Ideas Have Consequences: The Eclipse of Happiness
I don’t think I’d be too far wrong in saying that most people in the Western world are not happy campers at the moment. Between the riots in Greece, the Occupy (Insert Town/Place Here) movement and all the real suffering caused by the economic crisis, it is fair to say that most people’s stress level has gone up and their happiness quotient has gone down. At the same time you also have people who, in spite of economic difficulties and other life pressures such as ill health, will tell you that they are very happy.
If we ask the question “are we happier than our ancestors”, I would think that the answer would be that we certainly have more luxuries than our ancestors, but they also didn’t have to deal with hour-long commutes to work, hours spent stuck in traffic or horrendous work/family schedules that would challenge even the most competent of military logistic experts.
“Happy are those….!”
As we have progressed through this series, we’ve examined both Metaphysics and Anthropology to try to grasp some of the basic truths of reality and humanity. As we progressed deeper into these topics we are consistently faced with new questions of “why”. Why does everything exist the way it does? Why does everything have a final cause? Why are humans rational and social? Why ought we to be good?
For every created thing, there is a purpose outside of itself. The sun exists to provide light, heat and gravity to keep the solar system in place; the earth exists to provide a habitat for life; animals exist to provide food for other animals or (for predators) to keep an ecological balance among species and so on. Only with human beings does there seem to be a purpose that is not based on usefulness, only human beings seem to exist for their own end.
When we ask the question, “Why do I exist?” or “Why should I do this or that?” we see that our Final Cause indeed rests within us. Only with the answer, “To be happy… or because you’ll be happy” does our enquiry into the purpose of human existence cease. When St. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless Lord, until they rest in Thee,” it was more than just an expression of human emotion; it was a philosophical statement.
That happiness seems to be the Principle of Finality or the end for which humans exist is recognized by both Faith and Reason. Aristotle made it the cornerstone of his Nicomachean Ethics, namely that every act is ultimately done with happiness, eudaimonia (“doing good” or “well-being”), in mind. St. Augustine tells us that, “We all want to live happily; in the whole human race there is no one who does not assent to this proposition, even before it is fully articulated.” The Catholic tradition holds that this desire for happiness was placed by God into the human heart. (CCC ¶1718)
It is also apparent that the “state of happiness” is something ongoing, achieved over a lifetime, rather than the temporary and transient understanding of happiness we possess today. Aristotle did not associate happiness with pleasure – something he equated to the domain of cattle – but, rather an integrated life of virtue, good fortune and philosophic wisdom, all held in balance. In other words, the “good life” was happiness and the pursuit of happiness was synonymous with the pursuit of the good.
St. Thomas Aquinas fused Aristotle with Christianity, using Aristotle’s philosophical language and concepts to show the reasonableness of the Christian faith. For example, Aristotle’s concept of the human person as a social being meant that his concept of happiness was not egocentric but rather community oriented. The good life for the Greeks was a public, social, objective life of achievement and good fortune. To this St. Thomas added the principles of the Christian Faith: the Beatitudes, the call to “die to self” to “lose one’s life in order to find it” – the exhortation to “agape love” or the unconditional, self-sacrificial love exemplified by Jesus.
Over the last half millennium, the focus of the human intellect has gradually shifted from an objective grasp of reality and of truth towards a subjective perception of reality and an individualistic creation of truth (my truth, your truth, etc). This shift to radical individualism and secular humanism has inevitably affected our capacity for happiness. Steve Salerno, author of SHAM: How the Self-help Movement made America Helpless, wrote an essay for the Wall Street Journal in which he commented:
“With highly visible gurus of personal development fanning the flames, an entire generation has come of age believing that perpetual happiness is a birthright. Over the past four decades, the concepts of Empowerment and Entitlement, first-cousins in the family of American psychobabble, have conspired to produce what New York Observer writer Alexandra Wolfe labels, “the most coddled generation in American history.” We once laughed at the excesses of the “Me Generation,” the malignant narcissism epitomized in the TV show Seinfeld. If we don’t laugh quite as much these days, that’s because it’s not caricature anymore. It’s life as we live it.” [i]
Why is it that we have so much, yet are so miserable?
The Eclipse of Reason = The Eclipse of Happiness
This series began with the warning by Pope Benedict XVI in December of 2009 that the world is experiencing an “eclipse of Reason”; that having first lost its Christian Faith, the West is now losing it capacity to think or reason clearly. Fundamental to this eclipse is the loss of any grasp of objective metaphysical and anthropological truths, such as we described in the course of this series. Having lost touch with reality (and this is not an exaggeration or mere hyperbole), we pursue individual and communal goals that are not only counter-productive, but in fact contribute directly to greater unrest, injustice, unhappiness and eventually social upheaval. As I have been arguing from the beginning, we need to get back to basics, not only so that we can help our children/students retain their faith, but so that, when all is said and done, they can “be happy”.
