What Is Happiness Good For? - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
What Is Happiness Good For?

“For I ask all men whether they would prefer to have joy in truth or in falsehood. They hesitate no more in preferring the truth than in wishing for happiness itself.”

–St. Augustine 

I am about to argue that consummate happiness must lie in union with God — in fact, that happiness lies in the mind’s gaze upon Him, in His own being, in what He is in Himself. 

Unacceptable! Isn’t that what Christians say? If the argument converged on a Sufi or a Buddhist conclusion, perhaps no one would object. These days, Christianity arouses protests. Notice, though, that even though this essay will arrive at something that Christians believe, it will make no use of Christianity to get there. So I promise those who suffer visceral responses to the claims of faith that for now, at least, their viscera are safe. I don’t promise not to endanger their viscera later. 

The argument can be stated in a few sentences, and the only reason for expanding them is to respond to a few inevitable objections. Not to all possible objections, of course. New objections can always be raised to any argument whatsoever; new objections can be raised to any of the replies to the objections. The inability to think of still more objections may prove that the objector lacks imagination, but it is not a reasonable test of an argument’s cogency. There is no escape from the need to exercise judgment. 

Let’s get started, then. I’ve previously argued that happiness is an activity. What activity is it? The word activity is related to the word actualize, and this is no accident. An activity brings into actuality some power or potentiality that would otherwise be only latent. Eating actualizes or fulfills the nutritive power; breathing actualizes or fulfills the respiratory power. We don’t just happen to have these powers; we have them for the sake of their actualization. Each of them is for something. So to ask, “In what activity does happiness lie?” amounts to asking, “Of what power or powers is happiness the actualization or fulfillment?” 

Subscribers, click here to read the full magazine. Not a subscriber? Click here to become a Patriot member today and receive access to The American Spectator in print and online!

The very idea that natural powers may have purposes that can be attained, fulfilled, or actualized is deeply objectionable to some people. In fact, denial of natural purposes is pretty well drummed into us today, because our education is so steeped in materialism. It is supposed to be unscientific to believe in natural purposes. In order to explain why this objection is wrong, let me address its three main variations. 

One version of the objection is that attributing natural purposes to things is a form of animism, like attributing deliberation and will to a rock, a river, or the wind. But I am not doing anything of that sort. To say that the purpose of the heart is to pump blood is not to make the ridiculous claim that the heart has a will of its own and that its intention is to keep the blood moving; it is merely to say that the heart both accomplishes something and exists to accomplish it. Unlike a deliberating mind, the heart is not thinking about the matter. It only acts as though it were. We use the same word for purposes in minds and for purposes in things because they are analogous, not because they are identical.  

Another version of the objection is that although thinking of inanimate things as having purposes may once have led to interesting discoveries, science has gotten beyond all that now. But science has not, in fact, gotten beyond all that. Fields as diverse as optics and quantum mechanics make extensive use of what physicists and mathematicians call “variational principles,” according to which systems tend to behave in such ways as to minimize, maximize, or hold constant certain quantities. For example, a beam of light passing through a prism seeks the path that minimizes the optical distance, which is the physical distance multiplied by the angle of refraction. Materialists dislike saying that the light “seeks” the path of least optical distance, because the term “seeks” is suggestive of a mind with a will. To avoid that suggestion, they prefer to say that the prism “makes” the light bend. It is hard to see what they gain by this. If we are not allowed to use language that might remind us of minds, then the language of seeking something and the language of making something do something ought to be equally suspect! Let’s just say that light beams, prisms, and other things act as though they had minds even though they don’t, and let it go at that. 

Still another version of the argument is not so much materialistic as skeptical; it says not that there aren’t any natural purposes, but that we can’t know them, because only the maker of something knows what it is for. I know the purposes of my own works, such as the house that I’ve built, because I know my own mind. I don’t know the purposes of natural things, such as eyes, because the Creator made them, and how can I read His mind? But I don’t need to read the divine mind to know what eyes are for. I only need to know (1) that eyes see, and (2) that I can’t even explain why I have eyes in the first place without referring to this fact. The reason for the existence of eyes is to enable me to see.


