The View From 1776

The Pursuit of Happiness

What was Jefferson talking about?

Even students who are victims of our wretched educational system are familiar with Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. 

What was his understanding of happiness and why was it particularly mentioned in a document justifying independence from the mother country?

Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, distinguished among several different sorts of happiness.  The average person thinks that happiness is sensual pleasures, such as a full stomach, a good home, a job, and warm clothes, and satisfaction of sexual desires.  Politicians and other public figures identify happiness with honor, fame, and power.  Businessmen identify it with wealth acquired in business success.

Each of these kinds of happiness, however, is either dependent upon other people or other things, or else is acquired in order to obtain other things.  The businessman’s wealth, of itself, doesn’t bring happiness.  He acquires wealth in order to purchase other things.  The politician’s prestige and power can be withdrawn by citizens if they lose trust in him.

There is, however, another type of life, which Aristotle calls the contemplative life, which is open to every person through participation in prayerful worship and meditation upon God.  The contemplative, religious life aims at moral virtue, which is an end in itself, a self-sufficient sort of happiness.

If we think about it logically, the highest level of happiness ought to be something that is an end in itself, something that doesn’t depend upon other people or other things, something that is good by itself.  The highest level of happiness is, in effect, at the end of the road, it’s the final destination.  Such is moral virtue.  One pursues it, not to get something else, but because it is good in itself.  Yet from individuals’ pursuit of moral virtue flows all of the good aspects of political society:  respect for the rights of others, adherence to the rule of law, and everyday kindness and consideration for others. 

What Aristotle called pursuit of moral virtue, the highest good for individuals and for political society, is what the Hebrew Old Testament five centuries earlier, and the Christian New Testament three centuries afterwards, both recognized as the Great Commandments:  Love the Lord they God with all thy strength, will, mind, heart, and spirit, and love thy neighbor as thyself.

This is clearly the sort of happiness understood by Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston, the committee appointed by the Continental Congress to draft the Declaration.  Writing to Richard Henry Lee in 1825, Jefferson said of his authorship of the Declaration, the essential thing was, ?Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject?it was intended to be an expression of the American mind?All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversations, in letters, printed essays, or the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.?  Jefferson’s reference to Aristotle and Cicero as prime sources shows the philosophical and religious nature of his understanding about the meaning of happiness.

To support this conclusion, we have only to recall that the New England colonies, Pennsylvania, and Maryland had all been founded by religious leaders for the purpose of leading a moral life under a moral political rule.

Today, of course, liberal-socialists work tirelessly to subvert that foundation of our political society.  Theirs is a secular view that preaches the self-sufficiency of the human mind to discover the most effective ways for individuals to live and for societies to be regulated.  In their secular world view, happiness is limited to the lowest order of happiness differentiated by Aristotle: sensual pleasures, such as a full stomach, a good home, a job, and warm clothes, and satisfaction of sexual desires.  Thence comes the welfare state and President Franklin Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights: Security provided in the stifling embrace of Big Brother.  Such are the “values” of liberal-socialism, hedonistic pleasure, the most fleeting and unsatisfying of all sources of happiness. 

The Judeo-Christian heritage of individual morality through faith in God sustained countless thousands of believers in all manners of adversity.  The liberal-socialist welfare state reduces people to impersonal Social Security numbers and makes them dependent creatures of Washington politicians.

The Christian and the religious Jew can can seek spiritual guidance toward the moral path and gain true happiness in prayerful communion with God.  The liberal-socialist has to place himself in the hands of his psychiatrist and hope that he has enough money and lives long enough for some sort of magic to occur.