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Happiness: Ancient and Modern Concepts of Happiness

  • PETER KREEFT

My topic today is Jesus' concept of happiness. And we must begin with the dullest and most necessary preliminary: defining our term.

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Ancient and Modern Concepts of Happiness

My topic today is Jesus' concept of happiness. And we must begin with the dullest and most necessary preliminary: defining our term. Nearly everyone, from Aristotle to Freud, agrees that we all seek happiness, and that we seek it as an end, not as a means. No one seeks happiness for any other reason. We argue about other things, but not about happiness. We may say, "What good are riches if they don't make you happy?" But we don't say, "What good is happiness if it doesn't make you rich?" This is clear, to both ancients like Aristotle and moderns like Freud.

But there is a very significant difference between the typically ancient and the typically modern meaning of happiness. Ancient words for happiness, like eudaimonia, or makarios in Greek or beatitudo in Latin, mean true, real blessedness, while the modern English word happiness usually means merely subjective satisfaction, or contentment, so that in modern English, if you feel happy, you're happy. It makes no sense, in modern English, to tell someone, "You think you're happy, but you're not."

But that is precisely the main point of the most famous book in the history of philosophy, Plato's Republic: that justice, the all-inclusive virtue, is always profitable, that is, 'happifying'. And injustice never is. Thus, that the just man, even if like Socrates, he has nothing else, is happy. And the unjust man is not, even if he has everything else, like Gyges, or Gollum, with his ring of power and invisibility. Thus, we should distinguish the ancient concept, which is really blessedness, from the modern, which is really contentment. I shall be talking about blessedness here.

Blessedness differs from contentment in four ways, all of which can be seen by analyzing the Greek word eudaimonia. First, it begins with the prefix eu, meaning good, thus implying that you have to be good, morally good, to be happy.

Second, daimon means spirit, thus implying that happiness is a matter of the soul, not the body and its external goods of fortune. The word happiness, by contrast, comes from the Old English word hap, meaning precisely fortune, luck or chance, which was the one Pagan thought category Christianity subtracted. In all other cases, Christianity added to Paganism. As Chesterton said, summing up all spiritual history in three sentences: "Paganism was the biggest thing in the world. Christianity was bigger, and everything since has been comparatively small." If blessedness is spiritual, it is free. You are responsible for your eudaimonia, but happiness just happens.

Third, eudaimonia ends in ia, which means a lasting state, something permanent. Contentment is for a moment, blessedness for a lifetime. So much so that Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics could not make up his mind whether to agree or disagree with the saying "call no man happy 'til he is dead." That is, wait for the end of the story to judge it.

Blessedness differs from contentment in four ways, all of which can be seen by analyzing the Greek word eudaimonia.

Fourth, and most important of all, the state of eudaimonia is objective, whereas contentment is subjective. When we say happiness, we usually confuse these two meanings, the ancient and the modern. And that is not wholly unwise, because within the ancient concept of happiness, in a secondary way, there is also present the modern one: the need for some contentment, peace of mind, pleasure and at least a modicum of the gift of fortune. While within the modern concept of happiness, that is, within subjective contentment, there is also present, in a secondary way, a feeling for the need of something of the typically ancient ingredient, the need for at least some virtue and the feeling that the happiness, to be deep and lasting, ought to be real and earned and true happiness, whatever that may be.

We are about to explore Christ's concept of happiness. It is typically ancient (blessedness) but it also includes the above ambiguity or doubleness of meaning: subjective satisfaction as well as objective perfection.

Our Concept of Happiness

Let's look first at our concept of happiness. When I speak of our concept, who is us? I mean our culture, the mental landscape we all inhabit, even when we feel like aliens here, most generally the modern, post-Christian West, but most specifically contemporary America, as it would appear on opinion polls.

If an opinion poll were to ask Americans to list the nine most important ingredients in the happy life, they would probably give an answer pretty much like the following: First, the most obvious, though not the profoundest ingredient, is probably wealth. If you notice your friend has a big smile on his face today, you most likely would say to him, "What happened to you? Did you just win the lottery?" If that's what you'd say, it must be because that's what would put the biggest smile on your face. And let's face it; money can buy everything money can buy, which is a lot of stuff.

Second might be our culture's most notable success, the conquest of nature and fortune by science and technology, allowing each of us to be an Alexander the Great, conqueror of the world. Third would probably be freedom from pain. I think few of us would disagree that the single most valuable invention in the entire history of technology has been anesthetics.

