What did Jefferson mean by “pursuit of happiness” as an unalienable right?
If you’ve heard it was a substitute for “property” because Jefferson feared Southerners would equate property with slaves, you heard wrong.
But what does it mean to pursue happiness? What did Jefferson mean? And why did Locke consider pursuit of happiness essential to liberty?
Jefferson Borrowed “Pursuit of Happiness” From Locke
According to English philosopher John Locke, “The necessity of pursuing happiness [is] the foundation of liberty.” And Jefferson considered Locke, Bacon, and Newton the three greatest geniuses who ever lived “without exception.”
The “foundation of liberty” was not merely the third in a string of rights or a colorful substitution for property, but pursuit of happiness is the right upon which all liberty depends. While pursuit of happiness could include property, Jefferson’s philosophical concept of happiness is far from the modern idea of happiness. And understanding how Jefferson’s idea of happiness differs from modern ideas of happiness is critical to anyone who believes America should get back to its founding principles.
Jefferson and Locke looked to Epicurus for a definition of happiness, and it’s mostly a moral philosophy, not a birthday party.
In an 1819 letter to his friend William Short, Jefferson discusses the importance of Epicurus, Epictetus, and Jesus in defining happiness. He laments that he’s too old to produce a proper English translation of Epictetus. And he provides a syllabus of Epicurus’s philosophy, both physical and moral.
Focusing on the moral, which relates to happiness, Jefferson provides this outline:
- Happiness is the aim of life.
- Virtue the foundation of happiness.
- Utility the test of virtue.
- Pleasure active and In-do-lent.
- In-do-lence [a-tarax-ia] is the absence of pain, the true felicity.
- Active, consists in agreeable motion; it is not happiness, but the means to produce it.
- Thus the absence of hunger is an article of felicity; eating the means to obtain it.
- The summum bonum is to be not pained in body, nor troubled in mind.
- i.e. In-do-lence of body, tranquillity of mind.
- To procure tranquillity of mind we must avoid desire and fear, the two principal diseases of the mind.
- Man is a free agent.
- Virtue consists in 1. Prudence 2. Temperence 3. Fortitude 4. Justice.
- To which are opposed, 1. Folly. 2. Desire. 3. Fear. 4. Deceipt
Two Kinds of Happiness
Back to Locke. Locke recognized two kinds of happiness: imaginary and real. Real happiness is close to the Greek idea of eudaemonia, also described as “virtuous excellence.” But most of what we moderns call “happiness” is mere distraction and entertainment, bread and circuses. No television show can make you happy in Locke’s philosophy. Nor in Epicurus’s nor Epictetus’s nor Seneca’s nor Marcus Aurelius’s. Writing and producing a television show might, however, if done for a purpose greater than yourself.
Locke considered the pursuit of happiness essential to liberty.
The necessity of pursuing happiness [is] the foundation of liberty. As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty. The stronger ties we have to an unalterable pursuit of happiness in general, which is our greatest good, and which, as such, our desires always follow, the more are we free from any necessary determination of our will to any particular action… (1894, p. 348)
The invaluable website pursuit-of-happiness.org expands on this passage from Locke:
In this passage Locke makes a very interesting observation regarding the “pursuit of happiness” and human liberty. He points out that happiness is the foundation of liberty, insofar as it enables us to use our reason to make decisions that are in our long-term best-interest, as opposed to those that simply afford us immediate gratification. Thus we are able to abstain from that glass of wine, or decide to help a friend even when we would rather stay at home and watch television. Unlike the animals which are completely enslaved to their passions, our pursuit of happiness enables us to rise above the dictates of nature. As such, the pursuit of happiness is the foundation of morality and civilization. If we had no desire for happiness, Locke suggests, we would have remained in the state of nature just content with simple pleasures like eating and sleeping. But the desire for happiness pushes us onward, to greater and higher pleasures. All of this is driven by a fundamental sense of the “uneasiness of desire” which compels us to fulfill ourselves in ever new and more expansive ways.
I’ve attempted to depict the relationships of Happiness and its constituent parts. This depiction might be less than perfect, but I hope it helps understand the relationships of the various pieces Jefferson identified from Epicurus’s philosophy.
When I say every person deserves the freedom to pursue happiness, I don’t mean every person deserves to be happy. I mean we have an unalienable right to pursue virtuous excellence. And we should elect leaders who use their bully pulpit to push us off the sofa and toward such virtuous pursuits.