Four Dangerous Ideas, Part Four: Pursuit of Happiness

The ConsitutionIn the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson writes that we are endowed by our Creator with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Of these three, the last one may seem out of place as being rather less high minded. We might see life and liberty as unalienable, but the pursuit of happiness seems a little self absorbed. However, the word happiness when Jefferson used it did not have the same connotations that it has today.

The idea of happiness has had a long history. Aristotle, for instance, thought of happiness as the fulfillment of a human being’s goal in life. He distinguished man from all other creatures in the world by man’s rationality and social life. Since these qualities make man unique, then his goal or purpose must be wrapped up in these qualities. Aristotle equated happiness with outstanding moral and intellectual activity in the affairs of the city state. Thomas Aquinas took a similar view, except that for him the goal of human life differed. Aquinas saw the ultimate goal of existence in eternal life. Life on earth, then, could never bring complete happiness (i.e., completion of one’s goal as a human), only partial.

These ideas framed the concepts of John Locke. He wrote,

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… (Essay Concerning Human Understanding)

Here Locke seems to relate happiness with the “highest perfection of the intellectual nature” and “our greatest good.” This idea is clearly reminiscent of Aristotle and Aquinas. What Locke does not mean is that the pursuit of happiness is the license to please our worldly desires.

Jefferson, who immortalized the words “pursuit of happiness,” was drawing directly from Locke. In this context, then, it is obvious that the pursuit of happiness belongs with life and liberty in significance.

Today the pursuit of happiness has been reinterpreted to mean the right to go after worldly benefits. We have demeaned the original intent so much that it has become diabolical. The idea that God has somehow granted us the inalienable right to obtain worldly goods is about as antithetical to the biblical picture as you can get. One cannot serve both God and mammon. And yet if a person, organization, or government places restrictions on our ability to pursue our base desires, we feel our rights have been trampled on. How dare anyone prevent us from polluting our minds with pornography!

This demeaned view of happiness is fraught with danger. We live in a culture that has imbibed this view; it is all around us, and it is difficult not to conform to it. This view of happiness is particularly heinous in that it invites us to see that which is evil as noble. We are taught that rights are good and that infringements of rights are bad. Then we are taught that we have the right to follow our base desires. It is not stated in such stark terms because we would reject it. But it is subtly implied in all that we do and hear and see.

An example of this is the battle over sex and nudity in broadcast television. The perception is that the TV censors are infringing on our rights to watch what we want. The freedom to take mind-altering drugs is also becoming a right; it makes us happy. We have a right to health care because health is a part of our pursuit of happiness. The list could go on and on.

The pursuit of happiness as it was originally conceived is noble. We should strive to become the best human beings that we can. What makes us human is bound up with our moral and intellectual gifts. To debase this excellent sentiment by making it a pursuit of money, fame, and physical gratification is a tragedy—and dangerous to our souls.

Series Conclusion

Culture is a powerful force. I think we all recognize that at some level. But knowing we are affected and recognizing how we are affected are very different things. I think the juxtaposition of cultures side by side can sometimes help to open our eyes. It is instructive to have an insightful outsider like Solzhenitsyn look into our failings as a society. It is instructive to compare the thinking of the writers of the Federalist Papers with current thought. Even so, we can never escape the danger of an intensely seductive culture. We live in it; we breath it. We conform to this world despite the warnings of Paul. And it is at this exact spot where the danger lies. We are frogs in a pot of water in need of a thermometer. Ultimately, it is the juxtaposition of our culture with God’s values expressed in the Bible that provides the thermometer. But unlike frogs, we cannot jump out of the pot. We must find a path in the midst of the hot water. We must pray, as Jesus did, that God will sanctify us in the truth of His word (John 17:17).


(Part 1: Freedom of the Press and Freedom of Speech)

(Part 2: Separation of Church and State)

(Part 3: Rule of Law)


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