Achieving Happiness: Advice from Augustine

For true happiness, Augustine tells us to love.

Posted Jun 28, 2011

What would a medieval era philosopher and theologian have to say that is relevant to those of us living 16 centuries after his death? Surprisingly, perhaps, quite a bit. We need to avoid "chronological arrogance," which is the belief that the ideas of earlier times are inferior simply because they are old. A look at a key concept from Augustine will help us see the wisdom available from earlier generations.

Augustine's Confessions, a spiritual autobiography that is also a work of theology and philosophy, is rich with wisdom that is relevant to us today, whether or not we share his particular religious perspective. This work contains reflections on God, grace, morality, virtue, vice, and a vast panoply of human emotions.

Our fundamental problem, according to Augustine, has to do with love. Our problem is misplaced loves. We love the wrong things, or we love the right things in the wrong way. For example, we wrongly love power, fame, wealth, appearance, and many other things that are unworthy of our love. We also love things that are worthy of love, such as other individuals, but if we do this in an excessive manner, putting others into a place reserved for God, we make a serious mistake and undermine our own happiness.

If we love God first and foremost, believes Augustine, this will work itself out in our lives as all of our other loves will become properly ordered. We will still love others, the creation, and other good things in life, but in the right way and to the right extent. So, for those who share Augustine's belief in God, he would say that in order to be truly happy we need properly ordered loves, which we can only achieve as we embrace the spiritual life in deeper ways.

For those who do not believe in God as Augustine does, there is still something of value present in these ideas. Such a person should still seek to have properly ordered loves. For example, people matter more than property, and our lives should reflect this belief, whether or not we share Augustine's religious beliefs. According to Augustine, the key to happiness, to true human fulfillment, is properly ordered love.

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