Chesterton’s Philosophy of Happiness

“Happiness is a state of the soul; a state in which our natures are full of the wine of an ancient youth, in which banquets last for ever, and roads lead everywhere, where all things are under the exuberant leadership of faith, hope, and charity.”

Gilbert Keith Chesterton was an English literary and social critic of the 20th century. He was known for his heavy and clever use of paradoxes, often referred to as the “prince of paradoxes” and conversion from liberal Anglican to distributist Catholic following his friend Hilaire Belloc, another influential writer of his time.

In our meaning of happiness, we define it as a framework or state of feeling or showing pleasure or contentment. And this is a common endeavor. Like modern scientific research suggests,

“Humans may resemble many other creatures in their striving for happiness, but the quest for meaning is a key part of what makes us human, and uniquely so.”

Roy Baumeister et al. (2013)

Yet, we are obsessed with material things and new findings and discoveries that give a boost of temporary happiness. Then we go on with the spiral of happy days and less happy days if I may say so. Contrary from the sophistry that our contemporary world wants to instill where happiness lies in new things like using a brand-new car or smartphone on the market, Chesterton’s philosophy gives a reason for a continuous delight where we recognize rather than discover. Does using the same device over time has to lose its charm?

Our nutshell of knowledge on happiness is that there is a source of enjoyment that can bring about and cause happiness. However, the root cause of happiness takes a more morphological root. The prefix ‘en’ in enjoyment usually means ‘in’ or ‘into’. For instance, ‘endanger’ means to put into danger and ‘engender’ means to put into existence. Ergo, enjoyment means to instill joy. Its basis is more of an active one towards a person. Namely, the children enjoy their parents. Unfortunately, today we have turned its active sense to a more passive one and towards an object rather than a person. Namely, the children enjoy their toys. There is a reason why authors prefer using the active voice to embed the readers into its imaginary world. The subject is doing the action expressed by the verb. Likewise, we are the subject not simply acted on or affected by the action but part of it, in a human approach.

“Man cannot love mortal things. He can only love immortal things for an instant… Ultimately a man cannot rejoice in anything except the nature of things.”

In other words, do not enjoy the moment of the moment’s sake and do not try to rationalize happiness or else you will destroy it. A husband enjoys a moment of love but not for the moment’s sake but for his wife. A warrior enjoys the moment in battle for the sake of the flag and country and not for the moment’s sake. Those moments are filled with joy and happiness because they are not temporary but are filled with eternity and are everlasting.

Wherefore comes his doctrine of conditional joy that states “an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition.” There is more than we ourselves can understand and absorb as little and short-lived as we are in comparison to the large cosmos and infinitely large universe. There are rules we obey but cannot grasp the meaning. Like the Brothers Grimm fairytales, there is always an if to everything we do. “You may live in a palace of gold and sapphire, if you do not say the word ‘cow’”; or “You may live happily with the King’s daughter, if you do not show her an onion.” He illustrates this with the use of fairyland and examines the laws that permeate fairytales where each cause has its consequence.

“A box is opened, and all evils fly out. A word is forgotten, and cities perish. A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone”. Nonetheless we are still keen to go over the limits of nature and cannot reasonably enjoy what we are given. Thereupon, our entire existence revolves around the doctrine of conditional joy. For anything we do, an excess is unhealthy and unwise. We are unable to enjoy the simplicity and acknowledge the higher pleasures. “If we saw the sun for the first time it would be the most fearful and beautiful of meteors.” And the problem is that we will see the sun for the first time only once. This shouldn’t stop us from admiring its beauty and strength as often as we go under its rays. Chesterton is content that the sun rises up again every morning and shine its light on him.

This philosophy offers some sense of sanity for our world, that constantly chases after material yet very temporary things while there is much more meaning to life. And to discover and acknowledge this rather than to stick to our own ego and, often time as Chesterton would describe, heretical ideas. He was right when he said that we have forgotten. Forgotten our names, forgotten who we are and “All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten.” Moments of spirituality, art or ecstasy are only other moments that we remember that we have forgotten.

“We should thank God for beer and Burgundy without drinking too much of them.”

Happiness is the proper end to every human person. It gives the will to survive and incessantly hope for better times. Chesterton also draws this end to the beatitutes. Originating from latin, ‘beatus’ meaning happy, ‘beare’ to bless and ‘bonus’ good. Our gratitude is a training for the beatitudes. We are thankful for the sun that rises every morning, thankful for our family and friends and thankful for all the gifts of God. And in the words of Chesterton: “The test of all happiness is gratitude”.

Chesterton is a happy voice that highlights that enjoying a person is a work, an art, a labor, an active rather than a passive one. That although our existence sometimes ceases to be beautiful, it never ceases to be interesting. That we don’t live for a day but for eternity. Happiness is the fruit of greater things and that we should be grateful for what we have. Fairytales should not stop in our storybooks but can be exhibited time after time into the tremendous picture of our existence.

All my gratitude to David W. Fagerberg’s book “Chesterton is Everywhere” for being my main source when writing this blog post.

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