Thursday, November 13, 2014

Eudaimonia as knowing that God loves you

Aristotle argues in Nicomachean Ethics that true human well-being (eudaimonia, in Greek) consists in the performance of that activity which is most proper and essential to humans, or in other words which only humans out of all of nature's creatures can do. For Aristotle that activity is understanding, using our minds to understand things. So the good life, for Aristotle, is a scholar's life dedicated to understanding the world, oneself, and God.

Isaac the Syrian, perhaps in the same spirit as Aristotle, likewise claims that true human happiness consists in knowledge. For Isaac as a Christian, however, this is especially a knowledge of God, and more specifically knowledge of a particular quality of God. In contrast to legalists and Stoics everywhere who try and find their joy in their own moral performance, Isaac insists that true happiness only comes from knowing that God is truly good and loves all:

For if a person's joy depends on his own behavior, it will be a disappointing joy. More than that: it will be an impoverished joy! And not only will his joy be impoverished, but also his understanding. For whoever finds joy because he has understood that God is truly good, that person finds a consolation that never passes, and finds true joy; this because, as I've said, his spirit has been made wise, and he has understood that truly, God's goodness is limitless (Isaac the Syrian, Ascetical Homilies III/6, 22).

These wonderful lines come from a discussion of justification by faith. For Isaac, God justifies by faith and not through works because he knows that our nature is weak, and that it is impossible for us to be without sin. Thus, God is willing to justify us, to forgive our sins and ascribe to us the fullness of righteousness, for even the smallest turn towards him in faith. Isaac says that God will reckon as righteousness the faith present in the (failed) attempt to do a good work, or even in the thought of repentance in a person who lacks even the desire to do what is good. He does this because what God wants is to enjoy fellowship with everyone as righteous, not reasons to torture people.

For Isaac, then, we might say that true happiness comes from knowing that God's goodness has no limits, and that he does everything so that you can enjoy life with him as righteous. Why should this be a cause of happiness for us? Because we realize that ultimately, everything is going to be good, more than good for me, for my loved ones, and for the whole world. God's goodness is unlimited and nothing can hinder him from saving (1 Sam 14.6). Indeed, the salvation of the whole world is God's joy! And we will get to enjoy that salvation.

Knowing this -- that the end is an incomprehensibly good one -- is a source of constant joy and happiness for the person who truly understands God's limitless goodness. In keeping with Aristotle, then, Isaac will say: Yes, true happiness and well-being comes from knowledge, and more specifically, the knowledge that the goodness and love of God have no limit in any respect, and that they are an irresistible force which is leading everything to a glorious end.