An Augustinian Argument from Desire

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” [1].

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. [2].

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” [3]. 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” [4].

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” [5]. 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” [6]. 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” [7]. 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'” [8].

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” [9]. 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” [10]. 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 [11]. 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” [12], 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” [13].

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.



[1]. Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. 1952. New York: Harper Collins, 2001. 136-137.

[2]. 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 <;.

[3]. 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.

[4]. Augustine. Confessions. Translated by Henry Chadwick. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. 198.

[5]. Augustine. The Happy Life. 2.10.

[6]. Ibid.

[7]. Ibid.

[8]. Ibid.

[9]. Ibid. 2.11.

[10]. Ibid.

[11]. Ibid.

[12]. Ibid.

[13]. Ibid.

Header Image: Public Domain, St. Augustine Reading the Epistle of St. Paul, accessed via Wikimedia Commons:



6 thoughts on “An Augustinian Argument from Desire

  1. This is an interesting approach but I don’t find it very persuasive, but I’m an atheist so that’s kind of expected.

    I can think of at least two objections to key premises though, which you may want to consider.

    First is the idea that the argument moves from “happiness” to “a full, pure, untainted happiness”, which I think is subject to the same kinds of objections that Lewis’s formulation has regarding “just because we may want a fuller, purer, less tainted happiness” does not mean that it exists.

    Related to that is the acceptance of the idea that our happiness is like us, finite. Atheists have an outlook that what we have in this life is precious because it is finite. Yes, the happy fulfilled life I have now because I have security, food, and a loving family could be wrecked by disaster, but the chances of that happening is exceptionally low – so while the possibility of losing everything that makes my life meaningful exists I don’t live in fear of it happening just like I’m not afraid to go outside even though I could be struck dead by lightning. So even if I don’t (or can’t on atheism) have this more enhanced happiness doesn’t mean I am any less happy or fulfilled now. In fact I’d argue the fact that I don’t have that kind of happiness right now is an argument for atheism – given that I think if a tri-omni god existed we’d all have been created as finite perfect beings in heaven from the start. 😛

    The second objection I can think of is related to happiness regarding what you call desires of a “good nature”. Given that you’re a Thomist, and what I’ve read of you before I assume you ascribe to a kind of Natural Law theory of morality – fulfilling our teleos is what is good.

    Except we have some powerful counter examples where fulfilling desires that on that ethical system is “objectively bad” ends up with people being quite very happy and fulfilled – and denial of those desires ends up making those people quite depressed, suicidal, etc.

    The example I’m thinking of here are LBGT folks, those whose desires for same-sex relations are, according to your natural law theory of ethics, objectively wrong. Yet we find many instances of people who are quite happy and fulfilled being in same sex relations, in many cases where they find life long partners for whom they share a deep eros type love. We see instances where denial of this (through gay conversion therapy, etc) leads to suicide, or a continued suppression of those desires.

    This seems to run directly counter example to your idea of attaining a type of happiness vs. having a wretched desire – an empirically well-established outcome of happiness vs. “wretched desires” which makes one question either your system of ethics or this argument.


