happinessAlright, for this weeks philosophical story challenge I would like to present something that I’ve been working on for a short lesson that I’m going to be teaching fairly soon. I would like you to consider the list below, choose one of the listed concepts of happiness, and write a 1000 word story either defending or refuting it.

A Brief History of Happiness

The Ancient Conception of Joy: 500 BCE – 400 CE

Hedonism (If it feels good, do it!): this term describes a set of related theories that prize pleasure (normally sensual pleasure) as the highest good. In some cases this describes a belief that immediate gratification is the path to happiness, but often it involves a longer term focus on getting the most physical pleasure possible out of a long life.

Epicureanism (The stimulation of the mind is man’s true pleasure): a form of Hedonism, Epicureanism argued that mental and emotional pleasures were greater than physical pleasures and thus that the key to a good life lay not in the gratification of physical desires (immediate or long-term), but in intellectual and relational stimulation that gratified long-term non-physical desires.

Aristotelianism (Happiness is found in the moral life): differs from Hedonism in an important way. Plato and Aristotle both differentiated ‘happiness’ from ‘pleasure,’ and argued that a moral life led to ultimate happiness (or completion and fulfillment, or satisfaction) rather than the pursuit of physical, mental, or emotional pleasures. Thus, they argued that the key to happiness was virtue or moral goodness.

Stoicism (Happiness is overrated): sought to eliminate passion and desire entirely. The Stoics rejected happiness as an achievable good and instead sought to destroy pain and suffering by abandoning the desires and emotional connections that led to them.

Ancient Christianity (The Joy of the Lord is my Strength): the apostle Paul commends happiness and commands Christians to rejoice always. James tells Christians to rejoice in their trials and tribulations, and Peter claims that Christians may rejoice in anything that brings them closer to Christ. Jesus himself tells Christians that if they abide in him they will find joy, contentment, and peace.

The Medieval Conception of Joy: 401 CE – 1600 CE

Augustinianism (We cannot rest until we rest in Him): a combination of the best of Platonic Aristotelianism with Christian Theology. Augustine argued that all men desired happiness, because true happiness was inherently good. However, he argued that true happiness could be found only in that which was truly good, and only God was truly good. Thus, only a whole-hearted love of and submission to God could make one truly happy.

Thomism (Happiness in knowing God is man’s highest good): a combination of the best of Aristotelianism with Augustinian Theology. Thomas Aquinas argued that happiness is the highest goal of man, and that happiness can only be found in knowing God. Thus, knowing God can be the only ultimate goal of human life that is worth pursuing.

Monasticism (Happiness is found in God’s order): this describes a wide set of beliefs that all share a focus on proper behavior and setting oneself apart for God. The medieval monastics largely believed that spiritual happiness could be found through strict order and discipline, putting the body through physical suffering and isolation in order to seek a higher, spiritual happiness. The monastics often isolated themselves in small communities as well to take their focus off of the world, but this also deprived them of chances to engage in evangelism, the care of the poor and downtrodden, and the community of the Church body.

Mysticism (Happiness is found in unity with God): this describes a wide set of beliefs that were often related to Monasticism. The mystics were, in many ways, the most monastic of the Monastics. They set themselves apart for the sole purpose of pursuing spiritual oneness and community with God. Many became highly sought after teachers and speakers in the Medieval world. They believed that true happiness could only be found by losing oneself in union with the Godhead.

Enlightenment Conceptions of Joy: 1601 CE – 1900 CE

Kantianism (Happiness is an illusion, do your duty instead): Immanuel Kant argued that emotions and passionate desires couldn’t be trusted. Kant effectively rejected the importance of emotional happiness and sought to convince men to instead focus on determining objective moral duties by which their actions could be judged. Thus, for Kant the good was the pursuit of duty.

Hume’s Embrace of Joy (To be happy follow your passions): David Hume, on the other hand, argued that it was impossible for a man to give up on happiness. He argued that only by pursuing the right passions in the right way could happiness be discovered.

