"We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness.”
Those opening lines from the Declaration of Independence are very well known, although people are not always clear on what they mean or even where they came from. On more than one occasion, I have heard them attributed to the Bible, which itself indicates that these words have acquired the quality of holy writ.
It is all too common to bash the founders for not solving all the problems of their day or ours, but this is hardly fair. Those of us living in the 21st century have yet to solve the problems of the 19th (or even 14th). They did pretty good.
The idea of un- or in-alienable rights is a powerful one, implying that some basic human rights are so fundamental that not only can they not be legitimately taken away by others but that we can't even surrender them ourselves. And, significantly for these ramblings, the pursuit of happiness is among them. But what did it mean at the time?
One thing it did not mean to those makers of a still incomplete revolution is chasing after passing gratifications or pleasant states, as important as that may be in a limited way. They were as aware as modern psychologists and biologists of what has been called the “hedonic treadmill,” the endless pursuit of desires that don’t give lasting satisfaction even when gratified.
Whereas some Enlightenment era thinkers as different as John Locke and Jeremy Bentham focused on happiness as pleasure or the absence of pain, the founders drew strongly from the ancient classical tradition of which Aristotle is a part (see previous post).
As Darrin McMahon argues in the recent book Happiness: a History, historians have increasingly become aware of the ancient roots of the revolution going back to the classical Greek legacy and its revival in the Renaissance: “these historians draw attention to a ‘classical republican’ tradition that had great influence in eighteenth-century America” which viewed liberty “in more active terms as direct public participation… classical republicans understood happiness, with strong Stoic inflections, as civic virtue.”
According to McMahon, in the classical republican tradition, “liberty emerged from active devotion to the public good (civic virtue). And from civic virtue emerged happiness, both individual and social. Frequently demanding self-sacrifice, denial, and pain, civic virtue had little to do with pleasure. In fact, in the classical republican analysis, the happiness of modern societies was gravely threatened by the egotism, luxury, and corruption that turned individuals away from the pursuit of the larger social good. Private pleasure corrupted civic virtue and hence the happiness of individuals and society as a whole.”
O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there…Today the public sphere has become a shopping mall where the workers don’t have health care or a living wage and where consumers, often the same people, have to buy on credit.
We have sunk from a very rich tradition to a point where “happiness” is thought to consist of worshipping the market god, buying the next thing we don’t really need and probably can’t afford, accepting what “leaders” say without question, and submitting anything we have left to the poison of authoritarian ideologies, religious or otherwise.
What better example of the perversion of civic virtue and the classical republican tradition can there be than a regime that showers luxury and tax cuts on the wealthy and powerful while sending the working class to fight its unnecessary war?
Sometimes, the best innovation consists of transmission and the most radical act is to conserve and revive ancient traditions.
(Next time: towards reweaving the connection between economy, the public sphere, and happiness)
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