Augustine and Happiness

“Is not a happy life the thing that all desire, and is there any one who altogether desires it not? But where did they acquire the knowledge of it, that they so desire it? Where have they seen it, that they so love it? Truly we have it, but how I know not.”

Augustine of Hippo

This quote from The Confessions made me think of what happens when I forget someone’s name. Having only a vague idea of what the name sounded like, I tear through an unfiled cabinet in my mind, knowing that when I do find it, I will be left with not a single doubt that I have fallen upon the right name. This, of course, is because I had previously known it; it had only found its way into a dark recess of my memory. However, until that moment when I do remember, I tend to settle for names that bear a resemblance to the original, though never being convinced enough to address the person as such, until they have been casually called upon by someone else and the truth is revealed. And when the truth is revealed, I become ashamed at every other option I had considered; they become absurd in the light of reality.

Augustine posits that all are born into this world with an unexplained, preemptive recollection of a lasting happiness, which, since it has yet to be attained, is the only explanation for man’s universal desire to pursue it, to find that evasive antidote that will cure us of our discontentment. Just like a forgotten name, we sooth ourselves with imitations: always settling, never being fully convinced, and moving from possibility to possibility until we are presented with that which corresponds to the memory placed inside of us since birth; that object which obscures everything other than itself, causing the soul to exclaim at having found the fire after wading through the embers heated by it, or the sun after seeing only the moon which borrowed its light.

Joy is always found in some beautiful verity. For example, what knowledge is more elating than that of being unconditionally loved, and what more grave than to lack that knowledge? Such is the importance of it, that to possess it is to be comforted through the darkest trials, and to lack it is to be submerged in unbearable doubt. And it is most evident that it is the apprehension of the truth which delights and not the material manifestation of it. This is easily demonstrated with the concept of love because to be told that one is loved is a gesture of love in itself, even before that love is shown actually. A lottery winner does not wait to collect the check to rejoice at having won.

If, then, embracing truth is what heals unhappiness, what stands between us and our medicine?

“Therefore do they hate the truth for the sake of that thing which they love instead of the truth. They love truth when she shines on them, and hate her when she rebukes them. For, because they are not willing to be deceived, and wish to deceive, they love her when she reveals herself, and hate her when she reveals them. On that account shall she so requite them, that those who were unwilling to be discovered by her she both discovers against their will, and discovers not herself unto them. Thus, thus, truly thus doth the human mind, so blind and sick, so base and unseemly, desire to lie concealed, but wishes not that anything should be concealed from it. But the opposite is rendered unto it,—that itself is not concealed from the truth, but the truth is concealed from it.”

Augustine of Hippo

The acceptance of truth can be a bitter medicine, often coming hand in hand with mandatory character amendment. To see that as a consequence, however, would be as unfitting as calling pregnancy a consequence of intimacy, for we know that being humbled and corrected leads to an improvement in character, just like carrying a child leads to bearing one. It is a beautiful, painful thing, but it is a momentary thing, and what  is true is true forever. Yet we so often choose to suffer the pain of the infirmity over that of the needle.

One Response

  1. David, you’ve made my night significantly better with your clarity, candor, and … correctness? I loved The Confessions once I made myself jump into them, and it makes me excited that you loved them too!

    Move to Vancouver, soul brother. I’ll be there in September waiting!

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