Saturday, 15 August 2015

Aquinas on Happiness

Chapter 4 of Ellen T. Charry’s God and the Art of Happiness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010) on Saint Thomas Aquinas includes a review of Aristotle’s teaching on happiness. “Happiness is not a matter of acquiring something outside us, but of adopting a particular way of life….Happiness is being an excellent person, and that is demanding; learning to “do” one’s life excellently takes time…The path to happiness sis unflinchingly social, not private, because it takes place in the context of interpersonal and public relationships and behaviors. One must know what behaviors to cultivate, and this knowledge comes from a good upbringing that inculcates moral discipline and good priorities, as well as from a keen intellect that practices good judgment.”

“Thomas is especially interested in knowing God, and, though he does not always call it happiness, life’s goal is to know God perfectly…Perfect knowledge of God is perfect happiness for Aquinas.”

“Aquinas is unique among theologians in that mixed in with his eschatological vision is a temporal construal of happiness that is experiential. He is the first Christian theologian to embrace temporal flourishing in this life by enjoying material goods – though it is a minor theme, one inspired by Aristotle.”

“Happiness…is knowledge and not physical well-being. It is an intellectual activity that is completed by delight in loving what we desire….Ultimate happiness is a spiritual activity: it is seeking our ultimate good, which is, of course, God. Complete happiness is knowing God utterly…Knowing God is not information about God but an intimacy with divinity itself (the divine mind, essence, or nature) that satisfies the soul’s deepest desire; it is simultaneously intellectual and emotional joy, in which love infuses knowledge.”

“Since happiness is knowing the divine mind, we are hamstrung using our mind alone because our little minds cannot grasp the divine mind.” “By becoming spiritually adept, one becomes emotionally secure and less needful of external sources of gratification. This benefit is lost on those who miss the signs of God in this world that would enable them to understand the true source of goodness.”

“Divine illumination is the foundation of Aquinas’s doctrine of happiness: God is both the means and the object of human happiness.”

All things are purposeful and God uses secondary means to make creatures flourish in fulfillment of their God-given purpose. “Acting on things for their good advances their purpose, and as this happens we are also improving: enhancing the flourishing of others enhances our own. This is enjoying ourselves and being happy in this life.”

“Virtue is necessary but not sufficient for temporal happiness. This is a deep break with Christian Stoicism and Neo-Platonism. Even if it is an intellectual pleasure, enjoyment is embodied and the body contributes to happiness (art. 5). Happiness needs a healthy body because poor health can impede virtue and thus impede the correct orientation or will toward selecting appropriate desires. At the same time, ‘happiness of soul overflows into body which drinks of the fullness of the soul’ (art. 5). Physical and spiritual pleasures work together because soul and body are an indivisible unity.”

“Thomas made two contributions to the developments of the Christian doctrine of happiness. First, he integrated Augustine’s notion of happiness residing in the enjoyment of God with divine illuminations, the beatific vision, and immortal life. These were all Augustinian themes, but the bishop did not unify them. Aquinas incorporated Aristotles’ valorizing of personal well-being into Augustinian theology to create a genuine if limited Christian doctrine of terrestrial happiness while sustaining central interest in eschatological happiness.
        His second contribution is that he recognized that terrestrial happiness prepares one for eternal bliss. Augustine did not emphasize the continuity between material and spiritual happiness, which Aquinas appreciated more. For his part, Boethius tried to wean us from relying on good fortune and the ability to accumulate wealth, power, fame, and reputation; Aquinas, by contrast, valued mundane happiness because he saw continuity between temporal and eternal bliss: temporal happiness is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, and enables us to anticipate and yearn for eschatological fulfillment even more. To the degree that achieving this goal requires good attitudes, a well-disposed mind and body, and friends, divine grace enables us to be happy in this life. Thomas viewed the great river of time and space that we occupy as the arena in which the desire to celebrate our life in the goodness of God’s creation, however imperfectly, enables us to develop knowledge of God and hope for eternal bliss.”

