pleasure and welfare coexisting

Context is a pesky thing.  In isolation, we’re free to believe what we like, what suits us.  Ignorance and bliss and all that.

When we talk about happiness for instance, it seems we have removed ourselves from the context of our own shared history in which the understanding of the important emotion was very different and arguably a lot more optimistic.

Today in America when we talk about happiness, we mean personal fulfillment, generally.  Or at our most generous, fulfillment for me and mine, for my family and my company, and so on.  Furthermore, there is a visceral suspicion of any broader definition of our most beloved of emotions.

As the following excerpt from Gus Speth’s book review makes clear, the originating idea of happiness in the American context included both personal fulfillment and public welfare.

The image is of an octopus of ideas at America’s founding that through abject misuse constricts and deforms and ends today as a simpering, undifferentiated, limbless, more than a little toxic mass.   The splendid and multivalent ‘octopus’ came from many sources:  the Ancients – happiness comes from devotion to public good and civic virtue; the Enlightenment – everyone has a right to happiness; Bentham – the greatest happiness for the greatest number; and our very own Jefferson – the pursuit of happiness.  The mass we are left with today is basically and depressingly:  get what you can and get out.

In America today, the common good, public welfare, civic freedoms – all of which used to be, at the nation’s founding, necessary elements for happiness – are now code for subversion and systematically expunged – usually by very vocal bullies – from our social project.  But these critical political ideals are essential to living well, which suggests that today’s grand project must be to revive the complex, many-limbed creature from the deep.

Here is a portion of Speth’s book review of McMahon’s Happiness: A History:

The issue came up in the early Republic, offspring of the ambiguity in Jefferson’s declaration that we have an unalienable right to “the pursuit of happiness.” Darrin McMahon in his admirable book, Happiness: A History, will be our guide here. McMahon locates the origins of the “right to happiness” in the Enlightenment. “Does not everyone have a right to happiness?’ asked …  the entry on that subject in the French encyclopedia edited by Denis Diderot. Judged by the standards of the preceding millennium and a half, the question was extraordinary: a right to happiness? And yet it was posed rhetorically, in full confidence of the nodding assent of enlightened minds.” It was in 1776, the year of the Declaration of Independence, that Jeremy Bentham would write his famous principle of utility: “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.”

Thus, when Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration in June of that memorable year, the words “the pursuit of happiness” came naturally to him, and the language sailed through the debates of June and July without dissent. McMahon believes this lack of controversy stemmed in part from the fact that the “pursuit of happiness” phrase brought together ambiguously two very different notions: the idea from John Locke and Jeremy Bentham that happiness was the pursuit of personal pleasure and the older Stoic idea that happiness derived from active devotion to the public good and from civic virtue, which have little to do with personal pleasure.

“The ‘pursuit of happiness,'” McMahon writes, “was launched in different, and potentially conflicting, directions from the start, with private pleasure and public welfare coexisting in the same phrase. For Jefferson, so quintessentially in this respect a man of the Enlightenment, the coexistence was not a problem.” But Jefferson’s formula almost immediately lost its double meaning in practice, McMahon notes, and the right of citizens to pursue their personal interests and joy won out. This victory was confirmed by waves of immigrants to America’s shores, for whom America was truly the land of opportunity. “To pursue happiness in such a land was quite rightly to pursue prosperity, to pursue pleasure, to pursue wealth.”

What is the American Dream?: Dueling dualities in the American tradition, Gus Speth, Grist


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