Category Archives: Philosophy

The Argument from Conscience


-by Peter Kreeft, PhD

“The argument from conscience, Romans 2: 14-16, is one of the only two arguments for the existence of God alluded to in Scripture, the other being the argument from design, Romans 1:18-20. Both arguments are essentially simple natural intuitions. Only when complex, artificial objections are made do these arguments begin to take on a complex appearance.

The simple, intuitive point of the argument from conscience is that everyone in the world knows, deep down, that he is absolutely obligated to be and do good, and this absolute obligation could come only from God. Thus everyone knows God, however obscurely, by this moral intuition, which we usually call conscience. Conscience is the voice of God in the soul.

Like all arguments for the existence of God, this one proves only a small part of what we know God to be by divine revelation. But this part is significantly more than the arguments from nature reveal about God because this argument has richer data, a richer starting point. Here we have inside information, so to speak: the very will of God speaking, however obscurely and whisperingly, however poorly heard, admitted, and heeded, in the depths of our souls. The arguments from nature begin with data that are like an author’s books; the argument from conscience begins with data that are more like talking with the author directly, live.

The only possible source of absolute authority is an absolutely perfect will.

Before beginning, we should define and clarify the key term conscience. The modern meaning tends to indicate a mere feeling that I did something wrong or am about to do something wrong. The traditional meaning in Catholic theology is the knowledge of what is right and wrong: intellect applied to morality. The meaning of conscience in the argument is knowledge and not just a feeling; but it is intuitive knowledge rather than rational or analytical knowledge, and it is first of all the knowledge that I must always do right and never wrong, the knowledge of my absolute obligation to goodness, all goodness: justice and charity and virtue and holiness; only in the second place is it the knowledge of which things are right and which things are wrong. This second-place knowledge is a knowledge of moral facts, while the first-place knowledge is a knowledge of my personal moral obligation, a knowledge of the moral law itself and its binding authority over my life. That knowledge forms the basis for the argument from conscience.

If anyone claims he simply does not have that knowledge, if anyone says he simply doesn’t see it, then the argument will not work for him. The question remains, however, whether he honestly doesn’t see it and really has no conscience (or a radically defective conscience) or whether he is repressing the knowledge he really has. Divine revelation (Ed. through Scripture) tells us that he is repressing the knowledge (Rom 1:18b; 2:15). In that case, what is needed before the rational, philosophical argument is some honest introspection to see the data. The data, conscience, is like a bag of gold buried in my backyard. If someone tells me it is there and that this proves some rich man buried it, I must first dig and find the treasure before I can infer anything more about the cause of the treasure’s existence. Before conscience can prove God to anyone, that person must admit the presence of the treasure of conscience in the backyard of his soul.

Nearly everyone will admit the premise, though. They will often explain it differently, interpret it differently, insist it has nothing to do with God. But that is exactly what the argument tries to show: that once you admit the premise of the authority of conscience, you must admit the conclusion of God. How does that work?

Conscience has an absolute authority over me.

Nearly everyone will admit not only the existence of conscience but also its authority. In this age of rebellion against and doubt about nearly every authority, in this age in which the very word authority has changed from a word of respect to a word of scorn, one authority remains: an individual’s conscience. Almost no one will say that one ought to sin against one’s conscience, disobey one’s conscience. Disobey the church, the state, parents, authority figures, but do not disobey your conscience. Thus people usually admit, though not usually in these words, the absolute moral authority and binding obligation of conscience.

Such people are usually surprised and pleased to find out that Saint Thomas Aquinas, of all people, agrees with them to such an extent that he says if a Catholic comes to believe the Church is in error in some essential, officially defined doctrine, it is a mortal sin against conscience, a sin of hypocrisy, for him to remain in the Church and call himself a Catholic, but only a venial sin against knowledge for him to leave the Church in honest but partly culpable error.

So one of the two premises of the argument is established: conscience has an absolute authority over me. The second premise is that the only possible source of absolute authority is an absolutely perfect will, a divine being. The conclusion follows that such a Being exists.

How would someone disagree with the second premise? By finding an alternative basis for conscience besides God. There are four such possibilities:

  1.  something abstract and impersonal, like an idea;
  2. something concrete but less than human, something on the level of animal instinct;
  3. something on the human level but not divine; and
  4. something higher than the human level but not yet divine. In other words, we cover all the possibilities by looking at the abstract, the concrete-less-than-human, the concrete-human, and the concrete-more-than-human.

The first possibility, #1, means that the basis of conscience is a law without a lawgiver. We are obligated absolutely to an abstract ideal, a pattern of behavior. The question then comes up, where does this pattern exist? If it does not exist anywhere, how can a real person be under the authority of something unreal? How can more be subject to “less”? If, however, this pattern or idea exists in the minds of people, then what authority do they have to impose this idea of theirs on me? If the idea is only an idea, it has no personal will behind it; if it is only someone’s idea, it has only that someone behind it. In neither case do we have a sufficient basis for absolute, infallible, no-exceptions authority. But we already admitted that conscience has that authority, that no one should ever disobey his conscience.

The second possibility, #2, means that we trace conscience to a biological instinct. “We must love one another or die”, writes the poet W. H. Auden. We unconsciously know this, says the believer in this second possibility, just as animals unconsciously know that unless they behave in certain ways the species will not survive. That’s why animal mothers sacrifice for their children, and that’s a sufficient explanation for human altruism too. It’s the herd instinct.

The problem with that explanation is that it, like the first, does not account for the absoluteness of conscience’s authority. We believe we ought to disobey an instinct—any instinct—on some occasions. But we do not believe we ought ever to disobey our conscience. You should usually obey instincts like mother love, but not if it means keeping your son back from risking his life to save his country in a just and necessary defensive war, or if it means injustice and lack of charity to other mothers’ sons. There is no instinct that should always be obeyed. The instincts are like the keys on a piano (the illustration comes from C. S. Lewis); the moral law is like sheet music. Different notes are right at different times.

Furthermore, instinct fails to account not only for what we ought to do but also for what we do do. We don’t always follow instinct. Sometimes we follow the weaker instinct, as when we go to the aid of a victim even though we fear for our own safety. The herd instinct here is weaker than the instinct for self-preservation, but our conscience, like sheet music, tells us to play the weak note here rather than the strong one.

Honest introspection will reveal to anyone that conscience is not an instinct. When the alarm wakes you up early and you realize that you promised to help your friend this morning, your instincts pull you back to bed, but something quite different from your instincts tells you you should get out. Even if you feel two instincts pulling you (e.g., you are both hungry and tired), the conflict between those two instincts is quite different, and can be felt and known to be quite different, from the conflict between conscience and either or both of the instincts. Quite simply, conscience tells you that you ought to do or not do something, while instincts simply drive you to do or not do something. Instincts make something attractive or repulsive to your appetites, but conscience makes something obligatory to your choice, no matter how your appetites feel about it. Most people will admit this piece of obvious introspective data if they are honest. If they try to wriggle out of the argument at this point, leave them alone with the question, and if they are honest, they will confront the data when they are alone.