We were asking, “Of what power or powers is happiness the fulfillment or actualization?” Presumably it would be our highest powers. Why? Because those are the ones that define us. I am most myself, most in tune with my nature, not when I am employing the lower powers that I share with the plants and beasts, such as eating, growing, or receiving sense impressions, but when I am employing the higher powers that distinguish me from them, such as deliberating about what to do or trying to ascertain the truth about something. This is why, even though both our higher and lower powers are true aspects of us, we don’t compliment ourselves for self-command when our minds obey our passions, but when our passions cooperate with our minds. And this is why, even though we are more than naked minds, we view the decisions and conclusions of our minds as the decisions and conclusions of our whole selves. The man who is ruled by his feelings and appetites is in bondage.

Against this view, three arguments are offered: (1) reason is not the highest power because it cannot rule the passions; (2) reason is not the highest power because it should not rule the passions; and (3) it doesn’t matter which element of us rules, because nature does not know any “higher” or “lower.” Let us consider these in turn.

A proponent of the first objection is David Hume, who called reason “the slave of the passions” and said that it could never pretend to any other function than “to serve and obey them.” But as we also saw there, Hume’s argument is circular: he first defined all impulses that affect the will as passions and then said that only passions can affect the will. The supposed tyranny of feelings is certainly convenient; it provides us with an excuse for doing whatever we want. When challenged about our choices, we need only say, “I can’t help how I feel, and I feel I have no choice.” But it is a fallacy. 

The second objection — not that the passions inevitably do rule but that they should — had an apostle in the poet John Keats: “O for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts!” And we all know how the galaxy was saved when Luke Skywalker finally followed the advice of Obi-Wan Kenobi, “Luke! Trust your feelings!” Heaven forbid that he should have trusted his judgment. This idea that the feelings should rule has numerous variations, each proposing a different kind of feeling as the ruler. Moralists propose moral feelings; religious folk of the emotional sort propose religious feelings; hedonists, pleasant feelings; aesthetes, beautiful feelings; Romantics, ecstatic feelings; and transgressivists, morbid or forbidden feelings — transgressivism being the point to which all Romantics come if they follow the Romantic path to the end, for if the feeling that you crave comes from crossing normal boundaries, then eventually you will have to cross the boundaries of normal feeling. But the problem is the same in each case: the passions that are nominated as rulers are themselves in need of rule. So the second objection is mistaken too.

The third objection was that it doesn’t matter which element of us rules, because nature doesn’t know any “higher” or “lower” — that such distinctions are imposed upon nature from outside. But are they? Plants have only such powers as growing and absorbing nutrition. Beasts have these but also additional ones, for example the power of perceiving things through their senses. Human beings rise still higher, for we have rational powers. Not only can we perceive things through our senses, but we can grasp universals — for example, we can know not just a good taste, but the idea of good taste, and in fact the idea of good in general. Moreover, not only can we seek things according to instinct, but we can deliberate. So the sensitive powers rank above the vegetative powers, but the rational powers are still higher. It makes no more sense to deny the reality of higher and lower powers than of higher and lower mountains.

Consider too that plants seek their ends automatically, without even knowing what they are seeking. Animals “know” their ends in the sense that they pursue them, but they do not know them in a reflective sense, for they do not even grasp the concept of an end. We not only pursue our ends but also know that they are ends — we experience them not just as felt impulses but as meanings, as rational purposes, as reasons for doing what we do. Rationality is more, much more, than being clever or knowing many things. One can even imagine a beast that is cleverer than we are, knows far more than we do, and can do many more things than we can — yet is not rational. For rationality takes the lower powers up into reason, brings them into partnership with reason, imbues them with sense and context. We seek not bare life, but a human life, which is a considered life. We not only respond to our inclinations, but regulate them, wonder about them, and inquire into them, just as we wonder about all things. Until we find their meaning — until we are in accord with this meaning through and through — we cannot be at rest.


Suppose, then, we agree that happiness must lie in an activity of our highest power, and that our highest power is reason. Is our work done? No, there is one step more, because our fulfillment would have to lie in the highest activity of our highest power, and reason has more than one activity. One of its activities is practical: we deliberate about and organize our lives. The other is contemplative: we also seek and reflect upon the truth. Which of these two is highest?

Practical reasoning may seem highest because, as we have seen, even the fragmentary and imperfect happiness of this life depends on the exercise of the virtues, and the virtue of prudence, or practical wisdom, is the one that sets all the other virtues in proper order.

