philosophy

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.

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Man’s law, God’s law (Antigone)

It has been wonderful to have the opportunity to reread some of these great Greek dramas for the Great Books of the Western World reading plan. I had forgotten just how excellent are so many of them, and the works of Sophocles are by no means the least. It is a shame that we will not be returning to Sophocles again for several years in the reading plan.

I once presented Antigone, in a somewhat simplified version (not because of ability but because of time), to my 8th graders as an outstanding early example of a point that Martin Luther King would make so eloquently in 20th century America: that the law of man is not the law of God and that when the two come into conflict it is God’s law that must be followed.

Rereading the drama in whole again I began to reflect on the way that ideas are born, live and change, and sometimes, though very rarely, die in history, and on the way that small innovations can have profound ramifications in the least likely places. Would there, in short, have been a Civil Rights Movement in the modern United States had it not been for Sophocles?

Of course, Sophocles is not the only exemplar here. There seems to have been a movement during this time toward a new way of thinking about God, man, and the world; I believe it was Huxley who coined the term “Axial Age” to refer to this era of nearly universal and significant change in outlook. Christopher Dawson’s thought on the centrality of religion to culture has also often focused on this era, though I’m not sure that he chose any special name for it. There was a movement, it seems, from nature-centered religions (and, therefore, cultures) which saw human activity as necessitating an imitation of nature. Dawson links this to the early agriculturalists who found that through imitating the natural processes of plant growth they could produce their own fields of crops. The result was a worship of nature, and the belief in nature as the standard for human activity, including in the moral sphere.

It was during this Axial Age, however, that there is a widespread recognition of the insufficiency of nature as a model for human activity. Man, now settled agriculturalists, began to look for another standard, an extra-natural or supernatural existent from which could be derived another set of standards transcending the order of the merely natural. In China, the result is Lao Tzu’s notion of the Tao — natural, yet transcendent at once. In Mesopotamia, the transformation of the tribal warrior-deity Yahweh into the Supreme God of all nations, surpassing even his own name, in the thought of the Prophets. In India, the movement away from the simplistic materialism and crass magician tricks of the Vedas toward the intellectualizing, complex, and mystical Hinduism of the Upanishads. And, of course, in Greece, the movement away from the relatively simple worldview of Homer toward the philosophy of Plato, aiming toward another world as the true.