Aristotle believed that the goal of all human activity was to satisfy our desire for happiness. In other words, no matter what we do, happiness is always the final end. While it’s perhaps obvious that happiness is something worth ordering our lives toward, the actual definition of happiness isn’t. In our culture, the term happiness is often grounded in the notion of the atomized self—one free from the shackles of obligation or responsibility and therefore able to choose, without hindrance, what he or she thinks will bring fulfillment. A recent, insightful article by Jared Zimmerer explores in depth the role happiness plays in our faith as Christians.
Happiness, according to many of our advertisements and diffuse forms of entertainment, consists of fulfilling physiological (food, drink, sex, comfort, etc.) and egoistic (reputation, esteem, fame, honor, wealth, etc.) desires. Therefore, with this blueprint of how to obtain happiness doled out to us incessantly since we were children, consciously or not, we go about achieving it in a logical and reasonable manner. If happiness merely entails the fulfillment of these base human desires, then of course we should pursue such ends with verve and unwavering commitment. On toward the pursuit of pleasures and comforts of all sorts, the adulation and esteem of peers, the building of an insular kingdom for the ravenous ego!
Naturally, as Christians we believe this to be a disordered end for human beings, and though this is clear upon examining Scripture and the tradition of the Church, even without reference to transcendent convictions we can observe that such a limited way of seeking happiness will only lead to a lack of fulfillment. For a country rich with opportunities to meet these lower desires, we are still battered by suicide, depression, crime, violence, narcissism, addiction, boredom, and a general lack of, well, happiness. This is why, though social justice and corporal works of mercy remain a key and necessary part of the Church’s mission, we can’t neglect the task of the spiritual works of mercy that educate, form, and nourish the soul and mind. God desires to heal the physically sick just as much as the spiritually ill, for his love is perfect, expansive, and unchanging in intensity.
Still, some champions of secularism believe that if we only resolve the global problems of poverty, injustice, and disease, then we will have expunged all maladies shared by humanity, and consequently, the anachronistic notion of “original sin” will finally dissipate from our consciousness as Nietzsche predicted years ago. Yet, even as technology continues to raise us to dizzying heights of anthropomorphic grandeur, the opposite seems to be occurring. In an article from The Hedgehog Review titled “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” Dr. Wilfred M. McClay explains that technological progress and modern society have only heightened our sense of pervasive guilt. Modernism, giving us abundant access and connection to others, has fomented greater responsibility toward others, and therefore greater guilt. With more knowledge of our grave environmental footprint, the millions of people starving in third-world countries, and the injustices of corrupt governments, our progress has revealed our intricate relationship with and partial involvement in more evils than past generations could ever have been aware of. Without going into a robust overview of the many thorns of modern society—one bereft of a moral imagination and belief in a Divinity that gives order to all things, human life included—it isn’t hard to soberly acknowledge that the direction we’re headed is not conducive to human flourishing.
This leads us to the vital importance of taking great care of our soul and intellect. This can be seen as an evangelization of the mind—a concerted effort to acquire God’s truth in all its forms, and to help others do the same. When creating something—be that a bridge, business, or book—we must first start with the intellect and the formation of a vision. It’s then from this vision that we can begin the work of concrete action that leads to what we intended. The same is true of our lives: the life we are building toward should be one grounded in God and, therefore, filled with joy and meaning. Yet, if our vision lacks truth—a capacity to humbly see our abilities, weaknesses, and responsibilities toward others—then we will never reach our ultimate aim of happiness. We will become frustrated, needing to continuously remain in a state of active distraction—which our society has done a masterful job of encouraging—or admitting of our failure to grasp happiness, allowing a tide of malaise and depression to cloak us in darkness. But this would be a tragedy, since humanity does indeed have a vocation. Our calling is greater than the fulfillment of a mere economic benefit such as productivity or utility; it is a divine telos, or end, that speaks of our need for community, to love and be loved, to pursue truth and beauty, to worship a God who offers eternal fulfillment. First comes the right vision for human flourishing, then comes actual flourishing.
This is what the humanities—philosophy, literature, and theology—are designed to do: to offer fields of study that explore what makes us human and how we should live. Despite garnering a marred reputation as of late—one stemming from a worldview that only sees education as valuable insofar as it yields some utilitarian purpose—if we don’t have appropriate answers to the questions raised about humanity and its end, then no matter how valiant our efforts, we will never become fully human in the way we’re called to be. If our happiness is ultimately Christ, then we must study who Christ was, how he lived, and how we are called to live in like manner as human beings with other human beings. Thankfully, much of the initial effort has already been done for us through countless thinkers, sages, and artists from our Catholic tradition and beyond, but we must access this wisdom in order to truly benefit from it.
Certain ideologies that atomize the person, debase us to peculiar animals, or postulate that human existence is simply absurd should cause us alarm, and we must be careful not to blindly consume such ideologies and allow them to form our vision for life. If we look at what results in human well-being and flourishing—the need for community, a desire to be virtuous, a yearning for perfect truth, beauty, and goodness—we realize that many of these modernist philosophies fall short. No matter how clever or original these prolix theories may be, if they ultimately lead to human misery and unhappiness, then they should not warrant serious consideration as a guide for living life. That isn’t to say we can’t glean powerful and true ontological insights from such philosophies, or that there isn’t value in studying them, but rather that they shouldn’t constitute blueprints for obtaining human flourishing. Yet, if we form the truly reasonable view that a human being is both body and soul, and therefore that the fulfillment of our true selves requires spiritual nourishment in addition to the needs of our bodies, then we can begin the journey toward happiness and human flourishing.
From my own personal experience, once we form a right vision for our life—and begin actively living it through our relationship with Christ—we start to receive affirmation that we are on the right path. Our lives become more fruitful and happy. We begin to experience more peace and meaning. And we come to say with St. Augustine, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”