Book Recommendation: Happiness and Contemplation by Josef Pieper

August 20, 2010

You will want to buy this book. It will fit perfectly on any bookshelf and I can’t tell you how reaffirming it is to have a very thin volume devoted to Happiness…

“Happiness” Comprehends A Variety Of Meanings
There is nevertheless a fundamental significance, which should never be overlooked, in the very fact that a single word, “happiness,” comprehends such a variety of meanings: the immortal richness of divine life and man’s part in it, as well as the petty satisfaction of a fleeting desire. We venture to assert that this ambiguity reflects the structure of the whole of Creation. St. Thomas puts it this way: “As created good is a reflection of the uncreated good, so the attainment of a created good is a reflected beatitude.”
Now the “attainment of a created good” is  a thing that happens constantly, and in a thousand varied forms. It happens whenever a thirsty man drinks, whenever a questioner receives a flash of illumination, whenever lovers are together, whenever a task is brought to a successful conclusion and a plan bears fruit. And when men call all this “happiness,” they are close to the insight that each gratification points to the ultimate one, and that all happiness has some connection with eternal beatitude. Some connection, if only this: that every fulfillment this side of Heaven instantly reveals its inadequacy. It is immediately evident that such satisfactions are not enough; they are not what we have really sought; they cannot really satisfy us at all.
Andre Gide noted in his Journals  “The terrible thing is that we can never make ourselves drunk enough.”

“Contemplation Is Man’s Ultimate Happiness”
One might take the statement that contemplation is man’s ultimate happiness and say to oneself: “Very well, obviously this refers to the ‘happiness of the philosopher.’ Undeniably there does exist a happiness of knowledge and insight, just as there is happiness in action and ‘happiness of the senses.’ Certainly it can be maintained, with good reason, that the happiness of the perceptive mind surpasses all other forms of happiness in depth and value.”
All very well. Yet to interpret this sentence in this way, to put so special a construction on it, is to ignore its real meaning. For it says not a word about any special happiness that pertains only to the “philosopher.” The dictum speaks of the happiness of man in general, of the whole, physical, earthly, human man. And contemplation is not held up as one among other modes of happiness, even though an especially lofty one. Rather what is says is this: however the human craving for happiness may time and again be distracted by a thousand small gratifications, it remains directed unwaveringly toward one ultimate satisfaction which is in truth its aim. “Among a thousand twigs,” says Vergil in Dante’s universal poem, “one sweet fruit is sought.” The finding of this fruit, the ultimate gratification of human nature, the ultimate satiation of man’s deepest thirst, takes place in contemplation!

The Created Soul And Its Essence
The great teachers of the Occident have always contested (that nature and mind are exclusive concepts). They have steadfastly maintained that here is one being which is in a precise sense both mind and nature simultaneously. This being is the created human soul. “By nature” means : by virtue of creation. All being and activity is “by nature” which – from within the central core of things – flows directly out of the primal impulse of the act of creation, by which creatures have become what they are.
Part of the definition of the created soul, therefore, is that it has received its essence – and along with that its assignment in life – form elsewhere, ab alio, from the shaping and life-giving act of creation. It necessarily follows that in the center of the created soul something happens which is its own act, and therefore an act of mind, but simultaneously a natural process “by virtue of creation.” The desire for happiness is precisely this character; it is “willing by nature,” which is to say an act of the mind and a natural process at one and the same time.

Why Do You Want To Be Happy?
Those…who cannot accept the idea of a desire for happiness inherent in man’s composition; that idea appears to them a slur upon man’s autonomous spirit. Only if we understand man as a created being to the very depths of his spiritual existence can we meaningfully conceive that the will has not the power to not  want happiness. …First the natural desire springs from the innermost core of man’s being; it concerns man’s very own will, unrestricted by any coercion. Therefore it is free. …this desire points right through the human heart back to an ultimate origin which is not human.
Man has not by his own resolve set in motion his desire for happiness; it has not been given to him to desire otherwise. Therefore “freedom” is not the right term here…St. Thomas: The will strives in freedom for felicity, although it strives for it by necessity.” In desiring happiness, then, we are obeying a gravitational impulse whose axis is entirely within our own hearts. But we have no power over it – because we ourselves are this gravitational impulse. When we desire to be happy, something blind and obscure takes place within the mind, which nevertheless does not cease to be a light and seeing eye. Something happens “behind” which we cannot penetrate, whose reason we do not see, and for which we can name no reason. Why do you want to be happy? We do not ask because no one knows the answer.

