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Further Reading

Department: Basic Training

The Good Life

It's to Know, Serve & Love the Truth, Not the Pursuit of Happiness

by James Altena

What is a life well lived? What is an exemplary life—a life that I would wish to strive for, to emulate, to have others remember as worthy of admiration? What principles ought to guide me in living such a life?

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 40

At the Christian university where I teach, every freshman must take an introductory liberal arts course that reflects upon this question. Typically, the initial essays I get in response are self-centered: life is all about "finding happiness," "living your dreams," "pursuing your passions." Why does no one ever mention being virtuous, or faithful, or living to serve others?

Since I ask all my students to answer this question, I thought it right that I, too, should answer it. I hope my response will give my readers occasion to pause, to pose this question to themselves, and to answer it worthily.

My answer to the question of what is a life well lived can be summarized in six words: "To know, serve, and love truth." This brief statement has manifold dimensions, which can be subsumed under five basic tenets.

Truth Requires Right Reasoning

First, to know truth requires right reasoning. Such knowledge does not and cannot appeal to subjective emotions, but rather to external standards of judgment concerning right and wrong. This entails belief in truth as a universal and objective standard, not as something somehow localized and subjective. It is a standard to which all are accountable, and according to which all persons (including myself) both are and ought to be judged.

The widespread notion that "truth is relative" is (as every logician knows) self-contradictory, incoherent nonsense. It is asserted because people have unthinkingly accepted the pretense of its purveyors that it signifies profundity, sophistication, and breadth of intellect, along with a corresponding judiciousness and tolerance of judgment. It is in fact precisely the opposite—a sign of shallowness, naiveté, and narrowness of mind, injudicious and allied to an unreflective judgmentalism.

For it is impossible to avoid making decisions, and all decisions are inherently judgments. When they are not made by reason in accordance with truth as a universal standard, but are merely asserted as subjective sentiments, they are necessarily irrational, mere tyrannical impositions of will by virtue of superior force. Only if truth exists objectively and universally can there be a coherent, perduring, just moral order.

This is not to say that truth is always easy to discern, or to apply correctly (the difficulties from which epistemological and moral relativism derive their superficial plausibility). Such discernment requires and poses a summons to serious labor of the mind and will, whereas relativism, which seeks to evade this summons, is inherently lazy and irresponsible. Far from being a license to self-assertion (which relativism covertly provides), it requires humility, forbearance, charity, self-denial, and a host of other virtues, precisely because the recognition of truth as objective and universal entails the recognition of and submission to an authority infinitely greater than oneself. "What is right" necessarily replaces "I am right," and hence often must lead to the conclusion and admission that "I am (or have been) wrong."

Relativism, with its pretenses that either everyone can somehow be equally right or that error is insufficiently important to require effective opposition, feigns humility; in fact it is supremely arrogant, for it seeks to evade virtually any concession that its proponents can ever meaningfully err. Like charity, truth begins at home; and any judgment to be formed and applied to others must first with equal or even greater rigor be applied to oneself.

Truth Requires Action

Second, to serve truth is indeed a call to service. Truth is not merely factual knowledge, but knowledge bearing moral significance. It is not only descriptive, but also prescriptive; it tells us not only what is, but also what we ought to do. It demands a relentless pursuit of excellence, even perfection. It is betrayed by settling for simplistic solutions, whether of relativism, reductionism, or easy judgmentalism. It entails obedience to, not assumption of, authority, except by delegation. It requires self-restraint and self-sacrifice, a willingness to admit error and to make correction and reparation where needed and without excuse.

When life is centered upon service to truth, it cannot be centered upon the self. This forbids one simply to pursue one's passions, for those must be governed by reason and judged according to external standards. It likewise denies happiness to be merely a subjectively self-defined activity and goal (something irreducibly selfish in nature); rather, it declares happiness to be an objectively defined characteristic that requires the pursuit of wisdom and virtue—right knowledge, judgment, character, and conduct. Again, this requires humility, which is not self-denigration but self-forgetfulness. Humility is not to think meanly of oneself, but not to think particularly of oneself at all.

Truth Is Concrete

Third, truth is not abstract but concrete; it is not merely conceived intellectually but is lived materially, in a life of moral virtue. The call to a life of service to truth is hard; it is challenging and rigorous. It requires renunciation of the comfortable but false notion of happiness as that which pleases our desires and will, and instead demands that we shape and discipline our desires and will to take pleasure in what is true and good, and to find those ends beautiful.

