A Brief Introduction

Augustine wrote: "all persons want to be happy; and no persons are happy who do not have what they want." (De beata vita 2.10) From this statement, Augustine proceeds with questioning what a person should obtain to achieve happiness since happiness is a matter of having what one wants in order to be happy. The answer proposed by Augustine is that happiness constitutes something that can be had when it is wanted (De beata vita 2.11). With the availability these days of instant credit most people are in the position of having materially what they want when it is wanted. Does this then provide us with the answer of happiness? The answer is inevitably no for material wealth, no matter how achieved, is perpetually subject to the fear of loss. Augustine argues that it is in our love of God that we find permanent and enduring happiness without the fear of loss that erodes our happiness (De beata vita 2.11).

The main theme of Augustine’s thought on happiness concerns our vulnerability to the material things of this world: "It is beyond doubt that the one cause of fear is either that we will lose what we love after attaining it or that, despite all our hopes, we will never attain it at all." (De div. quaest. 33).

Augustine’s definition of love can be found near the end of the first book of the Soliloquia in which he states: "What is not loved in its own right is not loved." This statement describes the purity of love for itself not egotistical in its selfishness but altruistic in its unselfishness. When considering the purity of love, we cannot escape from the fact that originating with the sin of Adam <Gen 3:6> we are all inherently sinners <Matt 15:19; Rom 5:12>. This fact, as Augustine suggests, leads to three other primary emotions that create an apprehensive emotional life. Desire, which is the love of material things, the loss of which we fear; grief, which results in psychological pain caused by the realization of our fears; and manic or baseless joy, which is rejoicing in those things that we know are subject to loss though realizing our fear of such a loss (De div. quaest. 33). It is these emotions that constitute the pathology of the soul from which Augustine concludes that love can only be measured in relationship to its object. The example provided by Augustine is that of a shameful love in which the soul pursues material things that are inferior to itself: "the root of all evils" <1 Tim 6:10>.

In love there are two discerning factors to consider dependent upon the object pursued. There is the object of material love, which is transitory, and the object of eternal love, which is enduring. In regard to these two loves, Augustine remarks that it is the object of love that affects its lover with something of itself (De div. quaest. 33). Augustine describes the evil encountered in the object of material love as attempting to either eliminate or protect oneself from all impediments (De lib. arb. 1.4.10). Such behavior frequently involves domination or removal of those who may pose a threat to the security of their material enjoyment. The social consequence of such behavior inevitably sets one person against another. The social ills of contemporary society, and our human history, demonstrate the negative consequences of such behavior.

The antithesis of material love is eternal love the object of which is the love of God. It is in our love of God that we can be confident that there exists no fear of loss; though it should be understood that fear exists. This fear is expressed in the Old Testament as "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" <Job 28:28; Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7, 9:10>. The wisdom we obtain from our fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge of God and ourselves. In the Soliloquia this knowledge is described by Augustine as the "knowledge of the soul" which requires a purging from false conceptions and moral impurities. To achieve this purging, Augustine states that there are three things required: that the soul have sound eyes with which to see, that it direct its sight towards God, and that it actually see. Augustine maintains that for the soul to have sound eyes with which to see one must have faith described by Catholic theologians as "the evidence of things not seen" referring to Hebrews 11:1. For the soul to be cured, and in so doing rightly direct its sight towards God, one must have hope. With sound eyes and the directing of our sight towards God we will see the love of God as being the object of our happiness (Soliloquia. 1.6.12-7.14). Augustine’s reference to faith, hope and love (described as charity in the King James version of the Bible) can be found in 1 Corinthians 13:13.

In pursuing wisdom by way of "knowledge of the soul" we must seek virtue. Augustine defines virtue as our best and deepest love of God. The four classical virtues comprising of the various dispositions of love are temperance, fortitude, justice and prudence. In Christian tradition these virtues are accompanied by the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, which were described in the preceding paragraph. In order to understand more clearly how the four classical virtues form our personal character in expressing our love of God it is necessary to understand the context in which they properly belong. Augustine defines the function of temperance as to control and still our desires and lusts of the material world that draw us away from God and from the enjoyment of divine goodness (De mor. eccl. cath. 19.35). In a similar manner it is by fortitude that we overcome our fear of loss that marks our love of material things. Temperance then applies to our not desiring material things and fortitude in losing them (De mor. eccl. cath. 22.40). Justice gives to each its own by serving only God (De mor. eccl. cath 24.44) and finally prudence guards us against deceit, keeping the soul vigilant against temptation (De mor. eccl. cath 22.45).

It is through the integration of the virtuous life into the life of the love of God that we obtain "knowledge of the soul" leading us to wisdom. There are two questions posed by Augustine in regard to gaining "knowledge of the soul". How are we to pursue God whom we do not see and how are we to see God? Augustine answers his questions with the truism that God is seen not with the eyes but with the mind and, that in our present condition, our minds are enveloped in a dark cloud of folly, unfit and unable to see (De mor. eccl. cath. 7.10). Augustine maintains that in directing our love towards God we must rely on the teaching of authority not on our own darkened reason. The authority Augustine refers to is found in Christ’s commandment that we are "to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind: <Matt 22:37; Lk 10:27>. As Augustine states, it is from this commandment of Christ that we learn what we are to love and how much we are to love it, that God is our highest good (De mor. eccl. cath. 8.13). It follows, therefor, that all our purposes in life must be directed to our love of God so that we may see God with our mind.

This purpose is expressed in Paul’s epistle to the Romans 12:1-2 that not only are we to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, but also not to be conformed to this world but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. Augustine believed that to know love by means of the mind unites the soul in centering its love towards the eternal love of God (De div quaest. 35.2).

The journey we have undertaken here in our understanding of Augustine’s words that "All persons want to be happy; and no persons are happy who do not have what they want." (De beata vita 2.10) is to understand there is a corollary that, as Augustine describes, to purse God is to desire happiness, and to attain God is happiness itself (De mor. eccl. cath. 11.28). Augustine has shown us in his writings that what comprises genuine human happiness in our love of God is what human beings were created for.

One final word from Augustine, which provides an excellent summary of this brief introduction of his theology on love and happiness: "Virtuous behavior pertains to the love of God and of one’s neighbor; the truth of faith pertains to a knowledge of God and of one’s neighbor. For the hope of everyone lies in his own conscience in so far as he knows himself to be becoming more proficient in the love of God and his neighbor." (De doct. chr. 3:10)

Pax Christi

Peter K. Jones, A.Th.



De beata vita De beata vita – On the Happy Life

De div. quaest. De diversis quaestionibus – On 83 Different Questions

De lib. arb. De libero arbitrio – On Free Will (translated by J.H.S. Burleigh)

De mor. eccl. eath De moribus ecclesiae catholicae – The Morals of the Catholic Church

De doct. chr. De Doctrina christiana – On Christian Doctrine



The Ethics of St. Augusinte edited by Willaim S. Babcock and published by Scholars Press - Atlanta, Georgia - 1991