August 9, 2012 (HLIAmerica.org) – Many motion pictures conclude with the words, “The End.” This is done for a very practical reason: so that the viewer knows that the movie is over.
Clarifying this wonderfully ambiguous word – “end” – is also of practical import in our daily lives. Is the end that we are seeking something terminal, or is it something inaugural? Is it a finality or an overture? It is important for us to know whether death, like graduation, is more of a commencement than a conclusion.
Aristotle’s Ethics is built around man’s end which is his happiness. In Book 3 of this celebrated work, he states that “will is of the end, but election is of that which is for the sake of the end.” He is inferring that our will is necessarily drawn to happiness (eudaimonia). Therefore, we are not free to choose whether or not we want to be happy. Our ability to choose is concerned exclusively with the means to happiness. St. Thomas Aquinas affirms this distinction when he states that “the will is directed to the end, but choice to that which leads to the end” (Summa Contra Gentiles Book 1, Ch. 88). Aquinas, however, goes beyond the Aristotelian notion of happiness, and states that our final end, our happiness (felicitas), is with God. The word “end” in this context means fulfillment and not finality. What does it profit a man, we might ask, if he chooses many earthly pleasures and possessions, but forfeits his eternal destiny?
A problem of enormous magnitude in our present culture is the widespread notion that being “pro-choice” is a comprehensive philosophy. Paradoxically, the one thing that we cannot choose—our end—is the only thing that gives meaning to our choices. It is not enough to be pro-choice; we must be pro-end before we can begin to be pro-choice. Without knowing where we are going, we do not know which road to take.
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On October 30, 2002, Herm Edwards, at that time the head coach of the New York Jets, made the distinction between choice and end more passionately and emphatically than Aristotle and Aquinas ever did when he exclaimed to the press, “You play to win the game. You don’t play it just to play it.” In other words, the play is subordinate to winning. Winning is the unquestioned end; choosing how to win and by what means is the of province choice. One thing is necessary, the other is voluntary. Getting the ball into the end zone may contribute to winning, but is not synonymous with it.
Coach Edwards’ syncopated sestet of monosyllabic words—“you-play-to-win-the-game”—had a surprisingly powerful impact on his listeners. It was quoted endlessly and became the title of his published collection of “leadership lessons.” Ironically, Edwards’ “play-not-to-lose” mentality contributed to his being fired by the Jets. To make matters even more embarrassing, he won but 2 of 16 games in his final year in the NFL as head coach for the Kansas City Chiefs. His philosophy was flawless, but his achievement was unexceptional. His teams did not convert enough extra points for him. On the other hand, he converted from being a Baptist to a practicing Roman Catholic. Perhaps something of Aquinas got into his soul. Who can know?
Herm Edwards, now a successful motivational speaker, could be operating on a larger platform: “You live to love your Lord.” St. Thomas would agree and applaud. Neither acquiring money nor getting into the end zone is the ultimate end of life. There is something beyond: the end of life is really a prelude to another life, a life that has no end.
Marlon Brando once declared that when it came time for him to take his last breath, he would say to himself, “What was that all about?” Here is a case in which one played just to play, but did not play to win. And when the play ended, life seemingly ended along with it.
I suppose it is unconventional to refer to paradise as the ultimate “end zone.” Nonetheless, even football, pedestrian as it is, offers an important parable: choice is not everything; it is the proper subordination of our choices to the happiness that we did not choose that is everything.
Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow of HLI America (HLI), an initiative of Human Life International. He is Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He writes for HLI’s Truth and Charity Forum.