Virtue and happiness

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!

10 thoughts on “Virtue and happiness

  1. Hi Shane. When doo doo hit the fan for me I prayed to the Lord to restore my sense of joy, because I had none. And slowly it was restored and it gave me strength to live. So I pray that deep within your inner man the Lord will grant you an awareness of joy and peace. Bless you mate. cb

  2. I love reading your posts. I don’t have any right to respond to such a hard question What is the good life? I don’t think I’ve lived long enough or suffered enough in life to be able to respond but like one of Job’s friends (hopefully with more tact) let me say from Rom 8:18: any amount of human suffering no matter how significant doesn’t compare with the glory that will be revealed in us! .I really believe that a life lived well is a life that never forgets our eschatological hope and glory – Keeping our eyes on the prize that is kept in heaven for us!!!! I believe the greater the suffering the greater the prize.

  3. This is it for me:
    John 17:3 GWN
    This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent.

    The more I know God, the better my life is. Sometimes suffering causes us to grow closer to God. I wish it wasn’t that way, but it is.
    Jeff

  4. Hi Shane,
    My 60 y/o healthy, active Mum has recently been diagnosed with cancer with 5 mths prognosis. She believes that God has healed her and is refusing any treatment or medication. Medically, she is not healed but is standing upon a personal conviction that the Lord spoke to her ‘You are healed’. My Christian parents are taking the position that if they don’t stand on the Word of God which says ‘By His stripes I am healed’ then they are not integrally Bible believing Christians. I am trying to develop a prepared chat with which I can both understand their position but also articulate my concerns about their theological views. I don’t want to create doubt or attack their faith but am genuinely petrified and experiencing a personal challenge as to how to support them as they don’t want to discuss at all – as she is ‘well’. Any ideas…?

    1. Wow Jo, this is a hard one and I really feel for you. To be honest it is stories like this that make me mad at the evils of faith preachers who put people like your mum in this position. But how to respond in a way your mum will understand?
      1. Jesus never commended anyone for faith against medical advice. He healed people who had tried and exhausted all other medical advice,
      2. Is her faith in god or in her ‘word’. Surely god would never ask anyone to gamble with their life on something as uncertain as a felt word. That is not faith, it is madness
      3. Paul advised Timothy to take a natural remedy for his sickness- wine the equivalent then of panadol today
      4. Has she sought the advice of senior pastors, who surely would challenge this ‘ word’
      Why can god not work through doctors
      5. Tell her that what she is doing is unfair to those of you who love her

      Agh, I don’t know what to say, sorry, I may have got your message late at night and my brain is not working. If I think of more will let you know

    2. Other than what Shane said I think it’s pretty obvious that Jesus is talking about spiritual healing in that case. He didn’t suffer and die so we could be healed of cancer. If you could get that across in a way they can understand, that might help, but I’m not really familiar with their type of view on faith and “healing” other than there is a massive and dangerous misunderstanding of Scripture. It seems like their faith is extremely strong, it’s just misguided.
      Jeff

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