The belief that all people have the right to pursue happiness is enshrined by the founders of the United States in the annals of American history and has been embraced as a way of life by their posterity. But Americans have no corner on the market of pursuing happiness; the belief is imprinted on the heart of every human. We all naturally seek our own happiness.
Of course, the ideal of happiness looks very different from one person’s mind to the next, which explains the wide variety of human experiences in the world. Some believe they will find happiness in indulgence, others in restraint; some believe they will find happiness in wealth accumulation, others in vows of poverty. And there are many shades of thinking in between.
To be sure, the pursuit of happiness is no modern invention. That is not to deny that cultures have differed over who they believe should have the right to obtain happiness, but that doesn’t negate the inborn human desire to obtain it. And long before Thomas Jefferson put the words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to paper, people like Augustine were reflecting on what it means to be happy.
Augustine explores what happiness looks like in his book On the Happy Life,* translated by Michael P. Foley (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019; source: publisher). This is the second book in the four Cassiciacum dialogues, a series of philosophical discussions between Augustine and some students, friends, and family that took place after Augustine’s conversion but before his baptism. I reviewed the first of these dialogues, Against the Academics*, elsewhere on this blog.
As with Against the Academics, On the Happy Life exhibits a conversational style that invites readers into the good-natured debates about happiness between Augustine and his companions. The discussion is set against the backdrop of the ancient Greco-Roman philosophical schools and their disputes over what constitutes the happy life. Foley offers helpful insights into this background, particularly the arguments of Cicero, and shows how Augustine both reflects his ancient teacher and departs from him. In essence, Augustine aims to demonstrate that Christianity succeeds where Western philosophy fails.
Foley reminds us that those in the ancient world defined happiness quite differently than most do today. While we tend to view happiness in terms of personal autonomy and good feelings, Augustine and his contemporaries saw it as “a long life of moral and intellectual excellence” (5).
Augustine stimulates the appetite of his companions by comparing the pursuit of happiness to a feast. The discussion takes place on his birthday, when they are actually enjoying a feast. Augustine describes humans who haven’t experienced education and the fine arts as “hungry and famished” (25). In addition to his birthday meal, then, he seeks to also serve “a meal a bit more sumptuous, one not only for our bodies, but for our souls as well” (26).
One intriguing theme in the book is the role of Augustine’s mother, Monica. While Monica makes no pretense to be a philosopher, Augustine singles her out as delivering several statements of wisdom. On the one hand, one can’t help but read the assumption among all those present that women were intellectually inferior. For example, at one point he writes, “At these words Mother exclaimed in such a way that, thoroughly forgetting her sex, we thought that some great man was sitting with us” (27). The assumption of female inferiority is hard to miss—and is to be lamented.
(That said, Foley provides perspective on this point, noting that the way this passage is written in Latin emphasizes not “man” but “great.” Foley reminds readers that philosophy is difficult for women but also for men, and he shows that, because Augustine is emphasizing Monica’s soul and not her body, he is really paying her a “high compliment” .)
On the other hand, Augustine again and again highlights that his mother has found truth more quickly than the others present, and she states it succinctly and powerfully. We can note several examples of her wisdom. At one point she speaks of the happy man in relation to desires:
If he wants good things and has them, he is happy; but if he wants bad things, he is unhappy, even if he has them. (27)
Thus, possession of what one wants does not necessarily make one happy; the nature of what one desires must also be considered. To this, Augustine says that she has “mastered the very citadel of philosophy” (27). Elsewhere, when Augustine asks how a man who places limits on his desires and contentedly enjoys his possessions can be happy, Monica says,
He’s happy not by virtue of the things . . . but by virtue of the moderation of his mind. (29)
Augustine again applauds her “excellent” answer and says that it is “the only answer that should be given to this question” (29). Later, when talking about whether wealth can satisfy one’s longings, Monica describes how wealth without wisdom falls short of real bliss:
This man of ours, who was rich and wealthy, desired nothing more, as you say. Still, because he was afraid that he would lose [his possessions], he was in need of wisdom. If he had needed silver and money, would we not then call him needy? Shall we not call it need when he needs wisdom? (43)
Augustine calls this statement “the most powerful thing” (43).
In all these comments from Monica, Augustine’s point, I think, is to emphasize that Monica’s wisdom about the happy life comes from God, who has graciously imparted wisdom to her. That’s why Augustine says of her wisdom, “I understood (insofar as I could) from what source and from how divine a source these things flowed” (27). And elsewhere, “Do you all see . . . that a myriad of various doctrines is one thing, a mind utterly attentive to God, another? For where did these words that filled with wonder come from if not from there?” (43).
Monica, then, plays a key role in Augustine’s argument. She stands as one who has attained happiness not because she is an intellectual giant but because she has God well-disposed toward her, because God has graciously given her wisdom. And this leads to what Augustine emphasizes about the nature of true happiness: that it is wrapped up with having God.
What does that happiness look like? For Augustine, it is “having God,” which is nothing else but “thoroughly enjoying God” (49). For the shades of nuance developed over the course of the dialogues, one can pick up the book and taste of Augustine’s birthday feast for the mind. Where Augustine ends up is here:
This, then, is the full satisfaction of souls, this is the happy life: to know piously and perfectly Him by whom you are led to the Truth, whereby you may thoroughly enjoy the Truth, through which you may be joined to the Supreme Measure. (50)
From this discussion, one cannot help but think of the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism:
Q: What is the chief end of man?
A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
Probably the most famous quotation in Augustine’s corpus comes from his Confessions*: that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. Foley says that “On the Happy Life* is essentially an elaborate gloss on [this] most famous line in the Confessions” (11). Here one finds what moved Augustine toward Christian faith in his early years and sustained him throughout his life. And here one finds a “more perfect” way to live out “the pursuit of happiness,” one that perhaps cautions us against the individualistic and autonomous forms that dominate our world today.
 The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2007), 355.
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***I received a complimentary copy of this book from the
publisher in exchange for my honest review.