Happiness Is A Gift
Because our turning toward happiness is a blind seeking we are, whenever happiness comes our way, the recipients of  something unforeseen, something unforeseeable, and therefore not subject to planning and intention. Happiness is essentially a gift; we’re not the forgers of our own felicity…Surely the “attainment of created good” can frequently be brought about by purposeful activity. By cleverness, energy, and diligence one can acquire a good many of the goods which are generally considered adjuncts of the happy life: food and drink house, garden, books, a rich and beautiful wife (perhaps). But we cannot make all these acquisitions, or even a single one of them, quench that thirst so mysterious to ourselves for what we call “happiness,” “reflected beatitude.” No one can obtain felicity by pursuit. This explains why one of the elements of being happy is the feeling that a debt of gratitude is owed, a debt impossible to pay. Now, we do not owe gratitude to ourselves. To be conscious of gratitude is to acknowledge a gift.

Stoic Self-Sufficiency As Happiness
Stoic self-sufficiency may still commando our respect and admiration. There is “greatness” in the unyielding resolve to desire only what is entirely ours, what we ourselves have acquired. As Seneca has expressed it, “The man is happy, we say, who knows no good that would be greater than that which he can give to himself.” Nevertheless the keener eye will not fail to observe behind all the brave banners and heroic symbols the profound non-humanity, the submerged anxiety, the senile rigidity, the tension of such an attitude. And our admiration becomes tinged with consternation and horror as it becomes apparent to us how closely such self-sufficiency verges on despair. “Suppose he lacks his miserable bread? What does that matter to one who lacks not the knowledge of how to go to his death?” (Seneca)

Happy By Virtue Of Being
When it is said that man by nature seeks happiness, the statement obviously implies that by nature he does not already possess it. “In the present life perfect happiness cannot be.” Man is not happy by virtue of his being. Rather his whole existence is determined precisely by the non-possession of ultimate gratification. That, after all, is the significance of the concept of status viatoris. To exist as man means to be “on the way” and therefore to be non-happy. …There is only one Being that is happy by His mere existence.  “To God alone may perfect beatitude be attributed, by virtue of His nature.”
The meaning of the statement is not solely that God is happy….He is his happiness…Any human being who is happy shares in a happiness that is not of himself. For God, however, being an being happy are one and the same; God is happy by virtue of His existence.

The Doctrine Of God’s Unassailable Happiness
“The beatitude of God consists not in the action by which He established the Creation but in the action by which He enjoys himself, needing not the Creation – creaturis non egens. (Aquinas). Belief that the world itself, its roots and the whole of it, is sound, plumb, and in order, could rest upon no firmer foundation than this doctrine of God’s unassailable happiness. If God were not happy, or if His happiness depended upon what happened in the human realm and not upon Himself alone, if His happiness were not beyond any conceivable possibility of disturbance; if there were not, in the Source of reality, this infinitely, inviolably sound Being – we would not be able even to conceive the idea of a possible healing of  the empirical wounds of Creation.
This is confirmed from another angle. The mind considering the course of the world, the mind seeking coherency and plunged more and more hopelessly into confusion by the incoherencies of the world, will in the end inevitably be tempted to  think (and this temptation comes precisely to the deepest and most consistent thinkers): God is not at one with Himself; God is not happy.
That confidence in the wholeness of being, on the other hand, which finds its ultimate support in the absolute happiness of God, is in no way an invalid simplification of historical reality. Rather, we may say that, far from simplifying things, it reveals them as enormously more complicated and tragic – since the incomprehensibility of evil in the world becomes fully apparent against the background of the indestructible happiness of God. Nevertheless, this belief means that as Paul Claudel has formulated it “The terrible words…. ‘In the end truth, perhaps, is sad.’ miss the underlying reality of the world; that, rather, “The great divine joy is the only reality.”

