February 2018 Pulse
I think it is true to say that every single human being – irrespective of his or her cultural background or worldview – is in pursuit of the good life. But when we probe what exactly is meant by ‘the good life’, we will get radically different answers.
For people who have been nurtured by a culture that has come in the grips of secularism and materialism, the good life is often defined in terms of affluence and prosperity. Put differently, the good life is viewed in terms of enjoying and benefitting from the best goods that modern society can offer.
Eschewing religion, modern secularists and humanists further insist that the good life is not the gift of a benevolent deity, but something which human beings have the power to achieve.
Commenting on the 1933 Humanist Manifesto, B. Ledewitz writes in his book Hallowed Secularism: ‘Traditional religion is seen as no longer adequate for that task but that is because the manifesto sees man as himself responsible for the achievement of the good life, which he has the power to accomplish’.
Ancient philosophers like Aristotle have perceptively pointed out that although people generally spend much time and energy pursuing wealth, success and power, these are ultimately not really the things that they want for themselves.
They strive to acquire these things only because they will give them something that they really want. And this ‘something’, this ultimate good, according to these ancient thinkers is happiness.
The happiness (Greek: eudemonia) that Aristotle – and before him Plato and Socrates – speaks of is not the fleeting and momentary feeling of pleasure that we moderns often associate with the word. Rather, it is a state of being that is at once rich and long lasting.
For Aristotle, such happiness can only be achieved by strenuous and even courageous effort. For some, it will take an entire lifetime. But as Aristotle was well aware, for many it is a goal that will remain distant, for some people are simply not suited to experience happiness in the full sense.
Although the great Christian writer, Augustine, who lived many centuries after Aristotle appreciated the philosopher’s understanding of the good life, his approach differed significantly. This is because Augustine’s vision of the good life was shaped by what the Bible and the Christian tradition have to say about God and our relationship with him.
In fact Augustine goes so far as to argue that no one is able to achieve the good life simply by striving after the goals set by pagan philosophers such as Aristotle. This not only shows the fundamental differences between Augustine’s understanding and approach from that of Aristotle. It also highlights the fact that for the theologian, Aristotle’s approach is ultimately inadequate because it fails to put into the equation an indispensable factor.
That factor is God. For Augustine, the good life is not focused on our aspirations and dreams. Rather it has to do with God and his purpose for our lives. Put differently, while Aristotle’s approach to the good life may be described as anthropocentric, Augustine’s approach is uncompromisingly theocentric.
For Aristotle, the good life is attained bit by bit, piece by piece as we negotiate not just our changing circumstances but also our desires and aspirations. For Augustine, however, the good life has to do foremost with our relationship with God. The good life is only possible and can only be sustained as long as rational creatures continue in this vital relationship.
This means that all our other loves must be understood in light of our prior and complete love for God. This means that our greater love for God must define and determine all our other loves. Our relationships must be disciplined and ordered by our relationship with God.
Augustine warns that even good and noble things can distract us from loving God. Furthermore, for Christians even the virtues that the ancient philosophers (before Augustine) valorise must not be understood in abstraction from our love for God.
‘Temperance is love preserving itself whole and entire for God. Fortitude (courage) is love readily enduring all things for God. Justice is love that serves only God and, for this reason, correctly governs other things that ate subject to a human being’, writes Augustine.
This brings us to the radicalness of the Christian understanding of what it means to live the good life. Because Christian happiness is not based on our circumstances and achievements but on faith in God, it is not easily affected by the storms of life.
The Christian can ‘rejoice in the Lord, always’ (Philiphians 4:4). He or she can ‘give thanks in all circumstances’ (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
The radicalness of the Christian understanding is again presented in the provocative and counterintuitive statements of Jesus in the famous Beatitudes. Here, Jesus turns our understanding of happiness on its head when he declares that the meek, the merciful, the persecuted will be blessed or happy (Greek: makarios).
The good life, the life of blessedness and happiness, has to do not with the goods and comforts we can enjoy. Rather it has to do with the extent to which we, like Jesus, are willing to do the will of God our Father.
Such obedience to God often translates into serving our neighbours, especially those in need. Thus, the Christian understanding of what it means to live the good life is never inward looking and self-serving. Rather a good life is lived with due consideration to the well being of others around us.
This is articulated simply and movingly in a second century document, the Epistle to Diognetus:
But happiness is not to be found in dominating one’s fellows, or in wanting to have more than his weaker brethren, or in possessing riches and riding rough-shod over his inferiors. No one can become an imitator of God like that, for such things are wholly alien to his greatness. But if a man will shoulder another’s burden; if he is ready to supply another’s need from his own abundance; if, by sharing the blessings he has received from God with those who are in want, he himself becomes a good to those who receive his bounty – such a man is indeed an imitator of God.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.