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Happiness According to Saint Augustine

The Notion of Happiness According to Saint Augustine


Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo and ‘Doctor of the Church”, was born in November 13,354, at Tagaste, a small town in the Roman province of Numidia, near what is now the eastern border of Algeria. His father Patricius was an official in the Roman administration of the village, while his mother, Monica was a devout Christian who later Christianized him out of devoutness.

While still a child, Augustine was enrolled by his mother as catechumen in the Catholic Church, and although not baptized, he learned something about Christianity from her. At the age of twelve, he was sent to Madaura to study grammar and literature. In 370, he went to Carthage for the course in rhetoric. There, shortly after his arrival he began living with a woman with whom he remained for the next ten years and who bore him a son named Adeodatus. This period of exploration, including its youthful excesses is recorded in Augustine’s most widely read work The Confession.

At the age of nineteen Augustine read Cicero’s Hortensians an experience that led him into the fascination with philosophical questions and methods that would remain with him throughout his life. He joined the Manicheans School which claimed to have the answer to the question that had long be worrying his mind, namely, the source of evil in the world.

Augustine went to Rome and from there to Milan in Northern Italy. In Milan, he met the famous Bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose who was famous for his eloquence. Despite Augustine’s professorship in rhetoric he was attracted by the beautiful eloquence of this famous Bishop and later became influenced and was reconverted to Christianity by the Bishop who baptized Augustine in 387. He then decided to return to African with his mother who had traveled to meet him in Italy. Unfortunately his mother died on their way back to Africa. Back home, he formed a small monastic community and decided to devote the rest of his life to prayer and study. Soon he became famous as a learned and holy man. His fame as a scholar reached the Bishop of Hippo who ordained him a priest in 391. Later he became a Bishop and eventually succeeded the Bishop of Hippo in 396 a position which he held until his death.

Besides, Augustine most celebrated work is his De Civitate Dei (The City of God), a study of the relationship between Christianity and secular society, which was inspired by the fall of Rome to the Visigoths in 410. Among his other works, many are polemical attack on various heresies: Against Fanstus, The Manichean; On Baptism; Against the Donatists; and many attacks on Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism. Other works include treatises.

St Augustine stands as a powerful advocate for orthodoxy and of the episcopacy the sole means for the dispensing of saving grace. In the light of later scholarship, Augustine can be seen to serve as a bridge between the ancient and Medieval worlds. A review of his life and works, however, made him as an active mind engaging the practical concerns of the churches he served.


It is an undeniable fact that man seeks happiness consciously or unconsciously in whatever he does. Blaise Pascal affirmed this when he said, “All men seek happiness. To this there is no exception. Our will makes no step, except toward this object. This is the motive of every action of man…”[1] In order to attain this happiness, some people have resorted to wealth, riches, power, honor, and so on. Some attach themselves to one or two religious organizations. Some live a life of contemplation and solitude. Even the rapid growth of science and technology is an attempt to create a happy environment for man. Yet, man is still searching for happiness.

Thus little wonder the prominence of the term ‘happiness’ in the literature of moral philosophy. For Socrates, happiness can be achieved only by certain appropriate types of behavior. Aristotle believes that we act for happiness and that happiness consists in contemplation. Aquinas fused the Christian conviction of happiness of blessedness through evangelical beatitudes with Aristotle’s idea of happiness. Augustine believes that happiness depends on man’s chief good. This chief good is God.

However, the basic question remains: Can man attain happiness? And in what does happiness consist? The answer to this question is relative since no objective answer has been given. Thus, it is the pre-occupation of this four- chaptered memoir to expose St. Augustine’s standpoint on happiness, and therefrom, critically evaluate his submissions, before attempting a general conclusion.

Chapter one deals with the concept of happiness, kinds of happiness, its related concepts and a look at whether pleasure is happiness.

Chapter two is the literature review of some philosopher’s notion of happiness.

Chapter three looks at St. Augustine and his notion of happiness. It also extends to finding the object of happiness, its requisite and whether man can attain happiness.

Finally, chapter four is the critical evaluation of St. Augustine’s notion of happiness and conclusion.




