by Marcus Otte
What is the greatest good for a human being? Or, to put it differently, what is happiness? When pre-modern philosophers reflected on morality, these were the most fundamental questions they raised. Every other question was answered in their light. The meanings and requirements of such virtues as courage, generosity, justice, and prudence, were each understood in a manner that supported the greatest good for a human being.
What is striking about these questions is their positive tenor. To ask, “What is the greatest good for a human being?” presupposes that some things are good—that is, both valuable and beneficial. It also supposes an objective hierarchy of values. Asking, “What is happiness?” is similarly positive in tone. The question presupposes that there is such a thing.
Contrast these with the most basic practical questions asked by many modern philosophers. William James asks whether life is worth living. Maurice Blondel asks why I should do anything at all. And Albert Camus asks: should I kill myself? (implying: should everyone kill themselves?). These questions, so far as I have seen, have no parallels among the ancient Greek or Roman philosophers, or the medievals in Europe or in the Muslim world. The Stoics argued as to whether, in extraordinary circumstances, it was permissible for an individual to take their own life. They did not wonder whether everyone should kill themselves.
Not every philosopher who raises a pessimistic question gives a pessimistic answer. E.g., Blondel ultimately concludes that our lives make sense if we choose Heaven. Still, it is noteworthy that the above existential questions are raised. Modern philosophy, it appears, goes a step further in its practical enquiries, compared to the pre-moderns. Whereas the ancients asked, “What is the greatest good?” some moderns ask, “Is anything good?”
What is the cause of this shift in the mood of questions? There are two answers I would like to suggest. One answer pertains to philosophy; the other strictly concerns religion. First, for pre-modern thinkers generally, “good” did not only pertain to matters within the human or ethical domain. Plato regarded The Good as the cause of all things and the source of intelligibility. Aristotle held that all things seek what is good. These became the dominant views throughout late antiquity, as well as the Middle Ages. For these traditions, whether there is anything good is not merely a practical question, guiding our action. It is a metaphysical question regarding the basic structure of reality. Everything that moves is moved for a reason. Whether human life has a purpose was not a serious question. Or—to put things more mildly—it was a question already answered by metaphysics.
When these metaphysical views lost their intellectual and cultural dominance, it was no longer evident to many that the Universe and everything in it is imbued with purpose. Consequently, whether human life has any purpose became a disputed question. It has become necessary to argue that there is a good life, and that our lives have significance.
The second reason for modern pessimism is the loss of religious faith. For centuries, faith provided the West with a bulwark against the belief that human life was ultimately insignificant. If God is good, and if human beings are made by God, in the image of God, and if they freely direct themselves in a world governed by divine providence, and will end in heaven or hell, then it is not difficult to conclude that my actions, here and now, are profoundly significant. It is possible to meaningfully succeed or to fail as a human being.
Such beliefs have been largely displaced within the intellectual world, and have also lost much of their cultural significance. In the meantime, these beliefs have not been replaced by paganism, which was also capable of providing a serious value-structure, but by secularism. A thoroughly secular worldview cannot help but undermine the sense of ultimate significance and worth. The heat death of the universe casts a shadow over all: whether I am Stalin or a saint, it will be as if I never was. Perhaps more importantly, the world, on such a view, is the random product of mindless cosmic processes. And the moral law is not a noble and timeless law, but the customs of hairless monkeys, ultimately grounded in processes as random and mindless as those which produced the cosmos in the first place. The conditions of meaning and objective purpose have been removed, but our suffering remains.