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Pursuit of Happiness

The one thing most of us know about happiness is that the writer and signers of the Declaration of Independence regard its pursuit as an inalienable right endowed upon us by our Creator.  But what is the pursuit of happiness and what did Thomas Jefferson actually mean when he penned that phrase?

Actually, it was John Locke who originally coined the phrase ‘pursuit of happiness’ in his book An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which was published in 1681.  Thomas Jefferson took the phrase “pursuit of happiness” from Locke and incorporated it into his famous statement of a peoples’ unalienable right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence.  In fact, many key parts of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America are lifted from Locke’s political writings.

John Locke (1632-1704) was one of the great English philosophers.  His political writings in particular helped pave the way for the French and American revolutions.  What most people don’t know, however, is that the Greek philosophers heavily influenced Locke’s concept of happiness: most especially by Aristotle and Epicurus.  Far from simply equating “happiness” with “pleasure,” or the satisfaction of desire, Locke distinguishes between “imaginary” happiness and “true happiness.”  In the passage where he coins the phrase “pursuit of happiness,” Locke writes:

“The necessity of pursuing happiness is the foundation of liberty.  As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness, so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty. The stronger ties we have to an unalterable pursuit of happiness in general, which is our greatest good, and which, as such, our desires always follow, the more are we free from any necessary determination of our will to any particular action…” 

As is often the case, the language of philosophy and of earlier ages can be very difficult to understand.  However, in this passage, Locke indicates that the pursuit of happiness is the foundation of liberty since it frees us from attachment to any particular desire we might have at a given moment.  So, for example, although my body might present me with a strong urge to indulge in that chocolate brownie, my reason knows that ultimately the brownie is not in my best interest.  Why isn’t it? It isn’t in my best interest because it will not lead to my “true and solid” happiness.   It might at best lead only to temporary pleasure.  If we go back to Locke, then, we see that the “pursuit of happiness” as seen by him and by Jefferson was not merely the pursuit of pleasure, property, or self-interest (although it may include all of these).  It is also the freedom to be able to make decisions that results in the best life possible for a human being. 

When it comes to Locke’s concept of happiness, he is most influenced by Epicurus (341–270 BC).  Like Epicurus, Locke qualifies his definition of happiness and makes an important distinction between “true pleasures and “false pleasures.” False pleasures are those that promise immediate gratification but are typically followed by more pain. Locke gives the example of alcohol, which promises short-term euphoria but is accompanied by unhealthy affects on the mind and body.

In addition to Locke, Thomas Jefferson also cited other ancient influences on his political writings, namely Aristotle and Cicero.  Cicero (106 – 43 BC) was a Roman philosopher, politician, lawyer, orator, political theorist, consul and constitutionalist.  Scholars tell us that Aristotle and Cicero were representatives of a “classical republican” tradition that emphasized liberty.  In this same tradition, happiness was seen as growing out of civic virtue.  This is quite different from the more modern application of the term.  For them, happiness frequently demanded self-sacrifice, denial, and sometimes, even pain. Civic virtue had little to do with pleasure.  In fact, in the analysis of the classical republican, the happiness of their contemporary societies was gravely threatened by the egotism, luxury, and corruption that turned individuals away from the pursuit of the larger social good.  Though Jefferson himself may not have viewed the pursuit of happiness as identical to the republican pursuit of the common good, many of those at the Constitutional Convention would have had this view. 

