September 21, 2013 2 Comments
‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness’, are words which have a huge resonance, not only in the country where they were first uttered, but across the world; they are words any marketeer would die to have coined, because the encapsulate what people want from life. Reverse the meaning, and who would utter the sentiments that they want death, imprisonment and the pursuit of misery. Yet, as the English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, wrote a hundred and fifty years earlier in his ‘Leviathan’, for most people, for most of history, life has been ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short’, and as the historian Gibbon put it, history consists of the record of the ‘crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind’. So the Founding Fathers were not stating a fact, they were stating an aspiration. If ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ were ‘rights’, where had they ever been enshrined before, and where were they practised, and who enforced them? History suggested that Gibbon and Hobbes were right; optimism inspired the Founding Fathers to strike out in a direction which no society before had ever embarked upon. How’s that working out?
The first thing to say is that in the USA, and indeed thanks to the USA, in large parts of the globe, more people are free, live longer and have better lives than their forefathers; Hobbes’ law rules still in many parts of the world, but the richer parts of the globe no longer take that for granted, and they at least seek to alleviate that situation. So, although Gibbon is still right about history – our leaders may live longer and be happier, but they are no wiser – for most ordinary people, perhaps especially for my gender, life is better than it has ever been. Yes, the recession has taken its toll, but few of us would wish to exchange our life style for those of our great-grandparents (OK, the aristocrats out there might disagree, and I weep for you, I really do).
But what about that happiness thing? Edmund Burke commented many years ago that you cannot legislate people into happiness. Modern capitalism has the answer to that one, you encourage people to think they can buy their way to happiness: the better refrigerator, in the better house, with the better car(s) in the better garage(s) with the stylish wife and the cool vacation destination, all of these will, the implicit message goes, make you happy. And yet, in this materially rich society, we are surrounded by spiritual poverty. We free and long-lived people are on happy pills in unprecedented numbers; our society seems to produce cultural products which are as long-lived as this morning’s breakfast, and which are as unedifying as stale bread. If we want a diagnosis, we can turn to a fifth century bishop of Hippo in North Africa:
A joy there is that is not granted to the godless, but to those only who worship you without looking for reward, because you yourself are their joy. This is the happy life and this alone: to rejoice in you, about you and because of you. This is the life of happiness, and it is not to be found anywhere else. Whoever thinks there can be some other is chasing a joy that is not the true one; yet such a person’s will has not turned away from all notion of joy.
As his Confessions show, Augustine’s life as a secular had many of the elements to which we look in pursuit of happiness, but he turned from the inner emptiness to the joy found only in service of God, which is also service to others.
Augustine knew we all wanted happiness, but also that our will and our acquisitions would never bring it. Only God’s sovereign Grace can give us what our hearts desire. Grace, is God’s active changing of our heart’s desires so that we can truly desire him above all else, freely choose him, and as we love him, find in him our true soul’s joy. Like the Romans of Augustine’s day, we have, as a society, lost sight of that as we follow the road to Mammon.