© Brendan Triffett 2018-2019
All rights reserved.
St Michael the Archangel, defend us.
All rights reserved.
St Michael the Archangel, defend us.
Is it possible for a human person to be truly happy? If so, under what conditions? One response is to say that we are happy to the extent that we are free in a “liberal” sense. To be happy is to be enabled internally (e.g., psychologically) and liberated externally (e.g., politically and economically) to do what we want—to pursue and attain whatever we happen to desire, to express and realise our preferences whatever they might be, to live our lives however we might want. More precisely, liberalism, as I understand the term, states that such freedom is a necessary condition for attaining happiness, while the attainment of what we desire—the realisation of our preferences, the actualisation of our preferred “lifestyle”—is that in which our happiness consists (or would consist). This is a “formalistic” understanding of happiness, in that no common rule or measure of happiness is admitted apart from the satisfaction of one’s desires, whatever those desires might be. If reality suits my will—if the facts of my life or situation match up with the “shape” of my desire—then I am happy. There is no need to adapt my desire or conform my will to some ideal measure or objective rule which stands over-against me: divine law, natural law, the order of being, or an objective hierarchy of values.
By contrast, what defines classical ethics and the pre-modern understanding of human existence is the unquestioning acceptance of a Logos that measures the will and character of each person. When the Logos is assumed as a background principle, the various possible “shapes” or “configurations” of human desire are differentiated along a hierarchy. In this way they are judged: revealed as good or bad. More precisely, the various possible configurations of the will are judged in relation to the various desires which they endorse and carry out. Some configurations of the will are revealed as evil insofar as they are fundamentally “out of tune” or discordant in relation to the Logos, while others are revealed as good insofar as they are fundamentally “in tune” or concordant in relation to the same Logos. Desires (and other attitudes and stances) are good to the extent that they respect the basic contours of Reality. Good desires and actions “fit in” with Reality as a whole; they are harmoniously accommodated in the innermost dimension or “there” of Being. Evil desires and actions do not “fit in” with Reality as a whole; they are rejected from the innermost dimension or “there” of Being.
For the classical philosopher, the most important distinction to make is that between wisdom and folly, and it is incumbent on every man to grasp the difference between the two. Hence the practical importance of philosophy as (literally) the love of wisdom. But there would be no intelligible difference between wisdom and folly, let alone a practically significant and ethically motivating difference, if there were no Logos principle governing all being and measuring all desire and action. Human wisdom participates in the Logos as the latter opens up a meaningful cosmos, an all-encompassing order, a “transcendental Place” which we are called to inhabit.
The cosmos holds together in that the Logos gathers it together. Man is called to inhabit that cosmos by gathering it together again in language (Heidegger). As the being endowed with Logos, man holds the world together—he reflects in himself (both inwardly and outwardly) the Logos-effected gathering of the world. “The world” here signifies an all-encompassing order which man inhabits through wisdom. (“The world” in this sense cannot be reduced to a concatenation of physical entities, since it includes invisible principles of Being and perhaps even spiritual entities. It should not be confused with the Earth; nor should it be identified with “the world” from which Paul dissociates himself.) By holding the world together by virtue of the Logos, man finds his way in the world, finds his place in the world, and therefore holds himself together. A “worldless” human being is an insane or depersonalised human being (which is not to say that he loses his fundamental dignity).
The basic stance of classical philosophy presupposes a cultural pre-understanding and acceptance of a Logos principle. In relation to this “Logos” (or some equivalent) the difference between wisdom and folly, and therefore between good and evil, works itself out. To be good as a human being is to desire and act in accordance with the Wisdom which governs the universe. It one thing for a human being to merely exist as an entity in the world. It is another thing for him to inhabit the world authentically. This takes wisdom, conscious participation in the Logos. A good person is a wise person: one who inhabits the world authentically, one who lets himself be oriented by the Logos in the midst of Being, one whose spirit is open and obedient to the meaningful contours of Reality. The good person is truly “there”; he accepts and inhabits the noble Place which the Logos opens up for him.
