Think With Me About “The Happy Life” (Part One)

In Augustine’s Confessions, book 10, the great theologian/bishop struggles to articulate his search for God in words understandable to his readers: “How then am I to seek for you? When I seek for you my God, my quest is for the happy life” (10.20; trans. Chadwick). Many people do not understand why we should seek God with all our heart, but everyone wants to be happy even if they have never been truly happy. Human beings feel their need for something they are missing, but they do not have a clear idea of what it is. Hence life is an endless quest for that thing.

Augustine describes the natural course of the quest in this way: first we seek the missing thing among the things around us. We explore the range of the five senses in hope that they will unite us with the good thing we seek. In effect, we ask natural objects, “Are you what I am seeking?” They reply, “No, we cannot give you the happy life you seek; for we too are finite and mortal.” The plants and animals, the rivers and mountains, the sun, moon, stars and planets say, “We are not your God. God made us. You must go further and higher.”

Augustine, then, turns inward to his mind, to his reasoning power, memory and imagination. There he finds a power much greater than nature displays. The mind can contain the universe with room to spare. It can conceive of infinite universes and imagine whole worlds that do not exist. It contains immaterial logical laws, numbers and principles, and it can judge all the data coming from the senses, naming each thing and judging its nature and qualities. It distinguishes between true and false, good and bad. The mind can think about itself, explore itself, remember itself and move itself. It can even think about itself thinking about itself! Augustine finds himself astounded: “Great is the power of memory, an awe-inspiring mystery my God, a power of profound and infinite multiplicity. And this is mind, this is myself. What then am I my God? What is my nature?” (10.17; trans. Chadwick).

In his wonder at the extent and power of the mind, he comes face to face with his inability to grasp himself. The mind can grasp any finite thing and surpass it; but it cannot grasp itself. The mind cannot get beyond itself to see clearly its origin and limit; yet it knows that it did not create itself or endow itself with its powers. Nor can the mind see clearly in the external world or within itself the thing it has been seeking all of its life. It does not find there the good thing that brings the search to an end and produces unsurpassable happiness.

Everyone seeks happiness but not everyone seeks it in the right place or understands that no finite thing or unending series of finite things can bring the search to a successful end. For the human mind can surround and surpass any finite thing. Whatever its beauty and power to entice and please, we can imagine something more, something better. Emptiness and dissatisfaction always accompany that infinite restlessness that is human nature. Hardly have we attained and possessed the good thing we sought until we are looking beyond, over and around it. “I am not what you were seeking,” it says even as we embrace it in the first delightful moment.

Let me say it again, happiness cannot be attained by coming to possess any finite thing, and seeking happiness in an unending series of finite things will eventually produce exhaustion and boredom. The emptiness we feel and the dissatisfaction that drives us onward can be filled and ended only by a Good that contains every possible good simultaneously. It must be infinitely good so that nothing better or more can be imagined or conceived; otherwise we will again be looking over, around and beyond it for something better or something more.  It must be present all at once lest our dissatisfaction and emptiness plague us forever.

What is this infinite and concentrated Good? Who is greater than the mind? “God” is the only fitting word to name this infinite good. Apart from God, I see no hope that human nature can be fulfilled, that we will find that for which we have been seeking all our lives. If there is no such Good, if happiness is just an ever-receding illusion, if there is nothing at all that can fill up the human heart, then human nature has been lying to us and the universe is guilty of false advertising; and human beings are misfits and anomalies and human existence is an absurdity.

But I do not believe that human existence is an absurdity; nor is human nature a liar. Hence I will not give up my search for “the happy life” or the only Good capable of bringing my search to a happy end.

More to come…

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3 thoughts on “Think With Me About “The Happy Life” (Part One)

  1. Greg Daum

    This was an excellent post…and a wonderful way to start my Saturday morning. I think it might have been one of the best summaries of Augustine’s thoughts on this matter that I have ever read and understood. 😉 Thank you Ron.

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  2. John

    I appreciate your emphasis on human nature’s confession of God. I visit the Religion section of other blogs where I find numerous comments by professed atheist. I do not deny for a moment that there are atheists who have arrived at their conclusion by thought; but what I also find is that a large number of individuals who claim to no longer believe in God actually reject the dogmatic god of the particular religion in which they grew up, most of which were fundamentalists. In a sense, they are same persons as that fundamentalist they claim no longer to be; they are not able to imagine God different or greater than the God of their religious youth.

    But what I also find interesting is the “admission” of some of them that the “thought” of God still hangs around, as old baggage, but, will eventually go away. I see this as the human nature need for God of which you speak.

    However, there is also a lesson for believers here. Thomas Aquinas said that God is always more than we can think or imagine God to be. Our minds and hearts crave God, but can never totally enclose God. God is always being craved by another, by one whose experiences, joys and sufferings may be a world apart from our own. Yet, that world, as our own, is genuinely shaped in happiness by God.

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    1. ifaqtheology Post author

      Thank you John for this insightful comment. I find myself resonating with Augustine and the great medieval Augustinians on this theme. I think of Bernard of Clairvaux’s essay, On Loving God, which I may quote before this series is finished. But I also fully agree with Thomas Aquinas about the incomprehensibility of God. We cannot project the divine essence from human consciousness. We need God to speak the Word to us, the Word made flesh. “He is the image of the invisible God.” Again, Thank you.

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