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Fourth Wednesday of Advent: Augustine of Hippo – “What is Happiness”

December 22, 2010

For Wednesday of the fourth week of Advent, here is another reading from the text by William James E. Bennett titled Advent Readings From The Fathers – this one being “What is Happiness” by Augustine of Hippo.


S. Augustine.

In common, all philosophers in their studies, their enquiries, disputations, living, aimed at apprehending a happy life. This was the one ground of philosophizing; but I suppose that the philosophers have this in common with us also. For if I were to ask of you why ye have believed in Christ, why ye have been made Christians; every man answers me truly, “for a happy life.” The aiming therefore after a happy life is common to philosophers and Christians. But where the thing as to which there is such agreement may be found, herein is the question, from this point, the separation. For to aim after a happy life, to wish for a happy life, to desire a happy life, to long for it, to make pursuit for it, is, I suppose the case of all men. Wherefore I see that I have not said enough, that their aiming after a happy life is common to philosophers and Christians ; for I ought to say, common to all men, to all men whatsoever, good and bad. For both he who is good, is therefore good that he may be happy ; and he who is bad, would not be bad, if he did not hope that he might be happy thereby. As touching the good, the question is an easy one, that they are therefore good because they seek a happy life. As touching the bad, some peradventure doubt, whether they too seek a happy life. But if I could interrogate the bad, separate and divided from the good, and say, ” Do you wish to be happy ?” no one would say, “I do not wish it.” For instance, suppose a thief; I ask of him, ” Why do you commit theft ?” “That I may have,” he says, ” what I had not.” “Why do you wish to have what you had not?“Because it is wretched not to have.” If then it is wretched not to have, he thinks it happy to have. But in this he is shameless and mistaken, in that he would be made happy by what is bad. For it is good to all to be happy. Wherein then is he perverse? In that he seeketh good, and doeth evil. What seeketh he then? How doth the desire of the bad aspire after the reward of the good? A happy life is the reward of the good: goodness is the work; happiness is the reward. God enjoineth the work, proposeth the reward: He saith, ” Do this, and thou shalt receive this.” But that bad man answers us, ” Unless I act badly I shall not be happy.” As though one were to say, ” I do not arrive at good, unless I am bad.” Seest thou not, that good and bad are contraries ? Art thou seeking good, and doing bad ? Thou art running in a contrary direction ; when shalt thou reach the end ? Let us then leave these, perhaps it will be in place to return to them, when we shall have fulfilled what we have proposed touching the philosophers. For I imagine it was not without a meaning, that by means of them who were not aware of it, some good thing was done ; Divine Providence itself so ordering it, that whereas there were very many sorts of philosophers in the city of Athens, none conferred with the Apostle Paul but the Stoics and Epicureans. For when ye shall have heard what they held in their sects, you will see how that it did not happen without a meaning, that of all the philosophers they only should confer with Paul. For neither could he choose for himself the disputants whom he would answer, but Divine Wisdom, which governeth all things, brought these before him, in whom almost the whole ground of their dissension consisted. I will speak then briefly ; let the unlearned believe us ; let the learned judge of us. I suppose that I do not dare to lie to the unlearned, with the learned as judges ; especially seeing that I am speaking of something, wherein both the learned and the unlearned may alike judge truly. This then I say first, that man consists of soul and body. I do not ask you here to believe, but I even ask you to judge. For I do not fear, lest as to this saying any one who knows himself, should judge unfavourably of me. Man then, as no one disputes, consisteth of soul and body. This substance, this thing, this person which is called man, seeketh a happy life ; this ye know too : nor do I urge you to believe it, but remind you that ye may acknowledge it. Man, I say, this no mean thing, surpassing all cattle, all things that fly, and all that swim, and whatsoever carrieth flesh and is not man, man, I say, consisting of soul and body, not a soul of any kind whatever, for beasts too consist of soul and body, man then, consisting of a reasonable soul and mortal flesh, seeketh a happy life. When man shall have come to know what thing makes a happy life, unless he hold it fast, follow it, claim it for himself, take it to him if he has the power, ask for it if he has a difficulty, he cannot be happy. The whole question therefore