But the fool is not truly “there” at all. He stumbles through the world blindly. He never inhabits the world authentically, because he refuses the gift of the Logos. He prefers to go his own way, to speak his own words, to dream up a world of his own. This is already “evil”, but at this stage it might be nothing more than concupiscence, or missing the mark through irresponsibility or weakness. But once the fool becomes hell-bent on imposing his alternative, self-affirming logos upon everyone and everything—so much so that the true Logos becomes an object of hatred, and the obscuring of the Truth (the crucifixion of the Word) becomes his existential project, his sole obsession—he becomes “evil” in a more radical sense. This is the man whose very identity has become vehemently attached—nay, chained—to a humanly imagined “world”, an alternative “order of things”. For this person, the authoritative presence of the Logos is experienced as an existential threat. Before the Logos, his self-constructed order begins to tremble, along with his self-constructed identity. But rather than recognise the fundamental weakness of his constructions, he prefers to cast the Logos away, calling it “evil”. If all manner of violence and deception is necessary to keep the Truth from destroying his worldly construction, then so be it. All that matters to him is his work of building himself and his world on his own foundation. Wisdom knows that his “foundation” is nothing but sand, of course. Anything build on a platform of fundamental opposition to Reality is destined to fall.
To summarise: On the classical worldview, to be good as a human being is to be wise, and to be wise is to participate in the Logos (1) by discerning the overall “pattern” of the Logos: that intelligible order or ontological law which the Logos simply is, (2) by recognising the sovereignty of that Logos—the ubiquity of its measuring presence, the inescapability of its claim, the inevitability of its judgement—and (3) by letting the Logos/Wisdom orient one in the world, and in this way inform one’s desire and direct one’s action. In a word: to be good is to be wise; to be wise is to participate in divine Wisdom; to participate in divine Wisdom is to give way freely to the discerned rule of the Logos, and so inhabit the world (the grand order of things) authentically.
Now attending to the matter itself, it seems necessary to discriminate between two distinct “phases” in this movement of participation. Participation in (by giving way to) the Logos is in the first place an act of surrendering oneself to the Logos. To surrender oneself to the Logos is simply to recognise Its authoritative claim over all things, including oneself; this act of recognition takes place as a “letting go” of oneself as the Logos makes its claim upon oneself. Henceforth one belongs to the Logos—one has become Its mouthpiece, Its agent, Its mediator in the world. One is now “animated” by the Logos—though only imperfectly, and of course without being consubstantially one with the Logos (from a Christian perspective, it will be said that the humanity of Christ alone is united with the Logos in that fashion). This establishes the basic adaptation of the human person in relation to the Logos. Practical wisdom is the capacity to discern what the Logos demands and/or allows in a particular (possibly unique) situation. But this presupposes being fundamentally adapted to the Logos in the first place (the first “phase” of participation), as just explained. The second “phase” of participation is Logos-informed desire and action in a particular situation.
In closing, we return once more to the difference between “classicalism” and “liberalism”. Classicalism as a worldview is defined by a meta-ethical claim: happiness requires, and perhaps even consists in, conforming one’s desire and/or will to some Logos or universal measure. Liberalism (as an ethical theory, not a political one) is worlds apart from classicalism, for it is defined by the opposite meta-ethical claim: happiness does not require (let alone consist in) conforming one’s desire and/or will to some Logos or universal measure. The liberal understanding of happiness is formalistic, devoid of substantial content: happiness is nothing more than the satisfaction of one’s preferences, regardless of the intentional content of those preferences. The classical understanding of happiness, by contrast, is inclusive of substantial content: in order to be happy one must love what is noble, despise what is ignoble, and obey the world-governing principles of order. Diverse objects are not equally worthy of our love; different ways of life based on different patterns of desire are not equally capable of bringing happiness. For happiness is based in wisdom, which consists in inhabiting the world (the grand order of things) authentically, in accordance with the Logos. In other words, true happiness is a function of being in good order—thinking well, loving well, acting well. But in order to think and love and act well, one must think and love and act in and with the Logos. In a word: happiness comes from being a good person, by embodying the Logos in human form.
Dr Brendan Triffett