Pursuit of and service to truth is often painful, for it entails bringing to light the failures not only of mankind generally but also of oneself specifically; as the author of Ecclesiastes observes (Eccl. 1:15b), "He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow." Such service is not an option but a duty, incumbent upon all men. The end of such labor is not merely to accrue knowledge for one's own satisfaction or advancement, which again is merely selfish, but to make use of it to achieve moral ends—to pursue and establish true justice by correct determination of what is right and wrong, morally as well as factually. Indeed, truth itself is a form of justice, and all falsehood (including relativism) is a form of injustice.

Truth Is Personal

Fourth, being not merely abstract but concrete, truth is likewise not impersonal but personal (which differs from the merely subjective in being a particular participation in the objective and universal). Indeed, as Christianity apprehends, truth is supremely personal and concrete, one of the attributes of God. The declaration of Jesus Christ, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life," is an uncompromising assertion of his divinity as God Incarnate—both as Man and as one specific man in real history. Because truth belongs to the faculty of judgment, it, unlike physical objects, does not exist apart from a conceiving and perceiving mind. This, however, does not reduce it to mere subjectivity, as relativism would have it; on the contrary, it is precisely because truth is an essential attribute of an original personal being of intellect, who is eternal, infinite, and unchanging, that truth is objective and universal.

In the Eurythro, Plato first posed a variant of a famous dilemma: Does God command something because it is good, or is something good because God commands it? The posited dilemma is that either goodness (as the highest expression of truth) exists apart from God and is equally eternal (making it a rival god), or else goodness has no inherent nature but is merely the expression of the arbitrary will of an omnipotent tyrant.

The dilemma is false, however, for it smuggles in an implicit, false assumption that somehow we can know what goodness or truth is apart from God. But since human minds are finite and no human being creates himself, then truth (including goodness), being objective and universal, cannot be a product of human thinking; it must pre-exist man. Being himself a temporal creature, man cannot originate truth as something eternal; he can only receive it. And since truth as a conceptual reality must exist within and in relation to a personal intellect, then it subsists in the eternal, infinite, and unchanging mind of God, and hence necessarily and unfailingly reflects his nature. By knowing God, we know truth, and vice-versa.

Truth Is Revealed

Fifth and last, the nature of truth as both objective and personal means that to know and serve truth is, ultimately and necessarily, to know and serve God. Because God, as infinite and eternal in being, is wholly other in nature than man, the usual human faculties of knowledge—reason, intuition, and sensory experience—are insufficient for knowing God personally, as opposed to merely knowing something about him. Personal knowledge of God comes only through revelation—God condescending to disclose himself to man in ways that man can comprehend.

The most profound truths, upon which all other truths in some way are grounded, are those concerning the very being of God himself: first the Trinity, and then the Incarnation. That said, the knowledge vouchsafed by revelation is not a mere provision of factual information; rather, it is the communication of an intimate bond of love. Because God is not a creature with passions, his love is not an emotion or sentiment; rather, it is a rational act of will that calls forth a response from man in kind. But as an act of will, it likewise is not cold and impersonal; on the contrary, as the binding commitment of a communion of persons, it is infinitely more intense and enduring than a mere passing flame of passion.

Because we are God's creations, we exist at his pleasure, for his service. But far from being an oppressive constraint, that service actually bestows true freedom, for it frees us from all false beliefs and choices, in order to know and to be conformed to truth instead. Jesus summarized all the commands of God into two great commandments—to love God with one's entire heart, soul, and mind, and to love others as oneself—and added a third—to love one another as he loves us. That infinite love was demonstrated in his sacrifice of himself on the Cross to atone for the sins of all men, in obedience to his Father's will.

Thus the true definition of love, in its highest and deepest sense, is: self-sacrificial obedience to God for the greatest good of another. Jesus, God the Son incarnate as man, declared, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life." John, the beloved apostle who rested on the bosom of Jesus, declared that "God is love." Truth and love are thus ultimately one and the same, merely approached and considered from two different vantage points. Truly to love is to know, serve, and love Truth—which is God.

A Better Restatement

In sum, my original answer to the question of what is a life well lived is more accurately restated as "To know, serve, and love God." Rightly understood, the two mean one and the same thing. Jesus said, "For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it," and "Every one that is of the truth hears my voice." We can save our lives only by losing them to the high, self-sacrificial calling of service to truth, and to the One who is Truth—not to the debased, selfish pursuit of self-fulfillment.

My personal calling has been to serve truth as a teacher and writer, particularly in the subjects of history, music, and Christian doctrine. This is my sanctified passion as guided by reason—in the words of St. Augustine, what my heart is on fire for. In the end, it can best be expressed in the words from a traditional Christian confession: "I resolve to believe what is true, to do what is right, and to serve as God's faithful soldier and servant to my life's end." •


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