is, what makes a happy life?Place then before your eyes the Epicureans, the Stoics, and the Apostle; which I might also thus express, the Epicureans, Stoics, Christians. Let us first ask the Epicureans what thing makes a happy life ? They answer, ” The pleasure of the body.” Here now I ask you to believe, for I have judges. For whether the Epicureans do say this, do hold this, you do not know, because you have not read those writings; but there are here those who have read them. Let us return to those who are to be questioned. What say ye, Epicureans, what thing makes a happy life? They answer, ” the pleasure of the body.” What say ye, Stoics, what thing makes a happy life? They answer, ” the virtue of the mind.” Give heed with me, beloved, we are Christians, we are disputing with the philosophers. See ye why those two sects only were preserved to confer with the Apostle?There is nothing in man, that appertains to his substance and nature, besides body and soul. In one of these two, that is, in the body, the Epicureans placed the happy life ; in the other, that is, in the soul, the Stoics placed the happy life. As far as appertains to man, if his happy life is from himself, nothing remains besides the body and soul. Either the body is the cause of a happy life, or the soul is the cause of a happy life; if thou seek for any thing further, thou gettest out of man. Those then who placed man’s happy life in man, could not any how place it elsewhere, save either in the body or in the soul. Of those who placed it in the body, the Epicureans held the first place; of those who placed it in the soul, the Stoics held the first place. Lo, here they are, they confer with the Apostle; has the Apostle any thing more than they?Or must he necessarily consent to one of these two sects, so that he too should place the cause of a happy life either in the body, or in the soul? Paul would never place it in the body, for there is nothing great in this; forasmuch as even the philosophers themselves, who have the best notions of the body, do by no means place the cause of happiness in the body. For,the Epicureans have this same notion both of the body and of the soul, that they are both mortal. And what is more grievous and detestable, they say that the soul after death is dissolved before the body. ” Whilst,” they say, ” after the breathing out of the spirit, the dead body yet remains, and the lineaments of the members endure for a while in their entireness, the soul, immediately it departs, is dissolved, beaten about as smoke by the wind.” Let us not marvel then, that they placed the supreme good, that is, the cause of happiness, in the body, which they held to be better in them than the soul. Could the Apostle do so? Far be it from him to place the supreme good in the body. For the supreme good is the cause of happiness; yea verily the Apostle was grieved that some of the number of Christians chose the sentiment of the Epicureans—not men, but swine. For of this number were they who by “evil communications corrupted good manners,” and said, ” let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die.” The Epicureans conferred with the Apostle Paul: there are Christian Epicureans too. For what else are they who are daily saying, ” Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die?” To what tends, ” There will be nothing after death, for our life is the passing of a shadow?” For they said amongst the rest, in the unrighteous thoughts of their hearts, “let us crown ourselves with rose-buds before they be withered ; let there not be a meadow which our riot shall not pass over ; let us leave tokens of joyfulness in every place ; for this is our portion, and our lot is this.”

But with the Stoics perhaps the contention is not unbecoming. For lo, when one asks where they place the efficient cause of a happy life, that is, what in man makes a happy life? they answer, that it is not the pleasure of the body, but the virtue of the soul. What says the Apostle? does he assent? If he assents, let us assent. But he does not assent; for Scripture calls them back who trust in their own virtue. And thus the Epicurean, who places man’s supreme good in the body, places his hope in himself. But so the Stoic, who places man’s supreme good in the soul, places it, it is true, in the better part of man; but he too places his hope in himself. But both the Epicurean and the Stoic are men. ” Cursed,” therefore “be every one that putteth his trust in man.” What then? Having now the three set before our eyes, the Epicurean, the Stoic, the Christian, let us ask each,—Say, Epicurean, what thing maketh happy? He answers, ” The pleasure of the body.” Say, Stoic. “The virtue of the soul.” Say, Christian. “The Gift of God.”

This comes from Augustine on the New Testament (Serm. C. Oxf. Tr.)  I would have loved to have been able to hear a conversation between Augustine and the Founding Fathers of the USA on the “pursuit of happiness”!

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