Theses Doctoral

Misery and Its Escape: Thomas Aquinas and Teresa of Ávila on the Bad Life

Marsh, Anthony Joseph

My dissertation gives the first analysis of misery in the thought of Aquinas and Teresa of Ávila, providing new insight into their ideas of happiness through means of contrast. I use the terms “misery” and “happiness” in a traditional sense to indicate life lived poorly or well, respectively, and I investigate these notions in Aquinas’ and Teresa’s principal texts, especially the Summa Theologiae and The Interior Castle. Both thinkers identify misery as a privation of God: a lack of the share in God’s goodness that one ought to have. Both see the escape from misery as a process of perfecting the soul’s faculties of intellect and will to unite one to God.

For Aquinas, happiness is essentially an intellectual perfection: knowledge of God. Conversely, misery is an intellectual defect: lack of the knowledge of God that one ought to have. Moreover, Aquinas so analyzes “ought” that misery is a lack of what is naturally desired. Perfect happiness comes with the full understanding of God that one can only attain in heaven, but a middle ground exists between perfect happiness and misery. Even in this life, one can attain “imperfect happiness,” and the analysis of misery helps to clarify this obscure notion. The imperfectly happy have not acquired their consummate perfection, but understand as much about God as nature presently compels them to desire to know. A right will is both necessary and sufficient for escaping misery and obtaining happiness. The will depends on the intellect in such a way that it cannot desire correctly unless the intellect understands correctly. Moreover, sin colors one’s perception of reality, so that evil desire in the will causes error and ignorance in the intellect. Thus, one escapes misery if and only if one chooses to love God as one’s ultimate end.

For Teresa, happiness is the union with God through knowledge and love for which the soul was made, and misery is the lack of this union. The soul escapes misery by developing a relationship with God in contemplative prayer, and Teresa illustrates happiness and misery through the titular metaphor of The Interior Castle. Notably, happiness requires that one’s union with God become perfectly secure, and I identify an intellectualist strain in Teresa that implies that the will cannot become perfectly committed to God unless the intellect can become perfectly firm in its certainty that God is the sole good. The quest for certainty is difficult, since like Descartes who will follow her, Teresa posits the existence of a deceiving demon with considerable influence over all the soul’s powers. Against that threat, Teresa claims to find certainty through mystical experience. God is Truth, containing and grounding all other truths. In the “spiritual marriage,” the soul sees God’s Triune nature as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, really three distinct persons yet one substance. The directness of this vision provides a certainty which no deception can overcome.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Mercer, Christia
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 16, 2023