    • Thanks for the thoughtful response.
      Your first objection is directed towards my “move from ‘happiness’ to ‘a full, pure, untainted happiness'”. I don’t think I ever make such a move. From the start, I’m using happiness as “eudaimonia” or “beatitudo” as understood by Aristotle and Augustine. This just is a “full, pure, untainted” happiness, so that wherever I refer to happiness simply, I’m using it in this sense. The first point is just that this happiness is what everyone desires, whether or not it can actually exist. Later I argue that it must be at least possible to achieve, sense it is, as Aristotle argues, the fulfillment of the very function of our natures. This is, I think, the weakest point in my argument, and admittedly needs to be developed further. At worst, I think it can be stated in terms of a kind of probabilistic argument: the actual existence of such happiness makes more sense/better explains our nature. But this needs more work, which I may try to do in the future.
      I find your next point very interesting. I have several thoughts. First, our disagreement might come down to our respective stances on essential human nature. For example, I might not accept that humans are wholly finite; since I think humans have a rational/spiritual soul, I might argue that at least an aspect of human nature IS infinite, and hence cannot be wholly fulfilled by anything finite. But this, I think, is more in line with Lewis’ argument, which I was trying to keep a bit of distance from.
      You also comment on the fact that some disaster could destroy everything that makes your life meaningful, but that this is exceptionally low. I didn’t extrapolate on this in my post, but I think Augustine’s point on fear actually has more to do with death generally. So the likelihood of some freak disaster destroying everything that you love all at once might be low, but the likelihood of death doing exactly that at some point is certain. It is this certainty of death robbing us of all life that Augustine takes to be a limit to happiness. Hence, he, and later Aquinas, would argue that we actually cannot have a full happiness in this life at all, until we are united after death with the presence of God in an eternal, unending life of joy. This actually might have some bearing on another of your objections below. If I write further on this argument, I may make use of Plato’s definition of love in his “Symposium”. Plato argues that to really love something you must desire to possess it forever. To combine this with Augustine’s thinking, one might say that since happiness is our ultimate end, that which we desire above all else, and that we innately desire to possess this happiness forever. Hence death is automatically a limit to the possibility of that happiness. More on this below.
      Your next objection is related to Natural Law. In defending Natural Law theory, I’d want to make two main points. First, happiness is achieved by a full life of virtue. Second, virtue itself is determined by the fulfillment of natural ends. To this extent, I think that even if one were to completely accept your objection as true, it still wouldn’t work against either Natural Law theory generally or this Augustinian argument specifically. Here’s why: If it were true that living a life with LGBT activity actually made one happy, then Natural Law theory could just accept that LGBT activity is in accord with virtue and not a wretched desire. In that case, the argument from desire still stands.
      But I do not happen to accept this. And so by way of response, I’d want to suggest that people living that kind of lifestyle actually aren’t and even cannot be happy, where happiness is understood to be eudaimonia or beatitudo. There is an important difference between the latter and mere emotional feelings of contentment and meaningful fulfillment. Beatitudo, to go back to Augustine’s point, can only be realized in a perfect and eternal state. But this also means that people who in this life live unvirtuously (and on Natural Law theory, LGBT activity is unvirtuous), even if they seem happy and fulfilled, will not and cannot be such in the truest and most complete sense after the death of their bodies.
      Thanks again for reading and commenting!


      • Thanks for the kind words.

        I have some specific objections to your points, but in reading the whole of your response I see a greater objection:

        In the second half you start talking about eudaimonia or beatitudo and how they can “only be realized in a perfect and eternal state”. In which case, none of us at all have ever experienced eudaimonia or beatitudo and this kind of happiness can only exist if a god exists.

        In which case your argument is assuming god exists once you’ve assumed or have argued that this kind of happiness exists because we desire it.

        This is sort of related to my original point where I thought you were moving from happiness as we experience it to this fuller happiness.

        Another point of objection, I think is related to confusing happiness as a thing it self that can be desired vs. a result that we achieve once we have acquired the objects of our desire. I think this is exemplified when you say:

        “Happiness consists first in possessing what one desires.”

        But the entire argument is about desiring happiness, which renders the above point at best confused.

        I am happy because I have achieved what I desired: security, food, shelter, a loving spouse, children, a career I enjoy, etc. Yes you can say “I want to be happy”, but I can not just go out and get happiness in the same way I go out and get what I desire in the other examples.

        In fact as I write this I realize that this kind of an account of happiness would run directly counter to the type you’re describing in the first place (see objection above), so perhaps this just results in us talking past each other.

        As for specifics:

        I’m not sure that arguing that the kind of happiness you want must be at least achievable because it is a fulfillment of our very natures. Our nature could well be that we have an innate desire not to die and to want our needs fulfilled, but that could be because doing so results in us living long enough to make offspring and so the “pie in the sky” desire for an eternal life of happiness is just that – a dream that isn’t achievable.

