life and death

Odyssey (Book XXII)


Some Conclusions on Happiness

This study of the idea of happiness has revealed a surprising consistency—even a measure of uniformity—in the history of the idea. This consistency reveals the timelessness of the idea of happiness and the continued relevance of historical articulations of the idea for the modern thinker. It is this consistency that has perhaps most contributed to the development of my thought on happiness over the course of this semester.

One feature of this history that is rather remarkable is the absence of serious endorsements of the idea of hedonism. It is remarkable that there seems to be an absence of great thinkers who have supported the belief that material and bodily pleasures are sufficient to the happy life. Given the appeal of hedonism, or something very close to, for a large swathe of modern humanity—as is evidenced by the pervasiveness of consumer culture—I fully expected that some version of it would be endorsed by a contingent—even if a small one—of the great thinkers of the Western tradition. When it does receive what seems to be an endorsement, however, it is more often adopted for what seems to be the satirical or parodic purposes, as in Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, or in a heavily modified form, as in John Stuart Mill’s version of utilitarianism. Even for those who come closest to seriously endorsing a form of hedonism, the search for pleasure is tempered by both its perpetual elusiveness and its character as, ultimately, a distraction from the much greater suffering inherent in human life.It is difficult indeed to find a serious thinker who seriously endorses hedonism as a philosophy and approach to life.

The reason for this apparent dearth of hedonistic philosophers may be the keen insight of these same philosophers into the relative brevity and mutability of human life. The classic example of this insight is, of course, the story of Solon’s meeting with Croesus was described in Herodotus’s Histories. As Solon famously concludes in his words to Croesus, “He who unites the greatest number of advantages, and retaining them to the day of his death, then dies peaceably, that man alone, sire, is, in my judgment, entitled to bear the name of ‘happy.’” Because a happy death is necessarily the end of a happy life, Solon continues, “in every matter it behoves us to mark well the end: for oftentimes God gives men a gleam of happiness, and then plunges them into ruin.” It is impossible to pronounce a person’s life to be a happy one until that person has run the entire course of his or her life. They may, in the end, suffer a dramatic change of fortune or a miserable death.

The shortness and variability of life becomes impetus in many of the authors of the Western tradition to look toward a life beyond this one, a life that is permanent and unchanging. St. Thomas Aquinas expresses what seems to be the consensus among Western thinkers when he writes,

In this life every evil cannot be excluded. For this present life is subject to many unavoidable evils. . . . Likewise neither can the desire for good be satiated in this life. For man naturally desires the good, which he has, to be abiding. Now the goods of the present life pass away. . . . Wherefore it is impossible to have true Happiness in this life.


Human beings, according to Aquinas and other similar thinkers, naturally desire happiness unmitigated by the evils that cause unhappiness and that is of permanent duration. The brevity and changeability of earthly life, however, prohibits the attainment of such permanent and unmitigated happiness. True happiness, then, can only be found in a life beyond the current one, these thinkers conclude.

The inevitability of suffering and consequent elusiveness of happiness in this life becomes in many of these thinkers an impetus toward setting their eyes on the life beyond. For some, like Dante with his Divine Comedy, this focus on the afterlife is the central theme of their thought and ideas. For others, such as Dostoyevsky, Augustine, and Aquinas, the afterlife is not quite the preoccupation that is exhibited in Dante’s works but is certainly the end toward which their view of human life and the attainment of happiness aim. Even a thinker not typically thought of in terms of his relationship to Christianity to the same extent as these others, such as Michel de Montaigne, similarly turns to a meditation on the inevitability of death in his considerations of happiness and its limitations.

These similarities across time and even across cultural milieu, from Greeks like Aristotle and Romans like Epictetus to medieval and modern Christians like Aquinas and Dostoyevsky has undoubtedly been one of the most fascinating aspects of this study of the idea of happiness. This is especially true in that such a continuity evinces the perennial nature of the concern for happiness and the conclusions reached about the limitations upon it in this life and the possibility of it in the next.

The Contemplative Life

Praise of the quiet and contemplative life of contentment with one’s lot is a consistent theme that runs throughout the works of philosophers considering the ideally happy life. Ancient authors of both the Greek and the biblical tradition as well as more recent thinkers on the subject affirm the positive good of a life of peaceful contentment. Such a disposition is frequently extolled as surpassing the active life. In spite of the frequent and widespread admonitions to the life of repose in literature of substantial wisdom, however, there does seem to be an extreme of quietism toward which such admonitions tend which comes dangerously near acceptance of injustice and inferiority for the sake of personal inner peace.

The preference for the quiet life is expressed in both the Greek philosophical tradition and in the biblical tradition. Aristotle, for example, claims a certain godlikeness of those who live a life of repose, as, says Aristotle, “God always enjoys a single and simple pleasure . . . and pleasure is found more in rest than in movement.” The tendency away from the pleasures of rest, Aristotle continues, is in fact itself a vice because “the nature that needs change is vicious; for it is not simple nor good.” Similarly, in the biblical tradition, the author of Ecclesiastes advises contentment with one’s lot as a key to happiness (Eccl 5:18). And in the New Testament, St. Paul writes in his first letter to Timothy, “if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (1 Tm 6:8).