A Thirst For Happiness
Man as he is constituted, endowed as as he is with a thirst for happiness, cannot have his thirst quenched in the finite realm; and if he thinks or behaves as if that were possible, he is misunderstanding himself, he is acting contrary to his own nature. The whole world would not suffice this “natural” nature of man. If the whole world were given to him, he would have to say, and would say: It is too little. Too little, that is, to “gratify entirely the power of desire,” or in other words too little to make him happy….The long expected answer to (What would suffice this thirst of the whole human being?) is God….
(But) he interposes a concept (called) bonum universale. …Perhaps we may translate “the whole good” – goodness so very good that there is nothing in it which is not good, and nothing outside of it which could be good. Nothing than this bonum universale can quench completely and ultimately man’s deepest thirst… “The whole good cannot be found anywhere in the realm of created things; it is encountered in God alone.”

Joy And Happiness
Aquinas would say that Happiness without Joy is unthinkable; but joy and happiness are two different things. …Thomas takes it completely for granted that no full beatitude can be conceived without pleasure, gladness, enjoyment, rapture on the part of the physical, spiritual-sensual being which is man. How could the conceptions of physical well-being seriously be omitted by anyone who believes in the resurrection of the dead? …
We want to have reason for joy, for an unceasing joy that fills us utterly, sweeps us before it, exceeds all measure. This reason, if it exists, is anterior to joy, and is in itself something different from joy. “Joyousness” implies an “about something”; we cannot rejoice in the absolute; there is no joy for joy’s sake….Aquinas:  “Possession of the good is the causes of rejoicing.” This having and partaking of the good is primary; joy is secondary. Aquinas: “Therefore a person rejoices because he possesses a good appropriate to him – whether in reality, or in hope, or at least in memory. The appropriate good, however, if it is perfect, is precisely the man’s happiness…Thus it is evident that not even the joy which follows the possession of the perfect good is the essence of happiness itself…..All beings…desire joy for the sake of the good, and not the converse….Thus it follows that …every joy is consequent to a good and that there exists a joy consequent to that which is in itself the supreme good.”… The “supreme good” and its attainment – that is happiness. And joy is: response to happiness.

Our Participation In Happiness
What does indeed make us happy is the infinite and uncreated richness of God; but our participation in this, happiness itself, is entirely a “creatural” reality governed from within by our humanity; it is not something that descends overwhelmingly on us from outside. That is, it is not only something that happens to us; we are ourselves intensely active participants in our own happiness. …Happiness is an act and an activity of the soul. … But has it not been said that happiness is a gift? …(Aquinas’ reply:) If sight were given to a blind man, he would nevertheless see with his own sense of sight…Happiness is a form of acting which opens all the potentialities of man to fullest realization

An Activity Whose Effects Work Inward
Along with the doing of any work there is an effect which does emerge, but remains hidden within the doer himself, perhaps chiefly as a fruit of insight, as a verbum cordis. Perhaps this fruit can grow only in the course of a man’s dealing with the pliable or resistant matter of a garden, or potter’s clay, or marble; perhaps this is the only way in which it can grow And it may not be that in this processio ad intra in this inward fructation, lies the truly beatifying element which we rightly ascribe to all creative activity?
To repeat: the activity in which we receive the drink which is happiness is by its nature an activity whose effects work inward. This cannot be otherwise, for only in such activity does the acting person actualize himself. Action which reaches outward perfects thework rather than the person who acts. Under those circumstances what happens is that the perfection of the work “does not…include the creator; he is condemned to return to his  lesser ego.”

