Concerning Happiness

What is happiness?

1. It seems that happiness is pleasure, for happiness is the end of all men, and all men pursue pleasure, according to their separate definition.
2. It seems that happiness is wealth, for happiness is an action, and the wealthy man possesses more tools to aid his action.
3. It seems that happiness is the prosperity of good, for all men desire that what they consider good prospers.
4. It seems that happiness is the success of one’s actions, for all men desire that their actions achieve their goal.

On the other hand, many who pursue pleasure and possess wealth are not happy, so happiness is neither of these things. Furthermore, the prosperity of good and the success of one’s actions do not lie wholly within one’s own powers, and so if happiness is either of those, happiness would be a condition. But happiness is an action, as is proven elsewhere. Therefore, happiness is neither the prosperity of good nor the success of one’s actions.

Rather, since happiness is a proper end, it must be the pursuit of good, not of pleasure. And since happiness lies within one’s own power, it must be the pursuit of pleasure only insofar as it lies within one’s power. And since happiness cannot rely on unknowable information regarding the future and conditions external to one’s actions, happiness must be not the pursuit of good with respect to what one knows after the action, but that before. Thus, happiness is the pursuit of good insofar as one is able with respect to information contemporaneous to the action.

1. Happiness is the end of all men, but only the prudent choose suitable means toward their end. Thus, happiness is only the pursuit of pleasure for the prudent man.
2. Not all sources and uses of wealth are good. Thus, happiness is only wealth insofar as wealth is acquired and used rightly. Furthermore, some have greater means of acquiring wealth than others, which fact cannot hinder the latter’s ability to pursue happiness. Thus, happiness is in no case wealth absolutely, but rather the right use of opportunities for wealth.
3. All men ought to wish that good prospers, but while to fail to do this would be an inhuman withholding of moral judgement, to bind one’s happiness to that which is not within one’s control is foolish. The expression of contentment of the wise man is not “That which I have loved has prospered”, but rather “I myself have acted justly”.
4. Many actions, well intentioned and well planned, go astray. Thus, were happiness bound to the success of one’s actions, the fool who acted imprudently yet succeeded would have a greater claim to happiness than the prudent man whose well-laid plans went astray for reasons outside his knowledge and control. When the wise man says “I have done well”, he means not that his actions have succeeded, but that, if he faces an identical situation, with the same knowledge, he would act the same.


16 Responses to Concerning Happiness

  1. AbigailT says:

    How do you come to the conclusion that happiness (or the knowledge that one has acted justly) is within man’s capacity? The Bible teaches that “no one is righteous; no, not one.” Clearly, justice and therefore happiness are outside of us. Also, where are you getting your definition of happiness?

  2. ambulatorysesquipedalian says:

    Here I ignore the question of whether man in his sinful state can do good, or whether even regenerate man can be without sin. Similarly, one might state accurately that it is possible for man to achieve salvation by living a perfect life, for if he did live a perfect life, he would save himself thereby, even though original sin makes such a life impossible.

    However, this definition of happiness is of more than theoretical interest, for happiness is not binary. While I believe that it is in no way possible for a man still in bondage to sin to be happy, it is possible for a terrestrially regenerate man to be partially happy, and the resurrected man to be truly happy. Insofar as each man is happy, it will consist in what I have proposed.

    If your claim that “justice and happiness are outside of us” is intended to mean that just action (an aspect of righteous action, and thus a prerequisite for happiness) is outside our capabilities, I would agree, insofar as man acts without the Holy Spirit. I would, however, still maintain that happiness is from our action, not from external circumstance.

    The definition is my own, informed by the discussion in Aristotle and several of the scholastics. Unfortunately, happiness is a rather sticky word; here I treat it as essentially contentment with one’s actions, in that the wholly content man is incapable of furthering his happiness; happiness does not, however, encompass contentment with one’s situation (and I believe that this is proper, as even on this earth we are called to be content with our situation, yet cannot be happy). I would distinguish happiness from the joy and reassurance we have in God’s providence, in that while that joy is to every man who has faith in God’s providence and thus in his ultimate victory, even the Christian must be unhappy with his continued sin.

  3. AbigailT says:

    But every good action we do has to come from God; only He gives us the ability to do anything right. Even the “common” or “natural grace” which Paul speaks of in Romans points to the fact that man is not good: that God is good, and God is in control. If the source of our happiness is outside of us, then happiness cannot be from us. It is between us and God.

  4. ambulatorysesquipedalian says:

    I think that we must distinguish between God’s immediate and his mediate action. God causes the rain to fall. Does that mean that rain does not come from the clouds? Similarly, God grants us happiness, but not immediately; rather, I believe that God grants us happiness and that happiness stems from virtuous action, just as God grants us rain and rain comes from the clouds. To deny mediate causality is, ultimately, to deny human action.

