The Pursuit of Happiness

From The Wall Street Journal:

Jeffrey Rosen spent the Covid lockdowns of 2020 reading various treatises by Xenophon, Seneca, Cicero, John Locke and David Hume. He was led to these and other works by a list compiled by Thomas Jefferson in 1771 in which the future president advised a friend on the books with which a good private library ought to be stocked.

For a year, Mr. Rosen writes in “The Pursuit of Happiness,” “I got up every morning before sunrise, read a selection from his list, and found myself taking notes on the reading in sonnet form, so that I could easily remember the daily lesson.” Later, he says, he discovered that important figures in Founding-era America, including Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton, similarly took notes on their reading in verse form.

All this reading and metrical note taking, Mr. Rosen tells us, changed his understanding of that famous phrase in the Declaration of Independence, “the pursuit of happiness.” Today, he says, “we think of happiness as the pursuit of pleasure. But classical and Enlightenment thinkers defined happiness as the pursuit of virtue—as being good, rather than feeling good.”

Jefferson might have been expected to follow Locke, whom he had definitely read, in naming life, liberty and “property” as the chief things to which man has rights. Instead he wrote “pursuit of happiness.” Until roughly the middle of the past century, historians tended to view the phrase as a bit of rhetorical fluff. More recent historians mostly acknowledge that “happiness” had a deeper and nobler meaning in 1776 than it would have two centuries later.

Garry Wills, in his brilliant study of the Declaration, “Inventing America” (1978), traces Jefferson’s words—“pursuit,” “happiness” and many others—to their sources in the writings of British philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries, including Locke. More recently, University of Missouri law professor Carli Conklin has concluded that, for Jefferson and the Founders, the right to pursue happiness meant something like the freedom to align one’s life with the laws of nature.

Mr. Rosen, the president of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, refers hardly at all to the long and tangled debate over the meaning of Jefferson’s phrase and cites primary sources almost exclusively. His book’s overarching argument holds that, for the Founders—he concentrates on Jefferson, John Adams, Franklin and George Mason—the pursuit of happiness lay in the ancient creed of Stoicism.

The Stoics, recall—Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, among others—believed that the good life consisted in self-mastery and the cultivation of virtue. The Founders, in Mr. Rosen’s view, derived their understanding of “happiness,” and therefore of the purpose of political liberty, from the Stoics, in some cases directly, in others via their readings of Enlightenment philosophers such as Locke and Hume. “The Founders,” he writes, “believed that the pursuit of happiness regards freedom not as boundless liberty to do whatever feels good in the moment but as bounded liberty to make wise choices that will help us best develop our capacities and talents over the course of our lives.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)