In a conversation about moral philosophy on another blog, someone asked: “Isn’t Christianity all about eudaimonia?” In other words, is Christianity a transcendent eudemonism like, for example, Kant said it was? Jacques Maritain responded on that in his book Moral Philosophy.

Excerpts from Jacques Maritain, Moral Philosophy

Chapter 3 – The Discovery of Ethics – Aristotle

Aristotelian eudemonism
1. […] Eudaimonia is the state of a man in whom human nature and its essential aspirations have attained their complete fulfillment, and attained it in conformity with the true hierarchy of ends proper to that nature. […] It is necessary to find out what the ends of our nature are […] and to discover what kind of good above all others man is made for, the good which is uniquely appropriate to a rational being and through which he achieves the fulfillment of his nature.

Eudemonism is not sufficient to answer man’s aspirations
17. […] Aristotle was right to seek in happiness — I use the word in its most indeterminate sense, the happiness toward which we tend not by choice but by necessity of nature — the point of departure of ethics. But when it comes to the point of arrival, and the determination of what the true happiness of man consists in, the happiness toward which we must tend by free choice, then he sees neither that this true happiness is in fact something beyond purely human happiness, nor that it is itself ordered to a Good which is better and loved more than any happiness. The supreme good which he proposes to us is incapable of a decisive hold on existence.

Chapter 5 – The Impact of Christianity on Moral Philosophy

Wisdom of the Bible and Christianity
3. […] We are here in the presence of a supernatural wisdom that gives itself, and that freely descends from the Principle of beings. A wisdom of salvation, a wisdom of saintliness, it is not man who wins it, it is God who gives it; it is not from an upward movement of the creature, it is from a downward movement of the creating Spirit that it proceeds.
8. […] Thus the egocentricity in which Aristotelian eudemonism remained in fact enclosed is definitely overcome. At the very moment that beatitude is promised to man, he is offered the possibility of finally being delivered from himself and from the devouring egoism which perverts his love of himself.
My happiness, which I naturally and necessarily desire, which I cannot help desiring, and which finally consists in the vision of God, has now been subordinated to something better, subordinated to God — and this is implied, as we remarked above, in the very essence of that happiness, since it consists in the possession of God, who is infinitely better than my happiness. […]

Christian morality is a morality of beatitude, but first and foremost it is a morality of the divine Good supremely loved.

Ambiguous Christian preaching
9. The theologians are perfectly clear on all this. But popular preaching is often inclined to put the emphasis above all, if not even, exclusively on the joys of the reward and the pains of punishment. These are truths which immediately stir our natural appetite for happiness and our natural fear of suffering. And even if one insists only on them, one can always hope that once the sinner is turned toward the subsistent Good from motives in which love of self hold first place, the living faith will thereafter make him spontaneously subordinate his own interest to God loved first.

Consequences for the philosophical intelligence
9. […] It is for the philosophical intelligence — not to speak of the pseudo-philosophical opinions current in popular thought, and sometimes in textbooks of ethics or the history of philosophy — that the final result of this emphasis is dangerous and can be the occasion for serious misconceptions. Even a philosopher like Kant, following a great many others, could imagine that traditional Christian morality (until revised by Pure Reason) was a morality of sublimated egotistic happiness and personal interest, in which it is for love of itself and of eternal pleasure, to which all else is subordinated, that the soul loves the Author of all good and strives to practise his precepts, which in reality is to conceive of Christianity after the model of the idolatrous cults it overthrew.

15. […] Another historical accident, another misconception for which revealed ethics offered an occasion to human reason, and for which certain theologians this time bore primary responsibility, can also be pointed out. I allude here to the line of thinkers (the teachers of Islam above all, but also, on the Christian side, Scotus and Occam in the Middle Ages, Descartes in modern times) who, struck more or less consciously by the grand image of the revelation of the Decalogue amid the lightning and thunder of Omnipotence, believed that the moral law, and finally even the distinction between good and evil, depended not at all on divine Wisdom and Reason, the foundation of eternal necessities, but uniquely and exclusively on the pure Will or the pure All-Powerfulness of God, and on an arbitrary decision of His sovereign Freedom. A kind of divine despotism thus became the source of the moral law, decreed and imposed without reason by the celestial High Command. It seems probable to me that this way of looking at things, which St. Thomas Aquinas considered blasphemy, but which was not without its effect here and there on popular consciousness, or popular ignorance, exercised a serious influence on Kant, and played a double role in his thought. On the one hand, I believe, it made him reject, as subjecting the spirit of man to a despotic heteronomy, any idea of making the authority of the moral law depend on the Creator of nature. On the other hand, it made him transfer this same despotic sovereignty to the pure practical Reason, itself identified with the autonomous Will of Man, taken in its supra-empirical dignity.

Chapter 6 – The Ethics of Kant

5. […] Kant saw the weak point in Aristotelian eudemonism; he also saw the weak point in a great many of the popular expositions of religious morality which were not careful enough to avoid presenting it simply as a transcendent eudemonism.
6. […] Kant cut the moral life off at the same time from Aristotelian Happiness and from Christian Beatitude, from all impetus toward a supreme earthly felicity and from all impetus toward a supreme transcendent felicity. Neither the natural aspiration toward happiness, which for him had to do solely with the world of nature, not at all with the world of freedom, nor the aspiration to partake of the divine beatitude, which for him derived only from a kind of transcendent eudemonism or even hedonism, was involved in the proper order of morality. What we have called the subjective ultimate end, which in the original perspective of revealed ethics was the super-fulfillment of the being and the desires of the human subject through the vision of God, and the joy which derives from it as an inherent property, are definitely banished from this proper order of morality.


The main point is that, when and where Christian morality is assimilated to a transcendent eudemonism, it is because of errors of understanding or bad examples. If we accept Maritain’s exposé as correct, we acknowledge that Christian morality is not at all about eudaimonia, but about beatitude. Joy and happiness in this world are certainly desirable and partly attainable and, when they happen, they are bestowed by God’s Providence. Some even experience glimpses of beatitude in contemplation. Still, eudaimonia is not beatitude, the ultimate end God promised us.

Beatitude is the perfectly rational end because it corresponds to our nature of beings created in the image and likeness of God, then fallen, then redeemed. As fallen creatures and sinners, it is understandable that our life is more often miserable than otherwise in this valley of tears. But even if we suffer and die, because Christ did suffer and die in order to redeem us, beatitude is still the end for those who love God and what God commands more than they love their own happiness.