The eclipsing of happiness
by Ken Myers
Reinhard Hütter is a guest on Volume 149 of the Journal, talking about his book Bound for Beatitude. Those three words capture the boundless confidence that is the ground for the Christian understanding of human nature. Every human being is created with a desire to be happy. That is given with our nature, but we need to learn what true happiness is. As Hütter writes, “The teaching of Scripture is unequivocal: true and lasting happiness, beatitude, is found only when a person embraces the truth that God reveals, follows the path God thereby opens up to that person, and, through God’s grace, begins to participate in the divine life.”
The subtitle to Hütter’s book is A Thomistic Study in Eschatology and Ethics. Instructed by the work of Thomas Aquinas, Hütter describes why Christian ethics — indeed all Christian theology — must be grounded in the ends for which persons (and all of Creation) were called into being.
The culture of modernity — in the seas of which we swim — is marked by a rejection of the claim that there are ends (teloi) for which human beings exist and according to which their lives, privately and publicly, should be ordered. By contrast, the work of Aquinas, explicated in Hütter’s book, reflects the fundamental Christian affirmation of “the principle of finality,” the recognition that “every agent acts for an end,” an end (telos) established by the Creator.
Our age is emphatically anti-teleological, insists Hütter: “[O]ne of the characteristics of the modern era is the widespread rejection of the principle of finality. As it plays out in the anthropological realm, this pervasive dismissal of the principle of finality leads to a crisis in terms of the human being’s understanding of himself as a human person. Due to the widespread and erroneous dismissal of the finality of human nature, the human self-image as rational animal, as person and nature in one, collapses into the irresolvable antinomy between two contradictory and agonistically competing self-images, a neo-Gnostic angelism and a naturalistic animalism. The late modern person vacillates between the self-image of an essentially disembodied sovereign will that submits all exteriority, including the body, to its imperious dictates, and the self-image of a super-primate, a highly advanced animal, gifted or cursed with a developed consciousness that is driven by instincts, passions, and desires beyond its control and understanding into patterns of behavior for which an animal can never be held fully accountable.”
If there are no ends for which we were created — no nature that defines us— then the pursuit of happiness has no transcendent guidelines or points of reference. As Hütter observes, “a partial result of the eclipse of what it means to be human [is that] the understanding of and search for happiness has taken a radical experiential turn. The happiness now sought is the emotional state of joy, delight, and especially ecstasy as the apex of an encompassing feeling of well-being that ideally continues, fed by whatever sequence of objects, substances, and events it takes to sustain it. The a-teleological dynamic of consumption — the trademark of consumer capitalism — collapses action and its purpose to the here and now. Any remaining sense of community and conviviality is no longer based on the common good, let alone on the highest good, God, but rather on sensuality, sentiments, and transient coalitions of proximate interests. Nietzsche announced the return of the Dionysian and what has arrived is the obsession with the body and with orgiastic and analogous experiences of sensual and emotional ecstasy. The fun- and event-centered culture — the most characteristic feature of which is the collection of extraordinary, exhilarating, and possibly transgressive experiences of all sorts — is the direct result of the pervasive search for the feelings of joy, delight, and ecstasy that happiness issues in the here and now. . . .
“[G]iven this existentialist understanding of happiness as the result of the instant gratification of some desire and the resulting sensual or emotional elation, a happiness that consists in the attainment of a specific good, even the highest good, is simply meaningless.”