The other day I was speaking on the phone with Dr. Alice von Hildebrand, the fiery Catholic philosopher, widow of the redoubtable Dietrich von Hildebrand, and bete noire to Catholic feminists everywhere. Dr. Von Hildebrand will be coming to Providence College next week to speak about her new book, Man and Woman: A Divine Invention (on the 18th, 7 PM, in Moore Hall III). In any case, in the course of our conversation she mentioned that she placed Saint Bonaventure above Saint Thomas Aquinas, because, as she put it, Aquinas attempted to baptize Aristotle, and Aristotle is hard to baptize. Not impossible, mind you, but hard. Here I expected her to mention the standard objection to Dante's "master of those who know," that he believed in the co-eternity of the world and of God. But instead she surprised me by objecting to Aristotle's "eudaemonism," the belief that happiness is that which we seek for its own sake and not instrumentally for the sake of something else. This "happiness," I replied, could easily be raised to the power of beatitude, so to speak; but I had to acknowledge the force of the objection, when she in turn replied that in Plato it is rather the soul's love for the divine that is primary.
And something of that we do find in the Psalms and elsewhere in Scripture. We do not find recipes for happiness in Scripture, not exactly, for the blessedness whereof Scripture speaks is of a different quality altogether than was Greek "well-being". When the Psalmist says, "As the deer longs for the running streams, so my soul longs for thee, my God," he is expressing a desire, and a love, that makes the Aristotelian search for happiness, and therefore also the much-diluted Jeffersonian search for happiness, look rather petty by comparison. I say this as a long-time defender of Aristotle…. Or when the Psalmist says that God's commandments are his meditation in the night, I cannot imagine that such meditation is instrumental to anything; it is a delight in itself, as if it were already a happiness beyond human reach, to be raised by God into that love of God with all one's heart and mind and soul and strength which Jesus says is the greatest of the commandments. Another way of putting this is that a Saint Bonaventure can comprehend Aristotle, but Aristotle cannot comprehend Saint Bonaventure, because the love of God, the thirst to dwell in his house for length of days, the delight of the just man's meditation, would be a new thing in the Greek world. I think, perhaps, it is a new thing in this world, too.
In this regard a line from Herbert's poem "Christmas" strikes me as fitting: Jesus awaits the speaker, expecting "till the grief / Of pleasures brought me to him." The grief of pleasures; the grief of the pursuit of well-being; the grief of life lived for oneself, even one's Aristotelian self. I have to admit that the good doctor has a point.