Why leading a virtuous life is the key to happiness

Like Christians, many ancient philosophers also understood the need for self-mastery

Every theology enthusiast – I would never use the term dork – has, at some point, identified himself with one of two factions: the Thomistic Aristotelians or the Augustinian Platonists. Granted, the whole debate is kind of dumb. Reading Aquinas’s commentary on Boethius, one realizes pretty quickly that the Angelic Doctor himself is as much an Augustinian as the more “Platonic” theologians like Bonaventure. Still, there are worse things to argue about over scotch and pipes. Most of my friends back home are alumni of Thomas Aquinas College, so I’m usually the lone Augustinian. But that’s fine. If Pope Benedict is for us, who can be against us?

Of course, Tertullian wouldn’t be amused. The man widely credited as the founder of Western theology had no use for pre-Christian thinkers. “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” he famously sneered. Yet this contempt for classical philosophy has gained little traction except among some radical Calvinists. Most Christians (and all Catholics) have followed Augustine, who taught that “truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found, gathering and acknowledging it even in pagan literature.”

This appreciation for the genius of antiquity compelled the traditional Scholastic – Aquinas among them – to debate the Averroists over the meaning of Aristotle. This, in turn, led to the development of philosophy as the discipline we know and practice today. No serious thinker anywhere in the world is untouched by Aquinas’s influence, directly or indirectly.

That’s why modern historians are wrong to draw such a strict line between the supposedly ignorant and superstitious Medieval Ages and the worldly, learned Europe of the Renaissance. It was Machiavelli, the archetypal Renaissance thinker, who scorned philosophy. “For there is such a distance from how one lives to how one ought to live,” he wrote in The Prince, “that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done learns what will ruin him rather than what will save him.” Meanwhile, Erasmus warned his own Christian prince that, “unless you are a philosopher, you cannot be a prince – only a tyrant.” Erasmus and his friend, the great martyr Thomas More, are often called “Christian humanists”; Augustine and Aquinas would have recognized them simply as “Catholics”.

But why do we only think of ourselves as Aristotelians and Platonists? There’s a whole panoply of classical philosophies that Christians may draw from. And the most neglected are undoubtedly those that ask what it means to live a good and worthy life.

For instance, Stoicism – the belief that true happiness is achieved by transcending both pleasure and pain – is enjoying a renaissance of its own. Rear Admiral James Stockdale, best known as Ross Perot’s running mate in the 1992 presidential election, credited this the Stoics for seeing him through seven years in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. In his extraordinary book Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior, Stockdale argues that Stoicism and Christianity are compatible:

Although pagan, the Stoics had a monotheistic, natural religion and were great contributors to Christian thought. The fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man were Stoic concepts before Christianity. In fact, one of their early theoreticians, named Chrysippus, made the analogy of what might be called the soul of the universe to the breath of a human, pneuma in Greek. This Stoic conception of a celestial pneuma is said to be the great-grandfather of the Christian Holy Ghost. Saint Paul, a Hellenized Jew brought up in Tarsus, a Stoic town in Asia Minor, always used the Greek word pneuma, or breath, for “soul”… Like its Christian counterparts, Calvinism and Puritanism, it produced the strongest characters of its time. In theory a doctrine of pitiless perfection, it actually created men of courage, saintliness, and goodwill.

The bits about Calvinism and Puritanism aside, that’s not a bad reading, and we can undoubtedly grow closer to God by studying this path of “pitiless perfection”. In fact, on Tuesday, The Nation published a brilliant review of a new book on atheistic neo-Stoicism. The reviewer, a Brazilian academic at McGill University, explains why the professed Stoic has need for a rational creator-god:

For the Stoics, Zeus made everything, including human beings, to maximize the universe’s perfection. What sets human beings apart is that they alone share in Zeus’s rational nature and can help carry out his plan by embracing the fate he has allotted to them. We are the only part of the universe that doesn’t just blindly function, but can grasp its task and perform it willingly. The key to happiness, therefore, is human reason, which enables us to understand Zeus’s plan and then direct our lives in accordance with it.

The Stoic idea of living in accordance with God’s plan does bear a striking resemblance to ours. “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts,” Marcus Aurelius explains in his Meditations; “therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature.” We might call this avoiding the near occasion of sin. And Seneca says: “We should every night call ourselves to an account: what infirmity have I mastered today? what passions opposed? what temptation resisted? what virtue acquired? Our vices will abate of themselves if they be brought every day to the shrift.” Sounds rather like the examination of conscience.

Stoicism is closely related to Cynicism, which some scholars argue influenced Jesus Christ. Cynics like Diogenes believed that virtue is the only good in life, and that it should be pursued by renouncing all worldly goods: sex, wealth, power and the lot. Any resemblance to Christ’s homilies is almost certainly coincidental, but the similarities are nevertheless uncanny, and there’s something to be learned about the day-to-day practice of Christian life by reading their works.

Erasmus spoke well, then, when he said that “being a philosopher is in practice the same as being a Christian, only the terminology is different.” So, we should read Aristotle and Plato, yes – but also Epictetus, Diogenes, and all the geniuses of antiquity. We’ll be pleasantly surprised how often the Church’s directions on living a sinless life are echoed by philosophers who never knew God, let alone his punishments. We should remind ourselves often that the way of virtue isn’t only a means of getting into Heaven: it makes us happier in this life, too. Living in accordance with nature means living the way our Creator-God intended us to. It is, so to speak, the life we were made for.

And we shouldn’t be disturbed to find any wisdom among the ancients, either. As Justin Martyr said, “All truth, wherever it is found, belongs to us as Christians.”