Frequently, I find immediate connections between readings and discussions of great authors and contemporary issues. In our last CIT webinar discussion, we considered St. Augustine’s analysis of all the views held by philosophers about happiness. St. Augustine points to one thing they have in common: they cannot accept that happiness is only possible in the next life. By and large the philosophers have to lie to themselves and others about the truth of the human condition. In fact (as the ancient poets saw), human happiness is extremely fragile. It is rarely achieved or maintained for any length of time, and it can never be secure.
The life, then, which is either subject to accidents, or environed with evils so considerable and grievous, could never have been called happy, if the men who give it this name had condescended to yield to the truth, and to be conquered by valid arguments, when they inquired after the happy life.
St. Augustine saved his strongest condemnation for the Stoics. They insisted that wisdom can make us securely happy in this life, yet at the same time hypocritically honored the wise man who, when faced by really terrible things like wasting sickness or torture, made a conscious decision to commit suicide . When the happy lie that happiness is ours for the choosing is overturned by the troubles that all human life is subject to, the Stoics held that the courageous man ends his own life and leaves its dishonorable miseries.
Earlier this week, a Washington Times article about assisted suicide revealed a strikingly similar dynamic. According to it, fear of pain is not the most common reason for requesting medication that will end life. Avoiding dependency on others is.
[The chair of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school] noted that most of those who have used aid-in-dying laws are white, well insured and college-educated. “These are people who are used to controlling every aspect of their lives, and they want to control this aspect of their lives.”
In a strange way, this description connects today’s most successful with yesterday’s Stoics. Although they do not use philosophy to convince themselves that life has no real evils, the comforts of contemporary life have encouraged them to believe similarly that they have achieved happiness by their own powers. When they see that their powers will no longer be sufficient, that they will have to depend upon others to take care of them, they lack the courage to resign themselves to the reality of human life. Rather, they lie about courage itself and celebrate as courageous those who insist on controlling the manner and timing of their own death.
St. Augustine proposed a different view of happiness. There is a kind of happiness achievable in this life, but it is specifically Christian. Christians do not have to lie about this life. They know it is fraught with difficulties, sometimes terrible ones. But they also know that this life is not the only, nor the most fulfilling life. The heavenly happiness will come certainly for the faithful Christian. Resting in that knowledge, Christians can be happy also in this life:
As, therefore, we are saved, so we are made happy by hope. And as we do not as yet possess a present, but look for a future salvation, so is it with our happiness, and this with patience; for we are encompassed with evils, which we ought patiently to endure, until we come to the ineffable enjoyment of unmixed good; for there shall be no longer anything to endure. Salvation, such as it shall be in the world to come, shall itself be our final happiness. And this happiness these philosophers refuse to believe in, because they do not see it, and attempt to fabricate for themselves a happiness in this life, based upon a virtue which is as deceitful as it is proud.
Christians are unique in our ability to see this life for what it is — a life in which consolations are not missing but are not to be relied upon nor overvalued. Because of that, we can live authentic lives of virtue, marked by patience, courage and hope, even when faced with the terrible news of terminal illness.