“Illumination is the gift of loving and wanting to know God utterly; it gives unifying purpose to life.”

Boethius on Happiness

The consolation genre of ancient literature was not designed to comfort but to exhort readers to get on with life rather than wallow in self-pity. The Consolation of Philosophy by Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (c. 482-c. 525) is more confrontational than other works of that genre and “unusual in that the author exhorts himself” as Boethius is in prison facing execution for a political offense he did not commit. Most commentators agree that “it is a Neo-Platonic exhortation…to embrace God as the means to overcome sentimental self-pity.” Its Christian character is rather less obvious.

Boethius suggests that “perhaps only ill fortune will capture our attention so that we can focus on the source of true happiness. Shifting reliance from fortune to God is the wake-up call of the work.”
“Ill fortune is a blessing in disguise. In addition to helping us see ourselves more clearly, it enables us better to distinguish true from false sources of happiness by stripping us of pride in our cleverness and virtue.”

“True happiness is the realization that only one “substance” is self-sufficient, powerful, honorable, famous, and even pleasurable. The good that people seek piecemeal in so many different temporal goods is, it turns out, one simple “substance”: goodness itself. Those who seek happiness in wealth, office, reputation, and bodily pleasure are grasping at pieces of goodness, for wanting them is to desire the good. Seeking the good in objects rather than activities is misplaced. Happiness can never be attained in this way because it is not to be had when enjoying any of these goods. The seeker who looks there confuses the pleasure these objects bring with genuine happiness that is enjoying goodness itself even when that brings no external reward and even misfortune.”

“The issue is that we do not know what true happiness is because we do not know what is truly worth wanting.” Material pleasure is insufficient, we must acquire divinity. “That is, when we realize that we partake of the ordered beauty and goodness that is God, enjoying that goodness becomes the basis on which we enjoy the world and find the power, riches, and wealth that we were looking for in their material expressions.”

In suffering we must not think of ourselves as “victims of fate” but “beneficiaries of divine providence.” “The suffering of the just enables us to discover our strengths and to exercise virtue. They give others examples to follow, and unjust death brings posthumous renown.”

“Happiness is commonly thought of experientially; Boethius rejects that notion because experience is unreliable…Happiness is an outlook arising from a staunch commitment to divine omnipotence and goodness in the face of contradictory experience…Believing that one’s misfortunes are part of a larger invisible divine plan for the well-ordered functioning of the cosmos should enable the sufferer to be content that his suffering is not pointless or that it damages the divine reputation…Ultimately, happiness is participating in divine intelligence wherein all makes sense.”

Notes from Ellen T. Charry, God and the Art of Happiness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010) who comments further “This is a hard teaching. Happiness is enjoying being part of the divine plan. While there is nothing in Boethius’s presentation that departs from Christian theism…the redemptive dimension of Christian theology that gives hope is missing. His notion of happiness is tinged with despair about the need to be ever striving for intellectual perfection and vigilant against feels of dejection, anger, and defeat. Boethius offers only the power of unremitting strength, unqualified by relaxed joy…Because Augustine compassionately gave credence to suffering, he could not take the hard line that Boethius did. Augustine’s future eschatology offers hope of reward while counseling endurance now. Boethius offers a realized eschatology, at the expense of succor for the suffering in this life. That being said, Boethius does believe he is succoring sufferers, only not in the way they might hope. Succor is the strength not to be brought low by experience but to rise above it and to exercise one’s dignity by doing so.”

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Augustine on Happiness

From Ellen T. Charry, God and the Art of Happiness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010)

“To know and possess God is to enjoy oneself. This is the most important theme of Augustine’s great corpus. Enjoyment of God is the light of life. Holding fast to it is the challenge…Happiness is perfectly knowing and enjoying God who leads us into truth and connects us with himself. We can hasten towards this culmination through faith, hope, and love…but cannot finally arrive there in this life.”

