“Without exception we all long for happiness… all agree that they want to be happy… They may all search for it in different ways, but all try their hardest to reach the same goal, that is, joy.” – St. Augustine, The Confessions
Augustine’s words here express a crucial truth: that all people are united by our search for happiness. But “happiness” doesn’t quite work as a translation, because in contemporary American English, “happy” means something quite different from what Augustine intended.
When we today say, “Everyone wants the happy life,” we more or less mean everyone wants to feel happy. Happiness is an emotion, a feeling, a mental state. But Aristotle, Aquinas, and Augustine and much of the Christian tradition meant something very different by the term “happy.”
In their world, everyone wants to be happy but nobody agrees on what happiness is. One big difference from our world is that everyone today immediately understands and agrees on the meaning of the word. While we might say that different things make us happy, we all know which feeling we call “happiness.” Older thinkers, on the other hand, didn’t believe “happiness” was a feeling; they thought it was a state of life, and therefore, something that could be argued about. A closer translation for us, therefore, of “happy” in the way Augustine used it, might be “meaningful” or “fulfilled.” Everybody wants a meaningful life. That’s why in this issue, we’re reviving another archaic sounding term to talk about happiness in a way that draws on both the contemporary and the ancient paradigm. We’re talking about the “Good Life.” The question is: What kind of life will satisfy us, make us “happy,” and give us meaning?
That question was for a long time the central question of moral philosophy, or philosophy that dealt with human action. Philosophy was about trying to figure out what the fulfilled or good life was. Just as today people have dif- ferent views about what a truly fulfilled life looks like (Making lots of money? Having a family? Being famous?), so too people historically disagreed about the good, or happy, life. Hence Augustine also writes, “No school of philosophy is worthy of the name unless it differs from others in what it regards as the ul- timate good and the ultimate evil. The reason for this is that no one has any right to philosophize except with a view towards happiness.”
This is a shockingly different view of what philosophy is than how we understand it today. Philosophy is supposed to help us judge between the various definitions of happiness. In that sense, despite our view of philosophy as an es- oteric thing “done” by egghead academics, it’s the most practical of disciplines. Historically, thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas saw some major options. There’s pleasure, the sensation of “feeling good.” That’s the closest to what we call happiness today. There’s also honor, power, money, virtue, and communion with God. These are more or less the main options proposed. Though both thinkers have more nuanced views than this, basically, for Aristotle, the happy life was the virtuous life, and for Aquinas the happy life was life with Christ in Heaven.
I hope this brief foray into translation didn’t bore you, but this switch in terminology is pretty important for understanding a lot about our culture. What has happened is that we’ve substituted one candidate for what happiness is for the whole category itself, and we’ve done so implicitly and without argument. The result is that we’ve defined happiness as pleasure, and this informs our whole understanding of what it means to lead the good life. By pleasure, I don’t mean merely the sensual pleasures of eating or drinking, but pleasure in a more robust sense, like contentment or self-satisfaction.
An article in The Atlantic by Emily Esfahani Smith gets at this issue. In “There’s More to Life than Being Happy,” Smith notes that, by some statistics, Americans are very happy. But, at the same time, statistics show that many people don’t believe their life is meaningful or has a clear purpose. Smith argues that we have put too much emphasis on “the happy life” today as opposed to “the meaningful life.” Digging into some recent research on psychology, she states that happiness and meaning overlap in some ways, but diverge in other ways.
Quoting the research, she writes, “Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a ‘taker’ while leading a meaningful life corre- sponds with being a ‘giver.’ ‘Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,’ the authors write… ‘If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need.’”
The meaningful life, on the other hand, involves the kind of giving or self- sacrifice that can add stress or anxiety to your life, even making you less happy: “Having children, for example, is associated with the meaningful life and requires self-sacrifice, but it has been famously associated with low happiness among parents, including the ones in this study. In fact, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, research shows that parents are less happy interacting with their children than they are exercising, eating, and watching television.” Smith argues that we should put aside our single-minded pursuit of happiness, and “express our fundamental humanity” by “acknowledging that that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.”
This is a helpful article, but by separating out the good life from happiness, Smith is accepting the modern definition of happiness. Strategically this makes sense, because the translation issues mentioned above made using happiness in the old way impractical. But it has its own costs. One of these is clear from Smith’s article: by separating out happiness from the good life, we tend to view the two as opposed in a way that they traditionally never were.
Take Aristotle. As I said, Aristotle would very much agree with Smith that there’s more to the good life than pleasure. But he would disagree that the good/meaningful life is somehow opposed to pleasure. The good life is fundamentally about virtuous activity, (“the [rational] activity of the soul in accordance with excellence… in a complete life”).
