In Search of the Happy Life: A Vindication of Christian Eudaimonism

Most Christians would agree that something is wrong if following Christ becomes a matter of cold and onerous duty. Nevertheless, Christians who unwittingly accept Kantian conceptions of happiness and moral obligation as being inherently opposed can find the Christian life a heavy struggle rather than a delight. John Piper sought to counter such perspectives in Desiring God (1986) with its affirmation of “Christian Hedonism.” Piper did not create the idea in a vacuum, as evident from C. S. Lewis’s (1942) repeated assertion that God is “a hedonist at heart.” However, Piper’s approach caused many Christians to welcome a label from ancient Greek philosophy without being aware of its historical context and philosophical implications. By situating this discussion within the framework of ancient philosophy, this paper argues that Christian Eudaimonism is biblically justified and that it provides a more helpful and accurate account of a Christian’s summum bonum.

The belief that eudaimonia, commonly translated as happiness or human flourishing, is the ultimate telos of humankind can be traced back to Plato (Grg. 507b) and Aristotle (Eth. Nic. 1095a). Following the connection these earlier philosophers had made between eudaimonia and virtue, the Stoics asserted that virtue is sufficient for happiness (Cic. Tusc. 5.29, Epict. Diat. 2.16.1-2). Ancient philosophers frequently placed hedonism in opposition to eudaimonism (Irwin 2007). Although the Epicureans were eudaimonists, they argued that physical pleasure was the summum bonum; while virtue was instrumental in achieving happiness, virtue could be abandoned if it conflicted with pleasure (Cic. Fin. 2.69, Off. 2.5). In contrast to the Stoic insistence that the happy life was a virtuous one, the only moral ‘ought’ advocated by the Epicureans was to maximize pleasure (Long 1986).

Thus, critics of Christian Hedonism correctly object to the term as prioritizing physical, subjective, and sensual pleasures over the demands of virtue (Mouw 1990, Williams 2017). It is the Stoic position that virtue inevitably leads to happiness that enables a radical transformation within a person, whose subjective notions of happiness are changed to reflect its true principles (Annas 1998). Similarly, Christian Eudaimonism locates the summum bonum in God himself, with happiness being found in the life that consists of loving God and keeping his commandments (August. De civ. D. 8.8, Conf. 2.12; Aquinas ST I-II, q. 1, a. 8). This does not mean the absence of pleasure. Something that is truly good will also be pleasurable to the person who has learned to enjoy it properly, but a spiritual refashioning is required, and until the eschaton, duty may well involve pain and loss rather than complete pleasure. Although eudaimonism encounters similar objections to Christian Hedonism, most notably the accusation that its egoism excludes Christian charity (Hare 2000, Wolterstorff 2008, Toner 2010), this charge is not insurmountable (O’Donovan 1980, Naugle 2008, LeBar 2017, Lott 2020). The attempt to ensure that happiness is central to the Christian life is best served by a eudaimonism that identifies God as the summum bonum and love of others as the manifestation of that primary love.