More recently, Blaise Pascal and Michel Montaigne offer similar admonitions toward a life of rest. In his essay “Of the Inequality Which is Between Us,” Montaigne concludes with the dialogue between King Pyrrhus and his advisor Cyneas, the moral of which is the advice to cease striving for greater acquisitions in favor of repose. Pascal also references this story and draws from it a condemnation of those who would endeavor to increase their estaste “as if the possession of the objects of their quest would make them really happy.” Pascal finds in such endeavors, in fact, a peculiar sort of illness universal among mankind in which people pursue such endeavors in order to avoid having to face the self in quiet contemplation.

There is, no doubt, a great deal of wisdom in all of these admonitions. One who is constantly seeking an increase in wealth, power, or glory is one who is never satisfied and therefore perpetually unhappy. And, importantly, as Pascal notes, such a person persistently but futily evades the terrifying but essential moment of silence in which one must face the facts of self, of meaning, and of death. The need for constant acquisition, then, is a symptom of a greater attempt at evasion of the existential questions of human life.

Such admonitions, however, can be seen from another perspective as potentially problematic. The sort of quietude urged can easily be understood—even if only mistakenly so—as a commandment to keep in one’s place and to settle for acceptance of poverty and injustice. St. Paul’s advice to slaves to respect and obey their masters in 1 Timothy 6:1–2, for example, has a great deal of potential—potential which was indeed historically exploited—to discourage the enslaved from seeking their freedom.

Also problematic is the potential for the perversion of the idea of rest inherent in some of these admonitions. Rest, including sleep, is, as it is typically experienced, a period of relative inactivity in preparation for activity. If a life of quiet rest were indeed the best life, the idler would be the most virtuous man alive. This is not so, however, unless excessive sleep is the greatest virtue of all.

Rather, Cicero’s thought on rest as preparation for activity as he describes it in the Pro Archia Poeta seems be a balanced and insightful view of the place of rest in human life. The meaningful rest of engagement in poetry, study, and liberal learning, writes Cicero, is a rest that prepares one properly for engagement in political and social life. The rest alone is insufficient as it is unbalanced; without activity, it is preparation for preparation. It is partaking of the active life in community with other people that grants to rest its meaning. The restful life, then, is only half of the full life.

Two Happinesses

It seems to me that there are two sorts of happiness. On the one hand, there is what might be labelled a “secular happiness,” or the happiness of this life. And, on the other hand, there is what might be called a “spiritual happiness,” or the happiness of the world to come. The latter may be, in a sense, glimpsed within this life, but it seems to be impossible to experience fully within this life. The former, secular happiness, however, is the highest form of happiness fully accessible within the span of earthly human life.

By secular happiness I do not mean to indicate a happiness that is entirely divorced from higher, spiritual or religious concerns or that is centered in materiality. On the contrary, this secular happiness is more likely to be attained in the rejection of excessive concern for material goods than it is in their accumulation. By secular happiness, then, I mean something like that happiness described by Epictetus in his Discourses, as by other Stoic philosophers elsewhere, when he says that “tranquility and peace of mind” arise from self-control and contentment with one’s portion. Secular happiness can be attained by following Epictetus’s advice to avoid being anxious about those things which one cannot control, to put one’s own self under his control, and to point one’s effort consistently toward the development of virtue. Too great an attachment to material things, an inability to keep one’s thoughts, emotions, and actions within one’s control, and a too great desire for any worldly success or goods are ultimately futile and therefore bound to produce dissatisfaction. I aver, then, that his sort of happiness can be attained by anyone within this lifetime but only by one who dedicates himself to virtue.

The second sort of happiness, the spiritual happiness, however, is a sort of happiness that is, in its fullest sense, out of reach within this lifetime. As St. Thomas Aquinas notes (Summa Theologica, First Part of the Second Part, Q. 5, A. 3), because life necessarily entails suffering it is therefore impossible to experience a full and complete happiness within this lifetime. Similarly, as Solon told Croesus, it is impossible even to say that man has had a truly happy life until his death because it could be that an otherwise happy life leads one to immense suffering and a final downfall in the end.

More than this, however, and in conformity with Aquinas’s thought, I maintain that this full and final happiness is to be had only in the presence of God, who is the end towards which all human life ultimately aims. While it is possible to obtain glimpses and premonitions of this final spiritual happiness within this lifetime, its complete enjoyment is confined to the next life. The secular happiness of this life, which is a sort of contentment with oneself and one’s station in the world, is, in fact, one of sort of premonition of the final happiness. Like this secular happiness, the spiritual happiness is attained, in large part, through virtue, but the spiritual happiness is attained not only through the classical virtues but through the exercise of the specifically Christian virtues. Beyond this, the experiences of certain saints and mystics can be seen more clearly as early glimpses of the final happiness of the presence of God. Even for these, however, the full experience of this happiness is impossible in the present life.

Happiness, then, is of two sorts: secular and spiritual. These are closely related in some ways but quite different in others. The secular happiness, a tranquility attained in spite of circumstances within this life, is attained through the practice of the classical virtues, especially through contentment and through self-control. The spiritual happiness surpasses mere contentment and requires virtue that surpasses the classical virtues and embraces the Christian virtues as well. It may be, in fact, that the secular happiness is the natural result of a virtuous life and that the spiritual happiness is an abundance and completion that is ultimately a gift of God.