The next candidate for happiness is pleasure. Here we re-introduce the modern concept of happiness, which is a “sense of pleasurable satisfaction.” This is what Aquinas means by pleasure. Everyone seeks pleasure. Most parents will tell you that the single most important thing they want for their children is for them to be happy. That is the motto of modern parents. We want our children to have a life of pleasurable satisfaction.
Why do so many believe this is the purpose of life? One reason is that pleasure seems to be an end or goal, rather than a means. It is silly to ask a person why they seek pleasure! They seek pleasure because it’s pleasing. Pleasure is something sought for itself. Pleasure is not a means to anything, but an end. In addition, it seems that whenever we have true happiness, in the traditional sense, we also have pleasure. They go together.
Another indicator of our passion for pleasure is in the way we seek to have fun. Fun is another word for pleasure and we’re always chasing after it. How do we pursue fun?
We watch TV. We play sports. We go to the movies. We go to amusement parks. We eat our favorite foods. We read books. We also love to hear jokes.
The list of things we do for fun and pleasure could go on and on. We all want pleasure and we certainly seem to spend much of our lives pursuing it, so maybe it is the ultimate purpose of life.
According to Aquinas, it can’t be. First of all, remember that we defined happiness as reaching the supreme good of man. Well, think about some of the pleasures you’ve had in your life. I bet you regret some of them. Maybe you were inebriated at a party once; you had fun that night, but later regretted it because you acted like a fool. Maybe you ate a huge meal at your favorite restaurant; you certainly enjoyed eating at the time, but later wished you hadn’t gorged yourself. Maybe you’ve had fun playing video games or watching TV for hours at a time; later you came to realize that you were wasting your precious time.
If pleasures can be regretted, then they cannot be the ultimate good for your life. True happiness is not characterized by regret, but by rest in the supreme good. Pleasure is a result of true happiness, not the cause of it.
In addition, we know from experience that pleasure is fleeting and that we cannot count on most things to consistently bring us pleasure. Has this ever happened to any of you? You watch a movie and a particular scene is hilarious and makes you to laugh until it hurts. You really get a lot of pleasure from the scene. Years go by, and you decide to watch the movie again, because you’re convinced you can get that same pleasure again. This time, though, it’s really not that funny.
If you obsessively chase pleasure, it’s like chasing after the wind. It’s often uncatchable. This cannot be what constitutes happiness because there is no ultimate rest in pleasure. There is always a desire for more that never ends.