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Pursuing Happiness

March 6, 2024  |  577 words  |  Philosophy, Economics

In his latest book Jeffrey Rosen tells readers the famous phrase in our Declaration of Independence about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was not intended as a license to be a selfish, self-centered bore.  Mr. Rosen points out how our most influential Founders studied the moral philosophy of classical thinkers such as Xenophon, Seneca, and Cicero, along with that of contemporary Enlightenment stalwarts John Locke (1632-1704) and David Hume (1711-1776), and therefore defined happiness as the pursuit of virtue – as being good, rather than feeling good.

So why has the pursuit of happiness devolved into little more than a license to be a selfish and self-centered bore?  Why has feeling good taken precedence over being good?

Opinions vary, but for me this drift away from virtue can be traced to a particular strain of Enlightenment-era (1687-1804) thinking, which formed a credo that sought to emancipate the individual from all previously held belief, custom, and tradition.  

Not that I am a complete stick in the mud on the subject, mind you.  I am aware of the Enightenement’s fabulous reputation of ushering in our glorious modern age, making possible all the things we can no longer  live without, like science and reason and pluralism and democracy.  In the process it rescued us, the Enlightenment did, from the onerous medieval constraints of dreadful things like monarchy and superstitious religious belief.  Yes, of course, we all hold these truths to be self-evident.

But now in my later years I have come to gently question the tidy package of progress we have been gifted.  In sifting through the conventional understanding of what just happened over the course of these last 500 years, the full-out emancipation of the individual in the pursuit of happiness has come to seem a bit like we have thrown the baby out with the bath water.  

I grant that to be hidebound by tradition is not necessarily a good thing, and may express a lack of active engagement with the specific circumstances of one’s own life, in deference to the circumstances of someone else’s.  Such blind fidelity might also be the result of a certain lack of intelligence and/or creativity.  In its worst guise, custom and tradition can even stifle potential and interfere with flourishing.  

But custom and tradition represent a once-upon-a-time social experiment that managed to enjoy some quantifiable success and bear fruit.  In this way it can be a life-giving fountain that actively promotes potential and encourages flourishing.  Reflexively ignoring or flaunting such tradition demonstrates what is at its core a worrisome lack of respect for all that has come before, starting with the experience of one’s parents and immediate ancestors.  In its worst guise the rebellion reflex expresses an ignorance of history, and of human nature.

So while I am grateful to Jeffrey Rosen, currently President and CEO of the National Constitution Center located in Philadelphia, PA, for bringing our Founders high-minded intentions to my attention, I fail to see how this speaks to our current moment, where getting ahead is the sine qua non of human existence, and virtue has been reduced to a sort of consolation prize for those who come up short in their relentless quest for upward mobility.

To put this another way, our Founders may have tried to set our new nation on the path to virtue and righteous self-improvement, but in this regard their political philosophy, and its ideological underpinnings, have proven to be sorely lacking.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

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