Monday, March 22, 2010

80 / The Pursuit Of Happiness

The third chapter of Hannah Arendt's great book, On Revolution, is entitled "The Pursuit Of Happiness." This phrase, incorporated into our Declaration of Independence, is one so familiar to Americans that we assume that we know what it means.

As Elizabeth Kolbert's article in the March 22, 2010 edition of The New Yorker makes clear, we may not understand, actually, what constitutes "happiness" itself, and so, in pursuing it, we may be headed in exactly the wrong direction.

Arendt makes a related point, noting that our understanding of the aim of "revolutions" is frequently mistaken. Since the French Revolution, it has been assumed that the "aim" of a revolution is to achieve the "happiness of the people," and this is most commonly associated with providing better material conditions for them. According to Arendt, the true "aim" of a revolution is political freedom, not the kind of private "happiness" that was discussed by Kolbert, and that tends to be equated (in our modern times) with the production and consumption of more "stuff."

I find particularly fascinating Arendt's analysis of the language used by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. In earlier drafts, Jefferson had stated that the unalienable "rights" to which all were entitled included "life, liberty, and property." As we know, he discarded that formulation. But what did Jefferson intend to convey by the substitution of the phrase, "the pursuit of happiness," for the word "property?"

Kings bragged in their proclamations about how their reigns inured to the "happiness of our people," which Arendt says, "quite explicitly meant the private welfare of the King's subjects and their private happiness." Jefferson, seeking to replace the authority of a King, did not mean this, for this is not what a genuine revolution is intended to achieve. For Jefferson, it is "freedom," the "public happiness," that is most important, and the pursuit of which is the "unalienable right" of all.

The "public happiness" (not "private happiness") is what is referred to in the Declaration of Independence. This kind of "happiness" is also called political "freedom," and is nothing other than the perpetual right of free people to join together to build a new world for themselves. It is that occupation that truly brings the "happiness" which Jefferson and his revolutionary comrades pursued.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for your comment!