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Theodore Larkin

Mary Grabar
English 2:30
April 25, 2013

Jesus among the Philosophers: Ancient Conceptions of Happiness


Luke Timothy Johnson of the Candler School of Theology gave a talk entitled
"Jesus among the Philosophers: Ancient Conceptions of Happiness in order to present a
playful and fictitious conversation involving Aristotle, Epicurus, Epictetus, and
Matthews Jesus on the important question of human happiness and what it is that makes
humans happy.
According to Professor Johnson, in order to begin a discussion, one must first
have agreement. All four teachers believe happiness is something that is supremely
desirable, good rather than bad. These great thinkers tended to think of happiness as an
enduring condition of the human character, part of the human self. A person could choose
to be happy or not, and to direct their life towards virtue instead of evil. Happiness was
considered to be the choice of living a virtuous and moral life. All of these philosophers
agree about what happiness is, however they still have numerous disagreements about its
various dimensions.
The first area of dispute is the relationship of happiness to politics. Both Aristotle
and Epictetus were fully involved in society. Aristotle believes that man is a political
thing, and that social involvement with family, friends, and fellow citizens is essential to
happiness. Epictetus would agree with Aristotles understanding of political happiness
but would also be extremely concerned with the idea of performing ones duty to his
family, friends, and city. Performing ones duty to all of these different people makes

social interaction a vital step to achieving happiness. Epicurus, however, believes that
social distractions are hostile to happiness and based his entire teaching and way of life
on the elimination of fear and disturbance and the creation of a pleasant life in a garden.
The second area of dispute between our three philosophers is the relationship of
happiness to pleasure. Aristotle recognizes pleasure plays a role in happiness, but only
that pleasure in which a virtuous person can enjoy. Performing a virtuous deed makes an
individual feel good and therefore, for Aristotle, pleasure is measured by how virtuous it
is. Epicurus believes that pleasure is essential to happiness and that it is impossible to live
wisely, honorably and justly without living pleasurably. According to Epicurus, the
highest pleasure is the cessation of pain and some pleasures arent worth having because
of the pain they cause. Virtue and pleasure are mutually defined for Epicurus. Epictetus
scorns Epicurians as he teaches pleasure is the enemy of virtue: a destructive, seductive
distraction to living ones life according to nature.
A third area of dispute between these men is the degree at which happiness
depends on external circumstances. Aristotle teaches that happiness appears to require the
addition of external prosperity as external things can your heighten or lower your
happiness. Epicurus seems to have the most secure life of happiness in seclusion,
however withdrawal from the world results an extremely fragile and vulnerable
environment where one is full of anxiety about being disturbed. Alternatively, Epictetus
teaches that tough, negative situations help test the stoic individual and nothing can make
an individual unhappy if they choose to be happy in pursuit of virtuous life.
Matthew, however, does not directly address the role of pleasure, or of social
involvement and external circumstances in the same way the other philosophers were

divided. He was much more concerned with the relationship of happiness to the divine.
The three other philosophers also touch upon the divine element of happiness. Epicurus
dismisses the Gods by teaching that the supreme beings are happy because they are not
involved with the garbage of human life, Aristotle claimed the divine element is in the
highest form of human capacity (thought), and Epictetus, similar to St. Pauls, teaches
that doing Gods will and following God is the path to happiness.
These three great thinkers wouldve been deeply confused and baffled by many
aspects of Jesus points on happiness. Jesus linking misery and human happiness is
paradoxical to Aristotle and Epicurus; while for Epictetus, conquering the hardships
would make him happy, not the actual hardship itself. The Beatitudes would be
considered vulgar, needy, and inappropriate to the well bread, honorable, and
philosophical person. Jesus religious language would be off putting to these philosophers
as Aristotle stood aloof to such piety, Epicurus scorned it, and Epictetus used it to clothe
his stoic convictions.
Although many statements by Jesus wouldve utterly escaped the grasp of
Aristotle, Epicurus, and Epictetus, Matthews Jesus and the philosophers would agree
that character more than chance touches on what is divine. Therefore, while the specific
construction of character and the specific understanding of the divine were already in
dispute, the addition of Jesus statements would only make this hypothetical conversation
extremely confusing and much more difficult.