Wednesday, March 9, 2005

What Do Americans Mean By The Pursuit of Happiness

I hate to admit it, but in the short time that I’ve had my little blog, I’ve had to work quite hard at ignoring the number of hits that I was getting. Someone over at another blog where I like to stop by and throw a bomb or two, I think hit the nail on the head when in response to my question, “why is this blog like crack to me” said that the comments section are all about me! A bit of an overstatement since the commenters, while mis-guided in the extreme, appear to be reasonably intelligent folks with thoughtful, yet decidedly wrong opinions.

None-the-less, while I blog for several reasons, it would be foolish to deny, that part of the reason is that I love the attention. Perhaps this is why, I also like to review what search entries lead people to the Pursuit of Happiness. It’s always entertaining to get these little glimpses into people’s minds. One of the biggest hits I get (and lets be honest, “big” is a relative term here) is people searching for the “Levitra Babe”. Must be in response to this post.

Today I noticed a new search, and frankly it intrigued me.

“What do Americans mean by the pursuit of happiness?”

I love this search, because it says so much about America, other countries, and ultimately about what it means to be alive in this world. It underscores that we are all different and have built cultures that in one way or another have developed in our quest for the satisfaction of basic needs – remember your Mazlov – as well as the rules by which we interact on a personal and societal level.

Really, this question could lead to all sorts of discussions. The most obvious place to begin is to answer the question, what do we mean by the pursuit of happiness. Certainly, Thomas Jefferson, when he inserted the phrase in the Declaration of Independence, did so to define what was wrong with the colonies’ relationship with England and to begin to set a structure by which the new country’s government would be governed by the citizenry.

The basis for this novel approach to social and governmental order had been set long ago. John Locke was probably the most direct influence in this area as one of the first English proponents of government by the consent of the governed. His writings on people’s natural rights began to set the basis by which the American form of government would evolve.

Locke set out specifically the existence of Natural Law, endowed upon us by the Creator (remember how Clarence Thomas’ thoughts on this were supposed to be his biggest stumbling block before Anita Hill went public), and that these natural rights included the rights of life, liberty and property.

Interesting though, that Jefferson, in a uniquely American twist changed the words property to “pursuit of happiness”. I’ve always wondered exactly why he did this, and the truth may be that it was the product of political negotiations among the founding fathers. However, a pie-eyed idealist like me would prefer a more noble explanation, and I think one does exist.

It seems to me that each of these natural laws; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are deeply personal in their very essence. Viewed from this point the right to private property, while extremely critical to the success and stability of our economic system, just doesn’t quite cut it from a natural law point of view. Property from this view seems to be one of the means by which people would pursue happiness, but it is not the only method. In a way, it’s as if Jefferson was saying to Locke, “good job on the first two, but it looks like you dropped the ball on that last one”.

I think history has proven Jefferson right in this case, and in a way, he answered our searcher’s question when he wrote the phrase over two centuries ago. The pursuit of happiness is a deeply personal quest that has a similar meaning for all individuals only to the extent that it defines our lives in three ways:

  • The fulfillment we seek to achieve in our time here on earth
  • The right to pursue this fulfillment granted to us by our Creator
  • The limit by which we consent as individuals and as society to by governed

In other words we, as Americans, have the right to pursue happiness, granted to us by our Creator and limited only to the extent that our pursuit infringes upon the rights of others, or to the extent that we consent to be limited in that pursuit by the government. Such consent is, of course, given in our republic through the free elections of leaders and in turn, their enactment of laws, subject to the constitution.

Any answer beyond that for our searcher’s query is from a practical point of view impossible, because the pursuit is such a personal quest. However, in asking the question, the searcher I think has found the thread that runs through all Americans and makes this country great. We realize that no two people are the same, no two religions consistent, and that when you begin to poke around in private lives, and disparate cultures things get pretty messy pretty quick.

Yet, despite our differences and the disapproval that we may have of other’s behaviors or customs, by allowing for the pursuit of happiness within reason, we have accepted our differences and formed a culture. This culture is the “shining city on the hill” that President Reagan spoke of. It is the idealism and hope with which we view the world and its possibilities, and it is the reason that we want to see others, less fortunate than ourselves, have the same benefits that we as Americans enjoy.

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