|First Edition of|
Locke's Two Treatises of Government
Carli N. Conklin, in his essay “The Origins of the Pursuit of Happiness,” seeks to discover the meaning of the phrase “pursuit of happiness.” He offers some interesting perspectives on how the Founders (particularly Jefferson) were influenced by Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, and the ideas of Greek and Roman philosophers like Aristotle, Epicurus, Epictetus and Cicero. Conklin argues that the word “happiness” which Jefferson has used in the Declaration of Independence can be best defined in the Greek sense of eudaimonia or human flourishing.
Here’s an excerpt from Conklin’s essay:
far from being a “glittering generality” or a direct substitution for property, the pursuit of happiness is a phrase that had a distinct meaning to those who included that phrase in two of the eighteenth-century’s most influential legal documents: William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–1769) and the Declaration of Independence (1776). That distinct meaning included a belief in first principles by which the created world is governed, the idea that these first principles were discoverable by man, and the belief that to pursue a life lived in accordance with those principles was to pursue a life of virtue, with the end result of happiness, best defined in the Greek sense of eudaimonia or human flourishing. The pursuit of happiness is a phrase full of substance from Blackstone (and before) to the Founders (and beyond). It was part of an English and Scottish Enlightenment understanding of epistemology and jurisprudence.334 It found its way into eighteenth-century English sermons and colonial era speeches and writings on political tyranny. It had meaning to those who wrote and spoke the phrase in eighteenth-century English and American legal contexts, and it had meaning to its listeners.The principle of “pursuit of happiness” is evocative of the Enlightenment understanding of the laws by which the natural world is governed. It represents a belief that to pursue a life lived in accordance with the natural laws is to pursue a life of virtue, which can lead to happiness (in the Greek sense of eudaimonia or human flourishing). Conklin points out that Jefferson saw the pursuit of happiness as a public duty to govern in harmony with the laws of nature and a private right to pursue a life lived in accordance with the laws of nature.
If the phrase “pursuit of happiness” seems empty, or too general, to us today, it is not because we, as a people, have lost the desire to pursue that which makes us happy, but because the most common contemporary understanding of the word “happy” aligns today with what the eighteenth- century philosophers would have called a “fleeting and temporal” happiness versus a “real and substantial” happiness. The first is a happiness rooted in disposition, circumstance, and temperament; it is a temporary feeling of psychological pleasure. The second is happiness as eudaimonia—well-being or human flourishing. It includes a sense of psychological pleasure or “feeling good” but does so in a “real” or “substantial” sense. It is “real” in that it is genuine and true. It is substantial in that it pertains to the substance or essence of what it means to be fully human.Jefferson did not completely discard Locke’s view that man has the right to his estate or property. According to Conklin, the phrase “pursuit of happiness” includes the idea of ownership of property “in John Locke’s narrower view of property as that which results from the application of man’s labor or his broader view of property as consisting of man’s life, liberty, and estate.”