Two views on the pursuit of happiness.
I am proposing that what the Founding Fathers meant when they wrote “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” is totally at odds with what it has come to mean today. To elaborate on how this came about is not my aim here. Instead I wish to compare two ideas about happiness and suggest that somehow we’ve now got it all wrong.
What I’m attempting to express here comes from notes I took in response to a lecture on Aristotle that our philosophy club discussed a number of years ago.
Aristotle, one of the most influential of the Greek philosophers, had been a student and teacher in Plato’s school before starting his own school, the Lyceum. One of Aristotle’s central themes had to do with how to live the right kind of life.
Assuming that there is such a thing as what might be called a “right kind of life,” what are the various components of this “Right kind of life?”
Here are a few aspects of how Aristotle would answer this question.
Intellectual virtues help us understand the causes of things in the world. This is the means by which we are “knowing” beings. So a Perfect Life is guided by and directed toward systematic knowledge.
We are also artistic in nature, ever striving to perfect our creative self-expression.
Right Choices also a part of the Right Kind of Life. Virtuous acts are performed by virtuous people so that Character matters. Decisions should be based on sound, defensible reasons and virtuous motives.
Practical Wisdom is also a facet of the perfect life. Calculated, rational powers weigh competing options and possibilities.
The right kind of life also involves Contemplation. And not just contemplation of anything, but of the higher things. Contemplation of things of philosophical significance are more important than what’s the number one rated television show this season or who’s on the cover of People magazine this week.
In other words, the things we think about, the ideas that occupy our inner life, are not of equal value. Some things have greater value than others.
The current American version of the pursuit of happiness seems to be more about games and partying, porn without guilt, sports and entertainment without end. Is this really the chief end for which we were created.
If you saw The Lion King, then you will remember how Simba believed it was his fault that his father was killed. In shame and fear he loses himself in the land of Hakuna Matata, a land of fun and games. It’s fun, but a distraction from the higher purpose to which he was born.
When America’s Founding Fathers wrote about our unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, their ideas were drawn from more noble definitions of these terms.
Simba went astray when he came to accept Hakuna Matata as an acceptable goal in life. Aristotle saw our calling in a different light.
Terminus ad quem is Eudaemonia
Which translated is: Happiness the chief end.
But wait. That is the same thing the Founding Father said. And that is what we believe today, isn’t it?
For Aristotle Eudaemonia (also known as Eudaemonism) is a Greek word, which refers to a state of having a good indwelling spirit or being in a contented state of being healthy, happy and prosperous. In moral philosophy, eudaemonia is used to refer to the right actions as those that result in the well-being of an individual.
Eudaemonia is a way of life, life of a certain character and stripe, a flourishing form of life. Bloom where you are planted. Become all you are meant to be. This is not in opposition to Happiness, but different in character from “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
It’s the difference between Hakuna Matata and reflective abstract thought. Animals and children do not experience Eudaemonia. Eudaemonia presupposes a rational plan.
Liberty was not intended to be a license for anything goes, nor happiness associated with irresponsibility.
What I’m suggesting is that we’ve watered down the meaning of an important word, and as a result we’ve lost a measure of what it means to be fully human. Like the muddy, meandering Platte River, we’re a mile wide and an inch deep.
It’s not my intent to be a wet blanket. I like to have fun, too. It just seems we’ve lost some perspective. Like Simba, if you have a higher calling, take hold of it and don’t allow yourself to be distracted by the aimlessness of trivial pursuits.