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Thursday, February 2, 2006

On Happiness


In Boethius’ great work “The Consolation of Philosophy” Lady Philosophy states that
“happiness is the highest good of rational nature”
– Consolatio Philosophiae Bk II, iv
This is not true for animals whose highest good consists in existing. Nor is it true for the angels whose highest good consists in service.
Why? Rational souls perceive the good and choose by will, not instinct or duty. Animals are what they are by instinct; they neither choose to improve their condition by seeking higher good, nor do they denigrate their condition by choosing against their nature. For animals the greatest good is to be an animal. Cows are cows, eggs is eggs, and chickens are chickens. Angels are what they are by one, ineffable choice backed by a pure intellect which sees truth not by the slow and laborious acquisition of such but in one, all-encompassing flash of the essence of the thing. Thus their greatest good is not happiness, but service of the good. Rational souls, on the other hand, acquire knowledge through slow labor. Thus our will occurs not all in one fell instance but in ever increasing and hopefully improving instances. The rational soul knows the good by choice. It loves by choice that which it comes to know. It serves by choice that which it comes to love. This is the natural telos, or end purpose, of man. Added to this is the gift of the supernatural telos of man which is to be with God in heaven. This blessedness, or beatitude is a gift given to a person worthy of reciprocal love. Like the romantic relations between a lover and his beloved, the reciprocal love of God comes as a gift freely given to man who has freely chosen to make himself worthy of love. Similarly, the happiness that comes as gift in human relationships is the pattern for the happiness, or beatitude which comes from the romance with God. Thus Lady Philosophy also says that
“Submitting to His laws and obeying His governance is freedom.”
– Consolatio Philosophiae Bk I, v.
For rational souls this freedom is not duty or instinct but choice; freely given love, freely accepted gift of reciprocal love. Thus happiness is the free choosing of the good.
This raises a secondary question, namely whether happiness consists merely in the choosing of the good or the having of the good. If we look at natural examples we note that the man who chooses the fine food experiences a modicum of happiness when he chooses, but his happiness is not complete unless he actually receives and consumes the fine food. Otherwise his choosing remains incomplete because he suffers want. He does not fulfill or attain his desire and so remains unhappy. Similarly, a man who chooses to love a woman may possess some modicum of happiness in the choice itself, but more often than not he suffers intensely after his choice by not having the company and love of the woman he chooses. His choosing remains incomplete because he suffers want. He does not fulfill or attain his desire and so remains unhappy. The attainment of happiness, it would seem, is not solely derived from the choice but from the attaining or fulfilling of desire for the thing. In the realm of complete happiness which derives from that which is permanent rather than mutable the choice of the permanent is insufficient. One must attain the immutable and thus fulfill the desire for the immutable in order to be sufficiently happy. How then does one do this? How does one attain a reciprocal response. As said before one can’t “attain” such reciprocation in the way we attain a burger, or attain good health. There is no formula which ensures the giving of love. Yet in the romantic sense we can attain the free gift of reciprocal love; as the lover can attain his beloved’s consent, or the friend can attain the friendship of another through the showing of friendship. Our choice to pursue a knowledge of the good, not for grades, or prestige, or filthy lucre, but out of a sincere desire to know is rewarded with gaining a knowledge of the good made more intimate by deeper involvement. Our knowledge of the good prompts us to be drawn erotically toward the good which, though powerful, proves to be not an inexorable draw but one which we can choose to accept or reject. We fall in love with the good which we perceive first in lesser goods, then increasingly greater goods, until we love The Good itself. Our choice to love The Good itself prompts us then to serve That Good. Again, we choose to serve and are not made slaves, but like the medieval knight for his lady we put ourselves into the service of The Good, and thus “win” its love. Thus the scripture passage in which Our Lord says
“Whoever loves me will do my will, and my Father will love him and We will come to him.”
We cannot achieve happiness by good works alone, which are hollow actions without the love that prompts them, but neither can we achieve happiness by merely knowing or merely loving The Good. The three states of knowing, loving, and serving are intimately united. Without knowing one cannot love or serve for one cannot love what one does not know, yet without love and service, our knowledge of The Good remains vague, sterile, and cold. Claims of loving The Good without any real knowledge of what we are loving prove a shallow love and a service which often goes awry. Without knowledge and love, however, the actions of service are a facade; a farce designed to deceive or trick others and ultimately to trick God Himself into giving His love. Something akin to the false lover, or “player”, who knows the lies and tricks that worm into another’s heart and seduce their love but who has no intention of actually loving. This is the Pharisee who is “like a whited sepulcher” and “full of dead men’s bones.” Our freedom and happiness come not as a Pharisaical tricking or seducing of God, but as the natural consequence of reciprocal love.

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