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 royal eagles on high mountains fly

Not underneath sweet shades and fountains shrill,
Among the nymphs, the fairies, leaves and flowers;
But on the steep, the rough and craggy hill
Of Virtue stands this bliss, this good of ours;
By toil and travail, not by sitting still
In pleasure’s lap we come to honour’s bowers;
Why will you thus in sloth’s deep valley lie?
The royal eagles on high mountains fly.

Torquato Tasso, Gerusalemme liberata

Reading Job as a mystical text

The modern world has developed an obsession with comfort coupled with a nearly equally obsessive antipathy to suffering of any sort. The natural aversion to suffering and death have been transformed into a compulsion to avoid any sort of suffering and to avoid even the mention of death. This modern view contrasts sharply with the more traditional and healthy view of suffering which is seen in Scripture.
The words of Bernard Berenson in his book The Florentine Painters of the Renaissance present an example of the common modern view. In his book, Berenson judges Michelangelo’s paintings of the Last Judgment and the Crucifixion of Peter to be artistic failures. He explains that they are failures because “art can only be life-communicating and life-enhancing. If it treats of pain and death, these must always appear as manifestations and as results only of living resolutely and energetically.” In the final sentence of the same paragraph, Berenson finally goes terribly wrong, as he asks, “what chance is there … for this, artistically the only possible treatment, in the representation of a man crucified head downwards?”
It is, from the perspective of Scripture, precisely and perhaps solely in “a man crucified with his head downwards” that we can find anything “of living resolutely and energetically.” Paradoxical though it may be, God, the source of all life and energy, is found in weakness and in suffering. It is at moments of the most profound weakness and pain that we experience our own humanity most profoundly and, in experiencing our own humanity, we open ourselves to the experience of God, by whom and in whose image our humanity has been formed. It is only one who has forgotten the importance of his own mortality and weakness who can possibly describe Michelangelo’s representation of the Last Judgment as a failure.
The Book of Job perhaps more than any other single book of the Bible presents the Scriptural view of suffering and death as ultimately necessary and even positively redemptive. This is especially true if the book is read as a mystical text rather than a tract of philosophy or academic theology. From the first verse of the book, the reader is presented with a man who is “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1, ESV). Because of this righteousness, he has been blessed by God with an abundance of wealth. He possesses so much wealth, in fact, that the book identifies him as “the greatest of all the people of the east” (1:3). All of this, however, is taken from him as God allows Satan to test his faith by stripping him of his wealth, killing his children, and finally causing “loathsome sores” to cover Job “from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” (2:7).
This suffering plunges Job into despair and existential angst. He contemplates the shortness and fragility of human life, declaring “man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble” (14:1). He wonders at the apparent absence of God, observing “behold, I go forward, but he is not there, and backward, but I do not perceive him” (23:8). He even flatly declares “I loathe my life” (10:1). Even in the midst of this great suffering, however, Job maintains his hope that “yet in my flesh I shall see God” (19:26).
This is precisely what happens as the book draws to a close. After all the suffering of Job, God finally appears to him and addresses him directly. Rather than offering an answer to his questions about the meaning and nature of human life, however, God instead reveals his own immensity to Job in an extended discourse on his own power and the wonders of his creation, beginning with the question “where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (38:4) and progressing through descriptions of the the physical features of the planet and the various animals that live on it. God’s monologue concludes with a section in which the tremendous and terrifying Leviathan of Ancient Near Eastern mythology is reduced to a mere plaything of the Almighty (41:5).
Job is left nearly mute by this display and responds simply, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:6). Job’s self-loathing caused by his own suffering has been transformed into absolute humility in the presence of God. The book ends as God restores Job’s prosperity, giving to him double the amount of possessions he previously held.
The commentary of St. Augustine on Psalm 111:10 (“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”) in his On Christian Doctrine (Book II, Chapter 7) is of special help in interpreting the Book of Job. Augustine explains Psalmist’s verse by laying out a seven step process leading from the fear of God to wisdom, which latter term he identifies with the direct experience of God. According to Augustine, one begins with fear of God, which he identifies especially with fear of God’s judgment and wrath, a quality attributed to Job from the first verse of the Book of Job. The second step on the mystical path, inspired by fear, says Augustine, is piety, which is certainly demonstrated by Job’s fastidiousness in “continually” offering sacrifices on behalf of his children because, according to Job, “it may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts” (1:5).
This fear and piety combine, according to Augustine, to lead one to the third step, knowledge. According to Augustine, this knowledge is the recognition “that God is to be loved for His own sake” and that one, “through being entangled in the love of this world — i.e., of temporal things – -has been drawn far away from such a love for God … as Scripture enjoins.” This is, of course, what Job experienced when all of his worldly possessions and even his own health were taken away from him. And his reaction is precisely as Augustine describes: “the knowledge of a good hope makes a man not boastful, but sorrowful. And in this frame of mind he implores with unremitting prayers the comfort of the Divine help that he may not be overwhelmed in despair.” It is through this existential crisis, says Augustine, that “he gradually comes to the fourth step, — that is, strength and resolution.” This strength and resolution are exhibited by Job in his expressed faith that God would redeem him and that he would finally be vindicated. The fifth step, says Augustine, is compassion, a recognition that the condition he himself is experiencing is common to all men and, given this truth, that he should be a source of comfort to others, a theme which arises at several points in Job’s words throughout the book and which is especially emphasized in his final monologue in chapter 31. From this, one continues into the sixth step, in which, says Augustine, “that holy man will be so single and so pure in heart, that he will not step aside from the truth, either for the sake of pleasing men or with a view to avoid any of the annoyances which beset this life.” That Job discontinues his argumentations with his friends and does not respond to Elihu’s extended rebuke (chapters 32-37) exhibits Job’s entrance into this step. Finally, God reveals himself and Job enters into the seventh step, wisdom, the direct apprehension of God.
This comparison of the Book of Job with Augustine’s description of the mystical path highlights the contrast between the Book of Job and the modern view of suffering. For moderns, suffering is an evil to be avoided at all costs and which represents the cessation of a life fully and truly lived. For a Christian, however, informed by the Scriptures, there is a kind of suffering, the most painful kind, that lays, and in fact is, the path to redemption and salvation. This suffering is, in truth, the only way to God, the fountain of a life that is eternal and infinite.

