Pursuit of Happiness

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 rights are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Jefferson was unquestionably a great politician.  He may not have been a political philosopher of the first order – in politics there is a vast gulf between practice and theory.  (Of course being a first-rate politician, natural scientist and writer, and a second-rate philosopher, architect, and inventor still puts one solidly in the poly-maths club.)

The basic ideas of the Declaration of Independence were cribbed from Locke, who wrote:

Man being born, as has been proved, with a title to perfect freedom, and an uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature, equally with any other man, or number of men in the world  hath by nature a power, not only to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty, and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men; but to judge of, and punish the breaches of the law in others…

A political philosopher must be precise and define terms carefully.  A politician has the freedom to paint with a broad-brush and inspire the polity.  Where Locke is precise, Jefferson is elegant.  But I am most struck by the shift from estate to happiness.  Perhaps is was merely an inspirational turn of phrase, but its impact is profound.

Jefferson himself was a man of property, but with little interest in it – except as a means to support his research and writing.  It makes me think of Aristotle who, in The Nicomachean Ethics an exploration of character, goodness, and happiness writes:

Every art and every investigation, and similarly every action and pursuit is considered to aim at some good….  If, then, our activities have some end which we want for its own sake, and for the sake of which we want all the other ends – if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for this will involve an infinite progression, so that our aim will be pointless and ineffectual) – it is clear that this must be the Good, that is the supreme good.

Aristotle dismisses money as this ultimate end:

As for the life of the business man, it does not give him much freedom of action.  Besides, wealth is obviously not the good that we are seeking, because it serves only as a means; i.e. for getting something else.

Jefferson evolves Locke’s framework and inserts it into our political DNA.  We do not merely have a government to protect our property. Property, particularly Locke’s “estate” is the necessary means.  But Jefferson wants to inspire us to seek our end, to pursue happiness.

There are no promises that we can be happy, but rather that this is the point of the whole exercise.  To quote another great American, Yaakov Smirnov, “What a country!”

It is fair to say that the United States – like every nation – is founded upon piles of bones.  We have a government that – at time – has systematically prevented individuals from the pursuit of happiness in a profound way.  But on July 4 we also recall the words of Lincoln – a match for Jefferson as a writer and politician – and his tremendous efforts to set right that great injustice.

But that will have to be a post for another time.  I have some happiness to pursue.

Share this post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *