Thursday, July 10, 2014

Aristotle, happiness, & priestly vocation

One of the most profound treatments of the idea of happiness from ancient philosophy is found in the Greek philosopher Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. In the first book of this work, Aristotle examines what the good is, defining it as happiness. He characterizes this happiness as εὐδαιμονία, the true supernatural being. In analyzing the etymology of this term, insight can be gained into exactly what it is that Aristotle believes true happiness to be. The first part of the word, εὐ-, reflects his notion that the man who is happy must necessarily be good and true. Happiness cannot be found outside of that which is either good or true, and indeed, though Aristotle rejects Plato's notion of the Form of Good, he does embrace a hierarchy of goods that lead to happiness in human persons. The second part of the word is trickier to analyze with respect to its etymological implications. The word -δαιμονία seems to implicate the spiritual nature of human persons. Aristotle identifies three parts to the human soul: the nutritive or growth part, corresponding to that soul found within plants; the sensate or perceptive soul, which corresponds to the souls of animals; and, finally and most importantly, the rational or intellective soul. 

This point is key to understanding Aristotle's notion of happiness, because of the role that the intellect plays within his understanding of human existence. Since happiness leads to the ultimate good for human beings, Aristotle sees it as necessary for the achievement of happiness that one must know that end which is the final good for human beings. Aristotle's identification of human rationality as its unique characteristic leads him to posit that same intellective principle and its development as the culmination of human goodness: to have a fully developed, fully exercised intellect and reason is the highest good for humans and leads to their greatest happiness.

This idea of being a true, good supernatural being: of being the rational soul enfleshed as a composite and maximizing in one's life the fullness of the capacity which this composite union is capable of bearing has great resonance for practical living, both in Aristotle's time and in the present day. In reading Aristotle on this topic, one cannot help but get a sense that he is trying to say that a notion of living as a human well will bring about human flourishing and success: happiness. In my own experience, I have found that this notion of εὐδαιμονία is intuitively grasped by individuals. To be fully alive, fully human—and therefore happy—is to give my life over to the full exercise of its capacities, capabilities, and the full exercise of its reason. When my soul and body are fully engaged together in the transcendental aesthetics, the true, the good, and the beautiful, I sense that I am more than the sum of my parts. This happiness of which Aristotle speaks is no mere emotional or appetitive sense-pleasure. It is a deep, soul-stirring realization that I am fulfilling my purpose, that my life and work has meaning, and that this meaning goes beyond myself to transcend the reality which I can perceive in my own self. 

Most profoundly, I have detected this notion of εὐδαιμονία in my time at the seminary. For the first time in my life, I have found myself engaged at all levels in the work that I am doing. I have found that my life has τέλοϛ, purpose beyond simply acquiring ever greater knowledge, degrees, or wealth. There is more than sex, food, and drink. There is a life to which I have been called: first, by virtue of my baptismal dignity, to the common priesthood, prophethood, and kingship of all those incorporated into the People of God by the sacramental grace poured forth in that great Initiatory Sacrament. Second, there is truly a “hole” which I am being called to fill: just as Aristotle says that a great flutist must necessarily play her flute well to blossom, so too, I have found that vocational ministry in the Holy Church—a radical out-pouring and giving-over of myself for the love of God and his faithful people—is the route to my own flourishing. Aristotle's εὐδαιμονία resonates so greatly with me because I have, in my own life, discovered that his definition of happiness is true. And not just true in a cold, philosophical sense, but really and truly present in my life in the way that God is forming and shaping me to become one day, by his sovereign grace, a priest of Jesus Christ.  


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