A third possibility, #3, is that other human beings (or society) are the source of the authority of conscience. That is the most popular belief, but it is also the weakest of all the four possibilities. For society does not mean something over and above other human beings, something like God, although many people treat society exactly like God, even in speech, almost lowering the voice to a whisper when the sacred name is mentioned. Society is simply other people like myself. What authority do they have over me? Are they always right? Must I never disobey them? What kind of blind status quo conservatism is this? Should a German have obeyed society in the Nazi era? To say society is the source of conscience is to say that when one prisoner becomes a thousand prisoners, they become the judge. It is to say that mere quantity gives absolute authority; that what the individual has in his soul is nothing, no authoritative conscience, but that what society (i.e., many individuals) has is. That is simply a logical impossibility, like thinking stones can think if only you have enough of them. (Some proponents of artificial intelligence believe exactly that kind of logical fallacy, by the way: that electrons and chips and chunks of metal can think if only you have enough of them in the right geometrical arrangements.)

The fourth possibility, #4, remains, that the source of conscience’s authority is something above me but not God. What could this be? Society is not above me, nor is instinct. An ideal? That is the first possibility we discussed. It looks as though there are simply no candidates in this area.

And that leaves us with God. Not just some sort of God, but the moral God of the Bible, the God at least of Judaism. Among all the ancient peoples, the Jews were the only ones who identified their God with the source of moral obligation. The gods of the pagans demanded ritual worship, inspired fear, designed the universe, or ruled over the events in human life, but none of them ever gave a Ten Commandments or said, “Be ye holy for I the Lord your God am holy.” The Jews saw the origin of nature and the origin of conscience as one, and Christians (and Muslims) have inherited this insight. The Jews’ claim to be God’s chosen people interprets the insight in the humblest possible way: as divine revelation, not human cleverness. But once revealed, the claim can be seen to be utterly logical.

To sum up the argument most simply and essentially, conscience has absolute, exceptionless, binding moral authority over us, demanding unqualified obedience. But only a perfectly good, righteous divine will has this authority and a right to absolute, exceptionless obedience. Therefore conscience is the voice of the will of God.

Of course, we do not always hear that voice aright. Our consciences can err. That is why the first obligation we have, in conscience, is to form our conscience by seeking the truth, especially the truth about whether this God has revealed to us clear moral maps (Scripture and Church). If so, whenever our conscience seems to tell us to disobey those maps, it is not working properly, and we can know that by conscience itself if only we remember that conscience is more than just immediate feeling. If our immediate feelings were the voice of God, we would have to be polytheists or else God would have to be schizophrenic.”

Love & truth,
Matthew

Dangerous moral attitudes – Hitler was right?

https://www.thecatholicthing.org/2018/04/06/the-slow-poison-of-bad-ideas/


-by David R. Carlin, is a professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island at Newport, is the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America and Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?

4/6/18

Every semester I teach a course in ethics (moral philosophy) at my community college. I tell the students that they don’t have to agree with me; they are entitled to their own opinions, even if their opinions are deeply erroneous. But I attempt to persuade them that there are certain popular theories of morality that are wrong.

In particular, I argue against three popular but (in my opinion) pernicious theories:

* The theory that the rules of right and wrong are purely social creations.
* The theory that we are free to create our own individual moral codes.
* The theory that everything is morally permissible provided it does no obvious and tangible harm to non-consenting others.

On the other hand, I argue that there is a true theory of morality, namely the theory that all normal human beings have an innate knowledge of certain fundamental rules of morality, e.g., don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t abandon your children, etc. This might be called a “natural law” theory of morality, but I don’t insist on that name.

Needless to say, I don’t persuade all, or even almost all, of my students to agree with me. I console myself by saying this is okay. Why? Because maybe I’m mistaken, and if so I hope they don’t agree with me. Or because maybe I’m right and they’ll agree with me thirty or forty years from now. Or maybe I’m right but they’ll never agree with me – but if Jesus himself persuaded only eleven of his twelve, why should I be discouraged that I can’t persuade all my students?

The other day, however, a young man in my class shocked me (actually he amused me) by clearly and frankly defending a theory of morality that I regard as absolutely horrible. He is a good student, sincere and amiable; and he’s not at all the kind of student teachers sometimes run into, I mean the kind who disagrees with the professor just to be a pain in the neck. Not at all; far from it; he’s a nice kid.

He contended (even though I had attempted to refute this obnoxious theory earlier in the semester) that individuals create their own morality, and therefore what’s right or wrong for you will not necessarily be right or wrong for me. As long as you do what you personally believe is right, then it’s right. Likewise, if I personally do what I believe is right, it’s right.

Now, whenever a student makes this point, I bring up Hitler: “If Hitler believed that the Holocaust was the right thing to do, then you say it was right for him to murder six million Jews, not to mention millions of others – is that what you’re saying?”

When I bring Hitler into the discussion, the student usually backs away from his or her assertion. (I sometimes suspect that God may have allowed Hitler to commit his mass murders so that professors will be able to use him as a horrible example in classroom discussions.) But this young man didn’t back away the other day. He stuck with the logic of his position. He said that what Hitler did was right because he believed it was right; and that therefore he (my student) would not condemn Hitler for doing the wrong thing.

At the same time, he assured me that he himself has a quite different personal morality. He personally would never commit genocide; it would be wrong to do so because it doesn’t accord with his personal moral code. I’m sure this is true. As I said, he’s a nice kid. I have no fear of mass murder when I walk into the classroom.

But this reminds me that we can change our minds more easily than we can change our hearts; we can change our opinions more readily than we can change our feelings. Among the most deeply embedded of all our feelings are the moral attitudes we acquire in the days of our childhood and adolescence.

Our moral attitudes, though, whether good or bad, are different from our moral opinions. That’s why it’s so difficult to talk a person out of bad habits. The advice you give this person may be 100 percent sound, but, still, it’s almost impossible to budge him. The same is true, mutatis mutandis, with people who grow up with good moral attitudes.

Does this mean that bad moral theories are harmless or that good theories are useless? Not at all. If you’re a person with good moral attitudes, your bad theories will probably have little impact on your actual moral conduct. But it may well have an impact on your children.

As you bring them up, you will be giving them a good example by your conduct (let’s say, habits of honesty); but your bad theory will be telling them, “I personally believe in honesty, and I personally hope you do the same when you’re an adult; but always remember this, that honesty is nothing more than my personal preference. Remember to be tolerant of crooks and liars and thieves who happen not to believe in honesty.”

