Sometime in the 4th Century BC, Aristotle wrote Nicomachean Ethics. The broad question of the book is how to achieve happiness. Aristotle posits that the happiness is the only true end. We never seek happiness in order to get us to some other end, and almost everything we do is done in order to come to the end of happiness. Why am I in school? To get a PhD. Why are you getting a PhD? So I can teach subjects that I like and do things that I enjoy doing as a career. Why do you want to do what you enjoy as a career? So I’ll be happy. Almost anything we desire in this life works along this logical train. (Though I’d be interested if someone found a means (or an end) that did not eventually come around to being happy.) Aristotle eventually concludes that living a life of virtue, or possessing virtue is the way to be truly happy. He establishes possessing virtue as different from being morally strong or morally weak. Someone who is morally weak is someone who gives in to temptation when it is presented. Someone who is morally strong is someone who wrestles with temptation. That person often succeeds, but at times may fail. The person who possesses virtue however, does not experience the conflict of temptation. It does not mean that temptation does not come, but that they are able to control it without the moral dilemma that plagues the morally weak and the morally strong. The person of virtue has their passion and reason in order with one another and they always do what is right. But the question remained at the end of Nicomachean Ethics. Could anyone really be the person of virtue?
In the 1st Century AD/CE, the death of one man answered this question. The answer was no. We cannot, in our own strength, live the life of virtue. Ps. 51:5 (NIV) says, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” We did not have the hope of living the virtuous life, not by ourselves. However, “God demonstrate[d] His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom 5:8 (NASB)) Christ died so that we could be redeemed, and for the remission of sins committed. Because of Christ’s sacrifice, John was able to say that he could write so that we may not sin, but that if we should sin we have an advocate with the Father. (1 John 2:1) Jesus came and died so that we, with His help, might live with virtue. At least that is how Aristotle would describe it.
It wasn’t until I was talking to a friend and mentor that I made the connection between Nicomachean Ethics, a book I was teaching in a class, to my own life. My friend made the point that we often make mistakes because we are too concerned with how we’re feeling in the moment, and we do not step back and see our lives and what can make us happy from a broader perspective. Then it hit me. Aristotle was right. We are all motivated by happiness. And the mistakes and missteps I have made in my own life were made because I was attempting to avoid pain, fear, and sadness and make myself happy in the moment. But what I did not realize in my selfishness was that I was not sowing seeds that would lead to a lasting solution to my problems, I was only sowing temporary happiness and future pain. Eventually I had to reap what I sowed. The person of virtue realizes that any momentary pleasure achieved by doing something immoral is outweighed by the pain, sadness, and unhappiness that will come because of the immoral act. God does not ask us to live the way He prescribes because He wants to hurt us, or deprive us of some good thing, but because He knows that living for momentary happiness does not give us peace. It does not give us joy. It does not help us to be happy. If we follow that path, we live from one high to the next, hoping that whatever sin we commit to make us feel better will be the thing that heals the hurt inside. But God wants better for us. God wants us to find what Aristotle described as the ultimate end. God wants us to be happy.
Jason Hines is an attorney and doctoral student in Religion, Politics, and Society at the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at http://thehinesight.blogspot.com.