Jump directly to the content

By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

icon1 of 3view all


In a nation officially dedicated to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," we seem to have lost sight of something else Thomas Jefferson wrote: "Virtue is the foundation of happiness." Jefferson believed what Aristotle once said: that happiness is "the activity of the soul that expresses virtue." Aristotle thought that by improving ourselves through reason, humans could live happier lives. This was a serious challenge to the reigning beliefs of the ancient world, which held that fortune was up to the gods, not individual morality. In fact, most of the Greek words for happiness derived from words meaning "luck" or "chance" (and in English, "happen" and "happy" come from the root word "hap," meaning "luck.")

In the cover story of the spring issue of Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Darrin McMahon embarks on the history (and etymology) of happiness. His essay is intended to examine how "the pursuit of happiness" came to be assigned (in the 18th century) as a duty of government. However, by tracing the history of happiness in Christian thought, McMahon indirectly challenges readers to conceive of a theology of happiness, and even an eschatology of happiness. What degree or form of happiness is appropriate and godly for Christians? How much happiness should be had now, and how much deferred to eternity?

From the Beatitudes ("happy are those who … ") to Augustine, McMahon says, happiness was prescribed as an eternal but future remedy for those who suffered currently. Live virtuously now, have happiness later as a result. Nonetheless, McMahon says the sensuousness of the Christian imagination of happiness—"feeling, intense feeling, was what flowed forth with Christ's blood, transformed in the miracle of the Eucharist from the fruit of intense pain to the sweet nectar of rapture"—stood in stark contrast to the "cool" and "rational" happiness of Aristotle. Although we remember Reformation-era thinkers as a grim lot, it was this visceral sense of happiness that defined the Christianity of their time, McMahon says. "The Renaissance imagination thus ranged freely forward to the joys that would come, and backward to those that had been, [reflecting] greater acceptance of pleasure in the here and now." Even Calvin, who emphasized the misery of the human condition, said: "When the favor of God breathes upon us, there is none of these [sufferings] which may not turn out to our happiness."

Whether it was Christian Epicureans (believe it or not, there were a few), Christian Aristotelians, or Protestants—McMahon doesn't say—Christianity had married future pleasure and present pleasure (seeing a congruence between joyful contentment and eternal bliss) by the 17th century. In 1643, the Reverend Thomas Coleman told the English Parliament that the resistance of Charles I was commensurate to the Israelites' "long pursuit of happinesse" (sic). The phrase caught on in England and made its way to John Locke, and, in turn, to Thomas Jefferson, and soon the collective pursuit of happiness as a foundation of society was unquestioned. Happiness had become a virtue in itself, rather than a result of virtue. (But how did Enlightenment thinkers relax Aristotle's requirement that virtue comes first? McMahon doesn't say.)

This was the Enlightenment's gospel: bringing the happiness of heaven down to earth, rejecting the need for religious access and eschatological delay. But as McMahon says, provocatively, "the shift toward happiness on Earth occurred within the Christian tradition as well as without." Christianity demoted "eternal felicity in the next world" to be an afterthought to "prosperity in this," as Tocqueville observed already in the 19th century. The prosperity gospel, which has thrived among the baby boomers, has deeper roots than we think. Although McMahon's piece, presented as a work of political science, begs a theological critique, it is an informative read that prompts us to examine of the roles of pleasure, joy, and providence in a life of faith.

Earlier: The deception of happiness (third item here)


From the New York Times :

BAGHDAD — It is still so extraordinary to see boats traveling any distance on the Tigris River, which has become a smelly, shrunken, deserted, refuse-strewn ghost of its former splendor, that dozens of curious employees of a nearby power plant applauded and cheered when Firas Shihab Ahmed, a chemical engineer at the Iraqi Ministry of the Environment, reached over the side of his boat and filled an amber glass bottle … and marked it as his 14th sample of the day. … Though troubled by what she sees as the environmental depredations of the invasion—including a smoking junkyard on the banks of the Tigris just outside the concrete blast walls of the American-controlled "green zone"— American environmental advocate  Anna Bachmann conceded that the mighty waterway of sixth-grade textbooks on Mesopotamia had not existed for a long time. A series of dams upstream have reduced the flow in the Tigris to less than half of its historical strength, and raw sewage roars in from open pipes. … The river also has an abandoned feel, in part because one of Saddam Hussein's many personal whimsies was to have river views unencumbered by boats.

icon1 of 3view all

Most ReadMost Shared