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Absent joy, absent the vision and expectation of eternal happiness, we lose ourselves in the immediate. When we forget about our final end, we become absorbed in the means, in technique, in minutia.It is necessary to find our way back to joy, to rekindle that flame.
Much ink has been spilled in distinguishing among the trio of Joy, Happiness, and Pleasure. We are told that pleasure is transient and comes from the senses and the body, while joy is a steady spiritual state rooted in the soul. Pleasure is a flash and a feeling; joy is a steady flame. Happiness is our final end or goal, the state of eternal blessedness, yet a measure of it can be enjoyed in this life. And so forth.
Aristotle characterized happiness as that which all things seek, the end of all striving. That would seem to be an irreducible truth; there is no being in creation that does want to be happy. In the glossary of my old family Bible, I find this:
“Happiness: A bringing of the soul to act according to the habit of the best and most perfect virtue… borne out by easy surroundings, and enduring to length of days.”
Thus, pleasure is momentary—the pleasant inns along the road of life, as C.S. Lewis had it—while happiness is the final destination, an anticipation of which we can enjoy (note the root of that word) here.
Joy (from the Latin gaudium) seems the most elusive of the trio. There is no entry for it in my family Bible, surprisingly enough. We think of it as an emotional state, but one of a high spiritual or moral character—while happiness seems more closely related to fortune and outward circumstances. As mentioned, one might think of joy as a steady flame, burning through thick and thin. Joy also seems to have an object or cause; one typically takes joy in something. There is a religious joy in salvation or forgiveness, there is the pure joy of existence and of creation, there is a joy in beauty.
C.S. Lewis had something of the latter in mind when he spoke in his autobiography of Joy (with a capital J), the feeling of ineffable longing or nostalgia that struck him in childhood. The feeling was primarily literary, connected in his mind with northern epic sagas. Even those of us whose tastes don’t run to that region can own wholeheartedly what Lewis felt. There is an indelible aesthetic joy, a vision of beauty that fires our imagination and transforms our life. Speaking for myself there have been many such experiences: the tremendous mystery of Eastertide, the work of various composers and artists, the numinous qualities of nature.
But what’s strange about Lewis’ “joy” is that it was not a fulfillment of desire. Rather, it was itself a desire, a yearning, an ache—a “sharp wonderful Stab of Longing.” It carried an intuition that there is more to life than what we see around us. “It pricks, then vanishes, leaving a wake of mystery and longing behind it.” Lewis would later understand it as a whisper from a lost Eden, a memory of paradise, impelling him to seek out new beauties and truths. Joy was an experience that marked Lewis early on and a possession he carried with him; he later recognized it as emblematic of the Christian faith he would embrace, and it informed his literary creation.
The cultivation of joy takes place within the spiritual, moral, intellectual, and aesthetic life—which I believe are all part of the imaginative life. What is imagination? “The ability to form mental images and concepts of things not present to the senses”—that is the dictionary definition and it is certainly valid. Imagination is also the ability to see what is beyond and behind what the senses present to us. It is the one’s representation of reality—inner reality. The function of imagination, G.K. Chesterton tells us, is “to make facts wonders” and “to make settled things strange”—to reveal the presence of mystery and the marvelous around us. Imagination tells us that there is more than the naked eye can see.
For we were given a world in which things are progressively revealed, in which reality is not an obvious matter of fact but must be sought, in which we discover things as a result of faith and trust. Existential thinkers tell us of the necessity of making a leap of faith. Joy comes precisely as a result of discovering and appropriating a wonder, a particular wonder that becomes one’s special possession, which can then be radiated forth to others. Joy is the fruit of a rich inner life and a response to outer reality. Joy is the negation of boredom, of the banal. Like imagination, it helps us intuit that we were made for something higher than the world we see around us.
Conservatives look from any number of angles at the question “what went wrong with the modern world,” possibly our favorite topic. My idea is that it is a killjoy. There are many things in the modern atmosphere that militate against joy. One is the technocracy. Having one’s life run by various machines, so that one feels like an appendage to them, is not a joy-giving situation. Likewise, bureaucracy, which in its endless rigamarole saps the joy and freedom from life. Add to this the aesthetic drabness and dreariness that often surrounds us in modern environs.
But above all, the loss of joy is expressed in a loss of inwardness.
The great philosopher–theologian Soren Kierkegaard spoke of “an eternal happiness” (interesting use of the indefinite article) as the motivating force for religious belief. Conversely, he was much dismayed at the growth of what he called The System, i.e., the rationalist philosophy of Hegel, which he believed this led to an externalization of knowledge and a loss of inwardness in life—the inwardness that causes one to see one’s finitude and limitations and to conceive the possibility of happiness or joy at the other side of this life.
Kierkegaard opines that we in modern society have become so “objective” as to become indifferent to the prospect of eternal happiness; it is just another hypothesis, something we’ll be happy to consider after the next mortgage payment is made.
The Danish philosopher was one who saw early on that the modern world forces us into a constant preoccupation with the external and temporal. Such externalism naturally militates against joy, for joy is an inward thing of the spirit, something not dependent on outward circumstances. Joy is sustained by a guiding ideal or principle, whether religious, ethical, or aesthetic. Joy is a dream that impels us to accomplish good works. It is something we carry with us no matter what happens around us.
Like happiness, joy will be experienced in its fullness at the end of earthly life yet a measure of it can be possessed here and now. Like inner peace, joy is something that no external force can take away from us, provided we cultivate and guard it.
Outside forces, however, are always at work to drag us away from joy, to squelch that inner flame. The killing of joy, its dissolution in busyness and bureaucracy and technicality, is part of a general war against the spirit. The loss of inner spiritual joy leads to an absorption in the spirit of the age, the spirit of the future, in utopian plans—in short, the external and the abstract. Not being grounded in joy makes us liable in our desperation to attach ourselves to idols and obsessions. Or else simply to resign ourselves to drudgery and the banal.
Our everyday speech was once full of moral and spiritual terms: “to rejoice” (notice that compound), “affliction,” “trouble,” “sorrow,” “consolation.” Now these are found only in prayer books, but they were once words people used to describe their experiences. These words, so eloquent and precise and poetic, have been replaced by ones far more mundane. Afflictions have become “problems” or “issues.” Once upon a time one experienced “consolation”—would this now be “therapy”? The very word “virtue” is quaint, replaced by the clinical and equivocal “values.” We don’t even speak anymore of virtue in a nonmoral sense—the “virtues” of a house or a piece of machinery. The joylessness of life, its depletion of spiritual substance, is expressed in the joylessness of our language.
Absent joy, absent the vision and expectation of eternal happiness, we lose ourselves in the immediate. When we forget about our final end, we become absorbed in the means, in technique, in minutia.
It is necessary to find our way back to joy, to rekindle that flame. It is possible through meditation, through nature and art, through reading, listening, and prayer. Joy can be kindled by an overwhelming artistic experience, furnishing us with an idea of beauty which transforms us. Or joy can have its source in our moral or professional lives, our relationships with loved ones. Whether it is an overwhelming aesthetic passion, a vision of the good, or an apprehension of eternal truth, joy grounds and orients us in life. And joy is sustained by the imagination, which provides us with a “storehouse of images” that give shape and color to our idea of the Good.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.