The Pursuit of Happiness
Zippy has no property, and she's more like to pursue her own tail than happiness - but she knows how to be happy and enjoy life - including a good nap -
by Carol V. Hamilton
“The pursuit of happiness” is the most famous phrase in the Declaration of Independence. Conventional history and popular wisdom attribute the phrase to the genius of Thomas Jefferson when in an imaginative leap, he replaced the third term of John Locke’s trinity, “life, liberty, and property.” It was a felicitous, even thrilling, substitution. Yet the true history and philosophical meaning of the famous phrase are apparently unknown.
The phrase has meant different things to different people. To Europeans it has suggested the core claim—or delusion—of American exceptionalism. . . . And sadly, for many Americans, Jefferson might just as well have left “property” in place. To them the pursuit of happiness means no more than the pursuit of wealth and status as embodied in a McMansion, a Lexus, and membership in a country club. Even more sadly, Jefferson’s own “property” included about two hundred human beings whom he did not permit to pursue their own happiness.
. . . Jefferson’s intellectual heroes were Newton, Bacon, and Locke, and it was actually in Locke that he must have found the phrase. It appears not in the Two Treatises on Government but in the 1690 essay Concerning Human Understanding. There, in a long and thorny passage, Locke wrote: "<b?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 pursuit of happiness” is a complicated concept. It is not merely sensual or hedonistic, but engages the intellect, requiring the careful discrimination of imaginary happiness from “true and solid” happiness. It is the “foundation of liberty” because it frees us from enslavement to particular desires.
. . . Jefferson admired Epicurus and owned eight copies of De rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) by Lucretius, a Roman disciple of Epicurus. In a letter Jefferson wrote to William Short on October 13, 1819, he declared, “I too am an Epicurean. I consider the genuine doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us.” At the end of the letter, Jefferson made a summary of the key points of Epicurean doctrine, including:
Moral.—Happiness the aim of life.
Virtue the foundation of happiness.
Utility the test of virtue.
Properly understood, therefore, when John Locke, Samuel Johnson, and Thomas Jefferson wrote of “the pursuit of happiness,” they were invoking the Greek and Roman philosophical tradition in which happiness is bound up with the civic virtues of courage, moderation, and justice. Because they are civic virtues, not just personal attributes, they implicate the social aspect of eudaimonia.
The pursuit of happiness, therefore, is not merely a matter of achieving individual pleasure.
That is why Alexander Hamilton and other founders referred to “social happiness.” During this political season, as Americans are scrutinizing presidential candidates, we would do well to ponder that.