What follows is, I believe, a novel argument for the existence of God. It is drawn almost entirely from the writings of St. Augustine, but though the line of thought is his, he does not seem to use it as a positive instance of natural theology. It is in this sense that the argument, as I’m using it here, is somewhat new.
Naturally theology is often divided into distinctive branches or types of arguments. These include families such as cosmological arguments, moral arguments, or teleological arguments, along with some other, less common ones as well. Of this latter sort, I’d suggest, there is the branch of “arguments from desire”. I consider these as less common just in relation to professional philosophical work; but, among popular apologetics, they are seen more frequently. Furthermore, they are quite common just in terms of their natural appeal and emotional effectiveness. It seems plausible that a good number of people believe in God and subscribe to some religious tradition on the basis of a kind of implicit, perhaps even subconscious argument from desire within them.
A typical argument from desire might be summarized and succinctly captured in this quote from C. S. Lewis:
“The Christian says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world” .
Generally, arguments from desire are considered pretty weak, and for the most part, although I find them interesting, I wouldn’t personally use them in an attempt to establish the existence of God. But I think a unique argument from desire can be found in the writings of St. Augustine that I’d like to explore here.
First, let’s consider how the argument summarized by the Lewis quote might be responded to. There are a number of possible responses one could make, but we’ll just look at two here. First is the problem of the subjectivity of desire. We all, to a certain extent, desire different things. Someone might object to Lewis that they in fact do not have any such desire “which no experience in this world can satisfy”, i.e. they have no desire for God or anything like God. A second response might be to say that even if one does have such a desire, this is no reason to suppose that God actually exists in reality. In other words, one might wonder why the presence of a desire necessitates the existence of the object of that desire.
These objections, I believe, while perhaps potent against Lewis’s question, are solved in a source much older and more philosophically sophisticated than Lewis: St. Augustine.
In the very first of his works after his famous conversion, De Beata Vita, St. Augustine tackled the issue of happiness. Happiness, he says, is what all people desire, automatically and universally. This is very much in line with the central thrust of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. For Aristotle and the ancient Greeks happiness is eudaimonia, which would become in Latin beatitudo. It has, in contrast to our contemporary conception of happiness as essentially an emotional state, much more the connotation of human flourishing, well-being, living and acting well, in a way that is objectively good for human beings to do. It might be best thought of as “the good life”. Of course, both Aristotle and Augustine thought emotions would follow the will, that pleasure and joy would be a result of the activity of eudaimonia or beatitudo. But the latter is more fundamental than the mere emotions; and it is quite significant to recognize this. Aristotle, more than just saying that happiness is what all people want, insisted that happiness is the ultimate reason for which we undertake any action at all. Happiness, says Aristotle, is our natural and ultimate end. .
So this is the first premise of our Augustinian Argument from Desire: All people desire happiness; happiness is what everyone wants. “We [all wish] to be happy” . This is much more modest than Lewis’ point that people have an innate desire for something “which no experience in this world can satisfy.” And it is, I think quite defensible. In fact, I’d suggest that it’s almost trivially true. Consider this passage from Augustine’s Confessions:
“The desire for happiness is . . . found in everybody. If we did not know this with certain knowledge, we would not want it with determination in our will. But what does this mean? If two people are asked if they want to serve in the army, it may turn out that one of them replies that he would like to do so, while the other would not. But if they are asked whether they would like to be happy, each would at once say without the least hesitation that he would choose to be so. And the reason why one would wish to be a soldier and the other would not is only that they want to be happy. Is it then the case that one person finds joy in one way, another in a different way? What all agree upon is that they want to be happy, just as they would concur, if asked, that they want to experience joy and would call that joy the happy life. Even if one person pursues it in one way, and another in a different way, yet there is one goal which all are striving to attain, namely to experience joy” .
Notice his point here. The fact that all people undertake different actions/seek different things does nothing to undermine the fact that what they ultimately seek is happiness. Even if different people understand happiness to be something different, there is at least some fundamental basis to the general concept of happiness which all people grasp and automatically are inclined to desire. Even if they do not consciously and actively plan out a path towards achieving happiness, all at least recognize that happiness is what they do indeed want. Everyone wants to lead a good, healthy, flourishing life which lacks suffering and evil and is marked by joy and gladness. In fact, this is so axiomatic that Aristotle could even just define happiness as that which all desire. On that basis, the very definition of happiness would secure the truthfulness of this first premise. If you were to go up to a hundred different people and ask what they want most in life, you might get a hundred different answers. But underlying all their answers would be the understanding that the reason why they gave that answer is because they believe that answer to be that which will make them happy. Happiness in that case is just identified with whatever their specific answers happened to be.
