Philosophers want to locate humanity’s Supreme Good in this life – pleasure, virtue, freedom, friendship, love, or some combination of those – but none of them are lasting or fulfilled. They are all tainted with longing or evil or brevity. Augustine says that misery in this life reminds us that our true and consummated Supreme Good is not found in this life at all but in eternal life. And he goes on to say that we cannot make or establish that Supreme Good on our own but it must be given to us by the one true God, from outside ourselves. Misery, in other words, is a useful teacher for us; pain is a necessary guide to the human soul.
Augustine explores how all of our supposed goods are broken: the virtues only get us so far, they are all imperfect within us, and they are really only operative as long as we have vices that need combating (justice, for instance, is only useful as long as injustice runs rampant); social life and friendships are short, filled with miscommunications and deceptions, and permeated with anxieties; pleasures are temporary and come at the cost of others’ comforts; freedom has no content by itself; love fills us with longing and never lasts forever. Love: I notice in myself that at some of the most intimate moments I have with my wife, I find a longing for deeper intimacy, not because of any particular defect in myself or in her, but because I can see that I was not made for intimacy with her but for deep and abiding intimacy with God. She cannot fill the deepest needs of my heart, and so I notice an ache that points me further up and farther in. Only in God can the deepest needs be filled.
And so Augustine looks on the evils of life: “Let everyone, therefore, who reflects with pain upon such great evils, upon such horror and cruelty, acknowledge that this is misery. And if anyone either endures them or thinks of them without anguish of soul, his condition is still more miserable: for he thinks himself happy only because he has lost all human feeling.” Our job is not to find ourselves happy by denying pain but to seek happiness where it will be found. Pain and misery are part of life. Fulfilled happiness is not: “Indeed, in this place of infirmity, and in these evil days, such anxiety is not without its uses; for it leads them to seek more fervently the state of security where peace is most full and most certain. … This is our final happiness, our last perfection, a consummation which will have no end. Here, in this world, we are said to be happy when we have such little peace as a good life can afford. But such happiness is found to be mere misery in comparison with that happiness which we call final.”
Our treasure and hope is not here, it is in the end. Our peace and security are not here, but in the end. Our desires for intimacy and love will not be consummated here but in the end. God will give us Himself in a consummated Kingdom of righteousness and grace, in the end.