“Happiness is knowing, loving, and enjoying God securely. For that, one must seek and find God, and this seeking proceeds by cultivating wisdom. It is the highest end of human life. Wisdom requires virtue but is not itself virtue, for wisdom resides in God revealed in Christ.”

“This very early work [De Beata Vita] has accomplished the following: all people want to be happy, and God has made this possible; humans are defined as both body and soul, implying (against the Stoics and Plotinus) that the well-being of the body is important. Further, human life is purposeful: to become wise and filled by enjoying God as much as possible in this life is to achieve our purpose, knowing that here we will never be completely safe from suffering and distress. Only those who know or have God to the fullest experience this spiritual joy. Yet, as well as we may know, love, and enjoy God in this life, happiness will never be complete until fulfilled in the eschaton. While being filled with the wisdom of God surfaces here early on as central to Augustine’s teaching on happiness, it will eventually be eclipsed by love.”

“Happiness characterizes God-lovers, and loving well is the key to happiness…We flourish when we enjoy our chief good, the end for which we are made – enjoyment of God.”

“Happiness is high-quality loving by means of which one extracts the best that life has to offer…To be good is to love in a manner consistent with one’s God-given nature. Living wisely is living virtuously – that is, in obedience to the self God created us to be.”

From a summary of Sermon 368 (“Whoever loves his soul will lose it”): “What does this mean? Some loves are harmful while others are helpful; when we pursue helpful ones and let them push out harmful ones, better self-love will prevail. Therefore, one way to grasp the healing of the soul is to see it as learning to love oneself well. This is not in any way individualistic, antisocial, or prideful, because, for Augustine, self-love exists always in the context of comprehensive Christian identity – in relationship with God and others.”

“[The] instability of love is the greatest impediment to the training of love unto salvation. Vanity and greed are distorted forms of love that create psychological and spiritual dysfunction. Augustine realizes that the specific form this dysfunction takes depends on individual differences, but the conflicted self is a universal human experience essential to Augustine’s theological psychology. Finally, he argues, divine grace is the only way that the divided soul can truly be healed. However, our ultimate reliance on God for this healing does not absolve us of the responsibility to be guided and to guide others in loving as best we can here and now.”

“People say they want to be happy; they say that they want the truth and do not want to be deceived by falsehood. But they are unwilling to be convicted by the truth when it criticizes their distorted love…people love truth only when it confirms and supports them.” Augustine “understands the power of defense mechanisms that entrench us in patterns of thought and behavior and that resist insight and change.”

“The journey into God is a healing journey into one’s soul, for each step deeper into God heals and strengthens love. In this journey, love of material goods loses its power as the soul is perfected in the love of God which is perfect self-love.” (Cf. O’Donovan on self-love in Augustine)

“Augustine concludes that only those who have everything they want – and want nothing wrongly – can be happy…The best thing to want in this life is a will to love well and desire good things in proportion to their goodness, the getting of which will make the seeker happy as possible for as long as possible. A good will that aspires to God can bring a person near to complete happiness, but Augustine holds tenaciously to the view that life is so challenging that true happiness eludes us. Temporal happiness, then, is wanting and having what is good – righteous love of self, neighbor, material things, and al these in God – in proportion to their goodness. This requires spiritual training.”

“The implicit teaching on happiness in The Trinity is soteriological. Salvation is the healing of the soul through the slow and painful recovery of the shattered and lost image of God that we are intrinsically by the grace of creation.” “Augustine’s therapeutic soteriology is the primary handhold for the current effort to reclaim a Christian doctrine of happiness.”

Augustine’s “doctrine of happiness remains hopeful that we can have and enjoy what we seek and be healed by that enjoyment. It is cautious in that it discourages high expectations of persistent flourishing as life proceeds. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Augustine’s doctrine of happiness is that it heals the soul. It is a christologically grounded eschatological theory of happiness that is salvific. To be healed is to be happy. If we cannot be happy in this life, it is because we cannot be fully healed here – not that we cannot be healed here at all. The soul’s rest in God is its healing…happiness is not just that we enjoy seeking God but that his goodness, wisdom, and beauty actually do heal us to the extent that we know, love, and enjoy him.”