Fourth would probably be self-esteem, the greatest good, according to nearly all of our culture's new class of prophets, the secular psychologists — and secular psychologists are among the most secular of all classes in our society. Fifth might be justice, securing one's rights. Justice and peace summarize the social ideals of most Americans, the ideals they want for themselves and for the rest of the world.

Sixth, if we are candid, we have to include sex. To most Americans, this is the closest thing to heaven on Earth, that is ecstasy, mystical transcending of the ego — unless they're surfers. Seventh, we love to win, whether at war, at sports, at games of chance, in business, or even in our fantasies. Our positive self-esteem requires the belief that we are winners, not losers. We want to be successful, not failures.

But it is even harder to believe that anyone would believe his utterly shattering paradoxes about happiness.

Eighth, we want honor. We want to be honored, accepted, loved, and understood. In our modern egalitarian society, we are honored, not for being superior, but for being one of the crowd. In most ancient societies, one was honored for being different, better, superior, excellent. But we still crave to be honored. Some even want to be famous. All want to be accepted.

Ninth, we want life, a long life and a healthy life. Thomas Hobbes is surely right in saying that fear of violent death, especially painful and early death, is very, very powerful. Your life is not happy if it's taken from you, obviously.

This all seems so obvious and so reasonable as to be beyond argument. Higher ideals than these are arguable. Some of us seek them and some of us do not. But these nine would seem to be firm and impregnable, universal and necessary. Whoever would deny that they form a part of happiness would be a fool. Whoever would affirm that happiness consisted in their opposites would be insane.

Christ's Concept of Happiness

Let us now perform a fantastic thought experiment. Let us suppose that there was once a preacher who did teach precisely that insanity, point for point, deliberately and specifically. Perhaps you cannot stretch your imagination quite that far, but I'm going to ask you to stretch it even one step farther. Imagine this man becoming the most famous, beloved, revered, respected, and believed teacher in the history of the world. Imagine nearly everyone in the world, even those who did not classify themselves as his disciples, at least praising his wisdom, especially his moral wisdom, especially the single most famous and beloved sermon he ever preached, the Sermon on the Mount, the summary of his moral wisdom, which begins with his 180 degree reversal of these truisms.

Perhaps you find this far too incredible to be imaginable. It would be a miracle harder to believe than God becoming a man. It is hard enough to believe that anyone would believe the strange Christian notion that a certain man who began his life as a baby, who had to learn to talk, and ended it as an executed criminal, who bled to death on a cross, and in between got tired and hungry and sorrowful, is God, eternal, beginningless, immortal, infinitely perfect, all-wise, all-powerful, the Creator.

But it is even harder to believe that anyone would believe his utterly shattering paradoxes about happiness. Perhaps we do not really believe them after all. Perhaps we only believe we believe them. Perhaps we have faith in our faith rather than faith in his teachings.

For, of course, I am referring to Christ's eight beatitudes which opened his Sermon on the Mount, the most famous sermon ever preached, and the one part of the New Testament that is still held up as central and valid and true and good and beautiful even by dissenters, heretics, revisionists, demythologizers, skeptics, modernists, theological liberals, and anyone else who cannot bring himself to believe all the other claims in the New Testament or the teachings of the Church. These people strain at the gnats but swallow the camel. So let's look at the camel that they swallow. Perhaps they only seem to swallow it. Perhaps they swallow only their own swallowing, gollumping like Gollum.

To our desire for wealth, Christ says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit." To our desire for painlessness, he says, "Blessed are those who mourn." To our desire for conquest, he says, "Blessed are the meek." To our desire for contentment with ourselves, he says, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness." To our desire for justice, he says, "Blessed are the merciful." To our desire for sex, he says, "Blessed are the pure in heart." To our desire for conquest, he says, "Blessed are the peacemakers." To our desire for acceptance, he says, "Blessed are the persecuted." And to our desire for more life, he offers the Cross. And now this man carrying his cross to Calvary even dares to tell us, "My yoke is easy and my burden is light."

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Acknowledgement

Peter Kreeft. "Happiness: Ancient and Modern Concepts of Happiness." a talk by Peter Kreeft given in various places at various times.

This article is reprinted with permission from Peter Kreeft.

The Author

Kreeft15Kreeft11Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965. He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including: The Snakebite Letters, The Philosophy of Jesus, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer, How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in Crisis, Love Is Stronger Than Death, Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato's Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, and Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2012 Peter Kreeft
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