Friday, May 19, 2017

Understanding "happiness" in Orthodox Manner.

The Beatitudes are the beginning of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (cf. Matthew 5-7). Each begins with the word “blessed” (Latin: beatus where we get our English word Beatitude). This can also be translated as “happy.” Due to the materialist age in which we live, a study of this word is necessary.

The ancient Greek philosophers had discovered that pleasure was not fulfilling, even though that was their desire. So the question for them was how is man supposed to be happy? The Epicureans embraced hedonism and simply believed that everything around our life should be filled with pleasure which will not push pain from our life. Many believed this was impossible and rightly so. Another idea was eudaemonia. This was the pinnacle of earthly happiness that had a sort of finality and self-sufficient generation of this happiness. The philosophers believed the pursuit of man was eudaemonia. The other idea of happiness was makarios and this belonged to the gods. The gods were happy of course, since they were gods, and this happiness which was a happiness man could not achieve, being mortal, was given the name makarios. Eudaemonia was the pinnacle of happiness that earthly man could achieve. Makarios was reserved for the gods, being their heavenly happiness.

The hedonists just accepted the urge for pleasure as a part of life. As a part of our lives, we cannot be free of these urges. Therefore, the hedonists made the fulfillment of these urges and the pursuit of pleasure and end in themselves.

Other philosophers understood this pursuit of pleasure is illusory. Pleasure only appears to satisfy and man when he is fully engulfed in pleasurable pursuits finds an enormous emptiness and unfilled meaning in his life. Pleasure always leads to pain of some sort. The philosophers were correct in this. So their solution was eudaemonia or ascend to that which is good (the Good or Monad or One being an unmoved being containing goodness in itself). Since pleasure relied on changeable and transient material, then the soul needed to pursue virtue and the good by escaping matter. Man should accomplish a transcendence of this world and penetrate into the “One.” as the source of his happiness. Man’s mind should divorce itself from desire and unite itself to Good, by a pursuit of intellectual virtues. The success of this effort would be eudaemonia.

However, by the first century A.D., many philosophical schools and theories were floating around because eudaemonia was proving to be unattainable. Man was still unfulfilled and bewildered how to live his life in happiness. “But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son…” (Galatians 4:4). Jesus Christ, the God-man, now spoke to men and basically told the world, “This is how you achieve makarios, the divine happiness!” When St. Matthew records Christ as saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit…etc.” he uses makarios for his Gospel account.

So the grace of God in synergy (i.e. cooperation, like a dance) with our efforts, enters into the life of man and gives him happiness. While no one could achieve eudaemonia, the saints of God are continually receiving makarios. This is the blessed life in the Church. In our Western society, a thousand years removed from its Orthodox Christian foundation, we lost this life when we abandoned the Orthodox Tradition. Instead of looking to Christianity, the West looked to philosophy during the Renaissance and brought back the pursuit of hedonism or eudaemonia. The West did not look to the Church and still does not look to the Church, making makarios impossible. However, the Church is still creating saints and God is always making makarios available to whoever wish to receive it.

From an Orthodox Christian perspective, the problem with hedonism and eudaemonia (so by extension the Western Christian and Western non-Christian understanding of happiness) is its innate selfish love. In the ancient world and today, man is seeking his own happiness. Even when helping others, many times it is for that good feeling and satisfaction. Explicitly in the ancient world and implicitly in the modern world, hubris is the engine driving the pursuit of happiness. Selfish love is not part of the Christian life and in part explains why heterodox Christianity is in the same unfulfilled situation the ancient world found itself in after much futile effort in the first century A.D., before Christ taught makarios. Makarios is from a love that “seeketh not her own” (cf. I Corinthians 13:5). Makarios results from asceticism. Eudaemonia is selfish, relies on hubris, and cannot connect with God.

Many sects that arose after Christ that taught a type of ascent to the good by our own efforts have been condemned as a form of Gnosticism. Yes, we should pursue good and yes we should acquire virtue. However, this good, virtue, and pursuit thereof, is in a totally different framework from how the pagan world and the modern world understand it. We should abandon our former understanding of happiness and listen to how the Christ and the Church leads us to the only true happiness of makarios or in English (from the Latin) “beatitude.”