No Happiness without Religion (and even only imperfect happiness with true Religion)

Fr. Thomas Joseph White, Jennifer A. Frey; debating with Candace Vogler (not pictured) the topic “Happiness without Religion?” at the Catholic Center of NYU in September 2016.

This week we post the three arguments presented at the debate “Happiness Without Religion”, hosted by First Things and the Thomistic Institute at the Catholic Center of NYU. Today is part 2 of 3 featuring Fr. Thomas Joseph White. The accompanying audio of the debate was recorded by the Thomistic Institute.


Consider the non-rational animals. Can they be said to be happy or unhappy? In an analogical sense, yes, insofar as they experience wellbeing of a physical or even emotional sort. Augustine notes that the non-rational animals “desire nothing beyond the proper arrangement of the parts of the body and the satisfaction of the appetites, [that is to say] bodily comfort and the [right measure of] pleasures, that the peace of the body might contribute to the peace of the soul…Animals, by shunning pain, show that they love bodily peace…their shrinking from death is a sufficient indication of their intense love of that peace which binds soul and body in close alliance.” (City of God XIX, 14) And of course we might add with Aristotle that they instinctively desire the good of their species, and seek to perpetuate it. This form of happiness may be modest but it is real, just as living things that are not human are real and are subject to flourishing.


We are different from these creatures because we avidly pursue happiness, through rational deliberation, even in all our free actions. This is different from saying that we understand well what happiness is, or know well how to procure it. Augustine underscores how fragile human happiness is in this world: Elusive, ephemeral and limited. On the one hand our desire for happiness is inextinguishable and vivid. On the other hand, it is often a source of disquiet or even torment. The desire for happiness frequently gives rise to serious disappointment. It can even humiliate us as we become worried or convinced that we have failed in life to be genuinely happy, whereas others have succeeded.


So the desire to be happy and appear happy gives rise to various forms of ambition and self-deception. Augustine notes that we tell ourselves and others lies, or half truths about how we happy we really are, and that we seek to demonstrate this through various mediums, from philosophical arguments to external postures, like Facebook posts or annual family Christmas letters. [No one ever writes in the annual Christmas letter, “This year Alice had a serious operation and had to confront for the first time her genuine fear of death. She is currently anti-anxiety medication and is in counseling.”] Instead, we take refuge in the public vanities of career or the accomplishments of children, of the private distractions of pleasure and leisure, claiming that we have fulfilled the canonical obligations that make us successfully happy. We settle for too little, and conceal our deeper unresolved-frustrations. This act of self-deception in fact suggests a profound form of self-antipathy, or self-refusal, insofar as we resist confronting our deeper more genuinely fractured selves.


Blaise Pascal writes about the positive benefits of admitting the deep imperfection and limits of our happiness in this world. Our failure to find anything other than very imperfect, unsatisfying forms of happiness in creatures is the negative side of very good news. If we admit this truth, we can begin to acknowledge the possibility of genuine happiness with God. Pascal argues in response to Montagne that the religionist is not the person who is naïve and escapist, but the only person who is actually in the end being a realist. We do genuinely wish to be happy, so let us be realists, and long for something we can actually have: life with God, and friendship with God. This is an existential possibility, by the grace of Christ, and it can endure forever, because God is eternal, and the soul is immaterial and lives on after death.


Of course here we might cough politely like Prufrock, and think quietly to ourselves: “that is not realistic. That is not worth the risk.” Or by contrast, we might briefly consider Aquinas’ version of this Augustinian argument.


Negatively Aquinas argues thus, in summary form: Wealth cannot be what makes us happy, because we procure wealth as a means not an end. Wealth provides a horizon of possibilities, but forces us to ask anew: ok, now what do we do with our money? Glory and fame cannot make us happy. They are radically contingent goods that by their very nature are transitory, and unstable. To be famous you need other people to agree to look at you a certain way continually, so as to procure satisfaction for your vanity or self-love. The problem is they might stop paying attention to you at any moment. (This is why famous people need twitter accounts.) Power is not a good candidate, because power is morally indifferent. A person can have a great deal of power, and do great wickedness with it. So it is like wealth: more a means than an end.


 Listen to a recording of this event’s arguments and critiques on the Thomistic Institute’s SoundCloud.


What about the physical good of the body? Will the perfect diet and exercise routine finally make me happy? No, for if that were the case people would be content simply with being healthy and no healthy person would be unhappy. This is clearly not the case. What about pleasure as the source of happiness? Ah, pleasure! Now that seems like a good candidate. Pleasures make us happy. Yes, but here Aquinas qualifies. Pleasures of the senses give temporary joy and rest to our sensate animal life, our felt psychology, you might say. But human beings also aspire to other forms of goods that are not simply sensible: friendship, love and appreciation, justice, and also truth, authentic perspective on the meaning of things, artistic skill, and practical wisdom. So reducing all of that down to sensate pleasures is not just un-reasonable; it’s impossible.