An Act Of The Intellect
“The essence of happiness consists in an act of the intellect.” …The fulfillment of the act takes place in the manner in which we become aware of reality; the whole energy of our being is ultimately directed toward attainment of insight. The perfectly happy person ….is one who sees…Man, physical, historical, “earthly” man, has a basic craving to see; strictly speaking he craves nothing else; …he lives purely as a see-er: in contemplation. ….Aquinas: “He is happy in that he has what he wants – which having, however, takes place by something other than an act of will.” …” “The happy life does not mean loving what we possess, but possessing what we love.” Possession of the beloved, Aquinas holds, takes place in an act of cognition, in seeing, in intuition, in contemplation. …Thomas is not alone is saying this. The same point is made by Augustine…
Old metaphysics was motivated chiefly by this one question: How is reality to be attained?…. Cognition is essentially seizure of the world, and grasping of reality.  To know is by the nature of knowing to have; there is no form of having in which the object is more intensely grasped…knowing is “the highest mode of having.”…
It is assimilation, the quite exact sense that the objective world, in so far as it is known, is incorporated into the very being of the knower. This indeed distinguishes cognitive from non-cognitive  being: the latter have nothing outside themselves, whereas the knower obtains a share in alien beings in that he knows them, that is to say, in that he takes them into himself and …possesses the “form:” of these alien beings. Material things have closed boundaries; they are not accessible, cannot be penetrated, by things outside themselves. But one’s existence as a spiritual being involves being and remaining oneself and at the same time admitting and transforming into oneself the reality of the world. No other material thing can be present in the space occupied by a house, a tree, or a fountain pen. But where there is mind, the totality of things has room; it is “possible that in a single being the comprehensiveness of the whole universe may dwell.” Aristotle: anima est quodammodo onmia, the soul is at the bottom all that is.” … “Eternal life is knowing Thee.” [John 17:3]

Love Is The Indispensable Premise Of Happiness
Happy is he who sees what he loves. It is only the presence of the thing or person loved that makes for happiness…without love there is no happiness…Love is the indispensable premise of happiness: …Love, then, is necessary for happiness; but it is not enough. Only the presence of what is loved makes us happy, and that presences is actualized by the power of cognition. …”Where love is, there is the eye.” …from the commentary Sentences written by a young Thomas Aquinas.
The meaning is that there are things which the lover alone observes; but above all, that the lover partakes of goods which are withheld from all others, which is to say that higher potentialities for happiness are open to him than to anyone else. Nevertheless, no matter what may be observable to his eye by virtue of love, the activity of the eye is still seeing and not loving…Contemplation is a knowing which is inspired by love….It is the living attainment of awareness. It is intuition of the beloved object.

Elements Of Contemplation
The first element of the concept of contemplation (is) the silent perception of reality. The second is the following: Contemplation is a form of knowing arrived at not by thinking but by seeing, intuition. ….it is a type of knowing which does not merely move toward its object, but already rests in it. The object is present – as a face or a landscape is present to the eye when the gaze “rests upon it.” In intuition there is no “future tension”, no desire directed toward the future, which desire corresponds with the nature of thinking. The person who knows by intuition has already found what the thinker is seeking; what he knows is present “before his eyes.”  This presence, however, this “spatial thereness,” may at any moment be converted into temporal “presence”, which is a tense-form of Eternity. …There inevitably intrudes into the midst of the peace of contemplation, the soundless call to another, infinitely profounder, incomprehensible, “eternal” peace. This is “the call to perfection of the imperfect, which call we name love.” (Aquinas)

Earthly Contemplation
Earthly contemplation …must be imagined as an inner gaze, undistracted by anything form the outside, but troubled within by the challenge to achieve a profounder but unattainable peace. It must be imagined as a satisfaction which desires nothing “else” and yet is not satisfied with itself because in its uttermost depths, yet insuperably remote, a still more complete satisfaction is sensed. This earthly existence can offer us an awareness of “the whole,” of the very essence of all that is “good” for us – a knowing of God, in other words which is the result neither of logical reasoning nor of simple faith. “Human happiness does not consist in the knowledge of God, which is to be had by logical demonstration.”….

