Archive for July 4th, 2018

Pursuing our happiness: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Wednesday, July 4th, 2018
Share

Happy Birthday, America! The Declaration of Independence upholds our right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” People have used that phrase to defend everything from the greedy acquisition of monstrous wealth to opioid addiction. We can only echo Inigo Montoya, played by Mandy Patinkin, in the youtube clip above.

What, precisely, does the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” mean? Hat tip to philosopher Ellen Trezevant of Bruges, who pointed us to Carli N. Conklin’s “The Origins of the Pursuit of Happiness” in the Washington University Jurisprudence Review:

They knew what they were talking about…

[F]ar from being a “glittering generality” or a direct substitution for property, the pursuit of happiness is a phrase that had a distinct meaning to those who included that phrase in two of the eighteenth-century’s most influential legal documents: William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–1769) and the Declaration of Independence (1776). That distinct meaning included a belief in first principles by which the created world is governed, the idea that these first principles were discoverable by man, and the belief that to pursue a life lived in accordance with those principles was to pursue a life of virtue, with the end result of happiness, best defined in the Greek sense of eudaimonia or human flourishing. The pursuit of happiness then is a phrase full of substance from Blackstone (and before) to the Founders (and beyond). It was part of an English and Scottish Enlightenment understanding of epistemology and jurisprudence. It found its way into eighteenth-century English sermons and colonial era speeches and writings on political tyranny. It had meaning to those who wrote and spoke the phrase in eighteenth-century English and American legal contexts, and it had meaning to its listeners. …

[B]ut the most common contemporary understanding of the word “happy” aligns today with what the eighteenth-century philosophers would have called a “fleeting and temporal” happiness versus a “real and substantial” happiness. The first is a happiness rooted in disposition, circumstance, and temperament; it is a temporary feeling of psychological pleasure. The second is happiness as eudaimonia—well-being or human flourishing. It includes a sense of psychological pleasure or “feeling good” but does so in a “real” or “substantial” sense. It is “real” in that it is genuine and true. It is substantial in that it pertains to the substance or essence of what it means to be fully human.

Below, to celebrate the Fourth of July, perhaps the most moving ode to America written in decades, in Tony Kushner‘s Angels in America ... spoken during a eulogy, with Meryl Streep as the rabbi…