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True Happiness According to Boethius and St. Augustine

What is the happy life? This is one of those perennial questions that speaks to the very core of our humanity. We want to be happy, but how can this be in such a volatile world? In a time when depression, anxiety, and suicide are on the rise, we must return afresh to this perennial pursuit as a society. Thankfully, the happy life is not far from us, and Boethius and St. Augustine can help us see the way.

In Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, Lady Philosophy is the personification of wisdom and comforter to Boethius as he awaits his execution for trumped-up charges. The heart of her dialogue with Boethius is on the nature of true happiness amid an unhappy world. She says everyone pursues good things to be happy, and that happiness in its truest state is the highest good (3.2.2-4, 11). This line of thinking will sound familiar to those acquainted with classical philosophy. Plato, for instance, articulates the idea of the Good, after which we are to order ourselves, as the highest form in his Republic. Aristotle, for his part, begins his Nicomachean Ethics as follows: “Every art and every investigation, and similarly every action and pursuit, is considered to aim at some good. Hence the good has been rightly defined as ‘that at which all things aim’” (1094a). He later argues for happiness as a proper end (telos) according to which our actions are oriented. We know that Boethius was greatly influenced by these Greek philosophers because they are explicitly mentioned throughout the Consolation. So, the first help we receive in understanding how to be truly happy is that we need to know what is the highest good. True happiness is identified with the highest good.

The paths or means of achieving happiness are seemingly many (wealth, power, pleasure, etc.) (3.2.12-20). However, these worldly solutions ultimately fail to deliver on their promise of bringing true happiness (3.3.1-4). Using wealth as an example, the fact that it can be lost or stolen is evidence of its insufficiency to make one truly happy, for true happiness is accompanied with a peace that cannot be stolen; true happiness is enduring. After detailing the shortcomings of all these worldly paths, Lady Philosophy concludes that they are mere “byways” and “cannot guide a man to the goal that they promise” (3.8.1). Money, power, and pleasure will never bring you true happiness, because they are not the highest good.

Now that Boethius has been disposed of these false notions of happiness—remember, he has been stripped of these worldly goods in his imprisonment, and so there must be a happiness that transcends such circumstances—Lady Philosophy is poised for deep, philosophical thought. It is said that true happiness is that which is simple (without parts) and undivided, lacking nothing outside itself (3.9.4, 13). That is, it is complete and self-sufficient. Aristotle articulates a similar thought when he speaks of happiness as “the best, the finest, the most pleasurable thing of all; and these qualities are not separated….” Further, Lady Philosophy says, one must “invoke the Father of all things” (3.9.33), introducing the transcendent nature of true happiness. This is similar to Plato’s Timaeus, wherein recourse is made to “the ineffable father of all things,” who “always is and never becomes.” Lady Philosophy’s poetic conclusion to these thoughts is worth quoting at length:

Father of earth and sky, You steer the world
By reason everlasting.  You bid time
Progress from all eternity.  Yourself
Unshifting, You impel all things to move.
No cause outside Yourself made you give shape
To fluid matter, for in You was set
The form of the ungrudging highest good.
From heavenly patterns You derive all things.
Yourself most beautiful, You likewise bear
In mind a world of beauty, and You shape
Our world in like appearance.  You command
Its perfect parts, to form a perfect world.
….
Let my mind rise to your august abode,
And there, dear Lord, survey the source of good.
Then grant that, once I have attained the light,
My inward eye I may direct on You.
Disperse the fog and the encumbering weight
Of this earth’s bulk, and shine forth, clear and bright;
For in the eyes of all devoted men,
You are calm brightness and the rest of peace.
Men aim to see You as their starting-point,
Their guide, conductor, way, and final end (3.9.m1-12, 31-40).

This Father of all things is God. He governs the world with infallible reason; He does not change like the ever-changing world; His beauty is the eternal pattern of the cosmos; He is the source of all good; He is the bringer of peace; and He is the beginning and the end. That is, Lady Philosophy roots true happiness in the metaphysical form of the highest good, which is God. This becomes more pronounced in her later philosophical articulation. The basic structure of the argument is as follows:

  1. Nothing better than God can be imagined.
  2. God is therefore perfect goodness, otherwise he would not be preeminent.
  3. The perfect good is true happiness.
  4. Therefore, true happiness resides in the highest God.

There is a hint of the ontological and cosmological arguments for God in this grounding of true happiness. We see the ontological aspect in that “nothing better than God can be imagined.” The cosmological aspect is seen in that God is “the source of all things,” and therefore preeminent. Lady Philosophy concludes that “God is happiness itself” (3.10.17). The lesson is that true happiness is found in the perfect Good, that Good which is undivided and self-sufficient, from which all earthly goods are derived. The relationship of God to man and man to God is seen in that God is the source of all goods directed to man, which man may then use to reason back to God as the ultimate Good and source of true happiness.

We may now give consideration to our other philosopher, theologian, and friend, St. Augustine.  This notion of true happiness being found in God is the central argument of On the Happy Life, one of his early works. Indeed, the same reasoning about the insufficiency of earthly things, such as wealth and health, is employed to conclude that true happiness is found in God. I think it is well known that Boethius was not only influenced by Greek philosophers but also St. Augustine, who died about 100 years before Boethius’ death. On the Happy Life is written in dialogue fashion, much like Plato’s own writings. The critical elements of this discourse are excerpted below:

“Therefore,” I said, “[that which makes one happy] should be something ever abiding and not dependent upon fortune or subject to any accidents.  For we can’t have whatever is mortal and perishable whenever we want it and for as long as we want it….

But these fortuitous things [e.g. wealth] can be lost.  Therefore, he who loves and possesses these things can’t in any way be happy….

Therefore, we don’t doubt at all that if someone sets out to be happy, he should acquire for himself that which abides forever and can’t be taken away from him by any cruel act of fortune….

Does it seem to you,” I said, “that God is eternal and ever abiding?….

Then he who has God,” I said, “is happy.” (2.11)

Here is the essence of Augustine’s argument: The object of our happiness, if it is to be true and abiding happiness, must itself abide forever and not be subject to change. God is eternal and immutable. Therefore, he who has God is truly happy.

Returning to Boethius, Lady Philosophy argues that true happiness is achieved by partaking of divinity—that is, by participating in God (3.10.23, 25). All these philosophical arguments are consonant with what we find in the Holy Scriptures. As St. Peter tells us, through God’s divine power He has granted to us “exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these [we] may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust” (2 Pet. 1:4). Psalm 16:11 reads: “You will show me the path of life;\ In Your presence is fullness of joy;\ At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” True joy or happiness is experienced in the reconciled presence of our great and glorious God. Eternal pleasures are at His right hand, the place of honor. They are eternal pleasures because they are in the eternal One. What is more, the Son of God, Jesus Christ, sits at the right hand of the Majesty on high after having made purification for sins (Heb. 1:3). Therefore, these eternal pleasures are blood-bought pleasures. To partake of these pleasures is to partake of Christ. To partake of Christ is to be truly happy.

After listening to Lady Philosophy’s reasoning, Boethius acknowledges that this teaching is valuable beyond measure; for knowing God, who is the Good, is the most admirable goal of life. To be truly happy, then, is to know God, and in knowing Him, to become one with Him (Jn. 14:20; 1 Cor. 6:17, 19).

Do you want a truly happy life? Come to the Father of all things through Jesus Christ. Do you want a truly happy home? Come to the Father of all things through Jesus Christ. Do you want a truly happy eternity? Come to the Father of all things through Jesus Christ.

Come and welcome to Jesus Christ.

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