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

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Augustine obviously fits comfortably within the eudaimonistic picture we have seen.  In a letter, he further writes:

The man who asks how he can enjoy the happy life is indeed asking just this: “Where is the highest good?” […] the good which is called the supreme good is that good to which all others are referred.  Every man is happy in the enjoyment of that for the sake of which he wants to have everything else.  This is because it is loved for its own sake and not on account of something else.  We call it the supreme good, because at this point we can find nothing toward which it can advance or to which it can be referred.  In it is the resting place of desire.[9]

Augustine goes beyond the pagan thinkers, however, in arguing that happiness is ultimately found only in the enjoyment of God himself, in the beatific or blessed vision of God.[10]

[God] himself is the fountain of our happiness; he himself is the end of all of our longing.  In choosing him, or rather, since we had lost him through neglect, in re-choosing him […] we strive toward him by love, so that by attaining him we might rest, happy because we are perfected by him who is our end.  Thus, our good, the end which is extensively disputed among the philosophers, is nothing other than to cling to him.[11]

Notice what Augustine does not do:  criticize the pursuit of happiness.  In fact he goes on in this context to ground the biblical precepts of love in that pursuit.

We are commanded to love this good with our whole heart, our whole soul, and our whole strength.  We must be led to this good by those who love us, and we must lead those whom we love to it.  In so doing, those two precepts on which the whole law and the whole prophets depend are fulfilled: “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and with your whole soul and with your whole mind,” and “You shall love your neighbor even as you love yourself” (Mt 22.37-9; Dt 6.5; Lv 19.18).  So that man might know how to love himself, an end was established for man [i.e. the first great commandment was promulgated to man], an end to which he directs everything that he does in order to be happy, for he who loves himself wants nothing other than to be happy.  This end is to cling to God.  Therefore, when one who knows how to love himself is commanded to love his neighbor as himself, what else is commanded except, as much as he can, to show his neighbor that it is good to love God?  This is worship of God.  This is true religion.  This is correct piety.  This is the service owed only to God.[12]

The self-referring or self-regarding context in which Augustine freely locates loving and worshiping God is striking to postmodern readers, but it would not have been so to Augustine’s contemporaries.  For Augustine, the proper love of oneself in the pursuit of happiness provides the motivational framework within which the love of God and neighbor are found and which they fulfill.  It is true that in the same work from which this passage comes, the City of God, Augustine also identifies a kind of self-love that stands in opposition to the love of God.[13] But unless we assume that Augustine was deeply confused, or that his account of these matters is simply incoherent at a very fundamental level, we must assume that he, at least, did not see a problem in holding that there are two kinds of love of self:  the proper love of self that is expressed in one’s seeking to flourish, that ultimately draws one to God, and the improper self-love that turns away from God.

And, again, Augustine is not alone here.  Aquinas would later articulate similar views, drawing from both Aristotle and Augustine.  He begins his massive account of ethics in the Summa Theologiae (ST) with a teleological analysis of human action.  Such action, in his view, is grounded in the ultimate end of happiness (felicitas, beatitudo).[14] Moreover, like Augustine, Aquinas argues that the logic of happiness ultimately drives us towards its complete satisfaction in the vision of God.  (It is also worth noting that this is not just a “Catholic” position.  Reformed theologians William Ames and Jonathan Edwards held similar views.[15])

C. S. Lewis’s own eudaimonistic vision, then, has an impressive pedigree.  There are, in my view, a number of advantages to understanding ethics and discipleship in this way.  I have opportunity here only to point in this general direction, and to highlight one specific aspect.  The general point is this:  a eudaimonistic approach provides a positive, integrating vision for Christian life and worship, and for understanding how ethics fits into that.  This is exemplified in a rich way in “The Weight of Glory,” in Lewis’s skillful blending of insights into ethics, Christian discipleship, beauty, worship, heaven, and evidence for the existence of God, into a compelling vision of the human desire for God.  A eudaimonistic perspective does not see ethics as a strictly separable domain of issues or rules, only extrinsically related to the overall aim of one’s life.  Nor, as Lewis points out, does it understand the ethical life as primarily negative or restrictive.  Rather, a Christian eudaimonistic approach sees all of one’s life, including the ethical life, as the positive, passionate pursuit of the Good worth ultimately seeking-that which unifies and integrates all of life and ultimately satisfies one’s deepest desires.

3 comments for “The Pursuit of Happiness: C. S. Lewis’s Eudaimonistic Understanding of Ethics

Comments are closed.