The Pursuit of Happiness

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (United States Declaration of Independence)

Whatever the authors of the Declaration of Independence had in mind when they used the phrase “pursuit of happiness”, Americans through the years having so totally embraced the absolute value of the individual over and against society or any institution have come to think of the phrase as a guarantee that each individual should be able to pursue personal pleasure without any constraints whatsoever being placed on them.  That attitude often finds itself at odds with traditional Christian or other religious thinking and occasionally at odds with the law.

Many Americans consider our nation to be a Christian one, but sometimes find traditional Christian attitudes to be in opposition to American values.  Sometimes this has to do with changing values and definitions.  So Roman Catholic scholar Peter Kreeft points out that the understanding of “happiness” has changed greatly through time.  For example the 17th Century “mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and Catholic theologian” Blaise Pascal held to what was then the traditional understanding of happiness – a definition closer to what America’s founding fathers had in mind than is the current idea of happiness.   Kreeft writes:

Pascal uses “wretchedness (unhappiness) and “happiness” here in their deep, ancient meanings. There are three important differences:

  1. To us moderns, “happiness” connotes a subjective feeling, not an objective state, like health. To the ancients, happiness was to the soul what health was to the body. The test case is suffering: if happiness is objective, it can include suffering, as in Job and Greek tragedy; if it is merely subjective, then by definition it cannot.
  2. Our word “happiness” comes from the Old English “hap” (chance, luck, fortune: it “happens”). It comes from without and from the material world rather than from within our own souls. It comes from what used to be called “the gifts of Fortune”, who was traditionally pictured as a whore and a cheat (see, for example, BoethiusThe Consolation of Philosophy). Thus happiness is not under our own control – a terrifying and pessimistic conclusion indeed, as it is in Freud.
  3. To us, happiness is present and transitory rather than permanent: a momentary “high” rather than the quality of a whole life, as Aristotle defines it.

Like the ancients, Pascal means by “happiness” (I) a state of real perfection (2) of soul (3) in a complete life, including eternity. Aristotle’s word for this was eudaimonia: the lasting state (-id) of true goodness (eu-) of soul (daimon). That is why Pascal offers religion instead of psychology as the way to happiness; for psychology can make us feel good, but religion can make us be good.

(Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans, p. 27)

Many of the Church Fathers and Mothers thought emotions are fleeting and thus not a dependable way for making decisions.  If happiness is merely an emotion, than it too is fleeting and not worth pursuing.  However, if happiness is a state of being, not dependent on our moods or circumstances, then it is a good worth pursuing.  It is happiness as a state of being that helps us understand the martyrs and some of our hymns dedicated to the saints.  For example, the hymn for the Beheading of St. John the Baptist contains the phrase, “Therefore, having suffered for the truth with joy...”   One can suffer with joy only when happiness is a state of being rather than a fleeting emotion.

3 thoughts on “The Pursuit of Happiness

  1. Dear Fr. Ted,
    I was just going to suggest the term “joy” when I saw it used at the end of this article. Joy does not seem to be mere happiness which is more vulnerable to circumstance, and, well, as you point out, associated with happenstance, and “change” and “fortune”. Whereas, joy is the actual possession of the good and a deeper experience in the heart than just happiness. Happiness is less likely to be a state of being than joy when it is infused by grace, the possession of the unity with God, the possession of His love, however this comes about, joy seems to be the better word, less volatile, and more inclined as a state of being as in the case of St. Paul and other early Christians who went singing to their deaths.

    Also, Mr. Kreeft says, “religion can make us be good”, but doesn’t the Orthodox Church hold that 1) Orthodoxy is not a religion, it is the experience of God in His Church?, and, 2) Jesus Christ does not come to make us “good”; He is in our life to bring us in love to the Father through the commandments, namely the love of God and neighbor.

    Please forgive me for any errors.

    1. Fr. Ted

      I think all he contrasts is “feeling good” and “being good” , i.e., Goodness is not a feeling but a state of being. He isn’t making any claims about the Orthodox Church, just the short comings of modernity with its focus on feeling good about yourself. I also think Kreeft is using “good” in its older meaning from antiquity – things are good if they are fulfilling their God intended purposes. This is ontological, not merely moral. So, true Christ didn’t come to make us merely moral (“good”) but He certainly came to make us humans “good” – all that God intends for us to be. If all we humans needed was to obey the Commandments more strictly, we didn’t need the incarnation and the resurrection. There was something ontologically wrong with us, and Christ’s incarnation and resurrection healed what was dehumanized or inhuman in us. Thus restoring us to “good” as recorded in Genesis 1:31.

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