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Happiness: The Western Philosophical Heritage

From Ellen T. Charry, God and the Art of Happiness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010)

“Although the differences among them are significant, all the various ancient philosophical pathways with which Christianity competed affirmed that life ought to be lived purposefully. One should strive for the highest good that life offers: eudaemonia (variously translated as “well-being,” “flourishing,” or ”happiness”). The schools disagreed about the content of what a flourishing life looks like and about how to achieve it, but they agreed that a principled life is best. A casual or haphazard life is not likely to be a successful or enjoyable as a well-crafted one. Ancient philosophies of happiness are teleological: life reaches towards an achievable goal…In contract to happiness as sustained external pleasure, the ancients agreed that happiness is enjoying oneself in living morally and productively, and it is an external judgment on how one is faring at life. It is a judgment on how one orders one’s life as a whole, and it is the enjoyment of that life’s positive results. Both the enjoyment and the judgment are inspired by a pattern that identifies a life that is going well enough to be called a fine life – we might even say, a beautiful life. Overall, well-being comes from using oneself consistently, intentionally, and effectively, and hence it is a moral undertaking. Flourishing reflects the moral quality of one’s ultimate purpose or organizing principle.”

“Here is a taste of what Augustine plundered from these sources. He agreed with the Epicureans that a flourishing life must be a judgment about the whole of a life, both psychological and physical. Obversely, he thought that complete well-being is never assured: against the Epicurean denial of divine providence and judgment he asserted a strongly eschatological teaching that happiness is not completely realizable given the vicissitudes of life. He agreed with the Stoics that a happy life is a consistently virtuous one, but he disapproved of their disdain for the emotions and, like the Epicureans, disagreed that material well-being is not valuable as a good in its own right, even if it is not the highest good. From Plotinus he took the idea that happiness is a form of self-realization: realizing that our true identity lies in God and our likeness to God. Of course, Augustine meant the God of Israel, not of Plato. Again, he disagreed with Plotinus that care of the body is irrelevant to that realization, though he did not spell out how physical and spiritual well-being hold together.”

A fuller summary of Augustine's debt to the classical heritage is on pages 22-24.

God and the Art of Happiness

Ellen T. Charry writes that her God and the Art of Happiness “is a sequel to By the Renewing of YourMinds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine, where I argued that classical doctrinal theology is pastorally motivated and that its end is human flourishing. At the outset of that book I note that “all the thinkers to be examined here held that knowing and loving God is the mechanism of choice for forming excellent character and promoting genuine happiness.” Having argued there for the pastoral function of Christian doctrine, here I review the history of the theological conversation about happiness and offer a constructive proposal for reopening it now.”

“Western Christian theology is skittish about temporal happiness, not because the tradition has not engaged the subject but because happiness has been primarily construed in terms of eschatology...This study addresses the general concern for theology’s emphasis on future eschatology at the expense of temporal happiness by proposing that happiness is a realizing eschatology with salvation centered in sanctification. Salvation is growing into the wisdom of divine love and enjoying oneself in the process.”

“Untethered from God, there is little call to locate happiness in a spiritual-moral framework. Christian doctrine has not adequately linked piety to pleasure, thus leaving a theological gap between goodness and happiness. Happiness unlinked from goodness and linked to excitement instead has moved in to fill the space. My hope in reopening the theological discussion is to reconnect pleasure to goodness so that happiness may regain its soteriological calling, not only for Christians who may have ceded the term to the marketplace but also for those who seek spiritual flourishing. This treatment of happiness agrees with most classical ones that, while all want to be happy, many are looking in the wrong place. While all seek happiness, this offering carries a special burden for those traumatized by life’s adversities – that they may be comforted and encouraged.”

Here is Scott McKnight's book notice.