One of my favourite family programmes growing up was The Good Life. For those outside the UK, this was a 1970s sit-com following the lives of the Tom & Barbara Good (in case you’re wondering I saw the repeats not the orginal series!). They sought to go back to basics and live life as it should be; to live off the land and provide for themselves by their honest hard work. The wife was played by Felicity Kendal and I thought of her this week when studying Augustine. For in book 5 of Augustine’s City of God he speaks about the pursuit and possession of felicity.
For most of us, felicity is probably a rather old-fashioned girl’s name, but long before the olden days, it meant the “complete enjoyment of all that is to be desired” – what we call happiness. Felicity, or happiness, is the ability to enjoy life. It is more than being blessed in our material possessions; it is the ability to enjoy whatever possessions and situation we find ourselves in.
Augustine frames felicity within a wider question to his reader: “what is the virtuous life; how much is it due to God, and how much is it due to us?” His penetrating question combines 1) the concept of felicity (the ability to enjoy life), with 2) God’s Providence (his provision and direction over our lives), and 3) our virtue and choices.
He describes how the ability to enjoy and be satisfied in our blessings is a greater gift than simply the possession of those blessings. He compares our possession of blessings to a meal that has been prepared and served. It is great to possess a meal, but even better to participate in it; to eat and enjoy the meal. How much more the blessings of life – not just to have them, but to enjoy them?
However, he also recognises that God bestows felicity as he wishes, even on those who are not good. Therefore, he asks the question “why then was God willing that the Roman Empire should extend so widely and last so long?” That is, how did Providence, felicity and virtue play out in the Roman Empire?
Augustine begins by attacking the practise of worshiping multitudes of gods in every aspect of life. He wonders why they need all these gods, when if they only had Felicity they would be content in life. “Why not worship Felicity?” he asks, for felicity is to be sought above all other gifts.
He then goes on to confront the superstitious belief in astrology that held sway amongst many Romans. Many saw their destiny dependent on the position of the stars at the time of birth or conception, others believed in pure chance. Augustine argues that God cares for and directs all of life. However, if God has already planned what will happen, does this take away our free will? What is the interaction between free will and God’s foreknowledge?
For Cicero the two things were mutually exclusive, he believed we must have free will and this meant no room for God’s will. For Augustine “the religious mind chooses both, foreknowledge as well as liberty; it acknowledges both, and supports both in pious faith.” But how can this be? Augustine argues that as every event must be preceded by a cause our wills also have causes and have been included in the preceding cause of God’s foreknowledge. God is the ultimate cause, we have a perceived freedom because we are a participating cause and our will is important because it forms part of the overall plan of his will.
Augustine says God is free to do his own will, for he is truly ALL-powerful. We do what we desire, so does God. He cannot do what he does not desire. Sometimes we desire and will something and it does not happen. God alone has the power to desire and the will to achieve. Augustine argues that if he foreknew our will then there was something he saw, not nothing – therefore we have a part to play.
He says that we have responsibility for willed sin. In God’s providence he has given man governance of creation. We share our existence with the stones, our reproductive life with plants, our senses with animals, and our intellect with the angels. We are responsible creatures and have been endowed with responsibility, over not only individual creatures but also their kingdoms.
Augustine argues that the best characteristics of this governance were displayed in the Roman Empire. For, at its noblest, it was passionate about glory and this passion restrained other vices. Men were “greedy for praise, generous with money, seeking vast renown and honourable riches.” They were prepared to die for what they believed in, and this was a powerful force for good.
The important thing for the men of that time was “either to die bravely, or to live in freedom”. However, he also recognises that “in early times it was the love of liberty that led to great achievements, later it was the love of domination…When liberty had been won such a passion for glory took hold of them that liberty alone did not satisfy – they had to acquire dominion.”
They sought glory, honour and power – the good men sought these through virtuous deeds, the “worthless wretch” sought them through deception and trickery. However, over and above all these stood virtue, for virtue was considered greater than glory “since it is not content with the testimony of men, without the witness of a man’s own conscience.”
In a devastating critique of the decline of Rome he asks where have the virtues that made Rome great gone? Things that have ceased to exist: “energy in our own land, a rule of justice outside our borders; in forming policy, a mind that is free because not at the mercy of criminal passions. Instead we have self-indulgence and greed, public poverty and private opulence. We praise riches: we pursue a course of sloth. No distinction is made between good men and bad: the intrigues of ambition win the prizes due to merit. No wonder, when each of you thinks only of his own private interest; when at home you are slaves to your appetites, and to money and influence in your public life.” The parallels for our own time are too obvious to mention.
Augustine saves the biggest challenge for the citizens of the heavenly city. “Very different is the reward of the saints” for our reward is to be enjoyed forever in the next life. However, in this life we are despised “for the City of God is hateful to the lovers of this world.” Nevertheless, we can learn much from those who sought their reward from earthly dominion. If they were willing to expand such devotion to virtue for earthly praise and honour, should we not be rebuked for our love of ease? Can we not learn from their self-denial, single-mindedness, integrity, poverty and temptations? If we have been made citizens of the City of God by the Providence of God, should we not seek even deeper virtue without the need for glory?
The Good Life is worth living because it is the only way to really enjoy life. Virtue is worth seeking even if no one else ever knows or sees. Felicity can be achieved without achievements.
Father help me not to seek power, prestige or popularity. Help me to seek only you and enable me to enjoy the blessings you have given me. Amen.