Bad moral theories, then, will have bad moral consequences, and good moral theories will have good consequences. But it doesn’t happen overnight. It will take a generation or two, or maybe a hundred years, or maybe two or three hundred. Jefferson wrote, “all men are created equal” in 1776. This implied that slavery must be abolished. But it took 87 years and a great civil war before this happened.

“Ideas govern the world,” a French philosopher once said. And that’s true; they do. But in most cases, only gradually. We have a lot of bad moral theories floating around the USA today, not just my student’s bad theory. If we don’t check them, they will destroy us – if not in the short run, then gradually.”

Love & truth,
Matthew

Principle of Non-contradiction: truth cannot contradict truth

Jesus answered, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” -Jn 14:6


-by Fr. George W. Rutler

“Dante’s thought was so greatly shaped by Aristotle that he called him “The Philosopher” rather as it is customary to call Saint Paul “The Apostle.”  He placed Aristotle in a sort of suburb of Heaven, for Aristotle’s logical thought was a noble anticipation of Christ the Word, or Logos, as the litmus test for all logical thought.  Aristotle applied his “Principle of Non-Contradiction” in several ways, but the third way, most pertinent to daily conversation, means that two statements that are opposite cannot both be true.

Like all great truths, this seems so obvious that it should hardly need to be pointed out.  But people contradict the principle of non-contradiction all the time.  It is easy to slip into this mistake out of fuzzy courtesy — which in the extreme is a form of sentimentality — as when someone says, “That may be true for you, but it is not true for me,” or, “All religions are the same.”  Pope Benedict XVI saw this as so great a danger to logical living that he spoke of it as a “dictatorship of relativism.”

To propose that opposite assertions can be true is harshly to cancel out truth.  In our grammar, two negatives make a positive, but to say that a negative and a positive make a positive would be to say that nothing is really positive.  Then to say that Christ is and is not the Living Word is to say that the Word is just a word.  This “dictatorship” inevitably tries to crush any assertion that there is such a thing as logic at all.

This is not a matter just for the philosophy class.  It has harsh consequences for justice.  The “show trials” of Stalin and Hitler were held in a Humpty Dumpty world where a word means anything the judge wants it to mean.  This reduces sense to sentimentality, and there is a fine line between sentimentality and cruelty, because it twists logic and explains why demagogues speak of caring for society even as they destroy every vestige of it, condoning unnatural acts as natural, and even offering to help children by killing them, as “lawmakers” in Brussels have recently done.  Milton said, “The mind is its own place and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

Christ did not contradict Himself when He said that He fulfilled the Law, even while He was breaking some of the little laws.  He was showing the logic of the law as expressive of the eternal Logos that orders all things.  The Apostle, even wiser than The Philosopher, spoke of a wisdom which “is not of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish.  But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.  None of the rulers of this age understood this;  for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:6-8).”

Love & truth,
Matthew

Jesuit emotion…

-by Professor Yasmin Haskell

“Jorge Mario Bergoglio has chosen the papal name ‘Francis’, which will suggest to most Catholics the founder of the Franciscan order, Francis of Assisi. Pope Francis’ gentle and unassuming style, his poverty – if catching the bus and cooking one’s own meals really qualifies as poverty in the Latin American context … – point to the medieval Italian saint who preached to the common people, and legendarily, to the birds. But Francis was also half the name of one of the Jesuits’ earliest saints, Francis-Xavier (1506-1552), the fervent and restless ‘Apostle to the Indes’, who took Catholic Christianity to India, Japan, and the East Indes in the early modern period, dying of a fever just fourteen kilometres from the shore of mainland China. Perhaps Pope Francis quietly gestures to this sixteenth-century Jesuit missionary, too, who has come to represent the global reach of the Catholic Church, and embodies the evangelical zeal for ‘harvesting souls’ which fired so many members of his order in the early modern period.

So who were the Jesuits? The Society or Company of Jesus was a Catholic Reformation order founded in 1540 by Basque nobleman and former soldier, Ignatius of Loyola, and a bunch of his student friends (among them Francis-Xavier). They quickly earned a formidable and paradoxical reputation. The Pope’s crack troops were deployed from Messina to Macao, Paris to Paraguay, recruiting converts, fighting the spread of Protestantism, and educating the élites of Catholic Europe and her New World colonies. They conducted diplomatic business and scientific research, composed music and poetry, and shocked and awed audiences with theatre and pyrotechnics, art and architecture. Jesuits were prepared to die for their beliefs in faraway missions, but they were also accused of being slippery and self-serving. They championed native Indian rights, but enslaved Africans. In their ranks were to be found hard-nosed heretic hunters, as well as defenders of the rights of ‘witches’, and believers in ‘natural magic’. Renowned for their chameleon-like ability to adapt to local circumstances – dressing as mandarins in China or brahmins in India – the proud and powerful ‘black robes’ couldn’t help but stand out on Catholic home turf. Victims of their own success, the Jesuits were hounded out of France, Spain, Portugal, and the New World. The ‘Old’ Society of Jesus was shut down by the Pope in 1773.

The Society of Jesus was restored in 1814 and has regrown to become the single largest order of the Catholic Church. The ‘New’ Society has produced its fair share of arch-conservatives, but also Nazi-resisters, freedom-fighters, and liberation theologians. It retains its former reputation for education and intellectual sophistication: the profile of a twentieth-century polymath such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (philosopher, mathematician, palaeontologist, and evolutionary biologist) would not look out of place alongside those of Athanasius Kircher (speculative vulcanologist, biologist, orientalist …) or Roger Boscovich (poet, physicist, astronomer, diplomat …) in Carlos Sommervogel’s great bio-bibliographical dictionary of the Old Society (Bibliothèque de la Compagnie de Jésus).

But the heart has always been just as if not more important than the head in Jesuit theology. Much of the order’s thinking, historically, has gone into questions of how to rouse, channel and discipline the emotions. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises remains to this day the beating heart of the Society of Jesus, anticipating some of the techniques of modern psychotherapy in its guided visualisations; its call for attention to and daily written reckoning of our desires and defects; its rules for ‘discernment of spirits’ (in effect, how to listen to our emotions before making important life choices). In conjuring up in detail the agonies of the Passion, however, not to mention a sense-by-sense experience of the torments of Hell, Ignatius is a world away from modern secular philosophers of emotional well-being and intelligence, and from mental health regimes that seek to eliminate anxiety and depression from our lives. The exercitant of the Spiritual Exercises moves inevitably between states of ‘consolation’ and ‘desolation’ with no more human control over this process than that of preparing him/herself in advance for the next turn of the wheel.”

Love,
Matthew

Faith is an intellectual virtue…

2/6/14
-by David G Bonagura, Jr., teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York.

“I don’t feel anything when I pray.” “I am bored at Mass.” “When I talk to God, I do not sense that someone is listening.” These laments, experienced at one time or another by both the pious and the lost, rise from the very heart of Christian praxis. They express the natural human desire for vibrant emotion and feeling in prayer, a reality that many often lack, especially as the faith is lived over the years.

