Acton Institute Powerblog

Augustine on God and Happiness

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As a brief follow-up to this week’s installment of Radio Free Acton, here are some of the direct quotes from Augustine on happiness.

First, he says,

A joy there is that is not granted to the godless, but to those only who worship you without looking for reward, because you yourself are their joy. This is the happy life and this alone: to rejoice in you, about you and because of you. This is the life of happiness, and it is not to be found anywhere else. Whoever thinks there can be some other is chasing a joy that is not the true one; yet such a person’s will has not turned away from all notion of joy.

This passage has some relevance to a recent Acton Commentary I wrote on tithing. The reason that a godless person’s will “has not turned away from all notion of joy” is because it is an ineradicable purpose of human nature to seek fulfillment and happiness (joy) in God, whether or not a person is conscious that it is actually God that is being sought. So when the “godless” seek joy in the created things of the world, they are actually seeking him in a corrupted and perverse way. It is a futile search for fulfillment apart from God, for “What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun?”

And so Augustine also wonders of the godless, “Why are they not happy? Because they are more immediately engrossed in other things which more surely make them miserable than that other reality, so faintly remembered, can make them happy.” That “faintly remembered” reality is the divine being corresponding to the God-shaped hole at the center of the fallen human being.

This entire conceptual structure is built upon Augustine’s distinction between “use” and “enjoyment” or uti and frui. Here’s how he lays it out in De Doctrina Christiana:

So then, there are some thing which are meant to be enjoyed, others which are meant to be used, yet others which do both the enjoying and the using. Things that are to be enjoyed make us happy; things which are to be used help us on our way to happiness, providing us, so to say, with crutches and props for reaching the things that will make us happy, and enabling us to keep them.

In his latest book about personal finance and responsibility, Dave Ramsey relates a story about how he had always wanted to own a Jaguar. When his priorities were disordered and his life was a spiritual and financial mess, Dave did everything he could to keep the car, even though he was behind on payments and he really couldn’t afford it. Eventually he was forced to give the car up. Only years later, when having a status car wasn’t so important to Dave, did God provide him the opportunity to own one again, this time with his love for it properly reined in.

We are enfleshed souls, and so we have recreative and sustaining needs. Created goods, especially essentials like food, water, and shelter, but also other things like cars, are necessary but not sufficient conditions for being happy in an ultimate and final sense. That’s what Augustine means when he calls such things “crutches and props.” For more on this, see Aquinas’ answers to questions like:

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he also serves as executive editor the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary. He has authored articles in academic publications such as The Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, and Journal of Scholarly Publishing, and has written popular pieces for newspapers including the Detroit News, Orange County Register, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In 2006, Jordan was profiled in the book, The Relevant Nation: 50 Activists, Artists And Innovators Who Are Changing The World Through Faith. Jordan's scholarly interests include Reformation studies, church-state relations, theological anthropology, social ethics, theology and economics, and research methodology. Jordan is a member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA), and he resides in Jenison, Michigan with his wife and three children.

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