Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

BIBLE: The Gospel of Luke

In the Great Books tradition there are many different roads to happiness. They just don’t all agree on the path to achieve it. Homer stands at the beginning of the tradition and in The Iliad the ideal of happiness is to attain glory in battle and win the spoils of victory. We read in the book of Exodus that the way to happiness isn’t through war; instead it is to follow the law of God as given to Moses. Socrates believed that discussing philosophy was the way to happiness. Aristotle laid out a whole common-sense program of happiness in his work on Ethics. In Jonathan Swift’s story Gulliver finds happiness by living a rational life. The Wife of Bath thinks happiness can be found by being in complete control of her marriage. In a short story by Gogol it only takes a new coat for Akaky to find happiness. The Preacher in Ecclesiastes believes the pursuit of happiness is futile; the best we can hope for is to enjoy the work that we’re given to do in this world. Flaubert tells a story about a woman finding her happiness in a bird. And Nietzsche thinks we can find happiness by forging new values the way Zarathustra did. But The Gospel of Luke lays out an entirely different road to happiness. Let’s look at a couple of our most recent readings to see how this Gospel gives a different definition of happiness. Our latest reading was Plato’s Apology and at his trial Socrates said this: Men of Athens, I honor and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy... Understand that I shall never alter my ways, not even if I have to die many times. This wasn’t much different from the trial of Jesus. Both Jesus and Socrates refused to compromise their principles, even under penalty of death. In another book written by Luke (Acts of the Apostles) we see a similar response given by the followers of Jesus: Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men. It would be interesting to listen in on a conversation between Socrates and Jesus. Socrates would start off with a question meant to enhance the search for philosophical truth; Jesus would answer with a parable aiming at spiritual enlightenment. But a more interesting project would be to take the life of Jesus and filter it through Aristotle’s great work on happiness. This would give us a pretty good notion not only about the life of Jesus but also about the limits of philosophy. For instance, Aristotle asks What is the aim of politics? Both the common man and the cultivated man call it happiness. They understand happiness to be the same thing as “living well” and “doing well.” But when it comes to defining what happiness is, they disagree, and the answer given by ordinary people is different from the answer given by philosophers. Was Jesus one of the common men or a cultivated one? Even in a casual reading of the Gospel the answer would have to be: both. In Luke’s little biography did Jesus “live well” and “do well?” Jesus certainly did a lot of good things. He healed people. He taught them. But did he live well by Aristotle’s standards? Jesus wasn’t rich; he never married or had children; he died an excruciating death at a relatively young age. How can anyone honestly say that this man was happy? And yet, that’s exactly what Luke is telling us. The goal of happiness according to Aristotle is to achieve excellence in human terms: to be healthy, enjoy a certain amount of wealth, to have a good family and plenty of friends, to win respect and admiration from your peers. These are the things people should strive for according to Aristotle. Jesus had a different set of goals in mind. They can be summarized in what we know today as “The Lord’s Prayer” Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, as in heaven, so in earth. Give us day by day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil. These goals might intrigue Socrates; they certainly are not what Aristotle calls happiness. Luke saw things differently. For Luke the life of Jesus was the key to happiness both in this life and the next.


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