For the past two years I have been writing a book on Thomas Aquinas’s theory of happiness and ultimate purpose. One of the topics he considers is whether we can attain happiness just through our own natural powers. Wondering how others might answer, while writing the chapter about it I did a quick web search using the question, “What can we do to be happy?”
The first time I ran the search, the query yielded 627 million hits. Ironically, the first one after the advertisements was a suicide hotline. After that bleak note, the results became buoyantly optimistic: “10 Simple Things You Can Do Today That Will Make You Happy,” “45 Things You Can Do to Get Happy No Matter Where You Are,” and the cockiest, “10 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Incredibly Happy.”
The happiness gurus who write these items almost never suggest becoming a virtuous person. From a Thomistic point of view, this is worse than an oversight, since what might be called the happiness of this life lies chiefly in the exercise of the virtues. How else can we even enjoy the other good things? For example, how else can we properly practice friendship, delight in our families, and contemplate the objects of knowledge?
A good deal of the advice the gurus do give is either wrong (some of them attribute magical powers to money) or fatuous (my favorite was “Happiness is maximized at 13.9° C”). Some of their advice is not really about the attainment of happiness, but about the banishing of sorrow – a topic St. Thomas treats separately, making practical suggestions like enjoying innocent pleasures (go read a novel of P.G. Wodehouse), sleep, baths, weeping, the sympathy of friends, and fixing the gaze of one’s mind upon Divine truth.
Not all of the “simple things” the gurus suggest are bad ideas. And St. Thomas certainly agrees that to attain what passes for happiness in this life, human powers -- plus a certain amount of good fortune -- suffice.
Of course one might not have good fortune. Besides, even if one does, what is called happiness in this life inevitably leaves us asking “Is this all there is?”
His answer is that the happiness of this life is not all there is. But for supreme and perfect happiness – not just more of the same old happiness, but a higher kind of happiness -- we need Divine help.
Curious how conversion works.
One may think the only difference is that one’s beliefs have changed. Or that one’s moral standards have changed.
It is more like rising from the dead.
Perhaps without having realized that you were dead.
Imagine having a family photograph and noticing one day that someone you hadn’t thought present in the photograph had been there all along.
It was like that with the memory of God.
Imagine waking up and discovering someone in the house whom you hadn’t remembered that you lived with.
It was like that with His presence.
Imagine becoming aware that your motives for various actions had not been at all like what you had taken them to be.
It was like that with the knowledge of self.
Imagine realizing that you knew all sorts of things that you had told yourself you didn’t know and even couldn’t know.
It was like that with knowledge of a host of other things.
Imagine having sat in a dark place for years, not knowing that the shutters were nailed closed. Now they are being flung back. Beams of light are flowing in as solid as columns of ivory. You had forgotten what light looked like.
It was like that.
Aspiration is better than self-esteem. Many of us were serenaded in childhood with lyrics like this:
Would you like to swing on a star
Carry moonbeams home in a jar
And be better off than you are
Or would you rather be ...
Each stanza presented something one might rather be – a mule, a pig, a fish, or a monkey. But why be one of those, when by learning and honesty, you could be swinging on stars? The images of swinging on a star and carrying moonbeams in jars cast a spell on my imagination. The catchiness of the tune didn’t hurt either; from time to time I still find myself humming it.
Though it’s more sonorous, the fine motto inscribed over the West Entrance of Norlin Library at the University of Colorado, Boulder, conveys much the same encouraging spirit: "Who Knows Only His Own Generation Remains Always a Child." Should we retain the innocence of childhood? Yes! But its ignorance? No!
Not everyone considers the motto so fine. At a website for millennials, one University of Colorado student writes that “It promotes knowledge beyond one's self and one's immediate surroundings, and that's totally cool.” But it “feels like I'm constantly being scolded and berated by my library, which keeps calling me a child.” The slogan “turns the library from a sanctuary of study into a bully ... who keeps heckling me across the Quad. Come on, library, don't be like that. This is what I see when I look at my library.”
