What is Best In Life?

Permit me a bit of amateur psychology. I think we in the Western world would have to try very hard to miss that a lot of us spend time seeking a handful of things. We pursue goods that are easy to reach. Food and alcohol, sex, contest, and music are the most obvious examples.

Food and alcohol do their work immediately, with the taste, and then with the feelings of satiety and/or relaxation.

Assuming one is not starving or dying of thirst, it is fairly common knowledge that the strongest of physical passions is the sexual. Basically everyone thinks sex is good. Just the thought of it can cause people to obsess, and even the lacking of it can satisfy in other ways (e.g., the feelings of having a “crush” can themselves be pleasant). We seek and give sex, broadly considered, in various ways. A good number of regular Western pastimes involve indulging in this, if not always with the intent of actually having sexual intercourse, then at least with the intent of enjoying the sensations that imagination brings. Romance movies generate “crush” feelings; pornography more directly aims at sexual titillation. Advertisements often play on one or both pleasures. The lyrics of much music uses these tropes. The general habits of the clubbing world are obviously all circling around this particular passion.

People also enjoy defeating threats. The hope of victory, the risk of failure, and the adrenaline rush that drives us to seek the first in the face of the second. The two most obvious instruments for creating this sensation are sports events and action films.

Then there’s the good of music. I’ve quoted Richard Hooker before on this blog on the power of music, but here he is again:

The reason hereof is an admirable facility which music hath to express and represent to the mind, more inwardly than any other sensible mean, the very standing, rising, and falling, the very steps and inflections every way, the turns and varieties of all passions whereunto the mind is subject; yea so to imitate them, that whether it resemble unto us the same state wherein our minds already are, or a clean contrary, we are not more contentedly by the one confirmed, than changed and led away by the other.

Music is so beloved because it has the power to alter our moods in a very direct way. Though we may lack a certain good in reality, music can still make a chimera dance on our mind’s stage.  Pop music is certainly not an exception here. As Roger Scruton notes:

This surely accurately describes the way in which contemporary pop—from Crystal Castles to Lady Gaga—is received by its devotees. I am not talking of the words. I am talking about the musical experience. It is surely right to speak of a new kind of listening, maybe a kind of listening that is not listening at all, when there is no melody to speak of, when the rhythm is machine made, and when the only invitation to dance is an invitation to dance with oneself. And it is easier to imagine a kind of pop that is not like that: pop that is with the listener and not at him. … The externalized beat of pop is shoved at us. You cannot easily move with it, but you can submit to it. … And the dance is not something that you do, but something that happens to you—a pulse on which you are suspended.

This aspect of pop music might be one of its main attractions: in its common forms, it overwhelms with the passions. It forces people to feel. Of course, a great deal of it aims at producing one or both of the previously mentioned passions: sexual euphoria or something like what the Greeks would have called thumos.

These goods are the easiest to reach, and so become the highest end for many. As Wittgenstein said in another context, people are captured by an image, a picture of something within their grasp, and often lose desire for any others beyond their immediate reach. But there are other kinds of goods, ones that often have more of a slow burn than a quick sizzle. Yet these kinds of goods can provide a more deep and lasting enjoyment of life than the ones above.

Imagine accomplishing a difficult objective. You decide to do something that seems like a good idea,  you eventually face opposition from nature or other people, you persevere and reach the goal. How do you feel? Bored? Of course not. The experience is often more pleasant than it would have been had there been no resistance at all. The victory through struggle gives knowledge of self as adequate to overcome difficulties, and to know this is to know something good. Further, you will have the good you originally sought.

Another good difficult to reach, but which provides much deeper and lasting satisfaction, is friendship. Knowing and loving another human being in a significant way. Human beings are the height of creation. Their strength, compassion, intelligence, creativity, beauty, humour, quirkiness, majesty, and piety, both in combination and separately, when deeply appreciated, can bring much joy to the people who experience them. But these are things that can only be discovered with time and effort; one must decide to sacrifice time and comfort and, instead of seeking directly pleasurable pursuits, to endure boredom, awkward moments, moral flaws and injuries, weaknesses and insecurities, and any number of other things that make people unattractive. Yet when another person is deeply known and loved, the happiness is almost incomparable.

Then there are intellectual goods. The human capacity to understand reality abstractly, as a coherent whole, to ask and answer the question “why?”, is arguably what distinguishes us most from the kingdom of nature. And curious people fulfill this potential when they encounter an intriguing but difficult question, and then pursue the answer with determination. When they reach their destination, a deeper understanding of the “why?” produces a sensation that artists and poets have long compared to elemental forces of nature: fire, light, electricity, and even a kind of intoxication. To seek and to find wisdom is one of the most exquisite pleasures human beings know.

But the highest good is not any of these things in themselves. It is nothing other than God. The most pleasurable good that human beings can pursue is understanding of the Creator, the ultimate answer to “why?”, and friendship with this being, the one who contains every good quality in its most perfect form. But of all pleasures, this is the hardest one to reach, and it cannot initially be reached through the kind of effort to accomplish that I mentioned above. Indeed, Jesus taught that it was impossible unless God gave us a taste for it first: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” God rescues the soul by giving an experience of God’s goodness: “For God … has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Once this gift has been given, effort to see it more clearly is also given, and when increased clarity is achieved, the root of joy sinks ever deeper. But that gift is laid on a foundation of the first one; to want to pursue God further one must first have seen why he is indeed worth pursuing. The darkened character of our intellects will prevent us from seeing this until God opens our eyes to do so. When he does, we will forever want to see things in the aura of his light.