Emotion, as a reality of the human experience, has a role within the life of faith. The Scriptures themselves express the full pantheon of human sentiment: joy and sorrow, gratitude and jealousy, trust and doubt, hope and fear, love and hate are all part of the divine economy of salvation because they, in their different ways, bring us into contact with God. But it is critical for believers to understand their emotions as one aspect within the broader context of their faith and their relationship with God – not as constitutive of their faith.

Because of the prevalence and power of sentiment, there has always existed a temptation, often well intentioned, to reduce faith to emotion and experience. In the nineteenth century, Friedrich Schleiermacher declared, “faith is nothing other than the incipient experience of a satisfaction of that spiritual need by Christ.” Today “youth Masses” attempt to make Schleiermacher’s definition a reality among young people through excited cheering and contemporary music. Other Masses border on sentimentality with overly sappy hymns such as “Here I am Lord” and “You Are Mine.” We are then supposed to feel the presence of Christ and respond to Him in faith.

These personal experiences and feelings can indeed kindle faith, but they cannot be the sole pillars of our spiritual lives, because emotions are not the essence of faith. Rather faith rests upon a loving God Who is not the product of our subjective longings, but a real independent Being Who calls us into union with Him through the revelation of His Son. Faith requires us to acknowledge and accept revelation. The response we make to God may be spurred and accompanied by an array of sentiments, but it is with the intellect that we assent to God and His will.

For this reason St. Thomas Aquinas classified faith as an intellectual virtue: “[T]o believe is an act of the intellect assenting to the truth at the command of the will.” (cf ST II-II, Q2, A1) The intellect has priority because it accepts what comes from God, yet it does so at the insistence of the will, which can be moved by the power of religious experiences. These experiences, when properly integrated within the contours of faith, can contribute to the further development of our relationship with God.

But because faith is the province of the intellect, we need not worry or doubt when emotion and religious sentiment ebb or even disappear from our lives, as they inevitably do. Spiritual aridity – the absence of feeling from the life of faith – is a normal occurrence in the spiritual life, and it can be temporary or prolonged. The saints, many of whom endured painful spiritual aridity for decades, teach us that the absence of religious feelings is God’s way of purifying our faith, which rests ultimately not on emotion, but on our trust in the authority of God’s word.

Often faith is stirred within us due to some profound experience that propels us forward joyfully in our relationship with God. But as the power of these experiences wanes over time, we are forced to trust that we remain in communion with God even as His presence seemingly vanishes. Our situation is akin to that of the apostles: for three years they experienced directly the presence of Christ, and the attendant joy and security that came with it. But after His death and resurrection, they learned, courtesy of Thomas, that it is not feeling but raw trust that constitutes faith. “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” (John 20:29)

Because God is real and not the product of our emotions, we know He hears our prayers and is present to us even if we do not “feel” Him. Our restless hearts must continue to reach toward God, knowing that He alone is their end and fulfillment.

Contrasts are often drawn between Catholics’ more stoic worship with the energy of certain Protestant services. The different styles are pathways to faith; religious feeling of itself neither constitutes nor measures the faith present within the community or the individual. Faith’s true vibrancy depends on the degree to which we trust in God and assent to His revelation. When our trust and assent is strong enough that we give ourselves wholly to God, then we have the love of God in our hearts. And love is not merely sentiment: it is action and commitment as well.

Carmelite Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen writes that “the enkindling of love does not consist in the joy the soul may experience, but rather in the firm determination of the will to give itself entirely to God.” Faith puts us in union with the love of God. We need not fret over lack of religious emotion in our lives, and we need not think our preferred religious experience should be shared by everyone else. True love withstands the flux of all emotions because it is anchored in the certain hope of the God who made us for Himself.”

Love,
Matthew

Reason & emotion

-by David Nolan

“The Scottish philosopher David Hume famously claimed, “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” In recent years, growing public awareness of the centrality of the emotions and desires to the human experience has superseded an earlier emphasis on emotional restraint. From psychoanalytical therapy to the emergence of a therapeutic direction in our justice system, the effects of this revolution in thinking are hard to overestimate. In many ways the changes are positive. Empathy, mutual understanding, and self-reflection now receive a healthy emphasis. Our culture encourages us to tolerate others and see alternative points of view as we try to appreciate each person’s background and emotional experiences. However, there is a major problem in the usual application of this ethos. Desires, we have come to believe, justify themselves. When asked why we do something, we say, “Because it feels good;” when asked what our opinions are on a political matter, we reply, “I feel…” Yet we need only to look at the example of emotionally motivated murder to realize desires are not self-justifying. St Thomas Aquinas, writing nearly 800 years ago, built upon Aristotelian notions of the passions and the appetites to develop a corrective picture of the human psyche. He demonstrates why desires cannot be self-justified and how we can positively proceed, neither denigrating human emotion below its rightful place nor exalting it to heights that can only precede a fall.

Aquinas’s passiones animae, translated as “emotions,” do not only refer to passions in the modern sense of overwhelming and perhaps incapacitating feelings. Instead, they refer to our reaction to the nature of every object or situation. He thinks we react in two ways, either to the object itself or to the difficulty we face in trying to obtain or avoid the object. For example, as a child I desired a dog. Dogs are naturally lovable, so I loved them and desired one for myself. This is the first type of emotion— what Aquinas calls concupiscible emotions—which entails having an emotional response to an object because of that object’s inherent nature. My parents, on the other hand, were not so amenable to my idea, and prevented me from fulfilling my desire for an adorable dog. Frustrated, I courageously fought for a puppy but eventually gave up hope and despaired of ever having one. Because my parents had stopped me from obtaining my goal, I was angry with them. Anger, courage, hope, despair—these are all emotions of the second sort, the irascible emotions; they describe our reaction to our perceived ability to obtain an object of desire. Aquinas thinks that both types of emotions have a close relationship with reason. In fact, he thinks our reason in a way rules our emotions, “not by a ‘despotic supremacy,’ which is that of a master over his slave; but by a “politic and royal supremacy,’ whereby the free are governed who are not wholly subject to command.” Eventually, I realized that a lasting anger at my parents was unreasonable and that I should probably encourage my anger to subside— and it eventually did.

Reason and emotions, then, enforce each other day by day. Aquinas grounds his understanding of emotions in the infinitude of little impulses that arise spontaneously throughout our normal experience. Focusing too heavily on extreme cases has largely skewed popular culture’s conversation on the relationship of emotions to reason. Usually, the impulses of our sensory appetite (emotions and passions) align quite closely with our reasoning abilities and our intellectual apprehensions. For example, in a given day, we desire to eat food, we want to complete tasks, and we try to care for our friends. While there are cases of overwhelming emotions, most of our life is more accurately described in little impulses of joy or sorrow, hope or despair, that we can encourage or check with our intellect and reason. The question remains, however: what impulses ought we to encourage?

