Let’s read Pascal (34): “All people seek happiness” as a principle in apologetics and cultural engagement

Let's Read Pascal

Pascal, Aristotle and Augustine agree on two points: 1) all people seek happiness; 2) the means of seeking happiness are radically diverse.

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves. (Pascal, Pensées 425)

 

Let us resume our inquiry and state, in view of the fact that all knowledge and every pursuit aims at some good, what it is that we say political science aims at and what is the highest of all goods achievable by action. Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and doing well with being happy; but with regard to what happiness is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise. (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics I.4)

In the following passage from the Confessions, Augustine introduces a distinction between what we might call the subjective experience of seeking happiness and the objective truth of what is sought. Some people, in thinking they seek happiness, are in fact actively fleeing that which alone can give them the happiness they think they pursue:

It is not, then, certain that all men wish to be happy, since those who wish not to rejoice in You, which is the only happy life, do not verily desire the happy life. Or do all desire this, but because the flesh lusts against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh, so that they cannot do the things that they would, they fall upon that which they are able to do, and with that are content; because that which they are not able to do, they do not so will as to make them able? For I ask of every man, whether he would rather rejoice in truth or in falsehood. They will no more hesitate to say, in truth, than to say, that they wish to be happy. For a happy life is joy in the truth. For this is joy in You, who art the truth,  O God, my light, the health of my countenance, and my God. All wish for this happy life; this life do all wish for, which is the only happy one; joy in the truth do all wish for. I have had experience of many who wished to deceive, but not one who wished to be deceived. Where, then, did they know this happy life, save where they knew also the truth? For they love it, too, since they would not be deceived. And when they love a happy life, which is naught else but joy in the truth, assuredly they love also the truth; which yet they would not love were there not some knowledge of it in the memory. Wherefore, then, do they not rejoice in it? Why are they not happy? Because they are more entirely occupied with other things which rather make them miserable, than that which would make them happy, which they remember so little of. For there is yet a little light in men; let them walk— let them walk, that the darkness seize them not. (Augustine, Confessions X.22.33)

Now of course Aristotle’s eudaimonia, Augustine’s beatus esse and Pascals “être heureux” do not describe identical notions, but that is precisely the point: there is no consensus about what true happiness is.

I offer five reflections on these quotations:

1) The tension that arises from humanity sharing a common goal yet employing radically diverse approaches to reaching it captures well the Christian condition of being “resident aliens” in our contemporary culture or “elect exiles” as the ESV of 1 Peter 1:1 has it. We are not utterly alienated form our culture (because we share the goal of seeking happiness) but we cannot feel completely at home in it (because we differ profoundly on the means of achieving that goal).

2) It is hard to overestimate the extent to which understandings of happiness can be radically divergent. Just because everyone seeks happiness, it doesn’t follow that we all recognise each other as being engaged in the same search that we are, as these reflections from Pascal illustrate:

And since man has lost the true good, everything can appear equally good to him, even his own destruction, though so opposed to God, to reason, and to the whole course of nature. (425)

True nature being lost, everything becomes its own nature; as the true good being lost, everything becomes its own true good. (426)

In seeking happiness the human race is united; in its understanding of the happiness it seeks, it is radically divided.

3) It is a good general principle, when engaging with ideologies, ideas or people with whom we disagree, to begin with the assumption that they are seeking happiness and, then to try to understand what happiness is being sought and how it is being pursued. Very rarely will a position make no sense to the person who holds it; if it doesn’t make sense to us it may well be that we haven’t understood what notion of happiness underlies it. This is a particularly valuable principle for Christian academics working in secular disciplines, when the assumptions under-girding those disciplines can be radically at odds with biblical truth: audi alteram partem. It is also a helpful principle in addressing personal conflict at the workplace, among friends or in family contexts. Those who disagree with us often have reasons that make perfect sense once we understand what happiness they are seeking and how they are seeking it, and until we comprehend and engage on that fundamental level, our attempts to scratch the surface of their position will most likely only cause irritation and entrenched opposition.

4) The common acknowledgment that all people seek happiness provides the sort of Anknüpfungspunkt (point of contact) that Paul discerns in 1 Corinthians 1, and offers a wonderful opening for apologetic conversations in our contemporary culture in which, as Aristotle somewhat awkwardly puts it, “both the general run of men and people of superior refinement” say that happiness is to be sought. If Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks seek wisdom, what does our society demand and yearn for? There could no doubt be many responses, but I think that “happiness” would be high on any list. To put this in terms of Tim Keller’s fourfold schema drawn from 1 Corinthians 1:

  • You seek happiness
  • But it is not to be found in the way you are seeking it now
  • Happiness is to be found only in Christ
  • Here is how you can find it in him

5) Something in Aristotle’s formulation caught my eye: “both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness” we seek. That is not the same as saying that all people seek happiness. It is one thing to acknowledge that all seek happiness; it is quite another actively to seek it (just as it is one thing to say one believes in Christ, and quite another to live a life in step with that profession). So perhaps part of the way we might engage with non-Christian positions within the academy, and part of our apologetic strategy more broadly, can be to challenge the disconnect between people’s profession of seeking happiness and their actions. And of course, the challenge is also thrown out to Christians: how great a chasm is there between the happiness in God we may claim to pursue, and the actions of our daily lives?

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