Monday, September 29, 2008

I Need a Love to Make Me Happy

As I'm sure many others did, I went through college with the simplistic notion that Aristotle was the opposite of Plato. That idea is true to some extent, of course, but I'm fifty pages into On Rhetoric (my first Aristotle), and it's already obvious to me that Aristotle doesn't so much push against Plato as build off of him. He takes Plato's definition of rhetoric, for example--an art that is not an art, since it doesn't impart specific knowledge--but turns it around on itself and treats it as a good thing.

Likewise, he agrees with Plato on the meaning of life. Socrates takes it as a given that all men desire first and foremost to be happy (Euthydemus 278E), and if he posits virtue as the most important factor to happiness, he never doubts that happiness is the ultimate goal. Aristotle both expands and refines this concept:
Both to an individual privately and to all people generally there is one goal at which they aim in what they choose to do and in what they avoid. Summarily stated, this is happiness and its parts . . . Let happiness be defined as success combined with virtue, or as self-sufficiency in life, or as the pleasantest life accompanied with security, or as abundance of possessions and bodies, with the ability to defend and use these things. (On Rhetoric 1360B)
George A. Kennedy, who translated my copy of the book, suggests that Aristotle privileges the first definition of happiness there (“success combined with virtue”), and I've got no reason to doubt him. But I am more interested in the “parts” of happiness:
good birth, numerous friendships, worthy friendships, wealth, good children, numerous children, a good old age, as well as the virtues of the body (such as health, beauty, strength, physical stature, athletic prowess), reputation, honor, good luck, virtue. (1360B)
What strikes me about this catalogue of needs is how many of them are uncontrollable. Of these, only virtue is under the control of the individual (although friendships, wealth, health, and reputation have some element of controllability).

Thomas Aquinas famously combines Aristotle and the Bible to come up with his theology, and I have to wonder what he does with this portion of On Rhetoric. That's because I don't see any way to combine Aristotle's viewpoint with St. James'. Now, I've elsewhere made my peace with the Greek concept of happiness as the chief end of man, but it's the uncontrollability of happiness that sticks in my craw. James seems to claim willful, that is, controllable, happiness, opening his epistle with his famous exhortation to “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance” (1:2). The image is of a person forcing himself to be happy (or joyful--I never bought my youth group's distinction between happiness and joy).

The real reason for the discrepancy between Christian and Aristotelian thought on this matter comes down to one little compound word: “self-sufficiency.” If man is autonomous--if happiness indeed comes from being enough on his own--then of course the elements of that happiness are going to be beyond man's control. But James' happiness springs from the knowledge that man is not in fact sufficient unto himself. James is able to turn rocks into bread because he knows that his poor circumstances have a relational purpose, that they stem from his dependence upon God.

So Nathan--as the world's only Thomist Protestant (and the only reader of this blog), I'm sure you have the answer to my question. How does Aquinas reconcile these two disparate viewpoints?


Nathan P. Gilmour said...

It's been about a year and several comps books since I encountered this in Thomas's Compendium Theologica (his short textbook that he never finished), but if I remember right, his answer came on two fronts: on one, his doctrine of the fallenness of creation combined with his Boethian mistrust of Fortuna and of the provisional put rather severe limits on the potential for good fortune in a postlapsarian world to be a part of genuine happiness. He points, as I remember, to the comsummation of creation/reign of Christ as the moment when fortune no longer can affect the full happiness of human beings and when happiness adequate to the world becomes possible.

On the other front, he replaces Aristotle's decidedly middle-class preference for respectable company with a good Dominican's love for the poor and for poverty, so there's not as much desire for creature comforts in the first place.

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

I just remembered today as I was planning Thursday's Boethius lesson that the last of the Romans probably served as a convenient middle term. In fact, book three of Consolation of Philosophy (the one I'm teaching Thursday) makes a fairly monastic-sounding argument (minus Christ--Consolation is a strange book) for self-sufficiency in the Aristotelian mode by means of something approximating a vow of poverty.