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The Pursuit of Happiness

“Happiness is not a reward, it is a consequence. Suffering is not a punishment, it is a result.” Robert Green Ingersoll

The word “pursuit” is commonly understood to mean following someone, or something like a career or activity. It can also mean a search as in that for knowledge. In all respects action is required usually on a consistent basis, which then makes “in pursuit” a state of being. The definition of “happiness” depends on who you are. Definitions like “The state of being happy.” and “A state of emotional well-being.” are somewhat ambiguous because that’s not the same thing for everyone.

Ingersoll defines happiness as a consequence, meaning what you get if you do the right thing, and conversely a result such as suffering if you don’t; he was not moralizing religiously as he was called “The Great Agnostic” for a reason.  Besides being a lawyer, writer, and orator, he was also a scholar, so he knew what Locke and Jefferson meant by “…the pursuit of happiness”.

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson borrowed the phrase from John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. However, unlike Locke, he did not explain what that meant, other than calling it an unalienable right. Locke wrote extensively about natural law, and the rights it embodied; much of his work is informed from that of Aristotle, Epicurus and Aquinas. Locke made clear that this basic human right is foundational to liberty, but was not the same as satisfying desires. By “pursuit”, Locke meant making decisions that produced the greatest good in life; every individual needs the freedom to determine what’s in their own self-interest, and as long as they don’t violate the rights of others, can achieve happiness as a consequence their actions.

While the Declaration of Independence is not a part of the Constitution, it was the document that informed it, meaning it was constructed not as a body of rules to govern the people, but to govern those who are elected to represent the people; it defined the limits of power in order to preserve liberty. This is a critical concept that has been diluted and even corrupted, especially regarding the pursuit of happiness. What constitutes “happiness” is now whatever invented rights can provide, a collection of desires with no source of legitimacy.

Many Americans do not understand this concept, or in general what rights even are, and therefore lack the rational political basis for what they support. With each election cycle they seem to swing like a pendulum from one ideological position to another, influenced more by the media and partisan marketing of what government can give them, as if the choices were akin to fashion and style. This is not what Locke, and therefore Jefferson, meant at all; it is not a zero sum game of what you can get from others that gives you happiness.

This failure to understand that happiness is not something to be doled out, but a consequence of actions freely taken, with no compulsion imposed on others as if someone owes you anything, is the source of much suffering. If you find that you are not happy, it’s not as if others have deprived you of happiness, unless you are a victim of crime or a miscarriage of justice; otherwise it’s a result of your not knowing what makes you happy or not taking action to achieve it.

Understanding what the pursuit of happiness means is an essential part of a child’s education. The correct understanding creates a positive mindset to find opportunities, whereas an incorrect understanding creates a negative mindset, often leading to frustration and anger, hardly ingredients for happiness. That can result in narcissistic rage against what the pursuit of happiness actually means. Everything becomes a cause for blame, like the outcome of an election, financial failure, job loss, low income or lack of education; just name the problem, blame someone else and demand whatever entitlement you feel you are owed. This phenomenon is an existential threat to American society as it’s rooted in the failed educational development of our youth.

Knowing what will make you happy requires wisdom, and to achieve wisdom requires knowledge, and to gain knowledge you have to get the facts. This inter-relationship of wisdom, knowledge and facts with happiness was a common theme with Aristotle, Epicurus and Aquinas. The only place desire has in all of this is the desire to achieve these things in order to attain happiness. This is why Locke makes it part of the trinity of the natural rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  They are inseparable, and as Jefferson said, unalienable.

Unhappy people are fearful because they carry the burden of not knowing. Fear creates ignorance and superstition, which in turn leads to cruelty, envy, and a desire to oppress those that are seen as a threat, like happy people. You don’t see happy people wanting to oppress others, or use violence or other means of force to get what makes them happy; they have no need to do so because they already have happiness.

“Let no one be slow to seek wisdom when he is young nor weary in the search of it when he has grown old. For no age is too early or too late for the health of the soul.” Epicurus


Author: jvi7350

Politically I am an independent. While I tend to avoid labels, I consider myself a Libertarian. I find our politics to have deteriorated to a current state of ranting tribialism, and a growing disregard for individual rights; based on the axiom that silence is consent, I choose instead to speak out and therefore launched this blog.

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