Here is the good news: The aspiration expressed by the Norlin Library motto is not dead. When I read it to my own undergraduates, they thought it was great. When I asked them what they thought of the young man’s reaction, they pleaded “Don’t judge millennials by him.”
One of them expressed the very thought with which I had planned to end this post: It is hard to see why anyone would resent a gentle exhortation to rise beyond childhood, unless he had no intention of doing so.
I am an attorney considering running for office. This consideration raises new questions for me and I am curious about your thoughts. How would you go about choosing a political party?
Interesting question. It can be difficult to decide whether a party is worthy of endorsement. I would begin by ruling out any party which is unconditionally unworthy of it. No party which is programmatically committed to deeds which are intrinsically evil can be supported.
Case in point: To its credit, the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed H.R. 4712, which seeks to add ensure compliance with previous legislation which forbade killing infants already born. This it does by requiring abortionists to ensure that any infant who is born alive despite their efforts must be immediately transported to a hospital for admission, and in the meantime be given them the same standard of care that any other infant born alive would receive. This bill should have passed unanimously.
Yet of the 193 Democrats in the House, 187 voted against it. The number would have been 188, but one of those who voted for it thought he was voting against it.
Please understand me. I would not use the Democratic Party’s own tactics against it. I would not blindly oppose even reasonable suggestions it might make about matters of common concern. I would not call for the impeachment of its duly elected officeholders if they had committed no impeachable offenses. I would not seek to weaponize the police, justice, and intelligence services against it. In short, I would hope for its genuine reform, and in the meantime I would not seek to undermine the processes of a constitutional republic in order to oppose it. But until it abandoned its various fiendish commitments, I could never vote for one of its candidates.
The other major party is dreadfully disappointing, often hypocritical, and may be wrong in many of its goals and views. I am no cheerleader for it. But a party which seeks to keep the road clear for infanticide is not even worthy of consideration. It long ago lost any shred of a claim to the respect of decent people.
Motives aren’t reasons. Someone might find it congenial to believe that sexual morality is all relative because he is sleeping with his girlfriend. Or that the morality of abortion is all relative because she’s pregnant and he doesn’t want her to be. Or that the morality of killing is all relative because he talked her into having one. But these are not reasons for thinking relativism true. They are only motives, or temptations. A reason is grounds for the reasonable judgment that something is true. A motive is merely a feeling that makes someone want to believe it is true.
Are there any reasons for thinking relativism is true? Yes, there are some. But they don’t hold water.
For example, one common reason is the Argument from Variation: Some norms really do vary according to circumstances. In the United States, it is wrong to drive on the left; in England, it is wrong to drive on the right. But notice: The only way there can even be a valid difference in norms at the level of application is that the same universal rule is being applied in both cases. It is a universal moral principle that we ought to take care for the safety of others. So this doesn’t justify relativism.
A second common reason some people embrace relativism might be called the Argument from Difficulty: Some moral questions are rather hard to answer. For example, is all warfare murder? Some respond to the difficulty of the question by saying that murder is in the eye of the beholder. But would you say that the species of my pet is in the eye of the beholder, so that for me it’s a cat, but for you it’s a goldfish? Of course not. The right thing to do about difficult questions is not to be lazy and dodge them, but to carry out the difficult work of answering them.
Next is the Argument from Disagreement. People give different answers to some moral questions. Consider warfare again. Some say all war is wrong. Others say only unjust war is wrong. Still others say that in war, everything is permissible. But this is a question of fact. When we are speaking of physical facts, such as whether the earth revolves around the sun or the sun revolves around the earth, we unhesitatingly say that our task is to investigate and find out which opinion about the fact is correct. We ought to take the same view of moral facts.
