April 27, 2017


Why did Jefferson change "property" to the "pursuit of happiness"? (Carol V. Hamilton, 1/27/08, History News Network)

Just [as] the ideas that inspired our intellectual Founders were primarily European imports, so that defining American phrase, "the pursuit of happiness," is not native to our shores. Furthermore, as the quotation from Locke demonstrates, "the pursuit of happiness" is a complicated concept. It is not merely sensual or hedonistic, but engages the intellect, requiring the careful discrimination of imaginary happiness from "true and solid" happiness.  It is the "foundation of liberty" because it frees us from enslavement to particular desires.

The Greek word for "happiness" is eudaimonia.  In the passage above, Locke is invoking Greek and Roman ethics in which eudaimonia is linked to aretĂȘ, the Greek word for "virtue" or "excellence." In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle wrote, "the happy man lives well and does well; for we have practically defined happiness as a sort of good life and good action."  Happiness is not, he argued, equivalent to wealth, honor, or pleasure. It is an end in itself, not the means to an end. The philosophical lineage of happiness can be traced from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle through the Stoics, Skeptics, and Epicureans.

Jefferson admired Epicurus and owned eight copies of De rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) by Lucretius, a Roman disciple of Epicurus. In a letter Jefferson wrote to William Short on October 13, 1819, he declared, "I too am an Epicurean. I consider the genuine doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us."  At the end of the letter, Jefferson made a summary of the key points of Epicurean doctrine, including:

Moral.--Happiness the aim of life.
Virtue the foundation of happiness.
Utility the test of virtue.

Properly understood, therefore, when John Locke, Samuel Johnson, and Thomas Jefferson wrote of "the pursuit of happiness," they were invoking the Greek and Roman philosophical tradition in which happiness is bound up with the civic virtues of courage, moderation, and justice. Because they are civic virtues, not just personal attributes, they implicate the social aspect of eudaimonia. The pursuit of happiness, therefore, is not merely a matter of achieving individual pleasure. That is why Alexander Hamilton and other founders referred to "social happiness."

On the happy life : Lucius Annaeus Seneca (With a new introduction and commentary by Massimo Pigliucci, 4/27/17, Aeon)https://aeon.co/classics/massimo-pigliucci-on-senecas-stoic-philosophy-of-happiness

Lucius Annaeus Seneca is a towering and controversial figure of antiquity. He lived from 4 BCE to 65 CE, was a Roman senator and political adviser to the emperor Nero, and experienced exile but came back to Rome to become one of the wealthiest citizens of the Empire. He tried to steer Nero toward good governance, but in the process became his indirect accomplice in murderous deeds. In the end, he was 'invited' to commit suicide by the emperor, and did so with dignity, in the presence of his friends. 

Seneca wrote a number of tragedies that directly inspired William Shakespeare, but was also one of the main exponents of the Stoic school of philosophy, which has made a surprising comeback in recent years. Stoicism teaches us that the highest good in life is the pursuit of the four cardinal virtues of practical wisdom, temperance, justice and courage - because they are the only things that always do us good and can never be used for ill. It also tells us that the key to a serene life is the realisation that some things are under our control and others are not: under our control are our values, our judgments, and the actions we choose to perform. Everything else lies outside of our control, and we should focus our attention and efforts only on the first category.

Seneca wrote a series of philosophical letters to his friend Lucilius when he was nearing the end of his life. The letters were clearly meant for publication, and represent a sort of philosophical testament for posterity. I chose letter 92, 'On the Happy Life', because it encapsulates both the basic tenets of Stoic philosophy and some really good advice that is still valid today.

The first thing to understand about this letter is the title itself: 'happy' here does not have the vague modern connotation of feeling good, but is the equivalent of the Greek word eudaimonia, recently adopted also by positive psychologists, and which is best understood as a life worth living. For Seneca and the Stoics, the only life worth living is one of moral rectitude, the sort of existence we look back to at the end and can honestly say we are not ashamed of.

Posted by at April 27, 2017 8:14 AM


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