On New Year’s eve, the popular Chinese social network medium, wechat, is set ablaze with “happy new year” greetings. People come out in droves to send greetings in ever more creative postings to express the happiness for this occasion, seemingly trying to hope that the clever “happy” messages will make the happiness last longer. The same type of “virtual greetings” takes place all of the world, via Facebook, WhatsApp and I imagine in whatever other social media tools are out there.
The search for happiness has been a preoccupation of the West for a long time. In the middle-ages, the best and brightest Western minds seemed to have been obsessed with one thing, and one thing only: what is beatitudo, the Latin root for the English “beatitude”, which means blessed or perfect happiness?
St. Thomas Aquinas famously pointed out that happiness consists of beatitudo (perfect happiness) or felicitas (imperfect happiness, the root for the English word “felicity”, a synonym of happiness). Aquinas put the pursuit of money, honor, power and pleasure as various forms of felicitas as these things, while they provide happiness, do not offer beatitudo, the kind of joy that is complete and perfect.
So the question is how to find beatitudo? Does it even exist? Like St Augustine before him, and C S Lewis after, Aquinas believed that not only beatitudo exists, but the very fact that people for ages have been tirelessly searching for it implies its existence and the power from which beatitudo can come. This is the “argument for God’s existence from desire” he and others, most notably C. S. Lewis, have theorized.
Of course, Aquinas suggested that perfect happiness can only come from human’s attachment to the perfect being, the ipsum esse subsistens, Latin for ‘the very essence of subsistence” or “subsistent act of existing itself,” which is Aquinas’ rendering of the biblical definition of “God”. God in this sense is not an item in this universe but one that exists outside of it. Aquisnas’ concept of God as ipsum esse subsistens can best be understood as God being the “absolutely necessary being” for the universe as we know it to exit, based on one of his other arguments for God’s existence - “the argument from contingency,” summarized by Prof. Peter Kreeft of Boston College and others as the following:
We notice around us things that come into being and go out of being. The world does not have to exist, yet it does. Then, going all the way back to the beginning of time, all being must trace its origin to some past moment before which there existed literally nothing. For the universe to exist, there must ultimately exist a being whose necessity is not derived from anything, that is, an absolutely necessary original being for the universe to exist, which we call God. (Peter Kreeft: 20 Arguments for the Existence of God).
God, at least the Judeo-Christian one from the biblical narrative, cannot be “discovered” or “proved” in the same way a new star or new animal species can be discovered by humans via scientific methods. The domain of science is confined within the observable spheres of the universe, while the God of ipsum esse subsistens exists outside of it, in the domain that is beyond the direct observation of humans. Catholic apologist Robert Barron, active in the “new media” (blogs and YouTube videos), has again and again argued that science, along with religions, arts etc are all valid methods through which we humans can understand the world and discover truth. In The Myth of the War Between Science and Religion, he wrote:
“The modern physical sciences were, in fact, made possible by the religious milieu out of which they emerged. It is no accident that modern science first appeared precisely in Christian Europe, where a doctrine of creation held sway. To hold that the world is created is to accept, simultaneously, the two assumptions required for science, namely, that the universe is not divine and that it is marked, through and through, by intelligibility. If the world or nature is considered divine…then one would never allow oneself to analyze it, dissect it or perform experiments upon it. But a created world, by definition, is not divine…if the world is unintelligible, no science would get off the ground since all science is based upon the presumption that nature can be known.”
Fr Barron’s above writing actually touched upon two other “arguments for God’s existence.” The first one is “the argument from design” – the belief that the universal intelligibility in all things within our observable world is a distinctive mark of the “intelligent design” by a “divine creator” we call God. It was with this belief that modern science emerged from Europe, initially within the Catholic Church, 800-900 hundred years ago. For instance, today’s university system around the world came from the Catholic Church’s system of Universitas, dating back to as early as 1088, which itself can be traced to the Church’s cathedral schools (studium generale and scholae monasticae) from medieval times.
The second argument can be understood as “the argument from history or experience,” based on numerous facts and experiences in human history across all civilizations. Using the previous example: the West, armed by, among other things, the historical link between science and religion, emerged in the last few hundred years “out of nowhere” to surpass India, China and other advanced civilizations, dominating science, technology, arts, economics, religion and most other aspects of human civilization. The course of human history was forever altered.
The collective experience in the last few hundred years the Western World has gone through is seen as a proof for this particular argument. For millions of believers from time immemorial up to this day, a more potent proof of the "argument from history or experience" may be their very own conversion stories, born out of their personal life experiences, which may very well included the "search for happiness."