Footnotes to Jefferson’s Idea of Happiness

We are free to pursue it, but what does it mean?

Joshua Ahn/Flickr
Joshua Ahn/Flickr

Some years back, when I was leading an undergraduate seminar on Thomas Jefferson, discussion came to a sudden halt at Jefferson’s famous word in the Declaration of Independence, happiness. Specifically, the pursuit of happiness—a phrase so familiar to my students as to be invisible, devoid of meaning.

Asked to explain it, they were troubled. In a time when the word is reduced to a warm puppy or early afternoon hours in a bar, ‘happiness” puzzled them. After those stirring terms life and liberty, didn’t it sound weightless and frivolous? Why had the great political philosopher Jefferson closed his mighty triplet with a kind of smiley-face shrug?

Jefferson’s contemporaries would have understood happiness in two senses. The first we have mostly lost: public happiness, as in a society where citizens enjoy security, institutional stability, and a general and spreading prosperity. In such a case, government itself, as John Adams put it, is was “the science of social happiness.” And only when social happiness is achieved can people go about in pursuit of the other sense of happiness: an emotional state of individual well-being.

The scholarly bloodhound Garry Wills has traced Jefferson’s phrase, chiefly in its first sense, all through the 18th century. He has found it in John Locke’s philosophy, in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, in the works of Scottish Enlightenment thinkers like David Hume, Francis Hutcheson, Adam Ferguson, and in the poetry of Matthew Prior. He has found it in the unlikely pages of Jefferson’s favorite novelist, the sentimentalist Laurence Sterne. And, bounding across the Channel, he has unearthed it (or its French equivalent) in Voltaire, in the Marquis de Lafayette’s draft of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man,” in Diderot’s Encyclopédie, and, digging deep indeed, in Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui’s Principes du droit politique.

Wills could have leapt all the way back to the Greeks, for Locke, the closest source of Jefferson’s phrase, apparently composed it with Aristotle in mind. It is easy to see why. The Nichomachean Ethics takes as its goal a study of how we can attain ”the highest of all realizable goods”—that is, how can a person attain happiness? Characteristically Aristotle analyzes and ranks all possible types of happiness, from sensual pleasure to wealth, to honor, to moral virtue. He concludes, to no one’s surprise, that the greatest happiness belongs to the contemplative life, the philosopher’s life, his own life. Where he most nearly approaches Jefferson’s broader meaning, however, is not in the Ethics but in the Politics, where he asserts that the whole purpose of government is to allow its citizens the means to realize the highest good for themselves—“by which we mean a happy and honorable life.”

Aristotle cautions that a necessary component of happiness is security, a feeling of permanence. Fleeting or temporary happiness is not the highest good—a momentary pleasure, a brief spell of wealth or honor will not do. As the philosopher reluctantly acknowledges, Time and Chance happeneth to us all. We may possibly be wealthy, we may possibly be virtuous and contemplative, but Fate, her winged shadows hurrying at our back, can overturn any mere human security. In a flash, life can dash everything from our hands. That is why the other word in Jefferson’s phrase—pursuit—is almost as important. No government, however well-conceived, can guarantee happiness, only the right to pursue it.

Jefferson’s Enlightenment contemporaries fully understood. They accepted happiness as our greatest good. But only in theory. And theory, as they were often quick to insist, was not practice. Samuel Johnson for instance declares that, whatever it might be for a society, happiness is an impossible goal for a person. Human psychology won’t allow it. Our imagination can always picture just one more thing that we want, one more pleasure that we yearn to have. The “hunger of imagination” is an appetite never satisfied. In Johnson’s philosophical History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759), a young prince confined in the “Happy Valley” foolishly escapes this blissful Eden because he imagines something more to want beyond its walls, something else to experience or have, something new. Nothing appeals to us more, Johnson says, than novelty. (Every advertising executive knows this.) Less solemnly, the 18th-century cleric Joseph Butler remarks dryly that the attempt to be happy is one of the chief sources of unhappiness. Bitterly, Jonathan Swift announces that human happiness is simply a delusion, the condition of fools, the “perpetual state of being well-deceived.”

Some of these writers were doubtless alive to the etymological link between happiness and the old Norse word hap, meaning “chance” or what “happens,” which made its way into English in the 13th century. In time, hap evolved from being an evocation of a chaotic universe into our current understanding of happiness, but around the word’s edges, as Aristotle might have guessed, is a dark world, menacing prosperity and health, able to shred security at a stroke. Running counter to happiness, then, and contained within the word itself, is the grim view that happiness is a matter of luck. Thomas Hardy saw this clearly when he titled his poem “Hap” and closed it with a cry of protest: “These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown / Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.”

Two variations should be mentioned. “Felicity” is derived from the Latin felix, which originally meant “fruitful,” but evolved into good omen, good luck, and finally “happiness.” Felix is a frequent word in the Roman poet Horace’s works, especially his odes, and translated as “happy” by the 18th-century poet Alexander Pope, who begins one imitative ode with another Edenic image: “Happy the man, whose wish and care / A few paternal acres bound.” But felicity, too, has its dark edge. When Hamlet begs Horatio to “Absent thee from felicity awhile / And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain / To tell my story”—he is not asking Horatio to forego happiness just for a time; he is asking him to postpone his own death until he has told Hamlet’s story. Felicity, properly understood, is one’s death.

The other variation is closer to our time. Albert Camus retells the myth of Sisyphus, who disobeys the gods and is condemned forever to roll a great stone uphill, then watch it roll back, then roll it up again. But Camus says that what interests him is not so much the justice or injustice of the sentence; it is the time when Sisyphus has watched the rock roll backward and begins his march downhill to start again. At that moment, Camus claims, astonishingly, Sisyphus finds that all is well. He finds that in defying the gods, in continuing to work without complaint, his defiance or courage or fidelity gives him a world of meaning, even satisfaction. In one of the most surprising—and thrilling—sentences in all philosophy, Camus writes, Il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux. We must imagine Sisyphus happy.

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Max Byrd’s most recent novel is Pont Neuf.


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