, my children, my friends, and so on. If I work in order to feed my family and myself, am I being egoistical? No, but I am working for my fulfillment, my beatitude, because my fulfillment includes their fulfillment, since I am in communion with them. (On this see Summa Theologiae, I, q. 60, a. 5; I-II, q. 109, a. 3)

Love of Benevolence or Love of Friendship

St. Thomas clearly teaches that we should love God and our neighbor with a love of benevolence or love of friendship, and not just with a love of concupiscence. A love of concupiscence is the love I have for a thing or condition that I will to some person (either myself or another). Thus, I love steak with a love of concupiscence because I will it to myself (or to my friends). The love of benevolence or love of friendship, on the other hand, is the love I have for the person to whom I will good things or conditions. Thus, when I love steak with a love of concupiscence at the same time I am loving myself (and my friends) with a love of benevolence or friendship. Or if I will that my children learn and remain healthy, I am loving learning and health with a love of concupiscence, but I am loving my children with a love of friendship. Now, according to St. Thomas, I should love God (even on the natural level) more than myself with a love of benevolence or friendship, and I should love my neighbor, which includes all other human beings, with a love of benevolence or friendship. (The distinction between love of concupiscence and love of benevolence is also central to John Paul II’s account of love in Love and Responsibility; the first he calls love as desire and the second love of goodwill, pp. 80-84.)  

One might object that for Thomas the love we have for another cannot be genuinely for his own sake, since it is based on an ontological union, or “solidarity,” with that other, and so we love the other only as a part of ourself, the way one loves one’s pet, for example (cf. John Crosby, The Selfhood of the Human Person, p. 179-180). However, Thomas’s claim is that love of friendship, not just love of concupiscence, arises from this extension of natural love of self outward to others. Second, Thomas explicitly contrasts this love of friendship of another with love of someone or something merely as part of oneself (cf. his Commentary on Dionysius’s On Divine Names, #406).

Third, the ontological union with the other is a necessary condition of the extension of one’s love of friendship to another; it is not its sole cause. The goodness (or value?) of the other, Thomas insists, is the primary cause of one’s love of the other (Summa Theologiae, I-II. q. 27, a. 1). Fourth, Thomas explicitly argues that extasis, or a certain standing outside oneself, perhaps best translated as transcendence, is especially an effect of love of friendship of another (Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 28, a. 3). Fifth, Thomas says we are called to love God more than ourselves with a love of friendship (Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 26, a. 3), a nonsensical claim if love of another amounted only to loving him as part of oneself.

After original sin, says Thomas, we have a tendency to make ourself the center and to love other people only with a love of concupiscence. That is wrong. God should be at the center and our love for ourself should be an effect of our more primordial or primary love for God, which will also involve a love of what he loves, namely, our neighbor (Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 25, a. 4; q. 27, a. 3).   This teaching is not a mere obiter dictum or something only conceded in response to an objection—as if he glimpsed the truth just on rare occasions. Rather, it is central to his whole vision of reality, central to his vision of the return of all rational creatures to God, through Christ.

So, while Thomas did not say the last word on love, his thought is not egoistic.

Dr. Lee is Professor of Philosophy at FUS.