Exploring Church History

Reflections on History and Theology

Category: Philosophy

Augustine on the Happy Life

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.

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Augustine the New Convert on Skepticism in “Against the Academics”

Augustine of Hippo is known as one of the greatest theologians in Christian history. His Confessions continues to stand as one of the most influential works in Western culture and literature. It is in The Confessions that we follow Augustine’s remarkable journey seeking meaning, fulfillment, and truth, in which he explores pleasure and the religious ways of the Manichaeans but turns ultimately to the triune God of Christianity.

Augustine would go on to become a key leader in the church of his day and to bequeath a massive corpus of Christian writings to the church. Some of his less known and less read volumes are the Cassiciacum dialogues, a series of philosophical discussions between Augustine and some students and friends that were written down for publication. The dialogues took place after Augustine converted to Christianity yet before he was baptized, and thus, in the Cassiciacum dialogues, we get a rare glimpse of a thirty-two-year-old Augustine—before he was “of Hippo,” before he was great, and before he was a professional theologian.

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