  5. AbigailT says:

    You also say that “happiness cannot rely on unknowable information regarding the future and conditions external to one’s actions.” Yet is it not possible for a man to do what he believes is right and be happy in that, regardless of the consequences? We base almost every decision we make on a precept or assumption “external to our actions,” do we not? So the man who gives his coat to an enemy may be happy that he has done the right thing, without knowing how the enemy will receive his coat or how he will survive the winter without it. But let me here beg your pardon if I’ve misunderstood you.

  6. The Ambulatory Sesquipedalian says:

    I seem to have poorly explained myself. That is exactly the meaning I intended to convey: that we should not care about what happens, but that we acted rightly considering what we knew. By saying that happiness cannot rely on unknowable information, I was attempting to convey that anything that depends on such (including the actual consequences of actions) is outside the scope of happiness, so long as our ignorance was not itself culpable and we acted as best we could given information available.

  7. LaVisha says:

    I really liked reading this, Ian. I must say that both you and Abigail make great points. I would like to add though that maybe happiness just exists inside of us. It’s something that God put there that should always be there and dissatisfaction with actions and such is from our own sins and discretion and blocks out the happiness that God wishes for us to have.
    It’s only my opinion. I’ve always felt that if I am dissatisfied with myself (not actions) then I would be telling God that He has done something wrong in my life. And if I am dissatisfied with my actions, it’s just that I strayed and God is calling me back.
    Sorry…I kind of strayed from the subject too…
    You think really deeply and I enjoy reading what you think. That’s the only real reason for this comment 🙂 ❤

  8. The Ambulatory Sesquipedalian says:

    That makes sense. I think, however, that it is possible to discriminate between a joy that ought to be always present due to our faith in God and a happiness or satisfaction that is conditional. Surely we should not completely ignore our own sins? If we should not, then our consciousness of them will have some effect on our attitudes, and I take happiness as that attitude affected. I could, however, possibly be defying conventional terminology, in which case I would appreciate correction.

  9. LaVisha says:

    No person should ignore their sins but they should learn from them. And the effect that sins have on our attitudes doesn’t always result in happiness. It depends on how much some one has learned from their sins and they can choose to grow closer to God and find happiness or they can go further away. But then again, could happiness be different for everyone? What makes you happy, Ian? Or brings joy to your life?

  10. The Ambulatory Sesquipedalian says:

    I think that there are really three related concepts, which popular idiom confutes but it is beneficial to keep straight: happiness, joy, and pleasure. Incidentally, all of the writers on whom I draw wrote in Greek or were using technical language intended to approximate the nuances of Greek; I do not claim that my distinctions may be found in a dictionary, but rather that by drawing them one may think more clearly.

    Pleasure is what one does for enjoyment, and is purely subjective; while certain forms of enjoyment may be more popular among certain classes, I find it difficult to say that we can truly measure tastes in this respect. This, I think, is what tends to be meant when people speak of “what makes you happy”. Clearly, pleasure is highly dependent on external circumstance; it is also, I think, of no moral worth.

    Happiness is the next stage upwards. Happiness does not depend on our circumstances (what we cannot control) but does depend on our actions (what we can control). Again, I here speak as if human will were perfectly free, as it was before the fall; this being the natural state of mankind, I think it best to start our analysis there, and then apply it to fallen life deductively. Thus, to apply my concept of happiness to this life, we are happy when God grants us the strength to obey him, and unhappy when he does not (with the exception that action in accordance with sincerely held beliefs does not result in unhappiness, even if the beliefs are incorrect; very few people, however, manage to hold false beliefs with no hint of doubt.

    Joy is yet one step higher, depending neither on circumstance nor on action, but rather our knowledge of God’s providence.

    Thus, lack of pleasure comes from either poorly chosen action or poor circumstances; unhappiness from poorly chosen action alone; and joy from lack of faith alone.

  11. LaVisha says:

    I understand completely and I i agree this time. You still didn’t answer my questions though.

  12. The Ambulatory Sesquipedalian says:

    About whether happiness is different for everyone? I thought that the answer was implicit in my response; in my terminology, happiness is absolute for everyone but pleasure, which probably corresponds to the definition of happiness that you had in mind, is subjunctive and so the sources of pleasure are different for different people.

  13. AbigailT says:

    A question of words: are you using happiness as a synonym for joy, or are you specifically addressing the satisfaction and contentment that comes from a clear conscience? In the theological discussions I’ve encountered, joy is separated from happiness; as a teacher of mine said, “you can be sad and still have joy.” On the other hand, satisfaction with justice and a clear conscience I think could be said to be different (perhaps more specific to certain aspects of Christian experience) than joy.

  14. The Ambulatory Sesquipedalian says:

    I am drawing that distinction. Happiness, as I use it, comes from a clear conscience; joy from faith.

  15. AbigailT says:

    Well, happiness is certainly one of the goals of life. But again, just for the sake of clarity, I’d point to the Westminster Confession which says that “man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” A clear conscience is one of His gifts, and therefore part of enjoying him forever, but we need to remember that glorifying Him is at least as important.

    This is a very worthwhile discussion; thank you for posting on it, Ian!

  16. LaVisha says:

    No that wasn’t my question at all. I was wondering what activities please you (bring you happiness)?

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