This is in response to some comments in the thread on happiness below. And this is just part 1. Part 2 will be more obviously highly pro-American. I’m just thinking out loud, probably with lots of errors, here. But I think this might become an important part of postmodern conservatism.

With the adding of the right to “the pursuit of happiness” to our Declaration, the listing of rights became hierarchical. Life, liberty, and property is flatter. The end or point of life surely isn’t the acquisition of property. Life is for liberty, and liberty is for the pursuit of happiness. The pursuit of happiness is for happiness.

The pursuit of happiness must be animated by the thought that the happiness is the point of life. In Aristotle’s Ethics , we see two conceivable points: to be good and to be happy. If being good and being happy are on “different pages,” then life stinks. Nobody wants to be good and miserable; virtue isn’t its own reward in that strict a sense. You also can’t be all that happy diverting yourself from the truth about the pointlessness or the evildoing that is your happiness. That’s why Hugh Hefner is so seriously insistent in his identification of happiness with sexual pleasure; it’s why he has almost no sense of humor or irony about himself. The Charley Harper character in Two and a Half Men (nicely underplayed by the talented Charlie Sheen) had some irony about his life devoted to pleasurable diversions, but that’s because he never claimed he was all that happy. And the classical teaching that a tyrant—the shamelessly dominating user—is never happy remains as true as ever.

Aristotle knocks himself out showing that life is good by displaying the happiness that comes from living virtuously, from steadfastness of character and pleasurable consciousness of one’s own excellence. It’s Kant who authoritatively disconnects being good from being happy. Happiness is all about pleasure, and the other animals are happy too. So to be human is to choose duty—or moral, rational autonomy—over being led around like an animal by instinctual desires.

The Kantian objection to the standard of happiness amounts to the observation that human happiness is an oxymoron. Jefferson didn’t share that objection, and he would have identified it with a yet another ridiculous Platonic mystification or a modern form of Stoic moralism. It’s “judging” happiness from a place that only exists in the imagination. We are, for Jefferson, natural beings. And so the main reason for his objection to most “moral philosophy” from Plato onward is its hypocritical judgmentalism when it comes to our natural inclinations.

Insofar as Jefferson was a follower of John Locke (and the Declaration is more Lockean than anything else), however, he actually believed that we are only ambiguously natural beings. Because of our freedom or self-conscious techno-creativity, we are far less content with what nature gives us than the other animals are. From this view, the other animals are happy with what they are, as Mr. Darwin explains. But we use our freedom to transform our condition with our natural dissatisfaction in mind. That what that is nature doesn’t do justice to the who that I am. That “state of nature” is a terrible place only for us, only insofar as we are or have become more than natural beings.

It might be, as Kant says, merely natural to be happy. But it’s distinctively human to orient one’s life around the pursuit of happiness. Human life, Locke says, is marked by uneasiness or restlessness; enjoyment, for us, is momentary. Soon our uneasy pursuit starts up again. We use our freedom to pursue happiness, but we never really are happy in any stable or enduring way. When Alexis de Tocqueville describes Americans unhappily restless in the midst of prosperity, he sees them living if Locke were right about who we are. Americans don’t accept their natural condition; they’re all about transforming it in pursuit of some fugitive perfection that will free them from their misery. David Brooks, from this view, was right when he described Americans on “paradise drive.”

Locke differs from Aristotle in not trying to tell us what happiness is. He certainly doesn’t reconcile it with the practice of virtue for its own sake. So he doesn’t say the secret to being happy is being good, unless being good, as our meritocrats believe even today, is only being rational and being industrious. Virtue becomes more instrumental, a means to an end that is not, in itself, necessarily virtue. One reason for Locke’s change in orientation is that he thinks we’re stuck with having no stable idea of the content of happiness, just as we’re stuck with pursuing whatever we imagine happiness to be. Even if we read Locke and figure out that our lives are about a pursuit—-in response to a rather futile longing—we in most cases won’t change how we live. Our pursuit of happiness is so invincible that we can’t believe it’s mission impossible. There’s the occasional existentialist and the (usually) rare suicide, but they’re the exceptions that prove the rule.