Happiness can be defined as the state of satisfaction which a person feels on the fulfillment of his or her desire by the possession of the good. According to Austin Fagothey, the root meaning of happy (Happiness) is that of being favored by fortune. Therefore, a happy person is one to whom good things happen. Happiness appears in the Greek word, as ‘EUDAIMONIC’, and it means: The theory of self-realization which emphasizes happiness as man’s chief good.2

The New Catholic Encyclopedia defines happiness thus: happiness or beatitude is the personal possession of a desirable good, ultimately the perfect good of an intellectual nature.3

The term happiness has been used conspicuously in the literature of moral philosophy. Utilitarians have claimed that the measure of right action is whether it makes for the greatest happiness of the greatest number, while hedonists and eudaemonists are of the opinion that happiness is the only thing that is worthwhile in itself. Akam J.B. in his Oracle of Wisdom defined happiness as:

A special goal admirable by all rational beings (men) and as such it lacks philosophical exactitude; there is agreement neither on its substance nor its source. All we know is that it is a profound instinctive union with the stream of life, but we do not know what is united.4

From the foregoing definitions, it therefore means that only a rational intellectual being can attain happiness. They alone can reflect on their state and consciously appreciate the satisfaction they enjoy. Animals cannot attain happiness. They move towards ends and have appetites that can only be satisfied by things good for them instinctively.

However, for us to understand the notion or the nature of human happiness, we should ask like St. Augustine, whether happiness consists in having what one desires. In answering this Augustine said: the reality desired must be something permanent, “neither dependent on fate nor subject to any mishap.”5

Nevertheless, philosophers are in short of agreement as to where to locate human happiness. In other words, where do we find human happiness? What does happiness really mean? And what constitutes it? Aristotle wondered whether a man should be called happy until he is dead, since misfortune may befall him in his old age. Therefore, those of us who are fortunate, lucky, successful, satisfied, cheerful, glad, or joyous may be comparatively happy in the sense that we have come closer more to happiness than most or have done so in some particular line, but we are not necessarily happy in the way the philosopher speaks of happiness.6

Furthermore, with the claims of philosopher on happiness, we observe that there is conflict as whether we act outright or just for duty’s sake. Aristotle believes that we act for happiness and that happiness cannot consist in contemplation. Socrates was convinced that the goals of human life are happiness and that the only way to attain it is through living a virtuous life based on knowledge.7 St. Augustine believe that happiness cannot be derived from something inferior to man, that happiness depends on man’s highest good, and that this highest good is God.

  1. J. Sullivan’s own insight into the notion of happiness appears to provide an answer to above question. He observes that “happiness” and “unhappiness” in this life are relative terms, which we use to describe the governing or controlling tendency of a life. According to him, this is why “happiness in this age is something desirable, something being achieved, and something towards which man tends.”8 He affirms that man’s final “set” (last dregs/residue of man’s life) is lived for eternity, and only from this point of view “can he be said to be finally happy or unhappy”. In other words, happiness in this life is something relative, and so (real) “final happiness” is achieved in the life after death (eternity).

Nevertheless, it is not surprising that Augustine begins his formal investigation into the nature of happiness by discussing his hazardous voyage to the port of philosophy ‘from which one enters the hinterland of the happy life.9 In the discussion, it was concluded that happiness is nothing other than not to be in need, that is, to be wise. The wise soul is characterized by moderation and temperance, keeping its balance between extremes. When this soul devotes itself to the wisdom that is God, it possesses moderation and is happy.10

In the final analysis, faith in incarnates word is for Augustine the necessary condition for understanding human existence and the nature of happiness.11

What then is happiness one may ask? Can we define it as contentment? According to Fagothey, contentment is not happiness even in respect to human beings. He describes contentment as ‘a partial happiness mingled with unhappiness’ by which we limit our desires by a judicious compromise. That is, being willing to forego some desires so that we may attain others. In answering the question what in happiness, we can in the light of the above discussion prudently suggest that happiness is conscious state of satisfaction or fulfillment accompanying possession of, or being in communion with the good.12  Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics defines happiness as an activity of the some in accord with perfect virtue. Perhaps, Aristotle is emphasizing the fact that happiness is not something which is static, but is an activity. Something which accompanies certain activities, instead of being the goal of these activities.

According to Fagothey, happiness in an analogous term applying to various signs of, approaches to, and contributions towards happiness. He also affirms that:

Happiness is not a passing feeling or emotion, such as joy or gladness, but is a lasting state of being. One may be generally happy though suffering a temporary grief, just as another’s chronic unhappiness may be punctuated by moments of joy. Nor is happiness a permanent quality of a person’s character, a sunny disposition, a cheerful outlook on life, however much this may help to happiness; some people can maintain such a disposition in the face of the disappointment, whereas happiness is satisfaction.13      


Happiness can be said to be perfect (objective) and imperfect (subjective) happiness.

