Saturday, July 05, 2008

The Pursuit of Happiness

When Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, did he understand Aristotle's view of happiness and how to pursue it?

The Declaration says that all human beings, being equal by nature, have an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Living, we have seen, is itself a means to living well. So is freedom.

Unless we can exercise a free choice about the things we want or need, and unless we can freely carry out the choices we make—without coersion or impediment—we cannot pursue happiness. If everything is determined for us, if the pattern of our life is imposed upon us, there would be no sense in talking about planning our lives or about adopting a plan for living well.

We need to stay alive in order to live well. We need liberty in order to make an effort—a planned effort—to live well. Because we need these things in order to pursue happiness, we have a right to them.


— Mortimer J. Adler, "How to Pursue Happiness", Aristotle for Everybody

2 comments:

  1. My priest, the Holy Father, and many others in between have told me that happiness is doing God's will. How does this square with the secular Mr. Adler?

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  2. Jefferson's Declaration of Independence is a secular document with secular purpose, but it has some important philosophical ideas, which Adler commented on. Adler was a convert to Catholicism, although that was after he wrote this particular book.

    Aristotle has a lot to say to Catholics about happiness, and Saint Thomas Aquinas did quite a bit a moral theology, using the philosophy developed by Aristotle.

    I wouldn't say that happiness is doing God's Will, but rather that doing God's Will is the means towards happiness. Aquinas, following Aristotle, did consider money, pleasure, freedom, fame, and health as factors in happiness, and didn't completely discount these. But he defined ultimate happiness as union with God.

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