For years, sociologist Arthur Brooks has been trying to understand the secret to human happiness. Recently in The Atlantic, Brooks argued that at least part of the answer is wanting less, something taught by teachers as ideologically diverse as the Buddha and Thomas Aquinas.
“As we age, we shouldn’t accumulate more to represent ourselves,” writes Brooks, “but rather strip things away to find our true selves—and thus, to find happiness and peace.”
This is good practical wisdom, but there’s more to understand here. While the views of Aquinas and Buddha are superficially similar on this topic, they depart radically on what people are, and what people are for.
The Buddha taught us to stop desiring, but Jesus said to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
In other words, it’s not about not desiring, but about desiring the right things. The difference between Buddhist asceticism and Aquinas’ idea of soul-building is knowing the One who created us with a capacity for happiness in the first place.
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