        Further any arguments that relate to truly wanting something means we must want it forever are going to make the argument less persuasive, not more. At least if your goal is to convince people who don’t already accept your metaphysic (in which case, they would have been theists long ago).

        As far as death being a certainty, yes, I can accept that “all must die” – but the refrain of “but not today” has a good bit of force behind it. Just because I know my happiness can’t be eternal does not take away from its majesty now. For instance, I have a 4 year old daughter – last night I gave her a bath, washed her hair, then brushed it out, blew dried till it was soft and smooth and she loved it, and then I read her a story and kissed her good night. It was in short, wonderful for both of us.

        But I know that one day she will grow older and it will not at all be appropriate for me to be giving her baths or doing her hair, let alone reading her a story before tucking her into bed at night. This fact does not trouble me in the least, nor does it take away from the joy I have of taking care of my young child and making her happy. In fact even thinking of wishing I could keep things exactly as they are now, having a 4 year old in perpetuity seems like a nightmare rather than a wonderful dream. So knowing that something wonderful must at some point come to a definite end doesn’t take away from the happiness it brings me.

        This is why death, while certain, doesn’t mean I can’t be happy or fulfilled.

        As for your responses to an LBGT couple I think there are two points:

        I would find it quite odd to see an account of natural law theory that would render LBGT activities as virtuous. They seem quite incompatible, or at least redefining a natural function of our sex organs to allow LBGT activities count as virtuous would allow quite a lot of other things currently seen as explicitly against natural law theory. So I’m not sure how you’re going to salvage that.

        Also, I did say that you have to question your system of ethics or the argument – in which case I’d say giving an account of natural law theory that allows for LBGT activities counts as a serious “questioning of your ethics” even if you’ve retained the framework! 😉

        However, its your second response that I find very troubling. You effectively either define happiness out of the realm of being achievable at all in this life (ie. what drove my first objection) or you’re telling us to reject the evidence in front of our eyes where we can see very many happy and fulfilled LBGT people. That seems rather dire in terms of making us accept the metaphysical account of happiness you’re espousing, assuming that any happiness/fulfillment we experience here and now is at all related to the eudaimonia or beatitudo you’re referencing in the larger sense.


  2. Sorry for the brief delay in getting back to you.

    I now see what you mean by moving between different senses of happiness, and I think you’re right that I do make this jump. But after reflecting on it a bit, I also think that this jump might be the main idea behind the whole argument. The argument begins with the premise that everyone desires happiness. This happiness is still eudaimonia, but it is more broad, perhaps more Aristotelian. For Aristotle, after all, eudaimonia was only understood as pertaining to this present, finite life. But then, the main point of the argument is in putting forth that even this basic concept of eudaimonia is impossible unless certain conditions are met, and these conditions include (so Augustine suggests) the absence of fear of the possibility of losing that happiness. So to your objection that “your argument is assuming god exists once you’ve assumed or have argued that this kind of happiness exists because we desire it”, I’d say that I don’t think that’s what I have done. I think what I’m trying to do is establish that everyone desires happiness, then argue that happiness is only possible if certain conditions are met, and then argue that those conditions are only possible if something like God exists. I must admit, however, that as I consider it more, I think the argument as I’ve presented it may only (if it works) point to some kind of possibility of eternal life, not necessarily God specifically. It think it might be able to be expanded to such, even just using more of Augustine’s own writings; or else perhaps one might argue that eternal life itself is only possible if God exists; but as it stands, I see my present form of the argument as perhaps only pointing to eternal life generally.