Then there is the Argument from Emotion. A moment ago I spoke of moral facts, but according to this argument, there are no moral facts, and propositions that seem to assert moral facts are really only expressing the emotions of the speaker. For example, if I say it is wrong to deliberately run over children with automobiles, I seem to be saying something about the moral status of running over children with automobiles, but on the critic’s view, I am really only saying something about me: That hearing of such an act makes me angry, disgusted, or indignant. But wait a moment. If the act does make me angry, disgusted, or indignant – and it does -- then why does it? The reason it makes me feel that way is that I judge it to be wrong, and it would still be wrong even if it didn’t make me feel angry, disgusted, or indignant. Besides, the Argument from Emotion doesn’t actually give anyone a reason to disbelieve in moral facts. It merely assumes that there are no moral facts, and then tries to explain moral statements on the basis of this assumption. You might find the Argument from Emotion attractive if you are already a relativist, but it doesn’t give you a reasonable warrant for being one.
Still another reason for relativism might be called the Argument from Tautology. A certain U.S. judge has claimed that although there may be a few universal moral principles, they don’t really say anything, because they are tautologies, or circular statements. For instance, he claimed that to say “Thou shalt not murder” is nothing more than to say “Never commit the kinds of killing that you ought not commit” – which tells us nothing. But this Argument from Tautology is even lazier than the previous argument. For the classical definition of murder doesn’t just tell us “Don’t do what is not to be done.” Rather it tells us what, specifically, is not to be done. We must not deliberately take innocent human life, and an act which fits this definition must never be done. No circularity there.
Next comes what I call the Argument from Progress. A former chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, who later became a vice president of the United States, complained about someone who had been nominated for the Supreme Court by saying that the nominee seemed to believe in “a static set of unchanging [moral] principles,” rather than an “evolving body of ideals.” The senator’s statement was relativistic, because it denied that there are any universal moral principles, unchanging over place and over time. But it was also paradoxical, because at the same time it insisted that there are universal moral principles, unchanging over place in time. For what did the senator mean by suggesting that moral ideals “evolve” or develop? I don’t think he meant that they undergo meaningless and arbitrary change. After all, he approved of this development; in other words, he passed moral judgment upon it. So what he really meant was that our moral ideals are getting better. But to suggest that they are changing for the better presupposes a fixed standard of moral comparison, a yardstick of “better” which doesn’t change. So even in order to say that our moral ideals have no fixed content, he needed a moral standard which does have fixed content. So this argument for relativism shoots itself down.
Last but not least, we might consider the Argument from False Humility. This reason for relativism suggests that to make a moral judgment is to commit the vice of pride. But there is a problem here. If no one may judge others, then how is it that we may deliver an unfavorable judgment upon those who do judge others? Obviously, we can’t. So this argument is also self-defeating.
The Argument from False Humility is the one most likely to snag Christians. For didn’t Christ command, “Judge not, that you may not be judged”? Yes, but don’t forget what He said next: “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get .... You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.” Plainly, this statement expresses a moral judgment. It does not condemn all moral judgment, but as condemns proud and hypocritical moral judgment.
Lest there be any doubt, we might remember another place in the Gospels, where He said, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment." At the same time that He forbids one kind of judgment (“do not judge by appearances”), He commands another kind (“judge with right judgment”). Humility really is a virtue, but true humility does not mean, cannot mean, suspending all moral judgment.
A certain ethicist, let us call him G, is among other things a proponent of abortion, but has greater ambitions too. He argues that traditional moral principles must be replaced with a manmade morality which is “less likely to be eroded.” The reason he thinks manmade morality more durable is that he cannot take seriously the idea of morality coming from God. Speaking of the atrocities committed against the Bulgarians in 1876, he says a wise God would not have ordained a world “in which people are hanged after spending their last night nailed by the ear to a fence, or in which babies are cut out of their mothers’ wombs with daggers.” A wise God would have made man good, or at least made him grow better over time.
There is a problem with this line of reasoning. It is hard to see why one should object to a world in which babies are cut out of their mothers’ wombs with daggers, but not one in which mothers invite daggers into their wombs that their babies may be cut out. And that is only the beginning of G’s incoherencies. The whole meaning of morality is a rule that we ought to obey whether we like it or not. If so, then the idea of creating a morality we like better fails to grasp what morality is.