One potential obstacle to understanding this concept of happiness as civic virtue is that happiness (especially in modern America) is often viewed as a subjective state of mind, for example when someone says they are happy when enjoying a cool drink on a hot day, or out “having fun” with friends. For Aristotle, happiness is a final end or a goal that encompasses the totality of one’s life. It is not something that can be gained or lost in a few hours, like pleasurable sensations.  Aristotle gives us this definition of happiness:

“…the function of man is to live a certain kind of life, and this activity implies a rational principle, and the function of a good man is the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed it is performed in accord with the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, then happiness turns out to be an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.” (From Nicomachean Ethics)

More than anybody else, Aristotle enshrines happiness as a central purpose of human life and a goal in itself. As a result he devotes more space to the topic of happiness than any thinker prior to the modern era.  Aristotle says, “Happiness depends on ourselves.”  “Happiness depends on the cultivation of virtue.”  “Virtue is achieved by maintaining the Mean, which is the balance.”  One of Aristotle’s most influential works is the Nicomachean Ethics, quoted above, where he presents a theory of happiness that is still relevant today, over 2,300 years later. The key question Aristotle seeks to answer in these lectures is “What is the ultimate purpose of human existence?” What is that end or goal for which we should direct all of our activities?

In the above quote from Nicomachean Ethics, we can see another important feature of Aristotle’s theory: the link between the concepts of happiness and virtue. Aristotle tells us that the most important factor in the effort to achieve happiness is to have a good moral character — what he calls “complete virtue.” But being virtuous is not a passive state: one must act in accordance with virtue. Nor is it enough to have a few virtues; rather one must strive to possess all of them. As Aristotle writes,

“He is happy who lives in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life.” (Nicomachean Ethics)

Many contemporaries of Thomas Jefferson would also have been influenced in this same direction by the Enlightenment thinkers.  In the Western tradition, Scottish philosophers such as Frances Hutcheson, David Hume and Adam Smith urge this idea, that happiness is associated with virtue and benevolence.  Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746) claimed that humans have a moral sense that leads to pleasurable sensations whenever they act rightly.  This means that a person experiences pleasure when he or she acts virtuously and when such acts become habitual, they lead to happiness.  For Hume (1711-1776), the highest good is based on the pursuit of happiness. We are personally happy when we’re good to others, not due to some high spiritual reward but because this approach leads to a harmonious social whole. So personal and social well being go hand in hand.  As Hume writes: “benevolence offers the merit of meeting human need and bestowing happiness, bringing harmony within families, the mutual support of friends, and order to society.”  Smith (1723–1790) entered the University of Glasgow when he was fourteen and studied moral philosophy under Francis Hutcheson.  It was here that Smith developed his passion for liberty, reason and free speech.  Smith believed, “The consciousness, or even the suspicion, of having done wrong, is a load upon every mind, and is accompanied with anxiety and terror in all those who are not hardened by long habits of iniquity.”

The association of caring, compassion and virtue with happiness is not strictly Western.  Caring and the closely related concept of compassion are the only core values shared by the Buddhists, Confucians and Taoists, which is remarkable considering that their teachings often diverge if not clash. Let’s compare what some of their greatest champions say on this topic.  Compassion is the greatest virtue of Mahayana Buddhism and thus it comes as no surprise that a prominent Buddhist once said, “The greatest degree of inner tranquility comes from the cultivation of love and compassion. The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well-being.” Laozi talks about compassion as one of his three most treasured virtues.  In the Confucian Analects, the concept of ren or humanity, which is about putting oneself in other peoples’ shoes and acting upon it, is mentioned on nearly one hundred passages.  

The idea of the pursuit of happiness as a basic human right is the guiding idea in the defenses of liberty written by John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and others. These thinkers maintain that concern for common happiness of all people is the proper guiding principle of government.  As you can see, the understanding of happiness that served as a background for its use in the Declaration of Independence was quite complex.  Certainly we have lost nearly all of this complexity, having reduced the pursuit of happiness to a striving for personal enjoyment devoid of faith, virtue, or the common good.  Wouldn’t it be interesting if we once again started pursuing that sort of happiness that Jefferson and his colleagues thought we had the right to pursue?

For more thoughts on the Declaration of Independence or natural law check out these other Heavy Questions articles:   What Makes Us Equal?  or Right to Liberty or Right to Life.  For more thoughts on happiness, check out these Happiness Quotes.