Pleasure completes the exercises of those excellences that are at the heart of the happy life. It completes activities “as a sort of supervenient end, like the bloom of manhood on those in their prime.” Pleasure, then, is neither the ultimate end nor the measure of excellent actions. Excellent actions are not excellent because they bring pleasure; they bring pleasure because they are excellent. In this sense, though an activity may be engaged in by a person for the pleasure that accompanies it, pleasure is not an “end,” because it is always had by virtue of some other end that has to be honored for its own sake in order to attain the pleasure that accompanies it.
As Alasdair MacIntyre puts it, “There is no such thing as happiness as such. To be happy—as contrasted with feeling happy—is always to be happy in virtue of something or other, something done or suffered, something acquired or achieved. When translators have supplied ‘happiness’ as the English translation of eudaimonia or beatitudo, they have had in mind that type of happiness which supervenes upon and is made intelligible by the achievement of a completed and perfected life of worthwhile activity, the achievement of the human end.”
So the good life is more than pleasurable, but it includes pleasure. Ignoring this fact can lead you down to the kind of moral hell that Immanuel Kant proposed, in which, if one is being virtuous, one shouldn’t be feeling pleasure. And if one is feeling pleasure doing a certain action, that action is no longer virtuous.
We should avoid this kind of thinking. As David Clark mentions in his article on physical labor, our pleasures or affections can actually be good guides in helping us to navigate the good life. The pleasure that you feel for work well done, or the affection you feel for a home well maintained over the course of the years, is the “bloom” on meaningful action.
But what about the data Smith presents, that giving or self-sacrifice does make us less happy (i.e., takes away the pleasure we feel)? What we’re dealing with there is a lack of virtue. The perfectly virtuous person takes pleasure in the meaningful things. If the good life is about human flourishing, about developing the capacities for excellent action in fields from art to literature to interpersonal relationships, one of the capacities that should be developed is the capacity to take pleasure in what we ought to take pleasure in. What we ought to take pleasure in is living virtuously as well as exercising our capacity for other kinds of excellent actions.
So, for example, the parents who are unhappy because they have to take care of their kids just aren’t sufficiently habituated to the good to be able take pleasure in doing something meaningful. And those who take lazy pleasure in passive actions like excessive TV watching or who take perverse pleasure in evil actions haven’t learned to properly discipline their desires to enjoy virtuous and meaningful activities.
How does this discipline happen? According to the classical tradition, it takes place by training. A person cannot make himself virtuous, nor can a person will himself to take pleasure in meaningful activities. You have to be taught how to do this by someone else. And here’s the part that modern Americans don’t like to hear: part of that training will involve coercion. Think of eating your vegetables. Very few kids spontaneously take pleasure in eating healthy food. You have to be forced to eat it by your parents. And yet, for most people, this eventually turns into a genuine personal desire to eat healthily, even sometimes making this an enjoyable activity.
So too with good or meaningful action generally. It’s often only by being forced to behave rightly that we learn to enjoy behaving rightly. The way this force gets administered changes based on your cultural context: for us, it’s largely through families and through social taboos. Occasionally it does extend to outright political force, like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban on large sodas. But usually it is taboos: try smoking a cigarette anywhere near a child in many parts of America, and you’ll quickly find out how intolerant modern America can be of certain kinds of activities. It’s different institutional or cultural forces like this that help force people to behave in certain ways, under the hope that they will eventually do so happily and voluntarily.
Of course, the trick is that we live in a fallen world. So there’s never going to be a perfect correspondence between pleasure and meaningful activity, no matter how much training we receive. Even saints, who have learned more than anybody how to give with a joyful heart, must occasionally feel pain or drudgery at doing the right thing. This was in fact Kant’s moral argument for God’s existence. Because happiness and virtue never meet in this world, there must be an afterlife in which the virtuous finally receive their reward. And certainly the ancient Christian wisdom about this world being a “valley of tears” needs to be taken seriously.
In this sense, Smith’s recommendation is quite right. On the individual level, we should ignore pleasure as the goal. We shouldn’t do things to get pleasure. We should just do what’s right and what’s meaningful. But on a philosophical level, we should expect that, in properly formed people, pleasure and meaning will often coincide. And we should use institutional and cultural forces to help bridge that gap as much as possible.
So that’s an argument for why pleasure is an irreducible part of the good life, and yet not the main point or goal of that life. I’ve said that the main aspects of the good life are virtue and other excellent capacities. But that’s vague, to say the least. This issue of Fare Forward is devoted to exploring the good life in more detail. Justin Hawkins looks at what form the good life might take for students and for those pursuing the academic vocation, while Quinn McDowell examines the ways in which modern athletics is failing to contribute to the good life for those who participate in it. David Clark takes us to the farm to look at the role good work plays in the good life. Grady Powell argues that the proper use of language in advertising can help convey meaning, while Inez Tan celebrates Flannery O’Connor’s birthday by diving into her apparent animus towards intellectuals.
You’ll find much more inside. New Poetry and Letters to the Editors sections diversify this issue’s content, and a revamped article review section brings you the editors’ commentary on the pressing public conversations of the day. We trust you’ll enjoy the issue.