Non-seeing “rather kindles the longing rather than gratifies it. The knowledge brought us by faith is knowledge of what is absent. Contemplation, however, including earthly contemplation, is able to quench man’s thirst more than anything else because it affords a direct perception of the presence of God; contemplation is the form in which we partake of the uttermost degree of happiness which this physical, historical existence of ours is capable of holding. “Imperfect beatitude, such as can be had here, consists primarily and principally in contemplation,” that is, in earthly contemplation. “As far as contemplation extends, so far does happiness extend.” …One corollary is that insightful knowledge, spiritual vision, intellectual intuition, is possible for man here on earth; that man’s method of grasping reality is not exclusively thinking, “mental labor…”  The epose of “simple intuition” does exist. This is by no means an incontrovertible assumption but to contest it is also to dismiss the idea of earthly contemplation…The inhumanity of totalitarian labor… based upon the fact… that man is considered as s “worker” even in his intellectual life; he is permitted spare time but no true repose.
Another premise is… we must in some manner be able to partake of the object of this act, the drink called happiness, which means that God is present in the world; He can appear “before the eyes” of one whose gaze is directed toward the depths of things…reality is a creation, and that consequently God is not “outside of the world,” not a Deus extramundanus, but the acting basis of everything that exists…For the Christian earthly contemplation means above all: that back of immediate phenomena, and within them, the Face of the incarnate Divine Logos is visible.

Contemplation Is Widespread
The common element in all the special forms of contemplation is the loving, yearning, affirming bent toward that happiness which is the same as God Himself, and which is the aim and purpose of all that happens in the world. The common element is an approach whose impetus bursts forth from the core of man’s being, feeds on the energy of man’s whole nature, and carries all the powers of that nature along in its dynamic movement. Within that common element the intrinsic force of the craving for happiness is united with the data of all the senses, with the play of the imagination, with the insights of reason, and with faith and the supernatural new life – both these last goods granted as free gifts. Without this love directed toward this object, the re is no true contemplation. Love alone makes it possible for contemplation to satiate the human heart with the experience of supreme happiness. ….
In contemplation, the multiple forces of human nature are always called upon, always at play, Who would wish to term “purely religious” the contemplation which underlies S. Francis of Assisi’s Song to the Sun, or the poems of St. John of the Cross? Nevertheless, it is true that such contemplation obviously has been kindled by meditation on the divine mysteries and by prayer….
The transfiguring experience of divine satiation can come to one in a host of ways. The most trivial of stimuli can bring one to this peak. And this being so, we are brought sharply to the arresting and indeed astounding realization – so opposed is it to everything we are in the habit of thinking about contemporary man – that contemplation is far more widespread among us today than appearances would indicate. The significant features of contemplation can be attained without anyone’s being conscious of it by that name. With this as a clue, more and more new forms of achieving contemplation manifest themselves.

Contemplation In The Precise Sense
Who among us has not looked into his child’s face, in the midst of the toils and troubles of everyday life, and at that moment “seen” that everything which is good, is loved and lovable, loved by God! Such certainties all mean, at bottom, one and the same thing: that the world is plumb and sound; that everything comes to its appointed goal; that in spite of all appearances, underlying all things is peace and salvation, Gloria; that nothing and no one is lost; that “God holds in his hand the beginning, middle, and end of all that is.” Such non-rational, intuitive certainties of the divine base of all that is can be vouchsafed to our gaze even when it is turned toward the most insignificant–looking things, if only it is a gaze inspired by love. That, in the precise sense, is contemplation. And we should have the courage to admit its identity.

The Soul Takes Precedence Over The Eye
The precision of these entries (in Gerald Manley Hopkin’s Journals) proves, among other things, how little contemplation need by-pass or blur the reality of the visible world by, say, premature “symbolization.” Rather, contemplation directs its gaze straight at the heart of objects. In so doing, it perceives in the depths a hitherto hidden, nonfinite relationship. And in that perception lies the peculiar essence of contemplation.

But what actually happens when the soul, as it were, takes precedence over the eye? No one has yet succeeded in providing an adequate descriptive account of that process…part of the nature of contemplation (is) that it cannot be communicated, It takes place in the innermost recesses. There is no observer. And it is impossible to “set it down” because no energy of the soul is left unengaged….