This means we are getting close–true happiness consists in the stable possession of various forms of authentic goods, like those just listed: true friendship, a life of personal love, justice etc. This is a life of virtue, toward which the health of the body and the pleasures of senses can oriented, as when parents nourish their children (as one animal to another) but do so motivated by personal love as well as a sense of justice. Notice what we need to make appeals to happiness: a certain intensity of human flourishing and a certain stability of possession, and to have an authentic good and have it in a lasting way. But what such higher good or goods can we pursue virtuously that really provide us with genuine lasting happiness, a happiness that will really satiate our desires, so that we are not subject to misery? Friendship? Marriage? Career? Children? Aquinas says: No, none of these really grants us either sufficient intensity of fulfillment or perennial possession, that is to say stable freedom from systemic disenchantment. He even concludes that no created good really suffices in the end. And this is very good news.


The reason has to do with the positive side of Aquinas’ argument. The human animal is different from the other animals because we have a spiritual intellect. That is to say, we are open to the universal horizon of being, to all that exists. Likewise we are also capable of loving all that is exists insofar as it is in some way good. This argument has several steps but basically Aquinas argues that if we are able to know and love all finite being, this is because on a deeper level we are open intellectually not only to what is finite but also the transcendent and infinite, God the author of all that exists. God is the perfectly intensive infinite good, and since we are structurally capax dei, or capable of God, we are likewise structurally incapable of ever being fully satisfied by the finite good.


To conclude we might note a final objection: I cannot cross the abyss that stands between me and the unsolvable enigma of God, if God exists. Given this fact, the desire for God is a pointless want. Smart people confine themselves to the humble cell of agnosticism. To which the follower of Christ responds: No, that is not true. The human being can come to know God by grace, and in grace, can come to recognize true happiness, or the invitation to true happiness, which begins in friendship with God, the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. The contemplative discovery of God is the beginning of true peace that gives genuine rest to the soul. That is a religious answer to a philosophical question. But of course, if human beings cannot achieve their true happiness without God, then the religious answer is precisely what is needed.


“If we were irrational animals, we should desire nothing beyond the proper arrangement of the parts of the body and the satisfaction of the appetites,— nothing, therefore, but bodily comfort and [a right measure] of pleasures, that the peace of the body might contribute to the peace of the soul.…Animals, by shunning pain, show that they love bodily peace, and…their shrinking from death is a sufficient indication of their intense love of that peace which binds soul and body in close alliance. But, as man has a rational soul, he subordinates all this which he has in common with the beasts to the peace of his rational soul, that his intellect may have free play and may regulate his actions, and that he may thus enjoy the well-ordered harmony of knowledge and action which constitutes, as we have said, the peace of the rational soul. And for this purpose he must desire to be neither molested by pain, nor disturbed by desire, nor extinguished by death, that he may arrive at some useful knowledge by which he may regulate his life and manners. But, owing to the liability of the human mind to fall into mistakes, this very pursuit of knowledge may be a snare to him unless he has a divine Master, whom he may obey without misgiving, and who may at the same time give him such help as to preserve his own freedom. And because, so long as he is in this mortal body, he is a stranger to God, he walks by faith, not by sight; and he therefore refers all peace, bodily or spiritual or both, to that peace which mortal man has with the immortal God, so that he exhibits the well-ordered obedience of faith to eternal law.” Augustine, City of God, XIX, c. 14.

“But, in that final peace to which all our righteousness has reference, and for the sake of which it is maintained, as our nature shall enjoy a sound immortality and incorruption, and shall have no more vices, and as we shall experience no resistance either from ourselves or from others, it will not be necessary that reason should rule vices which no longer exist, but God shall rule the man, and the soul shall rule the body, with a sweetness and facility suitable to the felicity of a life which is done with bondage. And this condition shall there be eternal, and we shall be assured of its eternity; and thus the peace of this blessedness and the blessedness of this peace shall be the supreme good.” Augustine, City of God, XIX, c. 27


210: The last act is tragic, however happy all the rest of the play is; at the last a little earth is thrown upon our head, and that is the end for ever.

257: There are only three kinds of persons; those who serve God, having found Him; others who are occupied in seeking Him, not having found Him; while the remainder live without seeking Him, and without having found Him. The first are reasonable and happy, the last are foolish and unhappy; those between are unhappy and reasonable.

438: If man is not made for God, why is he only happy in God? If man is made for God, why is he so opposed to God?

540: None is so happy as a true Christian, nor so reasonable, virtuous, or amiable.

785: Jesus Christ is an obscurity (according to what the world calls obscurity), such that historians, writing only of important matters of states, have hardly noticed Him.

Pascal, Pensees

Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
Turning shadow into transient beauty
With slow rotation suggesting permanence
Nor darkness to purify the soul
Emptying the sensual with deprivation
Cleansing affection from the temporal.
Neither plentitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.

From T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

Fr. Thomas Joseph White is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies, and Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.