What is true happiness? A force? A feeling? A farce? Or is happiness merely a subjective reality that each individual has to seek and find on their own, in their own way, and according to their own desires?
Secularists, philosophers, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Naturalists, Agnostics, and even music moguls like Pharrell Williams all have provided answers to this question. What is true happiness? What is the greatest good? Where is ultimate satisfaction found?
I have found adequate answers in an old book with a timeless message. The Consolation of Philosophy is a classic work written by Roman philosopher Boethius in the early sixth century. It is essentially a long and extended counseling session between the author and a character by the name of Lady Philosophy. With the author Boethius, his readers crave this fair Lady’s words on issues, realities, and questions with deep intrigue and desire.
Readers of The Consolation of Philosophy sit on the psychiatrist’s couch and receive counsel on issues ranging from why suffering exists to where ultimate satisfaction and happiness can be found. The book is designed like a long, drawn out conversation with a wise grandmother, who drills Boethius with impeccable wisdom. Countless themes could be explicated, but what I found most interesting was the author’s clear view of where satisfaction is found. Lady Philosophy, and therefore Boethius, sees true happiness being found in the “ultimate good.”
In Book 3, Boethius records Lady Philosophy taking her scalpel and making an incision on his heart by saying, “The remedies that await you are bitter when tasted but become all the more sweet when they are swallowed down deep. And how you would burn to hear what you say you are eager for, if only you knew where you were being led!” (3.1). Boethius had pursued the ultimate good in Fortune and had come away unsatisfied and craving. The good that Boethius was craving, Lady Philosophy tells him, is “true happiness,” which is “the happiness your soul dreams of, but which it can’t now see, since you are occupied with the mere shadows of things.” As expected, Boethius makes an obvious request, saying, “Do this, I beg you…Show me now what that true happiness is.”
Boethius is being taught that his heart is craving something much greater than himself, yet that is crucial to his existence and satisfaction—true happiness. Lady Philosophy shows that happiness or “blessedness” is what every man desires. She says, “Every concern of man, which he pursues in his many efforts and seeks by various paths, aims nevertheless at the single goal of blessedness” (3.2). The ultimate and final satisfaction of the soul is found in attaining this ultimate good, “For when a man acquires that good, there is nothing left that he can desire.” This desire was firmly planted in the hearts and minds of all men, though some “deceitful error” has led men to find happiness in “things that are false.”
After exploring many ways that men try to seek and find the ultimate good, true happiness, and final blessedness, Lady Philosophy focuses her aim on the nature of the true Good in which true happiness is found. She writes, “So, since you have seen the form of the imperfect good as well as that of the perfect one, I think we should show where this perfection of happiness is to be found” (3.10). The time has come! The point has been clearly established that all men have a natural desire for happiness, satisfaction, and joy. They seek it in insufficient and broken cisterns, but this grand consoler is about to reveal where true and lasting happiness can be found.
True and lasting happiness and satisfaction can be found nowhere but in God, who is the “perfect Good…and is a sort of fountain of all good things.” Later, Lady Philosophy minces no words, “And so, in order not to draw out this argument into eternity, we must confess that God, who is the most high, is completely full of the highest and most perfect Good. But we have concluded that the perfect Good is true blessedness, and thus true blessedness must reside in the most high God.” So, in the end, true happiness is found in God. It is to this end that Boethius’ heart must pursue.
Elements of Boethius’ understanding of the heart’s natural inclination to desire satisfaction, happiness, blessedness, and joy can be seen in the theology of Jonathan Edwards and John Piper. Edwards believed every man and woman had an innate desire for satisfaction and this kind of joy is found in God. Likewise, Piper teaches that the soul craves pleasure and that the soul finds deepest pleasure in God. Piper goes even further by observing, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”
True happiness is found in God alone, who is the highest good. It is in God that the heart finds satisfaction for its longing and a man’s search for pleasure will never cease until he finds it in God.
Mathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.