04 July 2013

The Pursuit of Happiness

No one is certain what Jefferson intended with the third of his triad of unalienable rights, the pursuit of happiness. Or at least so I concluded in my article Looking for Bedrock. Did he intend, as so many would assume today, that pursuing happiness is the power to engage in whatever activities bring me the greatest momentary pleasure? Perhaps so in an Enlightened (i.e., rational, not sexual) sort of way. Or, did he intend to catch the classical ideal of happiness as the sum of all virtues, those habits of character to which all men by their collective nature are called? Or yet, as I suspect, did he hope to cover all the bases as a politically astute drafter of what was, after all, a political document designed to market this independence thing at home and abroad? Oh well, we'll never know for certain.

For what seems like ages (actually, about eleven months), I've been working my way through Christianity and Classical Culture by Charles Norris Cochrane (1940). It's considered a classic by many. I've found it a tough go at times because Cochrane has an encyclopedic knowledge of Greco-Roman thought and history and assumes his readers have nearly as much. His knowledge of the history of the Church is quite good but lacks some of the nuance of someone like, say, Robert Louis Wilken. But Cochrane does a superb job with Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 298-373) and how his analytical work with the doctrine of the Trinity solved what had been insoluble in classical (Platonic) thought: it's inability to account for the "real" reality--and truthfulness--of human experience.

But let me get to the Independence Day quote from Cochrane:
For Athanasius, felicity [happiness] is not the peculiar privilege of the citizen, nor is liberty confined to civilized men; but, as these blessings depend upon the power of choice, and as this, in turn, is a function of conscious life, it is inherent in the native endowment of mankind. As such, it is inalienable; in the sense, at least, that it can be impaired by no power from outside, but only by its own perversion or abuse. This, however, is exactly what occurred in the Fall of Man. (408) (Emphasis added.)
Like Jefferson over 1400 years later, Athanasius recognized in humanity an incessant and irrepressible pull toward happiness. Unlike Athanasius, however, Jefferson did not recognize humanity's radical fallenness such that what is inalienable in principle is regularly and repeatedly alienated, twisted, distorted, and abused in practice.

With his "enlightened" view of human nature, Jefferson didn't realize or admit that
For the fulfillment of the divine purpose, it was essential that man, having lapsed into sin and error through the abuse of his faculties, should be restored through the recovery of their proper use. Such restoration, however, could not be brought about by fallen man through his own efforts, but only by the incarnation of the Word. (408-409)
Can we pursue happiness? Of course, as conscious beings we can't help it. Do we pursue happiness? All the time. Are we happy? Not often. Can we be happy? Yes but only if we are freed of (independent from) our fallen bent toward destruction and instead are joined to the One in whom all happiness--virtue--resides.

Have a happy Independence life.

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