Well, passions must be appropriate to their objects. In order for this to be true, apprehension must precede desire: we must know what something is before we want it. For example, I must know about cake before I can want cake. Once I have apprehended that the cake is sweet and delicious, I will then desire it. If I thought it was a pile of mud rather than chocolate cake, I would believe it to be distasteful and undesirable. Clearly, correct apprehension leads us to experience passions appropriate to the object. Only in light of the ‘appropriate’ can we understand the greater value and purpose of passions.

Emotions and desires, as aspects of the everyday, carry moral weight. We can make judgments as to the appropriateness, the goodness or badness, of our emotions. Aquinas writes, “in so far as they are voluntary, [passions can] be called morally good or evil. And they are said to be voluntary either from being commanded by the will, or from not being checked by the will.” Before competing in a race or a game, we can voluntarily work up positive emotions; in response to someone cutting us off while we drive, we can discourage our anger and try to remain levelheaded. Emotions are both reactive and willed, and their origin need not necessarily describe how we then respond to them.

Measures of good or bad can refer only to voluntary impulses. But when, if ever, are emotions voluntary? Our lives are a history of partially voluntary actions and reactions. Humans learn many things through experience, and as an essential part of this experience, the emotions help develop our habits. Even our instinctual drives, like the drive for food, can become more and more voluntary as we get older. Not only do we learn to like a broader range of foods (I learned to like onions only as an older teenager), but we also learn to have “will-power” in to restrain our consumption of some foods. As one of Aquinas’s commentators has said, by deciding which impulses we encourage and discourage, which emotions we try to check, we “tell our life story.” The choices we make now both reveal our current preferences, and encourage specific future preferences and future choices. Thus, it is impossible to be sure that an emotion is voluntary or otherwise in the moment: we have to understand ourselves as beings progressing through time. We do know, however, that emotions can be scrutinized according to moral standards.

If we can judge our emotions, how should we do this? We judge emotions based upon their relation to the person about which they arise and in relation to their object. Our emotional response must be appropriate to the context in order for it to be good. By our will, which we inform with our reason, our desires, and our emotion, we plan our path of action. Reason informs us when our path is contradictory— when our plan will not bring us to the goal that we willed. For example, competitive sports highly prize the quality of being a good loser. An overreaction to a loss comes off as immature. On the other hand, athletes who are apathetic to winning not only are less likely to succeed, but do not have enough emotion invested in the sport. Our reason must balance these many impulses, neither neglecting self-control nor suppressing a healthy passion. Over time, reasoned responses discourage inappropriate emotions and encourage appropriate ones. Eventually, I might not even have to really focus to keep my temper—it may start to come naturally. The joy of competition does not contradict a healthy appreciation for sportsmanship. Reason can balance our particular goals with our particular situation.

But there is a more fundamental way that the will, the reason, and desire all work together. One particular desire underlies all our other impulses: the desire for the good, for happiness. We cannot help to desire to be happy— it is our nature. If we ask ourselves why we wish to be happy, there is no answer other than “because.” Nothing transient, passing, or temporal can actually fulfill this most fundamental of desires. When we plan paths of action with our will, we are trying to fulfill this desire. Our will, as it aims at the universal good, ideally aligns the sensitive appetite (the source of desires and emotions) with the larger goal.

Aquinas recognizes the universal Good in the Incarnation— God is the ultimate object of desire, the source of happiness, and the greatest good. Our nature, to use modern terms, is programmed towards God, and in so far as we either pursue or reject God, we expand or limit our opportunity for real fulfillment in this world and the next. Against the measure of the ultimate good, our desires and emotions begin to fall into place. Slowly, through the building of good habits, we can desire objects and guide emotions appropriately. This is not to deny the many layers of emotional complexity. Emotional complication is part of growing up in the world, but through a growing awareness of self, we can begin to understand our emotional impulses. Through the practice of self control combined with the contemplation of God, our highest desire, we can hope to develop a greater internal unity. Our goal is to desire particular goods as the goods themselves deserve, and through the practice of virtue we begin to experience intense love and joy and desire towards objects that actually deserve that intensity of feeling.

Emotions are incredibly valuable, and the therapeutic insight of self-discovery through the examination of emotions is helpful. But as we understand ourselves and see extreme emotions in the light of many everyday impulses, we need to cultivate emotions that align with our intellect, reason, and that most fundamental desire, the desire that God implemented within us for Himself.”

Love,
Matthew

Sola fides? Why is reason important? Faith & Reason

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“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” -Hamlet, I.v.

“Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam.”, “I do not understand in order to believe, rather I believe in order to understand.” – St Anselm

tomvmorris
-by Dr. Thomas V. Morris, PhD, Tom served for fifteen years as a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, where he quickly became a campus legend, in many years having an eighth of the entire student body in his classes.

“Truth is our tie to the world. Believing a truth, or stating a truth, is like hitting a target. Falsehood misses the mark. Truth anchors us to reality. Falsehood cuts our connection to the way things really are. We need truth like we need air, or food, or water. Falsehood, by contrast, kills.

The complete definition of knowledge

One necessary condition for knowledge is belief. (See the earlier section “Our Beliefs about Belief.”) A second is truth. (Laid out in the preceding section.) Knowledge is built on true belief. But these two conditions are not alone sufficient for knowledge. I can believe something, and my belief can be true without my actually knowing the thing believed.”(1)

“Luck never made a man wise.” — Seneca

“Philosophers insist that, in order for a state of belief to qualify as knowledge, there must be a link, a connection, a tie between the mental state of affirmation and the state of reality, which makes that affirmation true. Furthermore, this link must be of the right sort to properly justify my having that belief.”(2)

Famous Last Words: truth & reality matter!!!

“Don’t worry. It’s not loaded.”
“I’m sober enough.”
“What does this button do?”
“Are you sure the power is off?”
“The odds of that happening have to be a million to one!”
“I’ll hold it and you light the fuse.”
“You worry too much!”
“Txting & driving r not safe!!! Lol.”
“Brexit will fail!”
“Trump’s finished now!”
“Of course the Colombian people will vote for peace!”

“There is an absolute difference between truth and falsehood. And it matters!

Knowledge is properly justified true belief.

We live in a world of irrational beliefs. People believe all sorts of crazy things. Have you ever bought a tabloid newspaper at the checkout lane in a grocery store, and actually read the articles? Okay, you don’t have to answer that. But have you watched other people buy these papers? They don’t always seem to be doing it as a joke. There seems to be no limit to what some people can believe. In fact, it has often been observed that there is a strong tendency in human life for people to believe what they want to believe, whether those beliefs are even remotely rational or not.

