The great secret, as C.S. Lewis asserted years ago, is that God is a hedonist at heart. God tells us to say no to many things, but only that we may say yes to higher and better things! God instructs us to say no to avarice and prodigality in order that we may say yes to generosity; He commands that we say no to selfishness and self-centeredness so that we may say yes to love and community. If we make higher things—God’s things—our goal, our lives will flourish and they will be filled with moments of unexpected ecstasy and joy: the sight of a joyous sunset, the smell of baking bread, a warm bath after a hard day’s work. But only if we seek the Kingdom first, only then will all these things be added to our lives. If we make these moments our central pursuit, they will undoubtedly let us down, break our hearts, and damn our souls.
Still we need to eat and drink, work and rest. How do we enjoy moments of happiness in the right way, at the right time, and to the right degree? This requires wisdom and discernment. In order to enjoy things the right way we have to understand our telos (τέλος); we have to know the purpose or goal for which we are created. We also need to know the telos of the activity or action in which we are engaging and how the telos of the act accords with our ultimate telos.
“Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” This is the plumb line by which we should judge all our thoughts and acts. For example, say I am considering signing my son up for little league. I first ask: What is the thing for? It may be I want him to show off his athletic prowess; it may be that I want him to learn teamwork and discipline. The former is inconsistent with his telos while the latter is not. That is the first question I must consider. Yet as good as my intention may be, there may arise a time wherein I have to choose between little league and family dinners, or little league and piano lessons. In that case I will need wisdom to judge which is the higher or better of the pursuits. If they are equal, I need discernment to ensure that the good we are pursuing is not coming at the cost of another good and thereby impeding human flourishing in a different area.
The ancients were right in believing that we can have and should pursue eudaimonia, but without knowing man’s telos they could not fully and consistently pursue it. We, on the other hand, think that technology has rendered the pursuit of eudaimonia obsolete. It is true that technology has provided us with the means to great health and comfort, speed of travel and unquantifiable amounts of information, but as a result we have come to believe that we can so arrange the world as to have all things at all times on our terms. We have deceived ourselves into thinking that we can simultaneously have freedom and commitment, radical individuality and community. After all, if we can send a man to the moon, why can’t we square the circles of man’s paradoxical desires? Added to this, we live much of our lives in unreality, passively observing the scripted experiences and relationships of others in films, television shows, and on various social media outlets. They move from happiness to happiness; why can’t we? They are capable of pursuing seemingly incompatible goods; why can’t we?
We want things in a way we cannot possibly have them because man, made in the unchangeable image of God, has an immutable nature. We can have true happiness, but true happiness is a product of flourishing, a flourishing that can only be recognized in light of our telos and the various teloi of the things we do and pursue. Seeking happiness apart from virtue is like slowly eating one apple; it may produce momentary delight, but it will never satisfy the appetite of a man. Instead, a man must clear and till his ground, plant seeds, tend the saplings, and over time he will find he has a number of apples as well as shade and beauty in his garden.