Moreover, it would seem that until we had created our new morality, we would have no standard by which to criticize God. Since we have not yet created one, the standard by which we judge Him must be the very standard that He gave us. If it is good enough to judge Him by, then why do we need a new one?
Now any thinker can commit an error in logic. Multiple, matted incoherencies, like G’s, seem to call for a different explanation. When, despite considerable intelligence, a thinker cannot think straight, it becomes very likely that he cannot face his thoughts. The closer to the starting point his swerve, the more likely this explanation becomes. Somewhere in his mind lies a mystery of knowledge that he must hide from himself at all costs. If he presupposes the old morality in the very act of denying it, the lesson is not that the old morality should be denied, but that he is in denial. If he makes humanity God and yet cries out against God’s inhumanity, it is clear who has really been accused.
Perhaps the older thinkers were correct after all. Perhaps the foundational moral principles really are not only right for all, but somehow known to all.
My son lost his faith in college, if he ever had a faith to lose. He says he doesn't believe in sin, which is quite ironic coming from a man very much against the injustices in the world as he sees them, and who thinks God (if there is a God, which there isn’t according to him) must be very evil. When I try to describe to him my own salvation experience and the personal God that I know, he says it is the height of arrogance for anyone to believe God would know and care for him personally. Nothing means as much to me as does the salvation of my own son, so I am reaching out for some wisdom.
There are so many young men like your son, and it breaks my heart. Is there anything you can do? Yes, you can love and pray for him, as I am sure you are doing. Is there anything you can say? Yes, but don’t force the opening. Let it present itself. God will help you.
Unfortunately, your son would probably dismiss your conversion experience and your relationship with Christ. The argument from experience is one of the most persuasive for those who have had it; that is why we use it. But it is one of the least persuasive for those who have not had it, because people can imagine all sorts of things. The novelist Philip K. Dick seems to have thought he was receiving messages of great importance from beings in orbit around the star Sirius.
Don’t be discouraged by this, because there are other things you might say. When the opportunity arises, I suggest that rather than present your son with arguments for your faith, as I gather that you have been doing, you ask a few gently pointed questions about his own arguments against faith. Just start him thinking.
For example, as to your son’s notion that it is arrogant to believe God could know and love us personally: Doesn’t it seem much more arrogant to believe that He couldn’t? Does your son think the problem is that God’s infinite mind is not big enough to pay attention to everyone at once? Or that His mind is big enough, but His heart is too small? You might put those questions to him.
Considering your son’s complaints about injustice, he might say that God’s heart is too small. But as you point out, your son also denies the reality of sin, and he can’t have it both ways. Either refusing to love is really wrong, or it isn’t. So which does your son believe? You might try putting that question to him too.
Suppose he answers that refusing to love isn’t really wrong – that the standard of good and evil is all in our heads. Then he has no business using the injustice of things as a reason not to believe in God, does he? Because according to him, there is no injustice of things.
But suppose he answers that refusing to love is really wrong -- the standard of good and evil is real and objective, and God doesn’t measure up. In that case, he believes in some highest thing after all, some God above God. So what is this God above God that he believes in? How does he know about Him? Try asking him that.
Don’t let him get away with saying something like “The source of the standard is us. It’s a human invention.” For if we are the source, then it is just in our heads, and he’s back to square one.
And don’t let him get away with saying something like “The source of the standard is evolution. We just came out this way.” For if we are the result of a meaningless and purposeless process that did not have us in mind, then the standard is utterly arbitrary. That takes him back to square one as well.
But if the standard isn’t just in our heads, then we’ve learned of it from somewhere -- so where did we learn it from? It would be interesting to hear his reply.
Remember, he knows what you think – or he thinks he does. So let him do the answering for a change.
As I suggested, ask your questions gently. They won’t clinch the case for Christianity, but they may stir your son to begin doubting a few of his doubts – some of the things that he should have been doubting, but hasn’t been.
For now, that’s enough. Keep praying, and see what happens next.