Which leads to the second premise: Happiness consists first in possessing what one desires. As St. Augustine puts it, “[By no means] is a person happy who does not possess what he wants” . At first, this might seem a strange statement for a Christian saint to make. But, again, it is, to an extent, just trivially true. If happiness is that end which people desire, then to lack what one desires is to lack happiness. We have desires, and if they are unfulfilled, our lives themselves are not fulfilled and not flourishing. If, for example, a man says that what he desires most in life is love, but he is alone and completely bereft of all love, then one could hardly declare him to be a happy man. But if this fact alone were the whole of it, that a person is not happy who does not possess what he wants, then happiness would be rendered a very shallow, almost pathetic thing. And so St. Augustine does not leave it there:
The third premise is that “not everyone who has what he wants is happy” . This, of course, might seem blatantly contradictory to the previous premise; but really it just makes clear that possessing the object of one’s desires is a necessary but not sufficient condition for happiness. In other words, one cannot be happy without possessing what one desires; but just possessing what one desires does not necessarily guarantee happiness. This, above all, is proved experientially. How often do we think to ourselves, “If I just have this, I’ll be happy,” only to acquire that very thing and yet find that we still are not happy, that we still yearn for more? But why is this?
In De Beata Vita, Augustine assents to the view that “If [someone] wishes and possesses good things, he is happy; if he desires evil things-no matter if he possesses them-he is wretched” . He goes on to refer to Tullius, saying:
“In his Hortensius, a book written in the praise and defense of philosophy, he said: ‘Behold, not the philosophers, but only people who like to argue, state that all are happy who live according to their own will. This, of course, is not true, for, to wish what is not fitting is the worst of wretchedness. But it is not so deplorable to fail of attaining what we desire as it is to wish to attain what is not proper. For, greater evil is brought about through one’s wicked will than happiness through fortune'” .
So, here, he is denying that happiness is just acting “according to [one’s own] will”, i.e. acting to acquire whatever one wants/desires. For it is possible to desire that which “is not fitting”, or which is bad/evil. In that case, getting what one wants is “deplorable”. And desiring that which is objectively bad is in itself “the worst of wretchedness”. The idea is that there are certain things which are intrinsically and objectively good for our natures to do/have, and likewise things which are intrinsically and objectively bad/harmful for our natures to do/have; and to desire the latter cannot produce happiness–in fact it will produce the exact opposite of happiness, which is wretchedness/misery. So, instead, in order to be happy, our desires must be for that which is actually good for our natures, and we must fulfill these desires.
So far, there is really nothing that should be too overwhelmingly controversial about what has been said. Of course, Augustine’s whole account is rooted in a very classical understanding of reality and human nature, which is at least implicitly essentialist and teleological. But it might be possible to defend these first few premises apart from such a worldview. The first two premises, I think, are almost undeniably true. And the third is overwhelmingly supported by experience. Consider, for a basic example, a small child who desires candy but, upon acquiring getting what he wants, becomes sick to his stomach from stuffing himself with sweets, which are bad for him. His desires were not for the right thing, and hence fulfilling those desires led only to pain and suffering, rather than happiness. This is simple enough. Happiness is what all desire, and arises from fulfilling desires, but only those desires the objects of which are good for our natures.
But here is where things get more complicated. Augustine next insists that “what a man possesses ought to be obtained by him when he wants it” . In other words, “It must be something . . . that ever remains, and is neither dependent upon fate nor subject to any mishap. For, whatever is mortal and transitory we cannot possess whenever we wish it, and as long as we wish to have it” . This is language much closer to Lewis’ statement, but it is still more subtle and contains a bit more metaphysical depth. The idea is that true happiness, in order to be established, requires certain securities. For if happiness is, as we’ve defined it, the fulfillment of desires which are in accord with the good of human nature, the question arises of whether or not we actually can fulfill these desires. Notice, again, the difference from Lewis’ version. Lewis contended that we all innately desire the supernatural, which is open for debate. But this Augustinian argument is just asserting that we all desire happiness, which is not so controversial. This effectively removes the first objection to Lewis’s argument, which was the subjectivity of desire. Some desires, such as that for the supernatural, might well indeed be subjective and not wide-spread. But others are rooted in human nature (e.g. the desire for food and water) and hence are universal, and it seems that the desire for happiness is one such desire. But the next objection is that of leaping from what we want to what is actually there. Here Augustine takes an interesting turn. We all naturally desire happiness, but what guarantee is there that we can achieve it? Well, there is none, unless our desires are fulfilled by something that is not “mortal and transitory”, something which by nature will change, alter, pass away, or be susceptible of loss.
