The Pursuit of Happiness: C. S. Lewis’s Eudaimonistic Understanding of Ethics

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C. S. Lewis begins his sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” with these justly-famous words:

If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness.  But if you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old, he would have replied, Love.  You see what has happened?  A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance.  The negative idea of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point.  I do not thik this is the Christian virtue of Love.  The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself.  We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.  If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith.  Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.  We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea.  We are far too easily pleased.[1]

Although Lewis’s subject in this sermon concerns Christian discipleship more generally, he begins with a point about ethics.  With characteristic awareness, Lewis knows that the legitimacy of being motivated by the promise of Heaven’s rewards will at first appear to be morally out of bounds for the Christian.  The view in most “modern minds” of Christian ethics, and of Christian discipleship more generally, is that doing the right thing is most essentially a matter of self-denial, sacrifice, and “disinterested” fulfillment of obligation.  Any positive relation that morality has to our own happiness or well-being-any essential connection between “doing good” and “my good”-is ruled out.  Put differently, the “pursuit of happiness,” for us, is not a specifically moral pursuit.  At best it is nonmoral, a matter of prudential self-interest:  something in which we should perhaps be legally free to engage, in view of the Declaration of Independence, but only as long as our pursuit stays within the bounds of moral obligation.  All too often, the pursuit of happiness represents to us something actually immoral:  “because I want to be happy” is probably the most common reason we hear-or give-for justifying morally wrong behavior.  This way of thinking about ethics, especially Christian ethics, has attained an almost self-evident status among Christians and critics of Christianity (e.g. Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand) alike.

But Lewis disagrees, as does the weight of ancient and medieval thought, both pagan and Christian, up until the late Middle Ages.  Classical thinkers viewed happiness as intrinsically connected to ethics; indeed, they considered happiness to be the starting point of all moral thought.  Moral action, in their view, is grounded rationally and normatively in the pursuit of happiness.  These thinkers were, in other words, “ethical eudaimonists”:  they understood moral action to be grounded in the pursuit of eudaimonia (Greek: well-being or flourishing – traditionally translated as “happiness”).

C. S. Lewis, like the classical tradition in which he was trained, is a eudaimonist.  To demonstrate this, and to show how he answers Christian-inspired objections to this view, are tasks I take up elsewhere.[2] In the present paper I merely aim to give a brief introduction to eudaimonism and its pedigree, and to point in the direction of its virtues.  As indicated, eudaimonism comes from the Greek word, ‘eudaimonia‘, which is typically translated as “happiness.”  These days, however, our English word “happiness” usually refers to a feeling or subjective state of pleasure, satisfaction, contentment, or enjoyment-a largely subjective, superficial, and luck-dependent matter.  But classical thinkers seldom, if ever, conceived of eudaimonia in that way.  Instead, they identified it with the summum bonum, the supreme or highest good, the objectively good life for humans.

To understand this adequately, it is important to see that the central questions in classical ethics were teleological-that is, about aims or goals (telos is the Greek word for “end” or “aim”).  Classical thinkers such as Aristotle thought of all distinctively human or rational action as end-directed.  An intentional action, that which comes within the purview of moral evaluation, is an action that is done for a reason, performed for the sake of an end, for the sake of realizing some good-i.e. something the agent takes to be good or worth seeking.  The end for which an action is performed may be sought or desired for its own sake, or for the sake of yet another end, or both for its own sake and for the sake of a further end.  Ultimately, however, an individual’s actions are to be rationally and motivationally grounded in a final or ultimate end that she seeks solely for its own sake.  Such an end will represent her integrative vision of the good life, what she takes to be the highest good worth living for, that for the sake of which she seeks everything that she seeks.

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