    Next you suggest that I may be confusing happiness as some particular object which can be desired in itself, with happiness as just the result of fulfilling other desires for particular objects. To which I would say, I think it might, in a sense, be both. Perhaps the trouble is that we’re thinking of happiness in different senses. Which is understandable for many reasons, such as the fact that semantically and historically happiness is quite a broad term, or the simple fact (as Augustine points out in his example of the two men) that different individuals have very different ideas of what happiness will look like to them. This, I think, is also relevant to our discussion of LGBT people, to which I will turn below. I am here using happiness in the classical sense, which is not, as it is commonly thought of today, an emotion, or an emotional state, or even a “state” at all. For Aristotle, happiness is primarily an activity. So, as several scholars have pointed out, the better translation might actually be “the good life”. It’s also worth point out that Aristotle thinks one can really only achieve such “happiness” after a “complete life”, after the totality of their life. Aristotle argues that such happiness is 1) the ultimate end of human life, that alone which we desire for its OWN sake, and 2) that which all other secondary ends point to. I think we can take this to mean that we both desire happiness itself, and that happiness is only achievable as a result of fulfilling certain other desires. In other words, I don’t see a contradiction between saying both that happiness is a result of desires, and an object desired itself. I fully agree that you cannot just go out and get happiness like you can the object of other desires, but that’s because, I think, happiness is the one thing which we desire for its own sake, and achieve THROUGH the fulfillment of other desires. This was the point of the second premise, that fulfilling desires is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for happiness. We desire specific things, and fulfilling those desires results in happiness. But we also desire that result itself, and in fact, Aristotle would argue we only desire other things BECAUSE we ultimately desire happiness, and think that those other things will in fact result in happiness.

    Your next objection: “I’m not sure that arguing that the kind of happiness you want must be at least achievable because it is a fulfillment of our very natures. Our nature could well be that we have an innate desire not to die and to want our needs fulfilled, but that could be because doing so results in us living long enough to make offspring and so the “pie in the sky” desire for an eternal life of happiness is just that – a dream that isn’t achievable.” First (and I don’t think you’ll like this ;p), the kind of nature I’m talking about here is the essential natures of Aristotelian-Thomism, natures which are immutable, intrinsic, and have natural functions and ends. In short its a thoroughly teleological conception of natures. But to attempt a response: suppose our nature does have an “innate desire not to die”. To this I would ask, why so? And the answer might be, as you say, “because doing so results in us living long enough to make offspring”. But then I’d just push the question further back: “Why do we desire to live long enough to make enough offspring?” We could offer a purely biological answer, but the type of explanation I’m searching for here is metaphysical, deeper, more fundamental. On this Aristotelian view, natural desires are correlated with the natural “functions” of a being. So the natural functions of plants include things like growth and reproduction. The natural functions of all animals include things like growth, reproduction, and sense perception. Finally, the natural functions of human animals specifically includes, in addition to all the others, rationality, intellect and will. These things, Aristotle would say, are naturally directed to that which is their function. The fulfillment of these functions is the natural end of a being. And, he argues, happiness just is the ultimate natural end of humans, the fulfillment of the human function (specifically of rationality, intellect and will). There might be (and are) purely evolutionary reasons why plants grow and animals perceive and humans have brains which can think, but these are not sufficient, I’d suggest, as a metaphysical explanation. And for this reason, I’m arguing that it wouldn’t make sense for natural ends of these types to be in principle unfulfillable. The thrust and uniqueness of this argument is in defending the premise that happiness has certain necessary conditions which point to the existence of an eternal life. Otherwise I think the argument would be almost uncontroversial.

    I’m not sure I understand your suggestion that insisting on “wanting something forever” weakens rather than strengthens my argument. I know we come from radically different metaphysical positions, but this point of mine is actually rooted in several ideas from Plato, which is not my own metaphysical position. Nevertheless, I have not yet sufficiently worked out this particular issue, so I’ll leave it until I do.

