Excerpt #4 — R. H. Barrow on the Christianization of Happiness

There is much of tectonic significance for ancient cultural shifts that is lost in translation, smoothed out with equivalent terms for the convenience of the contemporary reader, or simply difficult to recover because the associated cluster of ideas –such as the genii— we no longer have as part of our cultural vocabulary, and generally have a hard time taking seriously, let alone understanding. Our modern words lie on this side of these transitions, and so we translate, across time, elements from another world into elements of our own. On some (uncommon) occasions this is done to whitewash; far more often this happens without anyone intending to make it happen at all, because escaping our context and entering the foreign country of another time and place is so much work.

The Greek word for ‘happiness’ is ‘eudaimonia’ (εύδαιμονία) which properly means ‘under the care of a good Genius’. This is the usual word in all Greek literature. There was another word, or rather two words, for ‘happy’, ‘makar’ (μάκαρ) and ‘makarios’ (μακάριος). The first of these was used only for the ‘happiness’ of the gods and of the ‘blessed dead’; the second was used of men, but more seldom than ‘eudaimon’ and perhaps in a more colloquial and flippant way. The interesting point, however, is that ‘eudaimonia’ and ‘eudaimon’ are never used in the New Testament. The absence of this word is not difficult to account for. In the first place, ‘eudaimonia’ was the stock word of the philosophers and the ‘happiness’ of the Christian was not to be equated with the happiness discussed in Greek philosophy. Secondly, the word itself was objectionable to Christian ears; it seemed to make reference to a daemon, one of those daemons with which Christianity had to wage long warfare in an attempt to expel them from the consciousness of its adherents. It seemed to make ‘happiness’ depend upon something or some power outside man which controlled the quality of his destiny, whereas to the Christian its source was within, springing up from a right relationship between man and God. [R.H. Barrow, Introduction to St Augustine (London: Faber & Faber Ltd., 1950), 183]

Regardless of whether Barrow projects onto the early Christians a form of mid-20th-century Protestant concern and piety that may or may not be there, the rest of his outline is laudable. Indeed, “The Past is a Foreign Country“, and we should should always be ready to find that it does not conform to any of our expectations, regardless of how many of our expectations find –or seem to find– validation there.

2 thoughts on “Excerpt #4 — R. H. Barrow on the Christianization of Happiness

  1. Pingback: An Example of Historical Distance & Difference: Χάρις, Linguistic Singularity, and Confessional Projection | Into the Clarities

  2. Pingback: Poetry, Power, and the Arrest of Thought (Part One) | Into the Clarities

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