Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, April 07, 2014

BIBLE: Job (Happiness and Justice)

Reading the Book of Job is hard. It’s not hard to understand what’s happening in the story. But it’s hard to know exactly how to respond. It’s an understatement to say Job has a run of bad luck. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Job once had it all and now has nothing, not even his health. So where does he go from here? How do we respond to a man who has lost everything? How did Job’s friends respond? We’ll find out later what they have to say. But what if Job didn’t turn to friends for support? What if he turned to the Great Books instead? How would the Great Books tradition respond? Let’s consider a couple of possibilities.
In our last reading we talked about Rome and religion. One of our earlier readings was the Gospel of Mark. These readings are related. The basic message of the early Christians is that all of us are sinners. Everyone needs salvation. This includes Job. No one, not even Job, can earn his way to happiness. Happiness is a free gift from God. This is the basic gospel message spread by the early Christian Church. But ancient societies were grappling with the problem of happiness long before Christ. One of the greatest philosophers once wrote: “Now if there is anything at all which comes to men as a gift from the gods, it is reasonable to suppose that happiness above all else is god-given; and of all things human it is the most likely to be god-given, because it is the best.” (Aristotle, On Happiness, GB First Series, Vol. 1) Job had sons and daughters. He had sheep and camels and oxen and a great household. But the greatest gift Job had, the greatest gift anyone can have, is happiness. Why is happiness the greatest gift? Happiness is the greatest gift because, as Aristotle put it so simply, “it is the best.” We want everything else for the sake of being happy. That’s why it’s the best gift the gods can give us.
But here’s the problem with happiness: it never lasts. Christmas make us happy, for a while. Birthdays make us happy, for a while. There doesn’t seem to be anything that makes us permanently happy unless, as Aristotle says, the gods give it to us. And in Job’s case the reverse is true. The gods seem like they’re in a conspiracy to take away his happiness. Is that fair? Justice is one of the great themes running through the Great Books. The earliest GB author, Homer, gives some insight how a man like Job can fall from happiness to misery: “Among the gods, who brought this quarrel on? Apollo, the son of Zeus. Agamemnon angered him, so Apollo made a burning wind of plague rise in the army: rank and file Greek soldiers sickened and died for the ill their chief (Agamemnon) had done in despising a man of prayer. This priest, Kryses, had come down to the ships with gifts, no end of ransom for his daughter…” (The Iliad, GB Third Series, Vol. 2). The Greeks disrespected Apollo’s priest, so Apollo punished them. The gods can do that because they’re gods and we’re not. We have to endure plagues sent from the gods or else find some way to placate them. That was the typical ancient view of justice.
What makes Job’s case seem unfair is that he had not disrespected the gods (or, in this case, he had not disrespected God, because Job was a monotheist). In fact, Job had gone out of his way to please God. But he still lost his happiness. Why? Readers know Job hasn’t done anything wrong. Even God says so. But we judge from a human perspective. Job doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong and neither do we. However, divine justice may be different from human justice. If, as Aristotle says, the gods can give happiness then they can take it away too. This may not seem “fair” but as Job admits, “What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” Good and bad get all jumbled up. Homer essentially says the same thing. Maybe Job should have a long talk with Aristotle and Homer about happiness and justice.


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