Sunday, February 3, 2008

Life, Liberty, And The Pursuit of Happiness

Jefferson's words, at the beginning of our DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE, define not only our American way of life but the way of life that most of the people on this planet now aspire to. And what, for all these billions of people, does that word 'happiness' mean? In the absence of any generally agreed upon concept of the Highest Good, 'happiness' can only mean what Hobbes says it means: continual success in acquiring the goods that the good life requires, whatever they may be.

Those ideas about happiness did not come out of nowhere and were not invented by Hobbes; he was merely calling attention to the fact that for better or worse this was the direction in which the world was already headed.

We have now had approximately 500 years of more or less Hobbesian economics and politics and these have been years of more or less uninterrupted economic growth. Just about any reasonable person would say that, if 'utility'(the greatest good of the greatest number) is our standard--and I have to say for myself that I don't see how there could be any other--modernity has been over-all, despite some horrific disasters, a success. Nevertheless, any reasonable person would also have to say that during all this time, but especially the last hundred years, Swift's definition of 'happiness' as "a perpetual possession of being well-deceived" is also correct; or, as George Eliot would say, the possession of being "well wadded with stupidity." ("If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity." MIDDLEMARCH, 1871)

Please don't get me wrong: I am not, like Swift, being ironic or writing satire, nor do I have a different definition of happiness to offer you.

Now, as the price of happiness is on the rise, it seems reasonable to wonder where its pursuit is likely to lead us in the future. And here, by way of an answer, I'd like to give you a poem to read, written about 100 years ago by A. E. Housman:

I to my perils
Of Cheat and Charmer
Came clad in armour
By stars benign.
Hope lies to mortals
And most believe her,
But man's deceiver
Was never mine.

The thoughts of others
Were light and fleeting,
Of lovers' meeting
Or luck or fame.
Mine were of trouble,
And mine were steady,
So I was ready
When trouble came.

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