Here is the problem. Irrational belief is belief without a reliable tie to truth. Therefore, irrational belief can be dangerous belief. Our natural tendency to believe is like our natural tendency to eat or drink. Not everything you come across is safe to eat. Not every liquid you find is safe to drink. Likewise, not every proposition that comes your way is safe to believe. Our eating and drinking should be subject to the guidance of our beliefs. And that is even more reason for our beliefs to be subject to reason.

We want to be reasonable people because reason can connect us to truth. We value rationality as a reliable road to truth, and thus to knowledge. But what is reason? What is rationality? And why exactly should we think it’s important in our ongoing quest for truth in this world?

Human reason is just the power (Ed. THAT GOD GAVE US!!! AND, APPARENTLY INTENDS US TO USE, LIFE & REALITY WOULD SUGGEST!!!!) we have to organize and interpret our experience of the world (what we see, hear, touch, taste, smell, or sense in any other way), as well as the ability to draw reliable conclusions that move beyond the confines of immediate experience. It is also the power to govern our actions and expectations in such a way that they make sense, given all the realities with which we have to do.”(3)

Love & reason,
Matthew

(1) Morris, Tom (2011-03-10). Philosophy For Dummies (Kindle Locations 986-991). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

(2) Morris, Tom (2011-03-10). Philosophy For Dummies (Kindle Locations 997-999). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

(3) Morris, Tom (2011-03-10). Philosophy For Dummies (Kindle Locations 1005, 1015-1025). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Greek philosophy & Truth

Raphael_School_of_Athens
-Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’, 1504, please click on the image for greater detail.

The Catholic Church makes some rather strong claims, now and consistently throughout her two thousand year history.  These claims, while understood by serious Catholics, are in modernity, couched in such language as to deliver “truth-in-love” without necessarily exasperating or panicking the listener out of either fear, defensiveness, or anger.  These are not the hallmarks of intentional dialogue, either by secular mores or Christian.

Well and good, I say.  There is no rational, proper, or polite reason to put emotive obstacles in the way of potential candidates, listeners, aspiring admirers, or intellectual curiosity seekers of the Church.

However, for the sake of brevity and clarity, let us be clear here.  The Catholic Church’s primary claim, in a nutshell, is “We are made for happiness!”  Now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?  Nah.  That almost everyone, except the mentally or emotionally ill/disturbed, sadists, or other misanthropes may take issue with.  Catholic thinkers, though, would argue even the negative Nells above are still seeking happiness.  It is irrational not to seek happiness.  The Church would add, though, for those who seek it through disordered means it is impossible to find; truly, completely, without equivocation.  Those merely in denial need not apply.  They will only add to their sorrows.  Truth is a bitch, because it is the hardest thing to hold and maintain.  It costs, but its rewards are sweet and infinite, transcending this mortal existence.

Another word the Church uses is beatitude, or utmost bliss.  We are made for this bliss, always have been, the Church would say, whether in Eden or Heaven.  The Greeks struggled to understand their/the world.  They understood intellectual or theoretical perfection such as a circle, or a triangle, or the aesthetic perfection of mathematics.  They also understood the imperfection of reality.  What made a tree a tree?  How did things unknown/unknowable grow into things recognizable and known?  How can this be?  It is from the earliest Greek thinkers the idea and word “soul” comes.

Early thinkers among the Greeks were known as Sophists.  Contrary to their name, they believed nothing was knowable, there was no objective truth or morality, and, basically, anything goes.  This type of thinking, ideas have consequences, led the Athenians into pointless wars, un-winable wars with its adversary Sparta.  When the Athenians had been defeated as an independent city-state for the last time, along came Socrates, who had been a soldier, but now began asking questions of “experts” whom, he assumed, should know the “why” of their expertise.  They did not.

David_-_The_Death_of_Socrates
-‘Death of Socrates’, Jacques-Louis David, 1787, oil on canvas, 129.5 cm × 196.2 cm (51.0 in × 77.2 in), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, please click on the image for greater detail.

For Socrates, “knowledge is virtue, and ignorance vice”.  What is a good life?  What is good?  What is evil?  How should we live?  He became so annoying to the elites of Athens with his questioning, making them them plainly appear the fools they were, Athens held a trial and condemned Socrates to banishment or death.  Few stories save the Passion of our Lord itself, strive in the Western mind to be more compunctive than the trial and death of Socrates.

Plato was the student of Socrates, and attempted to continue his work by opening a school.  The motto “Know Thyself” was placed over the door of Plato’s Academy and marked an important change of emphasis in Greek and other philosophy, one from studying external mysteries of the universe, to the equally, or moreso, daunting interior exploration.

For Plato, attempting to explain the nature of theoretical perfection of the mind versus the reality of the world surrounding us, those two realities bifurcated into a theoretical realm of perfection “Ideas”(Heaven?), as Plato called them, and the physical world, which Plato held askance as almost not real because of its constant change and nature of being in flux from the perfect.  As  advanced as Plato’s reasoning was, he could not reconcile the concepts of permanence and change in a single world.

Along comes Aristotle, a student of Plato, teacher of Alexander the Great, and inspiration for St Thomas Aquinas.  Aristotle rejected Plato’s two worlds concept.  Rather, Aristotle explained the physical world in terms of form (or theoretical/intellectual perfection) and matter, which changes.  He also explained the concept of the material world’s ability to change as act (fully realized reality) and potency/potential, the ability of something in its current state to become something else.  Act & potency made me think of kinetic and potential energy, but I digress.

Socrates had made knowledge the equivalent of virtue. Aristotle, however, emphasizes the fact that to know is not the same as to do. In the realm of acting the fact of free will makes it possible for us to choose in contradiction to what we know is right. He stressed, therefore, the importance of developing the virtues in man for the strengthening of the will and for the control of the animal appetites.”1

Through reason ALONE we can come to proofs by reason that God does indeed exist, even Aristotle acknowledged this.  It is beyond the scope of this post to explore them, but they exist.  You can google them.  🙂

Love & reason,
Matthew

  1.  Sullivan, Daniel J. (2015-09-23). An Introduction to Philosophy: Perennial Principles of the Classical Realist Tradition (Kindle Locations 696-698). Ravenio Books. Kindle Edition.

Immanuel Kant, (1724-1804) – Philosopher, “Subjectivizer of Truth”

Immanuel_Kant_(painted_portrait)

kreeft21
-by Peter Kreeft, “The Pillars of Unbelief”, The National Catholic Register, (January – February 1988)

“Few philosophers in history have been so unreadable and dry as Immanuel Kant. Yet few have had a more devastating impact on human thought.

Kant’s devoted servant, Lumppe, is said to have faithfully read each thing his master published, but when Kant published his most important work, “The Critique of Pure Reason,” Lumppe began but did not finish it because, he said, if he were to finish it, it would have to be in a mental hospital. Many students since then have echoed his sentiments.