G.K. Chesterton, considering his life in retrospect, said that he had always had the almost mystical conviction of the miracle in all that exists, and of the rapture dwelling essentially within all experience. Within this statement lie three separate assertions: that everything holds and conceals at bottom a mark of its divine origin; that one who catches a glimpse of it “sees” that this and all things are “good” beyond all comprehension; and that, seeing this, he is happy. Here in sum is the whole doctrine of the contemplation of earthly creation.

The Active/Political/Practical Life
The active life contains a felicity of its own; it lies, says Aquinas, principally in the practice of prudence, in the perfect art of the conduct of life. But ultimate repose cannot be found in this kind of felicity …the ultimate meaning of the active life is to make possible the happiness of contemplation. …Aristotle: The whole of political life seems to be ordered with a view to attaining the happiness of contemplation. For peace, which is established and preserved by virtue of political activity, places man in a position to devote himself to contemplation of the truth.”….practical life if not only meaningful but indispensable; it rightly fills out man’s weekday life; that without it a truly human existence is inconceivable. Without it, indeed, the vita contemplativa is unthinkable…. “The truth is that as soon as we are no longer obliged to earn our living, we no longer know what to do with our life and recklessly squander it. (Andre Gide) “One thing is clear: when something is finished, it must be perfect –but what then?” (Gottfried Benn)

Common Features Of The Contemplative Man And The Happy Man
With great sureness of insight, the ancients have asserted that in the contemplative man may be found all the things which distinguish the happy man; and that ordinary speech attributes to both the same characteristics….
For example there is simplicitas, that simplicity peculiar to the gaze of contemplation. The whole energy of the seeing person gathers into a single look…. “Man’s happiness is based upon there being for him an indisputable truth.” (Nietzsche)  Here, in cognition, truth and happiness are conjoined under the aspect of simplicity. Disputation involves pros and cons, arguments and counterarguments, variety of points of view, yes and no. But an indisputable truth, not something that is merely not disputed out of mental sluggishness or doggedness, but a truth which is immune even to interior dispute – that is the simplicitas of possession. … (Aquinas:) man is not capable of an act continuing without interruption. But happiness is not happiness if it does not endure forever without loss; happiness demands eternity…
“There is always one thing which makes for happiness:…the capacity to feel unhistorically.” (Nietzsche)….the happy man needs nothing and no one…It was true of the Christian martyrs, of whom it is told that not even torture could tear them from the happiness of contemplation….Finally repose, leisure, peace, belong among the elements of happiness. If we have not escaped from harried rush, from mad pursuit, form unrest, from the necessity of care, we are not happy…Contemplation’s very premise is freedom from the fetters of workaday busyness. Moreover it itself actualizes this freedom by virtue of being intuition.

Concupiscence Of The Eyes
(Aristotle): “We prefer seeing to all else.”  If we did not already know that joy in seeing must be counted among the most elemental, irrepressible, coveted joys of mankind, we could deduce it from the everyday phenomenon of “concupiscence of the eyes.” the hypertrophy of visual curiosity, the morbidity of the contemporary craving to see. We can deduce from the extent of this degeneration which, it seems is imperiling specifically our most elemental and precious powers …” (Aquinas) This, incidentally, may suggest that the greatest menace of our capacity for contemplation is the incessant fabrication of tawdry empty stimuli which kill the receptivity of the soul….

All The Labor And History Of Man Crowned Only In Intuition
In his memoirs ..George Santayana relates how he used to accompany a friend versed in art through the great picture galleries of the world. And seeing his friend standing, completely absorbed and enraptured, in front of a masterpiece, he thought and says with great earnestness, and with the clear intent of stating a philosophical thesis: “My own load was lifted, and I saw how instrumental were all the labor and history of man, to be crowned, if crowned at all, only in intuition.

The World Unredeemable?
No one who thinks of the world as at bottom unredeemable can accept the idea that contemplation is the supreme happiness of man. Neither happiness nor contemplation is possible except on the basis of consent to the world as a whole. This consent has little to do with “optimism.”  It is consent that may be granted amid tears and the extremes of horror.

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