I would like to turn to two comments by St. Augustine in order to better examine our current situation. The first comment is:
“If we live good lives, the times are also good. As we are, such are the times”. (St. Augustine)
The “good”, as we have seen, is directly linked to the nature and purpose of a thing. If Reason no longer grasps this reality, but instead thinks itself “the servant of our passions,” as the philosopher David Hume described it, then there can be no universal criteria for what constitutes a “good life” for nothing in and of itself is “good”.
With the loss of a transcendent horizon (namely, the afterlife), our secular humanist philosophy focuses on the here and now. Personal experience, pleasure, material success and comfort have become the criteria for what constitutes “the good life” which, by logical necessity, renders everything and everyone a means to my end; my happiness. I will marry if that person makes me happy, divorce them if they don’t, I will have children if that will make me happy (by any means necessary), abort them if it won’t, and so on.
Even our economic crisis is a crisis not of money, but of morality. The pursuit of profit for its own sake, or of material possessions before I can pay for them directly, has resulted in a civilization that has become so indebted that it cannot function freely, and in not being free, it can no longer choose the good, even if it wanted to.
In short, our times are not good because we are not good; we are not good because we don’t know what is good.
“Happiness is to continue to desire what one possesses.” (St. Augustine)
St. Augustine, in his wisdom, recognizes that happiness comes not from the outside, but rather from within. We are created to pursue the good, and in possessing the good we “become” happy. So long as we continue to desire the good we already possess, then we will be happy, our hearts will be relatively restful. We will, of course, continue to pursue the good in our day-to-day lives and throughout the stages of life, but so long as we recognize the good we already have, we have a measure of contentment and peace of mind. True happiness will only be achieved when we possess the Summum Bonum (Greatest Good) – God Himself.
It is when we no longer desire the good we possess that we become unhappy. This is why earlier generations were much happier than we are today. They knew that what they had, little as it may have been, was good and they were content and grateful for what they had. (Of course I’m speaking generally for greed and envy have been with us since The Fall). Yet our ancestors would probably look at our lives and comforts and say, “How can you NOT be happy?!?!”
However, we get “tired” of our job, our spouse, our car, our bodies, etc. There is a multi-billion dollar advertising industry that is fueled by making us think we don’t have what will make us happy. Steve Salerno, mentioned above, also wrote in his article:
“But a lot of us seemed a lot happier, or at least less restless, before the Happiness Movement began bullying us. Myrna Blyth, a longtime editor in chief of Ladies’ Home Journal, made this point explicitly in her 2004 book, Spin Sisters. Ms. Blyth undertook an informal study of the themes in women’s magazines as they evolved over recent decades, and concluded that what women have mostly gotten from their magazines is the message that they’re never quite happy enough — never good enough, never fulfilled enough, never far enough along on the path to “having it all’.”
Ideas Have Consequences
One cannot point to a single event in history (other than the Incarnation) and say, “This changed EVERYTHING,” but insofar as philosophy is concerned, the shift away from the awareness that human reason can grasp and understand objective reality, which started almost imperceptibly in the 1400’s, has come to its logical conclusion. We saw the Eclipse of Faith during the so-called Enlightenment and the French Revolution (where Notre Dame Cathedral was renamed the Temple of Reason); now we are experiencing the Eclipse of Reason as described by Pope Benedict. [ii]
We are, I think, at the end of an age experiencing much the same as what St. Augustine witnessed with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Pope Benedict has just announced that the upcoming year with be “The Year of Faith”, instituting a renewed effort to re-evangelize Europe and indeed all of Western Society. [iii]
It’s actually quite exciting to be a part of this period in salvation history. Teachers, parents and clergy who saw what was happening in the 60’s and 70’s had a rough time of it because there was this unnatural optimism among society that everything was going to be just fine. Those who issued warnings, such as Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, were vilified, ridiculed and often persecuted. Not so today. When I speak to my students, I don’t have to convince them of the dangers of certain ideas, they can see it in their daily lives, their broken homes, their broken world.
We are not going to “think” our way out of this mess; we need faith and grace. Only God can change the hearts of men and women. Only God can give us what we truly yearn for. Yet God doesn’t do anything apart from human nature, rather Grace builds on Nature. We still have our part to play in the restoration and that part includes all that we are: heart and mind, body and soul!
True wisdom is that proper grasp of reality as it is, not as we want it to be. Psalm 111:10 tells us that, “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom.” Proverbs 1:7 states, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; wisdom and instruction fools despise.”
Once we get that Idea firmly rooted in our Reason, the Consequences that will flow from that will be good … and we’ll all be just that much happier.
[i] Steve Salerno. “The Happiness Myth.” The Wall Street Journal (December 20, 2007). http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/civilization/cc0263.htm
This article is a part of the ongoing series, Ideas Have Consequences – by Dennis Buonafede. Please help us in our mission to assist readers to integrate their Catholic faith, family and work. Share this article with your family and friends via email and social media. We value your comments and encourage you to leave your thoughts below. Thank you! – The Editors