That is nothing to snort at! But on closer examination, practical reason couldn’t be reason’s highest activity, for doing presupposes knowing. Even the most hard-headed person wants to organize his life in accordance with what is really true. Don’t we in fact try to do so, even if we aren’t always thinking about it, and even if our assumptions about the truth are wrong? If someone were to become convinced that his whole life had been based on a delusion, he would fall into despondency. That is the point of the quotation from Augustine that I placed as the epigraph to this essay, for even though we profoundly desire joy, we are no more hesitant to prefer truth than we are to desire joy itself. Ignorance may produce the illusion of bliss, but ignorance is not bliss. Leave that to the cows and the sheep. We are men and women.

The curious thing about us is that we desire knowledge not just to guide our deliberation but also for its own sake. And it is more than curious, isn’t it? In this desire lies much of the nobility of the human creature. “All men by nature desire to know,” writes Aristotle. “An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses,” he explains, “for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things.”

Even shabby tabloid journalism exploits our desire to know truth. The National Enquirer catapulted itself to greater prominence in the 1980s by means of the advertising slogan, “Enquiring minds want to know.” You would think that the tabloid’s marketing experts had read Aristotle. More likely they were capitalizing on the obvious.

But just as our highest rational power is directed to knowing, not just doing, so some objects of knowledge are higher than others. Wouldn’t it be the case, then, that the highest activity of our highest power would lie not in knowing the most trivial and base objects of knowledge, but its very highest and noblest objects — especially the truth about God? For what activity of our minds could be higher than to see God — to know Him as He is in Himself?

At this point another objection might be proposed, for it may seem implausible that happiness lies in any kind of knowledge if we understand knowledge as the grasping of abstractions, the way an intellectual knows the proof of a theorem — which does, by the way, seem to be how the thinker Aristotle viewed the happiness of contemplation. Two different responses to this objection are possible. One response is that it underestimates the joy that those capable of understanding abstractions do take in grasping them, but I admit that most of us find this response unconvincing. It would make happiness very much the business of an intellectual elite, such as mathematicians or philosophers, and there are an awful lot of unhappy mathematicians and philosophers, aren’t there?

The other response is more compelling. When we say that happiness is a kind of knowledge, we should be thinking not so much of mathematicians or philosophers, but of lovers. The happiness of knowing God would not be the happiness the intellectual has in knowing a theorem or abstraction, but rather the kind of happiness the lover has in knowing the beloved. But in this case, the knowledge would be perfect and all-consuming, and the beloved would be the infinitely lovable — the Divine Source of all good and beauty, the Origin of love itself. The vision of God would seize and consume us. And this response seems satisfying.

Even now I am not yet making a faith claim. The argument to this point is simply reasonable.

For consider: There has to be a First Cause, a First Reason. Otherwise we cannot explain why there is anything else. The village atheist who says, “Oh, yeah? If God created everything, who created God?” merely betrays his misunderstanding of the argument. Things that don’t have to be, contingent beings, require causes; things that have to be, necessary beings, do not require causes. God is not a thing among others to be explained. He is that without which nothing is explainable. To reject Him, then, is to say that there don’t have to be reasons for things, that, in the end, nothing has to make sense. 

Pagan mythology was more or less explicit about nothing making sense. It didn’t picture the First Reason creating all things from nothing and then calling all things back to Himself; rather it pictured the gods themselves inexplicably coming from the void. Since everything was held up by nothing, ultimately nothing was held up at all. To believe in the First Reason is the very opposite of believing in that kind of god; this sort of God is the very precondition of things making sense.

And let us be very clear: No one who believes that things don’t have to make sense has any business saying that anything at all is true or false, or that anything does or does not exist. For how would he know? Do not reproach me with chaos theory. What mathematicians call chaos is not things not making sense, or not possessing order. Rather it has to do with the limits of prediction in certain kinds of highly ordered systems. The study of such systems does not require the abandonment of reason. 

And so we arrive at the conclusion that the beginning of this essay foreshadowed. There is no higher activity than seeing God, knowing Him as the lover knows the beloved, face to face.

Sign up to receive our latest updates! Register

By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: The American Spectator, 122 S Royal Street, Alexandria, VA, 22314, http://spectator.org. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

Be a Free Market Loving Patriot. Subscribe Today!