Think With Me About “The Happy Life” (Part 2)

 In Part 1, we reflected on our restless search for something that can make us supremely happy. We concluded that since our capacity for good things is virtually infinite only an infinite and eternal Good can satisfy our longing and bring unsurpassable happiness to us. Today I want to reflect with you on the concept of happiness and how happiness is related to the life of faith to which we are called by the gospel.

Let’s begin with another thought from Augustine: “For if I put the question to anyone whether he prefers to find joy in the truth or in falsehood, he does not hesitate to say that he prefers the truth, just as he does not hesitate to say that he wants to be happy. The happy life is joy based on truth” (10.23; trans. Chadwick, p. 199). In these densely packed sentences Augustine connects happiness with truth. Because it runs against the modern subjective understanding of happiness (E.g., “Ignorance is bliss!” “Happiness is just a state of mind.”), this connection alone could occupy our minds for weeks! I see four possible combinations here. One can find happiness in truth or in falsehood. Or one can find unhappiness in truth or in falsehood:

1. Happiness/Truth

2. Happiness/Falsehood

3. Unhappiness/Truth

4. Unhappiness/Falsehood.

No one wants to be unhappy, so the last two (3 and 4) are undesirable for that reason alone. Hence Augustine’s discussion focuses on the first two possibilities. But a happiness based on falsehood will sooner or later be revealed as a false happiness. For the light of truth will ultimately dispel falsehood and the happiness based on it. Only happiness based on truth will last. To grasp what Augustine says we need to think about two aspects of happiness, the one subjective and the other objective.

In ordinary usage happiness refers to a positive mental state. Happiness keeps company with such words as pleasant, comfortable, content, peaceful, joy, cheerful, blessedness, felicity and delight. We are inclined to think of happiness as a subjective state of mind in which the dominant feeling is a sense of well being. We don’t usually include in its definition the external conditions and goods that promote happiness; nevertheless it does not follow that the existence and quality happiness are unrelated to objective reality.

Ancient Stoic philosophers classified the passions of the soul into four categories: desire, fear, delight and distress. Desire relates to an object as a possible good whereas fear relates to an object as a possible source of harm. Delight experiences an object as good. But distress experiences an object as harmful. (The Stoics considered all four of these states as negative and strove to achieve a state of mind beyond passion, but we will ignore this fact.) As we can see, the Stoics understood the four basic emotional states as involving rational judgments about an object’s goodness or badness.

I believe the Stoics are correct that the passions exist in relation to an object, or more precisely, a mental representation of an object; a passion’s relation to its object is not completely irrational or totally mechanical. And because their existence and qualities rely on rational judgments, passions can be well founded or misguided. It is easy to see that we may judge something to be good when it is bad or bad when it is good. We may find something delightful in the moment but harmful in the end or distressful in the moment but helpful in the end. Happiness, considered as a subjective state, can be well founded or misguided, true or false.

Now let’s return to Augustine’s definition of happiness: “The happy life is joy based on truth.” Augustine wants us to seek true happiness, happiness of the highest quality and of the longest duration. This quality of happiness can be found only in union with God, the perfect and eternal source of all finite goods. In this life, we do not yet experience irrevocable and imperturbable union with God. While God possesses us in perfect knowledge and presence, we possess God only in faith and hope. In so far as it can be experienced in this life, true happiness is joy based on the apprehension of faith and the anticipation of hope.

But how does this work in the conditions of life? To be continued…

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