But there’s also no denying that Locke’s saying that a free life is about the pursuit of happiness, and that no free person can tell another free person what happiness is, meant and did change human behavior in the restless, acquisitive direction. Tocqueville’s point is that a nation dedicated to the pursuit of happiness will be much more restless than a nation dedicated, however mistakenly, to some stable, enduring conception of happiness. Americans, obviously, are more restless than the citizens of a republican polis or the creatures of a medieval village. Tocqueville’s point is that the Americans keep moving partly to divert themselves from what they really know about they’ll never get. But they also keep moving in the persistent hope that happiness is for them.

They’re something great—or wonderfully unnatural and distinctively human—about life as the joyless quest for joy. But that’s not the whole of American lives, of course. The Americans bragging about self-interest rightly understood exaggerate how free they are from the natural instincts that lead them to love each other and God, not to mention their states and their nation. Still, people who “talk Lockean” do tend to become more consistently the people Locke describes. Life as the pursuit of happiness, for Locke, was meant somehow to be both accurately descriptive and profoundly transformational. People would become more powerful and free, even if happiness would be at least as elusive than ever. Orienting life more consciously about the pursuit of happiness would produce the means that can serve diverse conceptions of happiness. But that also means that American individuals would be more free to be wrong—including more and more free from authoritative personal guidance about what might be right—in what they imagine happiness would have to be.

Locke, before Tocqueville, displayed the greatness of the pursuit of happiness. Hobbes led us to believe that our freedom—our inventiveness—was only for security and comfort. But Hobbes had to admit that it’s especially when we have security and comfort that we want more. It’s the invincible pursuit of a happiness that’s more than material well-being that’s the cause of the revolution of rising expectations, of what we call our post-materialistic obsession with self-actualization, of the failure of our mood-enhancing drugs to obliterate anxious dissatisfaction. We sophisticates even think that those who think they know what happiness is—like evangelical Christians or stay-at-home moms—stupidly believe they know more than they really do. It’s the fuzzyness of “self-actualization” and related therapeutic terms that show how elusive the definition of happiness is.

It’s the pursuit of happiness, we believe with Locke, that makes us more than mere animals, which is why we romantically believe that hunters-gatherers or whoever were happier, stupider, and less free than we are. As the Supreme Court has reminded us, to pursue happiness is to be alive to the mystery of one’s own personal existence, and to see that the dignity of our “relational autonomy” is that no particular relational form can contain the amorphous longing of the one who pursues happiness. Happiness, we hope, will be the result of discovering one’s own, singular personal identity, one free, for one thing, from religious and political control and direction.

Focusing on the Declaration, however, exaggerates how Lockean Jefferson was. He used the Lockean language about rights, the ends of government, and the right to revolution to justify our Declaration of independence. And he certainly wanted to limit government to the protection of rights, and so not to say what happiness is. In that respect, he was opposed equally to both the “civil theology” of the Greeks and Romans and the personal, relational theology (and inevitably theocracy) of the Christians.

But Jefferson made clear, primarily in his private letters, that he knew what happiness is. When it came to happiness he was neither a Lockean nor an Aristotelian. Nor did he take his bearings from the founders of modern science, such as Bacon or Newton. His guides were Epicurus and Jesus. Epicurus guides us insofar as we are beings with minds, and Jesus insofar as we are animals with social instincts—or beings with bodies. It turns out there are two forms of happiness, and they stand in tension with one another. One, we can say, is for philosophers, and the other “eusocial” animals described these days by neo-Darwinians. Jefferson’s understanding here isn’t much different from that of today’s “new atheist” natural scientist who celebrates his life of the mind while describing his species in general in terms of evolutionary materialism—in terms of bodies.

blog comments powered by Disqus