The Pursuit of Happiness
BY: Frater Bovious
“Some say their will is weak.”
“Some lie about what they want.”
(CARROLLTON, TX, Cradle of Civilization) Writing in the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson pens these famous words:
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
And so, what is happiness, and how do we pursue it? According to the TV in my room, happiness is a new car, a hot babe, white teeth, and Amazon Echo. The ancients would have laughed at our puny conception of happiness.
St. Iraneus famously said, “Gloria Dei est vivens homo.” This is translated as, “The glory of God is the living man.” You may have heard it as, “The glory of God is a man fully alive.” I understand why the edit – fully alive seems to augment the sense.
The original Latin seems to suggest something about living, about what it means to be alive, that is critical to this post on willpower. To be fully alive suggests that we can be alive in different ways; more or less alive. But, the idea of the living man being the glory of God, well that should give one pause. For, if the wages of sin are death, then being alive implies not sinning.
But, sin is now held up as a virtue – how many times have you heard something described as “sinfully delicious”? If something is that delicious, it must be good. You see the problem. What is happening here is that marketing takes advantage of a fact about our nature. We desire the good. We desire happiness. We are ordered toward the pursuit of happiness. Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Thomas Jefferson, all understood this reality. Madison Avenue exploits it.
The will, according to St. Thomas, is the intellectual appetite. And our intellectual appetite is ordered such that it pursues the good. It is ordered, therefore, toward our ultimate end, which is the beatific vision. This ordering survives the Fall. We remain inclined toward the good. However, our understanding of the good has suffered.
It is necessary to elaborate on the concepts “free will” and “willpower”. Free will is simply the power to choose. Because we are inclined to the good, and because there can be several goods from which to choose, we have the power to choose between goods. And we can choose between things which are neutral. So, when presented with chocolate ice cream and apple pie, we may choose between them. Or if we are presented with vanilla ice cream and warm apple pie, we may choose to combine them into one glorious good.
Either, or? Pffft. I choose both!
Willpower is another matter entirely. Willpower, as used in our society today, is the frustration of the will. Willpower is set up as the mechanism by which we choose what we ought over what we want. “If only I were more disciplined, if only I had a stronger will,” we say on January 2nd when our New Year’s resolutions are all in tatters. “How can I develop more willpower?”
The short answer is that the effort is futile. The truth about willpower as used and understood in our society is that it is a lie. The truth is that we do what we want to do, virtually every time. We do what we will.
The concept of willpower is a distraction – it holds up the idea that we can be stronger, we can be better people through an act of will. But this so-called act of will is opposed to the very nature of will. We are saying that our willpower’s role is to deny us what we want to do in favor of what we ought to do. But that’s a lie. It is not the role of the will to decide what we ought to do. The role of the will is to pursue God. But until we truly believe and understand that God is our end, our ultimate good, we will choose apple pie over God. Because absent an actual understanding of God, we will choose the good we see, touch and taste.
Here is the hard part. We may say we know we should go to Church on Sunday. But if we don’t want to go, we won’t. Willpower then becomes a crutch – “If only I had the willpower to make myself do something that I don’t want to do.” But we don’t have that willpower because that kind of willpower is a lie.
As noted, the concept of willpower in our society is flawed. It is in fact in opposition to the concept of free-will. Free-will says we have the ability to choose. Willpower implies that we don’t, that we somehow have to be coerced. And, falling back on willpower means never having to admit that you simply didn’t want to choose this, you really wanted to do that. Lack of willpower takes away culpability. How handy.
We do what we want to do. We sin because we want to. Because it feels good. We sin because we have a disordered understanding of the good, not because our wills are weak. Left to our own devices, we can live pretty wretched lives. But even in societies with no knowledge of Christ, we find people doing good. Why? Because our wills are necessarily ordered to the good.
By focusing on this idea of willpower, we are focusing on the wrong thing. Willpower implies that our wills are weak and need to be forced along. But, our will is not weak. Our understanding is weak. It is our intellect that apprehends Truth. And the highest truth is also our greatest good. But our will responds to what is before us. If we are not lovers of Truth, then we will be lovers of apple pie and pornography, money and power, i.e., ephemeral pleasures.
Once we admit that we sin because we want to, and not because we are weak willed, then we can begin to look at what we ought to do with fresh eyes. Our wills seek the good. We have to recognize what is really good. We have the advantage of Revelation and a couple of thousand years of deep thought on what we ought to do. We ought to do things that make us happy. When we actually know what those things are, and keep those things before our eyes, our wills will do what they do. Seek God.
I have thought of a couple of objections to the above which I will address in a follow up post. Also, we will need to explore Grace.