I think I wrote about this before, but found some better wording. It has to do with the difference between what our founding fathers talked about when writing about the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – and what we seem to think of today.
See, our founding fathers were no slouches. They were very well educated statesmen and leaders known around the world even in their day (trips of Ben Franklin to Europe are good examples). Anyone who’s read their writings also knows this. This means they were heavily trained in the classics and philosophy – something we don’t do much of today. Anyone who’s studied philosophy will immediately key off on the word ‘happiness’.
See, the ancient Greeks struggled with the idea of what life was for – something we do today. What made a good life? What constituted living and living well. They started very scientifically by making observations – they saw that humans had a unique ability to reason that no other animal had – among other unique qualities. They also had a more wholistic view of the human person as body, mind, and a ‘guiding spirit’. They also had a much more poetic and expressive language. We often translate their works, but unless you take the time to look up the entomology of the words or have a good instructor to guide you – you’ll rarely get the connotations right or even get what they were really saying. This is why those that really want to study classical philosophy learn how to read Greek and Latin. As someone that learned Latin well enough to read things in the language, it opens the works of that time period up in unbelievable fashion to whole new levels of understanding our language barely has the constructs to communicate or translate.
As an example, the word ‘happiness’ is probably one of the worst offenders. Instead, here’s the word the Greeks used that often shows up in our translations as happiness. It’s eudaimonia – and this is the wikipedia article on the word:
Eudaimonia (Greek: εὐδαιμονία) is a classical Greek word commonly translated as ‘happiness‘. Etymologically, it consists of the word “eu” (“good” or “well being”) and “daimōn” (“spirit” or “minor deity”, also used by extension to mean one’s lot or fortune). Although popular usage of the term happiness refers to a state of mind, related to joy or pleasure, eudaimonia rarely has such connotations, and the less subjective “human flourishing” is often preferred as a translation.
As you see, happiness isn’t a concept related to ‘feeling happy’. Instead, it’s a rightness of the person that lets them flourish to reach their full potential. To have a spirit guided by good principles that helps a person live fully and best. With this core of recognizing the good of the self, they extended that to say then the job of government is to set itself up in a way that it orders the interactions of citizens to let all individuals flourish in a way that was good and right. And that in turn will make them better contributors and aids to all of society. That is why things like theft and murder are to be prohibited. These things act to rob a citizen of their human flourishing.
It was also essential to that view that there were clear imperatives for a person who wanted to live fully and best – one didn’t just get to do whatever they felt. While different thoughts on what those things were existed and was a subject of a lot of discussion, they did have some really interesting concepts. Such as saying it was good and right to give your life for what is right – either in war or in speaking the truth. For to live eudaimonia-ously was to do what was right and good – and it carried the imperatives for upholding that good and rightness. Not to say that this couldn’t get you in trouble – especially if you’re concepts of what good and right are really wrong – but that’s why they spent so much time trying to define those very things so that one didn’t get into that trap. What some of those values were is left to another session – for there were lots of competing (and often very strange) thoughts on that matter.
Still, I think that’s enough for our conversation. Our founding fathers wouldn’t have said the pursuit of happiness is to be blissful and drunk all the time. Instead, they recognized that that goal of reaching happiness – eudaimonia – was a life-long task of work. A task that was to be treasured and protected. They would probably have said quite the opposite of what most of us think of as happiness – much more in line with what Kennedy said when he said to ask not what your country can do for you – but what you can do for your country. It was the freedom to do the hard work of finding the good and right – and living it. And the government shouldn’t get in the way of that – but instead protect and treasure that struggle. I think we miss that a lot in our current state of interactions with each other, in our courts, in our policies, and what we expect our government to do for us.
Food for your thoughts.