Yet this abstract professor, writing in abstract style about abstract questions, is, I believe, the primary source of the idea that today imperils faith (and thus souls) more than any other; the idea that truth is subjective.

The simple citizens of his native Konigsburg, Germany, where he lived and wrote in the latter half of the 18th century, understood this better than professional scholars, for they nicknamed Kant “The Destroyer” and named their dogs after him.

He was a good-tempered, sweet and pious man, so punctual that his neighbors set their clocks by his daily walk. The basic intention of his philosophy was noble: to restore human dignity amidst a skeptical world worshiping science.

This intent becomes clear through a single anecdote. Kant was attending a lecture by a materialistic astronomer on the topic of man’s place in the universe. The astronomer concluded his lecture with: “So you see that astronomically speaking, man is utterly insignificant.” Kant replied: “Professor, you forgot the most important thing, man is the astronomer.”

Kant, more than any other thinker, gave impetus to the typically modern turn from the objective to the subjective. This may sound fine until we realize that it meant for him the redefinition of truth itself as subjective. And the consequences of this idea have been catastrophic.

If we ever engage in conversation about our faith with unbelievers, we know from experience that the most common obstacle to faith today is not any honest intellectual difficulty, like the problem of evil or the dogma of the trinity, but the assumption that religion cannot possibly concern facts and objective truth at all; that any attempt to convince another person that your faith is true — objectively true, true for everyone — is unthinkable arrogance.

The business of religion, according to this mindset, is practice and not theory; values, not facts; something subjective and private, not objective and public. Dogma is an “extra,” and a bad extra at that, for dogma fosters dogmatism. Religion, in short, equals ethics. And since Christian ethics is very similar to the ethics of most other major religions, it doesn’t matter whether you are a Christian or not; all that matters is whether you are a “good person.” (The people who believe this also usually believe that just about everyone except Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson is a “good person.”)

Kant is largely responsible for this way of thinking. He helped bury the medieval synthesis of faith and reason. He described his philosophy as “clearing away the pretensions of reason to make room for faith” — as if faith and reason were enemies and not allies. In Kant, Luther’s divorce between faith and reason becomes finalized.

Kant thought religion could never be a matter of reason, evidence or argument, or even a matter of knowledge, but a matter of feeling, motive and attitude. This assumption has deeply influenced the minds of most religious educators (e.g., catechism writers and theology departments) today, who have turned their attention away from the plain “bare bones” of faith, the objective facts narrated in Scripture and summarized in the Apostles’ creed. They have divorced the faith from reason and married it to pop psychology, because they have bought into Kant’s philosophy.

“Two things fill me with wonder,” Kant confessed: “the starry sky above and the moral law within.” What a man wonders about fills his heart and directs his thought. Note that Kant wonders about only two things: not God, not Christ, not Creation, Incarnation, Resurrection and Judgment, but “the starry sky above and the moral law within.” “The starry sky above” is the physical universe as known by modern science. Kant relegates everything else to subjectivity. The moral law is not “without” but “within,” not objective but subjective, not a Natural Law of objective rights and wrongs that comes from God but a man-made law by which we decide to bind ourselves. (But if we bind ourselves, are we really bound?) Morality is a matter of subjective intention only. It has no content except the Golden Rule (Kant’s “categorical imperative”).

If the moral law came from God rather than from man, Kant argues, then man would not be free in the sense of being autonomous. This is true, Kant then proceeds to argue that man must be autonomous, therefore the moral law does not come from God but from man. The Church argues from the same premise that the moral law does in fact come from God, therefore man is not autonomous. He is free to choose to obey or disobey the moral law, but he is not free to create the law itself.

Though Kant thought of himself as a Christian, he explicitly denied that we could know that there really exists (1) God, (2) free will, and (3) immorality. He said we must live as if these three ideas were true because if we believe them we will take morality seriously, and if we don’t we will not. It is this justification of belief by purely practical reasons that is a terrible mistake. Kant believes in God not because it is true but because it is helpful. Why not believe in Santa Claus then? If I were God, I would favor an honest atheist over a dishonest theist, and Kant is to my mind a dishonest theist, because there is only one honest reason for believing anything: because it is true.

Those who try to sell the Christian faith in the Kantian sense, as a “value system” rather than as the truth, have been failing for generations. With so many competing “value systems: on the market, why should anyone prefer the Christian variation to simpler ones with less theological baggage, and easier ones with less inconvenient moral demands?

Kant gave up the battle, in effect, by retreating from the battlefield of fact. He believed the great myth of the 18th-century “Enlightenment” (ironic name!): that Newtonian science was here to stay and that Christianity, to survive, had to find a new place in the new mental landscape sketched by the new science. The only place left was subjectivity.

That meant ignoring or interpreting as myth the supernatural and miraculous claims of traditional Christianity. Kant’s strategy was essentially the same as that of Rudolf Bultmann, the father of “demythologizing” and the man who may be responsible for more Catholic college students losing their faith than anyone else. Many theology professors follow his theories of criticism which reduce biblical claims of eyewitness description of miracles to mere myth, “values” and “pious interpretations.”

Bultmann said this about the supposed conflict between faith and science: “The scientific world picture is here to stay and will assert its right against any theology, however imposing, that conflicts with it.” Ironically, that very “scientific world picture” of Newtonian physics Kant and Bultmann accepted as absolute and unchangeable has today been almost universally rejected by scientists themselves!

Kant’s basic question was: How can we know truth? Early in his life he accepted the answer of Rationalism, that we know truth by the intellect, not the senses, and that the intellect possesses its own “innate ideas.” The he read the Empiricist David Hume, who, Kant said, “woke me from my dogmatic slumber.” Like other Empiricists, Hume believed that we could know truth only through the senses and that we had no “innate ideas.” But Hume’s premises led him to the conclusion of Skepticism, the denial that we can ever know the truth at all with any certainty. Kant saw both the “dogmatism” of Rationalism and the skepticism of Empiricism as unacceptable, and sought a third way.

There was such a third theory available, ever since Aristotle. It was the common sense philosophy of Realism. According to Realism, we can know truth through both the intellect and the senses if only they worked properly and in tandem, like two blades of a scissors. Instead of returning to traditional Realism, Kant invented a wholly new theory of knowledge, usually called Idealism. He called it his “Copernican revolution in philosophy.” The simplest term for it is Subjectivism. It amounts to redefining truth itself as subjective, not objective.

All previous philosophers had assumed that truth was objective. That’s simply what we common-sensically mean by “truth”: knowing what really is, conforming the mind to objective reality. Some philosophers (the Rationalists) thought we could attain this goal through reason alone. The early Empiricists (like Locke) thought we could attain it through sensation. The later skeptical Empiricist Hume thought we could not attain it at all with any certainty. Kant denied the assumption common to all three competing philosophies, namely that we should attain it, that truth means conformity to objective reality. Kant’s “Copernican revolution” redefines truth itself as reality conforming to ideas. “Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects…more progress may be made if we assume the contrary hypothesis that the objects of thought must conform to our knowledge.”