This, of course, might seem somewhat questionable. But Augustine extends his argument. He asks, “Is a person happy who has fear?” to which the answer is no . A person who is constantly worried about losing that which he loves and delights in does not possess a full, pure, untainted happiness; it is soured by fear. So, if true happiness is to be realized, and if happiness is the fulfillment of desires in accordance with our natural good, then those desires must be fulfilled by “that which always endures and cannot be snatched away through any severe misfortune” , i.e. something which is certain, lasting, and immutable. But it is God alone which fits this requirement; and hence “whoever possess God is happy” .
At this point, it might seem that our Augustinian argument collapses into the same problems posed against Lewis. Keep in mind that St. Augustine already believed in the existence of God, and didn’t intend this line of thought as a positive argument for God’s existence; he was just considering the nature of happiness, given his already established beliefs. But I am suggesting his general line of thought can be used as such an argument. Notice here the subtle but clear difference between the Augustinian argument and Lewis’s. Lewis started with an innate desire for the supernatural and concluded that the supernatural must exist. But the Augustinian argument just starts with the basic desire for happiness, and concludes that this desire itself can only be fulfilled by something permanent and unchanging. In other words, if we want to be truly and fully happy, we must have something like this.
But this takes us back to the problem of why we should think something like this actually exists, even if it is necessary for achieving real happiness. Since St. Augustine did not intend his argument for such use, we’ll have to draw out its implications further in order to come to an answer. In fact, our answer will have to take us back to Aristotle.
Lewis’s question about desires fails to ground those desires, leaving open the issue of subjectivity. This is because not all desires are the same. Some desires, as shown in St. Augustine’s example of the two men and their respective feelings about joining the army, really are dependent upon the individual and other particular circumstances. But other desires are a natural outflowing of human nature, as we’ve said before. The specific desire for the supernatural might may or may not be this latter type, but the universal desire for happiness is universally so. As Aristotle would say, happiness just is what fulfills our human nature. Any particular longing may satisfy some specific want within our nature, but happiness is what fulfills the whole of it. Hence this desire is grounded in something objective and universal. And it would simply make no sense for our natures to have such an innate desire for something that is intrinsically unfulfillable. Remember, our desire is not for God specifically; it is for happiness broadly. But St. Augustine’s point is that this desire for happiness is such that it can only be satisfied by something like God.
Another important point is that happiness is not only the ultimate object of our natural desire, it also consists of the fulfillment of desires which are in accord with the good of our natures. In other words, in Aristotelian language, the very proper function of our essential natures requires the actual existence of such a being in order to realize their good. Other creatures with other natures likewise have functions that are all fulfillable. For example, the function of animals is to grow, perceive, reproduce, etc., and these are all realizable ends. It would be simply absurd for a creature to exist with a nature that has a function which seeks as its natural end something intrinsically nonexistent, nonavailable, or unfulfillable. But the function of human nature has such ends which are only fulfillable by something like God. So the best (maybe even the only) explanation is that something like God actually exists.
In the end, we have here an argument which in some ways is quite similar to other arguments from desire, but in some other significant respects is quite different. In particular, what is especially unique about this Augustinian argument, for which reason I feel justified in calling it a novel development, is the argument from certain necessary conditions of happiness which are only fulfillable in the existence of something lasting and immutable like God. Of course, the presentation I’ve given here does not even come close to fully exploring the argument and it’s implications. It needs to be further developed. This has just been a general introduction to something that could be worked out much more fully and with much more depth. And, as I mentioned, I find arguments from desire to be somewhat weaker and less persuasive, certainly lacking the metaphysical solidity and potency of, say, the Five Ways. So I’m not entirely convinced of the success of this present argument. Nevertheless I find it interesting and worth consideration; and hopefully it will spark some good thoughts and dialogue.
. Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. 1952. New York: Harper Collins, 2001. 136-137.
. To see a discussion on the terms eudaimonia and beatitudo, see Wolterstorff, Nicholas. “Happiness in Augustine’s Confessions.” Augustine’s Confessions: Philosophy in Autobiography. : Oxford University Press, 2014-07-03. Oxford Scholarship Online. 2014-06-19. Date Accessed 14 Mar. 2017 <http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199577552.001.0001/acprof-9780199577552-chapter-4>.
. Augustine. The Happy Life; Answer to Skeptics; Divine Providence and the Problem of Evil; Soliloquies (The Fathers of the Church, Volume 5). Baltimore, US: Catholic University of America Press, 1948. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 13 March 2017. De Beata Vita 2.10.
. Augustine. Confessions. Translated by Henry Chadwick. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. 198.
. Augustine. The Happy Life. 2.10.
. Ibid. 2.11.
Header Image: Public Domain, St. Augustine Reading the Epistle of St. Paul, accessed via Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:TolleLege.jpg#mw-jump-to-license