The tragic level of existence

There are three different levels on which life can be lived. First, there is the level of surfaces and superficiality, above pain and problem, on which it is perhaps true that we have, at times, as a technological nation, tried to live. Secondly, there is a level much deeper than this (where pain is indeed confronted, and chaos, too), which to my mind is the level to be equated with what is today so often grimly called “the human situation.” Is it going too far to say that here is in this region of things a certain dark attraction for the modern intelligence and sensibility, an attraction toward and almost a love of the chaotic, the absurd, the resentful struggle of it all? Thirdly, there is a still deeper level of human existence, a place where the human spirit “dies” in frequent real helplessness; and this we may call the really tragic level of existence.

Fr. William F. Lynch, Christ and Apollo, pp. 109-10

Happiness according to Aristotle and Christ

Aristotle identified the highest end and aim of man as happiness. According to Aristotle, happiness is both what men naturally aim to attain and is their greatest attainment. It was this idea that shaped his ethical theories as he formulated his idea of values as the means by which to attain happiness. According to Aristotle, attaining perfect virtue is the means by which to attain perfect happiness. In addition, Aristotle’s theory of virtues sees virtue as a mean between two vices, one of defect, the other of excess. For Aristotle, then, happiness is seen primarily as a state of equanimity rather than one of passionate pursuit of pleasure as, for instance, the hedonist might claim. Most of the specific content of these values that Aristotle claims as leading to the greatest happiness are, much like his assertions about happiness as man’s highest end which begin his ethical theories, little more than attempts to articulate and provide a justification for the conventional values of his time. This is the greatest point of weakness in his ethics, and in his philosophy as a whole, and the point from which he has been criticized by feminists and can be seen as fundamentally flawed in the light of a multicultural perspective.

Aristotle, like most Greek men of his time, was possessed of a prejudice which saw the values, beliefs, and ways of his own time and place as the best and the norm by which all others were to be judged. It is this prejudice that in large part inspired and informed the Greek disdain for non-Greeks as “barbarians” who, according to Aristotle in his Politics, lack the capacity for reason and are intended by nature to be slaves ruled by the Greeks. This presupposition on the part of Aristotle exposes him to an attack for which he seems to offer no good answer, in spite of some rather haphazard attempts, namely the question of why we should prefer the Greek values of Classical Antiquity over any other set of values from any other time or place.

Although the two were certainly unfamiliar with each other, Aristotle’s Chinese contemporary or near-contemporary, Chuang Tzu, offers just such a critique of a similar set of ideas to Aristotle’s, as found in Confucianism, in his writings. Just as Aristotle assumed the values and norms of contemporary Greece were the standard and perfect values and norms, Confucius made the same assumption about the values and norms of China, even identifying them with the Way of Heaven, the eternal order of things. The Taoists, including perhaps most notably Chuang Tzu, opposed this Confucian idea with the belief in and practice of a radical renunciation of social expectations and cultural mores. For the Taoist, it was in fact a rejection of conventional values that allowed one to discover and faithfully follow the Tao, or eternal order of things. In other words, in contrast to the Confucian and Aristotelian identification of a certain set of cultural values as eternal values, for the Taoists renouncing the values of one’s culture was among the first steps toward discovering and following the eternal values.

Many thinkers, especially among feminists, have also seen much that is lacking in Aristotle’s ideas and offered criticism of them on similar grounds. Eve Browning Cole, for example, sees Aristotle’s ideas regarding a perfect society as resting essentially on the exploitation of women and other marginalized groups as laborers while freeing a minority of aristocratic men for a life of the mind, which Aristotle views as the only fully human life. She concludes that although Aristotle’s belief that slaves and women lack reason and therefore lack the ability to function in a fully human way contradict other elements in his philosophy and reveal an inconsistency in his thought, it was necessary to the social order that he sought to justify to continue the subjection and exploitation of women and slaves. In essence, Aristotle’s thoughts on women and slaves are question-begging at its worst: women and slaves are seen as ignorant and lacking in reason, which assessment is, in turn, used to justify the status quo practice of denying them the very education and leisure time to apply that education that would correct their deficits in knowledge and reasoning.

I think perhaps the greatest counterargument to and undermining of the thought of Aristotle, and in fact of the Greco-Roman world in general, is the thought of the early Christians. Although they adopted the word and idea eudemonia, the state of happy equanimity which Aristotle had set as the aim of his ethics, the early Christians found this state in a very different set of values. Using the word makarios, a word Aristotle also uses occasionally in his Nicomachean Ethics, rather than eudemonia, for instance, the Gospel of Matthew (5:3-12) records Jesus exclaiming the happiness of those who are “poor in spirit” (verse 3), “meek” (verse 5), and “persecuted” (verse 10), a very different set of values from those found in Aristotle’s ideal of a magnanimous Greek aristocratic as the possessor of the greatest virtue. These values are, I believe, a set of values that have proven superior to those of Aristotle and the other Greeks of a similar mind both in their effect on human history and in embracing a significantly wider swathe of humanity and the human experience in their applicability.