I’ve been thinking a lot recently about “the good life” and, in particular, what it might mean to try to lead such a life in the face of the loss of many of the things that make it enjoyable. For those of you familiar with the “virtue tradition”, I have been reading Alistair MacIntyre’s After Virtue and through him the writings of Aristotle and Aquinas (the originals are readily accessible online, have a read).
According to this tradition the end or the goal of human life is happiness. Given the pressures of the last year, this seems like a goal that is completely out of my reach. But by “happiness”, what is intended is not fleeting pleasure. As Aristotle observes,
to be happy takes a complete lifetime; for one swallow does not make spring, nor does one fine day; and similarly one day or a brief period of happiness does not make a man supremely blessed5 and happy.
What Aristotle is looking for is that deeper and more permanent pleasure that comes over a lifetime of living well.
What is it, then, to live well? According to Aristotle and Aquinas, it is to live virtuously. To be virtuous is to live according to our purpose, and so to be happy. Actually, this is too simplistic a summary. It is to live in contemplation of truth, ultimately divine truth. Such contemplation leads to thinking about goodness and virtue.
So, what this suggests is that I can be happy – to know deep happiness – even though the circumstances of life might be utterly depressing (I’m stuck in bed again with the pressure mark on my bum, the second in a month). The challenge, though, is to live virtuously during these times, and I think that is easier said than done. You might think I seem like I am being virtuous (courageous, patient etc) but that is because you do not have to live with me! Fortunately, Aristotle allows the story of my life – and not this brief period in time – to define my happiness.
And yet Aristotle requires that I live virtuously, especially in tough times, since these are when patience and courage and self mastery and hardiness (to name a few of the ancient virtues) are most needed. Yet they are also the times when vice seems more likely, impatience, cowardice, Irascibility et cetera. And so we need help from God and from our friends. That is why in the scriptures virtue is seen as a fruit of the spirit:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
Of course, this may all be wishful thinking. Perhaps the good life has nothing to do with virtue and everything to do with luck; with whether or not you are lucky enough to get rich and stay healthy. Maybe the best of lives would be to have it all, prosperity and virtue. But they don’t often seem to go hand in hand, and since I cannot have the former I guess I can at least try for the latter. For that, I think, I shall need plenty of prayer!