    Your statement about your daughter is beautiful and profound, and I for the most part agree. But I think, again, we are using “happiness” in different senses. After all, a horrible, morally horrendous murderer could potentially have such a deep and wonderful experience with his/her child that would make him/her similarly happy in that moment, but the happiness I’m talking about (and Aristotle and Augustine) is strictly impossible for anyone who is not morally virtuous (I’m not, of course, suggesting that you aren’t a morally virtuous person. From our interactions you seem very kind, honest and intelligent!)
    So I think that while certainty of death possibly does not prohibit one kind of happiness (the happiness of meaningful emotional fulfillment), my argument is that it does prohibit the eudaimonia/beatitudo happiness. What’s interesting is that Aristotle, in the Nic Ethics, while not really ever espousing a belief in any sort of eternal life like Augustine and Christians would, seems to actually recognize this problem. For he states that a life can only be judged as having been happy once it has been completed, but then he has to wrestle with the problem that this implies that no one can be happy while they are still alive, but also no one can be happy while they’re dead, so is happiness even possible? This riddle is solved by positing an eternal life like Augustine would.

    Your response to my first statement about LGBT activity is well taken, and I agree. And your second response is, I think, related to my previous comments here about what type of happiness I’m referring to.

    Thanks again for the exchange!


  3. It’s hard to remember another comment thread where I’ve had an exchange with someone I disagreed with that has been quite so nice or as illuminating, so thank you!

    I can think of a few points that may help you for trying to bridge from eternal life to god having to exist – the main one being that even if there was a second life, there’s no guarantee that our needs or desires will be met anymore than we have in this life. As such you need a god to exist to provide you with that guarantee.

    Of course there are problems with the concept of heaven since it’s described as being an eternal kind of happy place, but we know that it involves a constant praise of god – which may not be the object of what one desires at all times. God could of course change our desires such that praising him constantly is all that we desire – but then you’re depriving happiness of any meaning by doing so. It’s kind of like hooking yourself up to a kind of pleasure machine such that all you want is to be in the machine (or to take the drug, etc). But we would say this kind of thing is horrible rather than a blessing, because we recognize that just subverting our desires to desire something else robs us of our autonomy and we consider that to be a fundamental part of our life.

    That all said, I think the main part where I would want to object is where you say:

    “But to attempt a response: suppose our nature does have an “innate desire not to die”. To this I would ask, why so? And the answer might be, as you say, “because doing so results in us living long enough to make offspring”. But then I’d just push the question further back: “Why do we desire to live long enough to make enough offspring?” We could offer a purely biological answer, but the type of explanation I’m searching for here is metaphysical, deeper, more fundamental.”

    First, I’d object that not everything needs to be metaphysical – the biological answer could suffice.

    Second, even if you were to push for a metaphysical answer, that answer could well be naturalistic – that we just are the summation of our physical components and that the biological answer is the final answer as to why we have that innate desire as part of our nature.

    In fact one could say that once any kind of biological “life” has been created through chance or impersonal naturalistic forces, that this is a key component for any life to continue – because of life’s finite nature under naturalism. This may well provide a kind of teleos that a naturalist could appeal to in order to retain parts of an Aristotelean metaphysic that wouldn’t require a mind to be the most fundamental part of reality, or that a god must exist. Hell we could even get an atheistic natural law kind of ethics!

    That rather interesting rabbit trail aside, there is something to say about “eudaimonia or beatitudo”. First, I think it’s rightly translated as “the good life” vs. a kind of happiness. This makes sense from Aristotle’s understanding since you can only judge if someone has lived “the good life” after they have died. There isn’t really a paradox of happiness there, it only adds confusion to make eudaimonia or beatitudo synonymous with the kind of happiness. This would resolve any supposed paradox.

    The example you use of a murderer having tender loving moments with their child would be a case where they could lead a very happy life, but we wouldn’t say they lived “a good life” because despite them being generally very happy, they were responsible for evil. We judge their life according to our ethics.

    I think what you (or rather Augustine) is adding is unnecessary.


    • Sorry again for the long delay in responding. I agree, our discussion here has been quite enlightening! I very much appreciate especially your last response. The more I’ve thought about this argument, the less strong I think it is. I still find it interesting and think it could perhaps be tweaked to work, but I’m focusing now on a specifically Thomistic version of the argument which I think doesn’t run into the problems you’ve brought to light with this one, and is all around just stronger, in my opinion. I’m researching/writing it now and should post it in a few weeks, if you want to give it a look then!


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