1.2.1                   Perfect Happiness

Perfect happiness comes from the complete possession of the perfect good, from that which finally satisfies all our desires. It is the good that is capable of giving a person his ultimate perfection by fulfilling his every need. Boethius defines it as “a state made perfect by the aggregate of all good things”14 and St. Thomas as “the perfect good which lulls the appetite together”15

Perfect happiness may also be said to be absolute or relative. Absolutely perfect happiness is happiness to an infinite degree and is applicable to God alone. Relatively perfect happiness is the happiness that a finite being can posses, according to its finite capacity. In other words, according to Fagothey, perfect happiness supposes a perfect correspondence between potency and act, potency for happiness and actual possession of it. God, who is Pure Act, is necessarily happy by His own Being and to an infinite degree. A creature, composed as it is of potency and acts, is rendered happy when its limited potency for happiness is actualized as far as its limitations allow.16

1.2.2          Imperfect Happiness

Imperfect happiness in the other hand falls off from the perfect by leaving some of our desires entirely or relatively unsatisfied. One who is imperfectly happy is happy in so far as his desires are fulfilled and unhappy in so far as they are not. It is also the actual perfection experienced by the person through a realization of his potentialities; the possession of the desirable object. When this actualization is ultimate, the person possesses perfect subjective happiness; until then, it can only be imperfect. Ultimately, man has but one goal: perfect happiness, which is the full realization of his potentialities through intimate, personal union with God in the beatific vision.


There are many related concepts of happiness, but we shall only concentrate on these commonly used ones namely: Joy, felicity and pleasure.


Joy can be said to be the passion or emotion excited by the acquaintance or expectation of good, pleasurable feelings or emotions caused by success, good fortune, and the like, or by a rational prospect of possessing what we have or desire, gladness; exhilaration of the spirits; delight.

Joy in the Bible is more than emotion. It combines a sense of happiness with a state of blessedness. But in New Testament, it is marked by public excitement at times of festival {Dent 12:6f} and by relief when an individual had a grievance which he could bring to the Temple of settlement {Ps 43:4}. In the New Testament (NT) the notion of joy is prominent in Luke’s Gospel {Luke. 2:10; 19:37} and in the Acts {13:52}, where it is a characteristic gift of the spirits.


This is more closely related to happiness, but its main implication is contentment. It could be regarded as “happiness expressed, be it through countenance, manner of speaking or writing”17

However, one can see that felicity is not happiness qua tale, in the sense that it implies contentment and knowing fully that contentment is a partial happiness with some unhappiness. And there is a little difference between a part of and the whole of that thing. There is no way a part can be equal to the whole. As a way of illustration, a person can be contented with one particular thing, but that does not, in any way, mean that he is no more in want of that same thing again rather it means that he just decided to do it with what he has. On the contrary, happiness is satisfaction per excellence. The level at which one may say I didn’t want anymore, I am satisfied.


This is one of the most misused words in the world today. Both in the past and present, many people use this term interchangeably with happiness as if there is no difference between the two. The Hedonist, for instance say that pleasure is: The sole good (solus vitae salamen) and that all human actions are geared towards it, and the search for pleasure should be the raison d’etre for life.18

Aristotle described pleasure as “an accompaniment of an activity.”19 According to Fagothey, pleasure should be admitted as an ingredient in happiness, and as such, a part cannot be equal to the whole. The propounders of pleasure as the summum bonum or the ultimate good of man would say, “let us eat and drink today for tomorrow we are no more.” They are referring to the pleasure of this life, only to be derived, with our present abilities from the object surrounding us. If we take pleasure to be happiness, then we should remember that some activities can offer us pleasure but at the same time make us unhappy.

Again since pleasure is accompaniment of an activity, as Aristotle had mentioned, then the criticism for evaluating any particular pleasure in terms of being good or bad depends on the activity it accompanies. It will be more adorable for us to say that pleasure is only a means to happiness (imperfect happiness) for that matter and not that it is an end itself.


It is not strange news these days that most people mistake happiness for pleasure or equate happiness with pleasure. This is evident from people’s actions and beliefs. Nowadays you see people do things that can only give them pleasure while in the real sense, what they want is happiness.

At this point therefore, let us consider happiness and pleasure, with the aim of distinguishing between them. This is necessary because as said before, a lot of people confuse happiness with pleasure. The early Utilitarians and Epicurus were guilty of this particular confusion. Epicurus the Utilitarians often spoke of both pleasure and happiness interchangeably as if they were two names for the same thing. They maintain in their ethical theory that the pleasure of right action is whether it makes for the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Therefore, for the Utilitarians, an act is classified as right or wrong depending on amount of happiness generated by that very act and the number of people involved.

J.S. Mill, a known protagonist of this theory in his first ethical principle states that measure of goodness or badness of an action depends on whether it contributes to the promotion of happiness or the opposite of that respectively. J.I. Omoregbe in his clearness gives J.S. Mill ethical cruel thus:

The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, utility or the greatest happiness principle holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness pain and the privation of pleasure.20  

A.C. Ewing, in his ethical theory looks at happiness from its utilitarian point of view. He posits that actions are good or bad depending on the amount of pleasure or pain they produce respectively. The lesser the pain, the greater the pleasure.

