The quote above is from the classic book, The Confessions of St. Augustine. An excellent and insightful book where Augustine takes us through his intellectual, spiritual and psychological journey of self-knowledge and the knowledge of God. There are two important ideas on happiness which I have been reflecting on from Augustine’s thought.
Firstly, people want to rejoice and delight, or find happiness in what is true and not what is false. I was watching the movie Inception the other day, which explores all these themes about reality, fantasy, dreams and the subconscious. There is a place or business of sorts where people go to dream, and in these dreams they basically live out the kinds of life they want, having anything and everything they desire; they end up with the kind of life that in reality they cannot obtain. What ends up happening is that the dreams becomes their reality; they end up making a living just so that they can afford to go back to the dream place and live in their dreams. So are they then rejoicing in falsehood? It is an enactment of the philosopher Robert Nozick’s thought experiment of the pleasure machine where he asks if you could plug into a machine able to simulate the ideal life that you desire, would you plug in?
Augustine says no, people would not plug in because we desire to rejoice in the truth and not falsehood. Human beings in general desire knowledge; which is our reason conforming to reality. By nature we desire through our reason to unite with reality, to know how things are, to grasp the truth. Therefore it is contrary to our nature and the purpose of reason, to desire anything less than that. This ofcourse does not mean that we always know what is true, or that the truth is easy to obtain; only that the purpose of reason and intellect is the truth in the various and multifaceted domains we encounter it. Therefore plugging into a pleasure machine or entering the dream state permanently would cut us off from reality, from what is true. I think as well the fact that the thought experiment always involves people not knowing they are actually in a simulation once they choose it – shows that people would find no real lasting pleasure if they knew that is all a fantasy. We would have no joy if we knew we were deceiving ourselves – and so in order for the pleasure machine, or the dream state to deliver its promise it must keep up the façade.
Plugging into the pleasure machine, or entering the dream state ignores our human nature in another fundamental way – it assumes that human happiness and flourishing is individualistic. It ignores the fact that human beings are by nature social animals; and therefore an essential part, if not the crux of human happiness lies in friendship and communion – to love persons and be loved by persons. In the pleasure machine, we would be deceived into thinking that we have friendships when in fact we do not. We would be deceived into thinking we have relationships with actual persons, that we love actual people who in turn love us back. Therefore the pleasure machine would cut us from real social bonds and friendships.
The last problem with opting to plug into the pleasure machine, or dream state is that it assumes a faulty view of pleasure. It makes pleasure the ultimate aim of human life, when in reality pleasure is derived, and sort of piggy backs on human activities; or as Thomas Aquinas would put it, it is a proper accident of human happiness. An illustration. There is a pleasure and delight I feel when I play and make my baby daughter laugh; however my own delight is accidental to my primary goal – which is to make her laugh. In other words I am not making her laugh so that I can feel the pleasure of making her laugh – I am making her laugh simply for her own delight. And so it is with pleasure in general – it is obtaining the fitting good, or desirable end which is our aim but as we obtain that good delight accompanies our obtaining of it.
The second important idea from Augustine is that the happy life is joy in the truth; where truth is not simply a set of philosophical ideas, but an actual person – God – “who art the truth”. The happy life is friendship and union with God, to love and be loved by the One who is goodness, love and perfection itself.
But what does it mean to say that God is the truth? When you think of truth in general it seems to be a property we ascribe to our beliefs, and ideas. A belief or statement can be true or false. So in what sense can a person be true? We do speak of people being truthful, which refers to honesty and trustworthiness. However, that still does not seem to fit with what Augustine is getting at. To say that God is the truth, makes sense within a certain context and background. Human beings are as Aristotle put it, “rational animals”; we have the capacity and desire for knowledge. Knowledge of the most fundamental questions that plague the pages of every religion and philosophy – why are we here? Where are we from? And what is our place in the cosmic landscape of existence? Augustine puts it to us that the answer is God Himself, not that he simply possesses the answers but that He Himself is the answer to those questions – He then is the truth.