Kant claimed that all our knowledge is subjective. Well, is that knowledge subjective? If it is, then the knowledge of that fact is also subjective, et cetera, and we are reduced to an infinite hall of mirrors. Kant’s philosophy is a perfect philosophy for hell. Perhaps the damned collectively believe they aren’t really in hell, it’s all just in their mind. And perhaps it is; perhaps that’s what hell is.”

Psalm 40

Love, and as my mother always encouraged, wise woman that she was, “Matthew, (Mashew, it came out as when she was feeling particularly affectionate towards me) keep a simple faith.”  Wise woman, wise, and loving.

Mashew 🙂

Made for happiness…3 kinds

made4happiness

In Catholic theology, man was made for happiness.

stevenjonathanhummelsburg

-by Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg

“One thing all humans have in common is that we all want to be happy. In America, it is enshrined in our Declaration of Independence as an inalienable right to pursue happiness along with the rights to life and liberty. It seems like all our energies go into pursuing happiness in these strange times. Everyone today seems to do what they do because it will make them happy, hardly anything could be more normal. It has always been this way. Can you imagine someone saying to themselves “I am going to do this because I know it will make me unhappy?” It is unlikely.

The pursuit of happiness is big business in America and it probably always has been. All of technology is geared towards making things that make us happy. All popular entertainment is directed at making us happy. Our schools, the mass media, politicians, psychologists and even our lawyers would like to help make us happy. We ourselves are encouraged nonstop to pursue happiness. What a great irony it is today to notice how unhappy everyone seems to be. The world can be a miserable place, especially considering the efforts we make to be happy. Have you ever wondered why so many people are so unhappy these days? We ought to try to figure out why. First, we must define the term happiness.

What is happiness?

There are at least three different ways to understand happiness. There is modern American happiness we associate with wealth and health. We can call this appetitive happiness because it is grounded in our sense appetites. Winning the lottery is most likely to make us happy. We are content to get the new iPhone, or a new car, or a good job etc. The difficulty with this definition of happiness is that it is really more like contentment and it is temporary. The things that make us happy by this definition fade quickly and we must be off to pursue the next thing that will kick-start our serotonin production. If we take a step back from this kind of happiness we begin to notice that nothing really ever satisfies us for very long and no matter how much we end up getting, it is never enough.

A second kind of happiness we can associate with what the Ancient Greeks called “eudaimonia.” This is a very good kind of happiness associated with the acquisition of virtue. Eudaimonia translates as a good and lasting spiritual state resulting from developing habits of excellence. This kind of happiness is particularly associated with the right use of the intellect and is grounded in the moral and intellectual virtues discovered and elucidated by the greatest minds of ancient philosophy. The primary virtues associated with eudaimonia are the cardinal virtues of prudence, fortitude, justice, and temperance. The Greeks understood that to pursue and achieve excellence was the way to live the good life. Those who are able to achieve excellence in virtue are generally very happy, and the happiness is lasting and fulfilling.

The third kind of happiness is blessedness. Christians call it beatitude. It is associated with the rightly ordered will. While eudaimonia obtains happiness in this life, beatitude aims at eternal happiness. The one who teaches us about this kind of happiness is Jesus Christ, the one true teacher in the Sermon on the Mount found beginning in Matthew 5. Beatitude is achieved when a soul submits his will to the will of God and cooperates with grace to become perfected. A soul inspired by the beatific vision is one who seeks excellence not only in the cardinal virtues mentioned above, but seeks to be perfected by the acquisition and infusion of the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity.

What is the problem today?

We might easily observe today that the world encourages us to pursue worldly happiness. We ourselves may pursue this kind of contentment and wonder why all of us seem never to be content for very long. Even if we are pursuing the wrong kind of happiness, and even if we know it, and even if we can’t seem to stop, there is a much deeper and more difficult problem that lies at the root of our restlessness today. This is in our misunderstanding of the nature of how things work. We are likely to invert the right order of things concerning being and doing.

C.S. Lewis described a principle of first and second things. First things are permanent and lasting, like the virtues and God. Second things are temporary like cars and iPhones. He explained that we ought to put first things first and second things second because if we put second things first and first things second we will lose both first and second things. He goes on to explain that if we put first things first we will get both first and second things. To use an agricultural metaphor, we might see agricultural labor, seeds and roots as permanent things while the fruit that is produced from the tress as the second things. You can see that if we seek the second things of the fruits, as we often do today, that we may get the fruit, but whether we eat it or let it rot, it will not last long. On the other hand, if we focus on agricultural labor to create the proper conditions for the trees, the trees will grow, produce fruit, and continue to produce fruit.

Our problem today is that we put second things first. Perhaps our most fundamental mistake is that we have inverted being and doing. Being is a first thing and doing is a second thing. We believe that what we do will determine who we become, but this is exactly upside down. It is who we are that determines what we will do. So instead of doing things that we think will make us who we want to become, we ought to cultivate the habits of being constituting the moral and intellectual virtues acquired by the saints. When we have become what God intends for us, then we will do good works. If we try the opposite, our attempts at good works cannot be fruitful, we will not become saints. It is when we become like the saints that we can produce good works.

So we might understand by analogy that what the tree is (being) produces (doing) its fruit. If a tree is an orange tree it will not produce an apple, and it had to be an orange tree first before it could even produce oranges, not the other way around. In Matthew 7:16, Christ said “you will know them by their fruits.” What we do comes forth from who we are. We are not what we do, what we do comes from what we are.

Which kind of happiness will you pursue?

When the world talks about happiness, it is not the same kind of happiness God intends for us. The world’s notions of happiness are about the acquisition of second things. The ancient Greeks and Jesus speak about the habits of being constituted by first things. Of course, the best kind of happiness is beatitude. It requires eudaimonia, the right use of the intellect, to serve in the acquisition of the truth in order to see rightly what is good and what is evil. It also requires that our contentment with second things be subordinated to the right use of reason that supports the rightly ordered will.

The grand irony in all this pursuit of happiness business is that those who seek primarily material happiness may end up getting what they want temporarily, but they always end in loss and despair. Those who seek beatitude also get what they seek, and it is a difficult endeavor, often beginning in loss and misery, but ending in glory. Job lost all the goods of second things and suffered greatly in the process, but because he maintained excellence in the virtues by his habits of being, he ended not only happy with his relationship with God, but contented by restoring the second things he had lost. It is a difficult thing to pursue virtue. It is not terribly difficult to pursue money. As we live out our inalienable right to pursue happiness, let us be wise in which kind of happiness we choose to pursue.”

Love & beatitude,
Matthew