Epicurus often spoke of pleasure when in actual fact he meant happiness. Thus:

When we say that pleasure is a chief good, we are not speaking of the pleasure of debauched man or those which lie in sensual enjoyment as some think who are ignorant, and do not entertain our opinions or else interpret them perversely; but we mean the freedom of the body from pain and of the soul from confusion.21  

  1. Hospers in his “philosophical Analysis’ describes pleasure as: “A certain kind of state of consciousness (not verbally definable) but a psychological state with which we are all acquainted in our experience.”22 Thus we speak of the pleasure of eating, drinking, sexual experience and so on. While furthering this point, Hospers in his clearness of expression and analysis gives a good description of happiness and pleasure. He maintained that both terms are not synonymous and identical and then goes further to draw the difference between the two concepts. He writes:

We do not use the word, “Happiness” synonymously with “pleasure”. We speak of intense pleasure lasting for a few seconds and then ceasing but it would be strange to speak of being happy for a few seconds and then becoming unhappy and then ceasing but it would be strange to speak of being happy for a few seconds and the becoming happy again a few seconds later. And a person may experience many such pleasures without being happy.23

Aristotle in his ethical discourse also recognized this fact that happiness is not the same with pleasure. And for this all men think that the happy life is pleasant and weave pleasure into their idea of happiness.”24 Agreeing with Aristotle on the opinion that pleasure is not happiness, Jude Mbakanma says:

Pleasure is not happiness, it is an element of happiness; the blessing of an unimpeded exercise of our faculty. It is a process that accompanies human activity of a kind, and so, it cannot be equated with happiness which is the highest goal of man.25

Thus, we cannot equate pleasure with happiness because of the very fact that happiness is for Aristotle lasting, not temporal or momentary, not a merely feeling but also on enduring and permanent state. Regarding this he writes “….happy man … will be happy throughout his life.”26 Pleasure for Aristotle is transitory, temporal and momentary.

Omoregbe in his Ethics gave a clear distinction and resume of pleasure and happiness:

  • Pleasure can be derived from one single activity, while happiness is derived not in one single activity but from a series of activities.
  • Pleasure is transitory, of short duration, but happiness is of a much longer duration and more permanent state of mind.
  • Pleasure can be sought and obtained directly or immediately by performing certain activities that give pleasure, such as eating, drinking, or sexual activities but the performance of such activities and action does not necessarily make one happy.
  • Moral rectitude and peace of mind are necessary condition for happiness, whereas a person who has no peace of mind and moral rectitude cannot be happy even if he indulges in many pleasures.

Finally, from the above discussion, it is evident that pleasure is not happiness.

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[1]Alburey Castel, An Introduction to Modern Philosophy: Examining the Human Condition, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1988), 166

2 Jacob E.S, The New Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (15 Edition, Vol. III), 988.

3Hungerman M. G, “Eudaemonism” in New Catholic Encyclopedia (Vol.vi. New York: McGraw Hill Book Company, 1967), 621.

4Johnbosco Akam, Oracle of Wisdom: Towards a Philosophical Equipoise (Enugu: Snaap Press Limited 1995), 32.

5Mary T. Clark, Augustine (New York: Continuum, 1994), 27.

6 Austin Fagothey, Right and Reason: Ethics in Theory and Practice (Second Ed. Illinois: Tan

Books and Publishers Inc.1959), 45.

7 Joseph I. Omoregbe, Ethics: A Systematic and Historical Study (Lagos: Joja Educational Research and

Publisher limited, 1993), 160.

8 Daniel J. Sullivan, An Introduction to Philosophy (Illinois: Tan Books Publishers, 1992), 243

9 Mary T. Clark, Augustine, 27.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid., 33.

12 Milton A. Gonzalves, Fagothey’s Right and Reason: Ethics in Theory and Practice (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1989), 215.

13Ibid., 214.

14Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy. Joel C. Relihan trans., (Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing Company, Inc., 2001), Bk. III, 2.

15 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, (Benziger Bros. Edition, 1947) 1-11, q.2a. 8.

16Austin Fagothey, Right and Reason, 46.

17 Johnbosco Akam, Oracle of Wisdom, 35.

18 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theological, Vol. II, Part 1-11, q. 5, a. 1. 36.

19 Joseph I. Omoregbe., Ethics: A Systematic and Historical Study. 82.

20 Ibid., 235.

21 Ibid., 175.

22 John Hospers, An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981), 583.

23 Ibid., 584.

24 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (New York: Penguium Books, 1955), 1153b15.

25 Mbukanma J.O., Moral Education in Aristotle, Ibadan 50.

26 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. 1, 1100b, 16 -17.


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