True Happiness Is…The Truth? 

by Holiness, July, Morals & Values, World's View

The greatest philosophers in history say yes

In March of 2024, Axios reported that the United States had hit a new low in the annual World Happiness Report. The U.S. dropped eight spots, to Number 23 overall—the first time it’s fallen out of the Top 20.

Americans felt “glum about issues ranging from loneliness to the economy and the country’s political leadership.” And the biggest reason for the tumble? Gallup, the polling giant whose data is used for the survey, pointed to the rise in “Americans under 30 feeling worse about their lives.” 

Of course, any survey of happiness will be subjective. But it’s undoubtedly true that the ways happiness is measured in the Happiness Report—from schooling to health care, from politics to personal wealth—are a long way from the way happiness used to be judged. 

So maybe we could learn something about happiness from three of the smartest people to have ever lived.

The Big Three Philosophers Of Ancient Greece And Happiness

If we look back to the Big Three philosophers of ancient Greece—Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—we find a radically different concept of happiness.

Even though all three lived well before the birth of Christ, their ideas about happiness are also completely congruent with Christian teaching—which is why they were adopted by later philosophers like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

Socrates, who became famous in the 4th century B.C. for his constant questioning, felt that the quest for knowledge and truth was the telos—a Greek word for “true purpose”—of human beings. 

In the Euthydemus, a dialogue written by his pupil, Plato, around 384 B.C., Socrates said, “Seeing that all men desire happiness, and happiness, as has been shown, is gained by a use, and a right use, of the things of life, and the right use of them, and good fortune in the use of them, is given by knowledge, the inference is that everybody ought by all means to try and make himself as wise as he can.”

Errors, Socrates felt, were the result of ignorance. In short, the more we know about ourselves, the more likely we’ll be to seek—and find—true happiness, which Socrates (and Plato) defined as virtue

Aristotle, who was Plato’s student for many years, took this question up further in his Nicomachean Ethics, written around 350 B.C. The book was an attempt to find practical solutions to moral problems. It contains his famous idea of the “Golden Mean”: a midpoint between two extremes—like, say, wastefulness and stinginess—that would be the moral ideal.

But why worry about finding such a midpoint in the first place? The answer, Aristotle thought, could be found in the telos of human beings.

Aristotle defined this telos as another Greek word: eudaemonia, which means “human flourishing.” To be happy, for Aristotle, was to be a flourishing human being.

So what makes a human being flourish? Aristotle noted that man is the only creature with reason. So our highest purpose must be to use that reason to discover truth. 

“Now if the function of man is an activity of soul which follows or implies a rational principle,” he wrote, then “human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue.”

You can break this down into a simple equation. Human happiness = using reason to seek truth = virtue. 

So if we’re not seeking truth, then we’re not virtuous. And if we’re not virtuous, then we’re not happy.

The great Catholic philosophers who followed, of course, would add that the truth man seeks is the knowledge that it’s possible to have of his Creator, God. But the equation above remains intact. 

And it reflects a view of knowledge that would not truly change until after the medieval era, when modern philosophers like Sir Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes would redefine it. At that point, knowledge became valuable not for its own sake—not for the pursuit of virtue—but instead for the prediction and control of nature.

The goal was to advance science, technology, and human comfort, and it’s stayed consistent in the West for the past 400-plus years. On the face of it, that goal has been a great success. (The gadget you’re using to read this piece is just one small example.)

And yet Americans today—especially the young ones—are less and less happy. That’s one indicator that we’re using the wrong definitions of both knowledge and happiness. 

It’s also an indicator that we’ve divorced happiness from truth, accidentally or (more likely) on purpose. What seems to elude many people today is this: the postmodern belief that there’s no such thing as universal truth means there can be no such thing as true happiness, either.

Aristotle, as was so often the case, said it best: someone who achieves the Golden Mean “is one who calls a thing by its own name, being truthful both in life and in word.”

These days that could get you ratioed and reviled, canceled, and cast out. It could also lead you to true happiness. Just ask the Big Three.

Learn More

We’re all starting to hear people ask how the world has gotten to be the way it is. Grafted onto the usual complaints about why people are so greedy, self-absorbed, and callous toward one another are new expressions of frustration about even more fundamental concerns. Why can’t we agree on concepts that used to be basic common sense? Why does our very language now seem to be a minefield that only the most wily and tactical (or cynical) among us can navigate? Find out in Dan LeRoy’s newest book, Why We Think What We Think: The Rise and Fall of Western Thought (Sophia Press).

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Image: Photo by Jamie Brown on Unsplash

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