In The Happy Life, Malouf traces our conception of happiness throughout history, distilling centuries of thought into a lucid narrative. He discusses the creation myths of ancient Greece and the philosophical schools of Athens, analyzes Thomas Jefferson’s revolutionary declaration that “the pursuit of happiness” is a right, explores the celebration of sensual delight in Rembrandt and Rubens and offers a perceptive take on a modern society growing larger and more impersonal.
The United States Declaration of Independence
On a hot summer’s day in June 1776, in a room on the second floor of a three-storey house at the corner of Market and Seventh street on the outskirts of Philadelphia, the thirty-three-year-old Thomas Jefferson sat down to the task he had been assigned of writing the declaration that would proclaim the separation of his country, the future United States of America, from Great Britain.
He had a good idea of the importance of what he was doing, and the language he adopts is as grand as the occasion, in his vision of it, was momentous. It is intended to make the same claim on our imagination as this act of justified rebellion, of liberation, will make in the real of History.
‘When in the course of human events it becomes necessary,’ he writes, ‘for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them…’
But even he cannot have guessed, as his pen moved on, that the words he set down next would be perhaps the most influential of the coming century, and that half a dozen of them would stand among the best known and most often quoted in the language:
‘We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain (inherent and) unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’
In Jefferson’s formulation, without his being aware of it perhaps, something new got said. The Pursuit of Happiness is now accorded the same status, as a natural right, as Liberty and Life itself; and this is extraordinary because the three might otherwise seem to belong to separate orders of experience: Life to nature, Liberty to the social realm, Hpapiness–or at least the right to pursue it–to our personal and interior being.
Surely this is a New World notion, an expression of American optimism and, insofar as the optimism in the next century will spread to the Old World, of American influence and the as yet unimagined future–unimagined, perhaps, but already memorably stated. Certainly we hear nothing of it when the French Revolution, ten years later, produces its own, equally famous trio in the Rights of Man. Liberty, Equality and Fraternity belong to a single category. They are, all three, social terms.
So what is happiness doing in the Declaration, and what does Jefferson mean by it?
Happiness is an odd word in English, so ordinary and so widely used that we seldom ask ourselves how it comes to be and to carry the wide range of emotions we associate with it. Happiness is a slide-area, difficult, unlike Life or Liberty, to define because difficult to pin down, and impossible, except within the narrow, material terms to which the seventeenth-and early eighteenth century social philosophers limited the word, to legislate for.
Like so many of his American contemporaries, Jefferson was widely read in the English and Scottish moral and social thinkers of the previous century. But whatever Jefferson’s actual intentions may have been, the fact is that ‘the pursuit of Happiness’ has always been taken, at least by the population at large (and where else was the Declaraction finally aimed?), in its wider meaning. Not as a seventeenth-century moral philosopher might read it, as freedom from want or from intimidation by the great and powerful–a condition that can be legislated for–but someonthing altogether more subjective, less defined and manageable, which cannot: that sense of settled well-being of ‘the happy man’ of long literary tradition who lives in contentment with his neighbours, the state and himself–and this was inevitable from the moment Jefferson compacted Mason’s wordy formulation into a pithy seven–word phrase and placed Happiness precisely when it would command maximum attention, at the climax of his trio of inalienable rights.
What Jefferson had done, whether or not this was his intention, was to confuse, in a way that allows them to be conflated, two areas of experience that cannot really be contained within the same term or dealt with as one. The result is that what the Declaration appears to offer is a promise, a guarantee even, that in the polity reconceived, the republic-to-be of the United States, the right to Happiness will be a right of the same kind as the right to Life and Liberty; and this means happiness in the ordinary, everyday, subjective sense of the word, as contentment, satisfaction, pleasure–even, as the Romantic poets would use it, Wordsworth in one way, Blake in another, as Delight, as Joy.
Complement The Happy Life with Is Happiness the Purpose of Life? A molecular biologist turned Buddhist monk, described by scientists as “the happiest man alive,” demonstrates how to develop the inner conditions for true happiness.