Utilitarianism (Create the greatest pleasure for the greatest number): Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill developed modern concepts of happiness that mirror ancient Hedonism and Epicureanism. Bentham focused on measurable physical pleasures, and argued that the best actions were those that produced the greatest amount of measurable pleasure for the greatest number of people. Mill altered his theory to focus instead on mental and emotional pleasures, arguing that they held more value than physical pleasures. Both argued that it was in producing pleasure for the majority that happiness could be found.

Monasticism/Mysticism (Joy is found in Communion with God): Enlightenment era Monasticism and Mysticism haven’t changed significantly except that the Medieval focus on complete unity with God has been replaced with a less extreme focus on spiritual communion with God. True happiness is found in a deep spiritual relationship with God. However, as with their Medieval predecessors, often this pursuit of spiritual relationship led to isolation and precluded certain pursuits required by the gospels such as evangelism, care for the poor and downtrodden, etc.

Puritanism (Joy is found in obeying God): the Puritans emphasized the obedience of God’s commands, sometimes at the expense of emphasizing a relationship with God, as the primary means of achieving happiness.

Modern Conceptions of Joy: 1901 CE – 2015 CE

Egoism (I do what’s best for me): a philosophical product of the individualist movement’s return to hedonistic philosophy. Egoism comes in many varieties. Psychological Egoism argues that we can’t help but do what is best for us, even at the expense of others. Ethical Egoism argues that it is good to be selfish and always do what is in our own objective best interests. However, every form of egoism argues that happiness comes from satisfying our own desires.

Relativism (Every man did what was right in his own eyes): rejects every concept of truth outside of the self. The hallmark of relativism in its many forms is that it concludes that there is no objective truth (at some level), and thus that we must make our own way in the world. While this is fundamentally different from many forms of Egoism at a theoretical level (Egoistic thought tends to emphasize objective goods while Relativistic thought rejects objective goods), at the practical level the two are often indistinguishable.

Consumerism (The one who dies with the most toys wins): while not a philosophy at the theoretical level, consumerism is the worldview of many in the modern world. In many ways this returns to the simple hedonism of ancient Greece and argues that happiness can be had through the immediate gratification of my desires, usually through the purchase of some kind of merchandise.

Self-Actualization (Accept your inner self): is a resurrection and modification of ancient Epicureanism on many levels. In many cases Self-Actualization is mixed with either egoism or relativism, but in every case there is a belief that happiness is achieved by plumbing the depths of one’s psyche to discover, accept, and pursue one’s true desires.

Neo-Aristotelianism (Pursue your natural virtue): is a resurrection of Aristotelianism that has largely adopted a pluralistic outlook. While Aristotelianism sought an objective good with objective virtues that embodied it, Neo-Aristotelianism tends to accept that different cultures will have different and equally valid objective goods that can be pursued. Thus, which goods you pursue depends on your upbringing and culture.

Legalism (Forget happiness, choose obedience!): many Christians, especially in the earlier part of the 20th century, responded to the rise of new forms of hedonism by rejecting happiness entirely. They adopted a largely Kantian stance that desire, pleasure, and happiness were morally dangerous and corrupting. Instead, they emphasized a strict obedience to God’s commands and generally set this against pleasure and happiness.

Antinomianism (Loving the world, they abandoned righteousness): many Christians, especially in the latter part of the 20th century, saw the dangers inherent in rejecting happiness and joy. However, they responded by turning to the world’s definitions and conceptions of happiness and sought to ‘sanctify’ them by adapting the Christian message to present a message of complete moral freedom to pursue whatever made them happy in the moment.

Christianity (My joy overflows in the Lord): many Christians follow a middle path between legalism and antinomianism that hearkens back through great Christian writers such as John Calvin, Thomas Aquinas, and Augustine to scripture itself. They believe that true joy comes not from the world, nor from dutiful obedience, nor from self-denial, but from a complete and total submission to the Lord. As Augustine wrote, “You move us to delight in praising you; for you have formed us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you” (Confessions, Book 1, Chapter 1)


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