By John Rieping | Published 19 Feb 2015 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
So agreed the Continental Congress of the summer of 1776, representing the original 13 colonies that would become the United States of America.
Long before and ever after, humanity's pursuit went on and continues — in many different directions. The desire for happiness may be universal, but not our paths in chasing it.
Born in 341 B.C., Epikouros would be a man ahead of his time. He embraced the philosophy of his contemporary Demokritos. Both believed the material world consisted of atoms moving and interacting in space, and forming clusters that result in the substances we see. Without an electron microscope, they clumsily glimpsed the atomic age.
Yet the two thinkers differed when it came to finding happiness.
Demokritos, sometimes called the Laughing Philosopher, urged cheerful contentment through moderation and self-discipline, without envy or laziness.
"Happiness does not dwell in flocks of cattle or in gold," he wrote. "Happiness, like unhappiness, is a property of the soul. And it is right that men should value the soul rather than the body ... Men find happiness neither by means of the body nor through possessions, but through uprightness and wisdom."
Epikouros, who never married, had a small following in his philosophy school, the first one of its time open to female students. Inscribed on the gate of its garden were the words, "Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure."
For Epikouros, good and evil could be determined by whether an act ultimately led to pleasure or pain. Overindulgence was bad, for example, because it caused pain later on. Friendships, which he considered essential for happiness, only had value insofar as they protected pleasure. Tranquility, his ultimate goal, could be found by satisfaction amidst an absence of suffering.
"Death is nothing to us," he said, because in it humans no longer exist and so escape both pleasure and pain. Hence his gravestone's epitaph: "I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care."
In these two ancient Greeks we see, I think, contemporary thoughts on the pursuit of happiness. But there is another, a man devoted to reflecting on it perhaps more than any other philosopher in history.
To his students in Athens, Aristotle would lecture so extensively on how to be happy that his notes would be turned into 10 books on the subject, now called the "Nicomachean Ethics."
It is no accident his teachings on pursuing happiness are termed "ethics." To Aristotle, ethics are a practical science of how to achieve joy as an individual. For him, ethics are a subset of politics, which works to bring happiness to a people.
Aristotle, who died in 322 B.C., saw happiness as humanity's highest good and function. It is our nature and purpose to be happy, he taught. But joy is not automatically granted, whether by nature, divinity, or luck. It demands learning, good habits (aka "virtues"), and persistent effort.
"Happiness depends upon ourselves," he said.
Yet it is not a solitary chase. Like Epikouros, he viewed friends as essential for joy, not as defenders of pleasure but for their own sake and for virtue's sake. Not only can the company of the good be pleasant, it also enables us to grow in virtue. "He who is to be happy will need virtuous friends ... And one should be content to find even few friends such as these."
There is far more I could share from Aristotle, but what of theology no less ancient? What does Christianity have to say on happiness?
Aurelius Augustinus -- bishop of Hippo, North Africa, in the early 400s A.D. -- wrote, "We all want to live happily; in the whole human race there is no one who does not assent to this proposition, even before it is fully articulated."
And where do Christians believe this can be found? In humanity's creator, who alone can fully satisfy our otherwise insatiable desires. For a Christian, even a life of pleasure, virtue, or friendship falls short without a loving relationship with God.
Because God, by definition, is infinite in the truth, goodness and beauty we hunger for. Created in God's image, we long for divinity.
As the traditional season of Lent begins this week with Ash Wednesday, let us Christians turn to the ultimate source of our happiness.