Augustine On Happiness

In Friendship on October 8, 2012 at 7:22 am

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It would seem that most people know naturally what makes them happy or not.  Given this, why would someone who is already happy inquire about happiness any further, and if someone is unhappy isn’t he actually happy about having freely chosen what makes him unhappy?  Augustine, in his Confessions (Trans. Garry Wills. NY: Penguin Books. 2002) gives a very biographical sketch of his search for happiness, and his successful discovery of it, in God.

Augustine begins with the quest for God, man’s search for ultimate meaning.  He says, “Men go out to wonder at mountain heights, at immense sea surges, the sweep of wide rivers, the ocean’s range, ‘the stars’ revolvings’- and neglect [the spectacle of] themselves.” (p.220) Augustine points out here that we are always searching the exterior world to find happiness, to find God, when God is within us.  He asks himself, “But how, Lord, do I look for you?”(p. 230) This is such a good and simple question from Augustine.  In one sense, it is a prayer, a cause for contemplation.  How do we look for God?  In what do we seek God?  Where do we find God?  In one sense, whether directly or indirectly, we are all seeking God in all things throughout life. Our soul has an infinite capacity and infinite desiring; God is infinite.  All of our human pursuits are finite, they have an ending point, especially our own personal bodily death.   Our soul however, with its infinite capacity, actually yearns for the fulfillment of this infinitude with great pining, unending longing, which only God is big enough to fill.  Augustine says, “In looking for you, I seek the happy life.”  La dolce vita!  We all want the good life, and the good life is the happy-life.  But what makes us happy?  Augustine says, “It is ‘life for my soul I look for,’ since you vivify the soul as the soul vivifies the body.”(p.230)  All that we know is our experience of life, but we do know changes in our levels of happiness from our experience.  So what is this “life for my soul” that Augustine says?  The Greeks had a term, eudaimonia, roughly defined as “happiness of soul.”  This is the happiness that lasts forever, we can say, when our soul is happy, then we are truly happy.  This is the intimate contentment that we experience when we are happy because we know we are doing the will of God, not necessarily what we want.  Augustine says, “How shall I look for this life of happiness?  I do not yet have it, or I could say: This is all I need.”(p.230)  Truly, a happy soul is all we need, conversely, if we had a sad soul, or no happiness, all that we would desire is the fulfillment of that desire for happiness.  But how?  Augustine very honestly and bravely approaches happiness as an epistemological question, “Or is it an unknown thing some instinct for knowledge prompts me to discover—a thing unknown entirely, or unknown in the sense that I no longer remember having forgotten it?”  Is our desire for happiness merely an instinctual desire for more knowledge? Augustine implies that this is possible because, truth, happiness and God are all linked together.  We need them all.  He says, “What is a life of happiness but what all men want, what man can not want?”  In one sense, nobody wants unhappiness.  Nobody actually wants to be unhappy. Then, like Socrates, he humbly admits he doesn’t know but says, “Somehow, I know not how, we do want it.”  This sort of vague knowing, moving forward, pursuing happiness, seems to be part of who we are, our character, part of our development over the life course.

Interestingly, Augustine ties happiness to memory.  He says, “…I am what I am remembering, my own mind.”(p.226) In other words, we could say, its not that I need only joyful experiences of life so that I can be happy by remembering my life as full of joyful memories.  Rather, he says that our memory is like a “kind of mental belly” just as we can no longer taste food in our stomach, so too, we cannot really be happy or sorrowful about memories of our past, rather they simply exist, they are there in our memory, but part of our life experience but out of reach, no longer “taste-able.” He says, “All have the concept of happiness, and all would answer yes if asked whether they want it—which could not happen if happiness and not merely the word for it, were not remembered.” (p.230)  This is a good point, in our pursuit of happiness, we can lack clarity about what exactly we want or what we are calling “happiness,” our identifying it, remembering what it looks like, so to speak, but everyone wants it, everyone has an idea of what it is, and everyone has a word for that phenomenological experience they term “happiness” or “being happy” when they glimpse it.  Augustine smartly points out that we may be trying to retrieve a whole time period in our life, where we were “happy,” a time we remember.  Well, it is likely that this time is in childhood, in our youth, feeling lucky and care free.  But again, Augustine, ever wise points out that though we may have been joyful in our past, happiness comes from God. He says, “Let me not, Lord, in this my heartfelt testimony to you, accept as happiness every joy that I encounter.” (p.232)  In other words, as we seek happiness in this life, we may have joyful experiences, which are good, but we should remember in those moments that this joy is not the total fulfillment that we seek with God in Eternity.  He says, “This is true happiness in life, to take joy in you, for you, because of you—this, nothing else, is happiness.   Those who do not know this pursue their joy elsewhere, and though it is no true one, yet they cannot wrench their desire entirely free from some representation of that joy.”(p. 232) In one sense, Augustine is saying that we should exhaust all of our energies in the pursuit of God, because this pursuit is really the only pursuit in life that is worthwhile. It is the only goal we can set for ourselves that will fulfill our infinite desires and never leave us empty or with that fleeting sense of joy, because everything else that is not God, is less than God, more finite, a mere representation, a copy, and therefore incapable of our satisfaction, thus leaving us unhappy.

Augustine shows the connection between truth, happiness and God.  He straightforwardly explains, “Yet when I ask anyone if he prefers to find true joy or false, he is as quick to say he wants the true one as he is to say he wants happiness—yet happiness is itself a joy in the truth, and that is a joy in you, God, who are the truth…”(p.232)  Everyone wants to know the truth and everyone wants to be happy, just as no one wants to be lied to and no one wants to be unhappy.  Augustine takes this a step further saying, “…happiness is itself a joy in the truth…,” meaning that the truth is good to know by itself and the truth makes you happy to know it.  He continues on the importance with which we all naturally treat the truth, but points out the shortcomings of people who deceive that, “They love a supporting but not ‘a rebuking truth.’  Because they hate to be lied to, but like to lie, they love to find things with the help of truth, but hate to be found out by it.”(p.232)  In other words, because a person who lies still wants to be happy and still wants to know the truth in spite of his lies, hates the experience of being corrected for his lies and runs from his discovery and the consequences of it.  So, Augustine concludes that the liar cannot be happy saying, “To this, even this, is the human mind reduced, to this blind, weak state, that it wants to hide its foul vileness from others, but wants nothing hidden from it.  But truth turns this upside down—so that the mind does not hide the truth, but the truth is hidden from it.”(p. 232) Augustine says that the mind of the person who lies or lives a lie has the truth hidden from his mind because he refuses to discontinue his love for what is not truth and what is not God, and therefore he remains devastatingly unhappy.  Instead, Augustine affirms what took him so long to discover, “You are the happiness that everyone desires, the only happiness”(p.231).  The saint, who spent a good part of his life running from God, famously said, “Late have I loved you Lord,” was grateful to discover God later in life, rather than not at all.

  1. Simply amazing! Thank you! I will be sharing with others!

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