thank goodness

The Saints agree: “everyone having God is happy” (Augustine), “ultimate felicity consists only in the contemplation of God.” (Aquinas)

We know that Augustine once thought himself happy in his Godless, hedonistic youth; and that he famously begged for more time to sow his oats and adjust to the idea of a more sedate life of “contemplative felicity.”

Since this isn’t yet the Atheism course, I propose now (for the sake of argument, at least) to grant the premise: some God-intoxicated persons are made happy, in a good way, by their faith. More power to them, so long as they don’t attempt to disrupt the happy pursuits of the happily faithless. (In fact, I won’t be inclined to challenge the happiness-making potential of religion in the Atheism course either, just the exclusionist approach of those zealots who’d happily leave us humanists “behind.”)

“Happy in a bad way” would involve the self-righteous, proselytizing, soul-consigning, fire-breathing, “exclusive path of salvation” attitude we saw exemplified in front of our Student Center recently. People who are happy because they’re not going to hell, but to hell with you and me– people who are happy, in other words, that they’re not you and me– don’t get my moral support. But those religionists who recognize, with William James, that it’s not God but more life that motivates most of us (religious or not) to pursue happiness, deserve some reciprocal acknowledgement and acceptance from the Godless. [Loyal Rue, reflecting on gratitude in Religion is not about God, makes a similar point.]

The Augustine quote above seems perfectly compatible with pluralism and the possibility of happy non-belief; but that’s misleading. Elsewhere he insists: “No man can be happy who knows thee not.” Aquinas, in his statement, seems clearly unreceptive to the proposal of peaceful coexistence with those whose happiness is not religiously contemplative. But why suppose that we must pronounce Ultimate Felicity For All? Can’t Aquinas just speak for himself? But maybe that’s not how you get canonized.

I’ve never been accustomed to thinking of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and his “Leviathan”  State as a prescription for happiness. But if you found yourself whisked out of a “war of all against all” and into the protective (if smothering) arms of civilized authority,  I suppose you might be expected to feel an initial flush of felicity. “Flourishing,” though, in the self-directed, potential-reaching sense, might then be harder to come by.

Bishop Butler (1692-1752) is on solid ground: “Happiness or satisfaction consists only in the enjoyment of those objects, which are by nature suited to our several particular appetites, passions, and affections.” And benevolent, neighborly love is so suited. We’re not Hobbesian savages by nature. (But… do we need a Bishop to tell us so?)

Seems like an opportune moment in our course, and (with Thanksgiving bearing down on us) in the season to raise the question: can secular, irreligious, even un-spiritual folk, be happy? (I’m on record, and not just on my own record, as saying yes, indeed. Not only am I now officially outed as a happy pragmatist, I’m a spiritual humanist too.)

Can religious and irreligious people each be happy in their own ways, side by side, without feeling mocked, threatened, ridiculed, villified, insulted, or scorned? Can we live and let live? Can’t we all just get along?

Can these guys concede the possibility that some others– not all, but some– might actually have defensible (though possibly not good) “reasons for believing”? And can the rest of us learn to “thank goodness” for our lives and our happiness? [Dennett text] [Ronald Aronson, "Thank Who Very Much"] [Matthew Chapman]

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4 Responses to “thank goodness”

  1. Jim Mc Says:

    I’m thinking there is probably a difference in Augustine’s and yours (and most everybody’s, including my own) operational definition of “happy.” In fact, I don’t think I could spell it out except that I know it when I see, feel, hear, experience it, and, I know I prefer it to being “unhappy”.

  2. osopher Says:

    And let a hundred (billion) happy flowers bloom, I say. Our notions of happiness change over time too, as Augustine discovered. The garden metaphor really captures the pluralist’s intuition here: we all need to bloom where we’re planted, and to stop screaming at the other flora to straighten up and face the sun just the way we do. (I’m just saying… not screaming.)

  3. Will Bolton Says:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/09/books/09philosophy.html?_r=2&em

    thought this was stupid.

  4. osopher Says:

    The article’s not very astute, philosophically. But Heidegger’s complicity with the regime was craven. He doesn’t belong in the first tier of 20th century world philosophers (Richard Rorty once nominated him along with Wittgenstein and Dewey for that distinction.)

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