In ancient and medieval philosophy, all ethics came back to a fundamental question, “What is happiness?” The answer to this question was turned on its head in most modern philosophy. I suspect that our implicit worldview about happiness has become something like the characteristically modern view which Thomas Hobbes describes in this passage from Leviathan.
“The felicity of this life consisteth not in the repose of a mind satisfied. For there is no such Finis ultimus (utmost aim) nor Summum Bonum (greatest good) as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers. Nor can a man any more live, whose desires are at an end… Felicity is a continual progress of desire, from one object to another, the attaining of the former being still but the way to the latter.”
The true radicality of this claim is shocking. All moral philosophers hitherto had thought that happiness involved the resting of the will in the acquisition of a good. Hobbes flatly denies that the “rest” of the will makes any sense. He can only interpret happiness (“felicity”) as being the continual “procurement” of thing after thing. All men have within themselves a “perpetual and restless desire of power after power,” and happiness means giving that desire room to roam.
We might profitably consider whether this is the “Black Friday” philosophy. Consumerism tends to direct us to the acquiring of an endless sequence of goods. Advertisement goads us toward new desires. The good is desired, appropriated, consumed and discarded—so that one can desire, appropriate and consume yet more.
St. Augustine, of course, had diagnosed this problem over a millennium before Hobbes. He knew that the endless and restless pursuit of imperfect worldly goods causes weariness and lassitude—boredom. That restless pursuit is more likely to throw us into an existential malaise (a la Walker Percy’s Moviegoer) than actually to fulfill us. In selfishly searching for finite goods, we really choose ourselves as our own last end. In doing so, it is no wonder that we become so stuffed full of ourselves that we end in disgust and not happiness.
This is why Augustine says, “You have made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.” No matter how many partial goods we aggregate, or sequentially dominate, we will never be happy. Our will wants an infinite good, not infinite goods. What we want is peace—rest in the Good.
Now, even if you’ve just returned from the biggest sale ever, a Hobbesian “perpetual war of all against all,” don’t worry about your eternal soul. I’m not saying that everyone who shops today is going to hell. This is just a reminder that finite goods, even finite goods sold at fantastic discounts, can’t solve the problems that other finite goods can’t fill, and that we should be vigilant that we don’t try to make them do things they can’t do. And if we do find ourselves bored, empty, or depressed this shopping season, the antidote might be recommitting ourselves to the pursuit of the one, true good: God. In Him we may have a foretaste of that endless spiritual joy in which no man can be bored. St. Augustine gives us a beautiful prayer to use in times like this:
“Lord God, give us peace—for you have granted us all things—the peace of quiet, the peace of the Sabbath which has no evening… the seventh day is without evening. The sun does not set on it, because you sanctified it to last forever. For after all your works which were very good, you rested on the seventh day, although you made all these works in an unbroken rest. So may the voice of your book tell us in advance that we too, after our works… may rest in you in the Sabbath of eternal life.”
Image: Andy Warhol, Dollar Sign