Happiness is . . .

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The Declaration of Independence contains hidden words! Shades of the Da Vinci Code. Using its new spectral imaging technology adapted from the military, the Library of Congress discovered this year that Thomas Jefferson erased – well, more like obliterated – the word “subjects” before replacing it with “citizens” in a draft of the Declaration, according to an article in today’s Washington Post.

The change turns the phrase “fellow-subjects” into “fellow-citizens.” Though Jefferson dropped the sentence containing this phrase from subsequent drafts, he stuck with the appellation “citizens” to describe the colonies’ inhabitants – at least its white inhabitants – in the Declaration’s final version.

Scholars had puzzled for years about what word “citizens” replaced. Jefferson crossed out a lot of words in his drafts, but “subjects” is the only one he took the care to obliterate, the article says.

Within a minute of reading the article, I discovered a New York Times article about another hidden word in the Declaration: happiness.  Of course, “the pursuit of happiness” is smack dab in the Declaration’s text, but the phrase’s meaning has changed for us who are no longer that up on Greek philosophy, according to the article’s author, Arthur C. Danto, an art critic and a Columbia University professor.

. . . the Greek word for happiness is eudemonia, which refers to what is fitting for us as humans — it rests on our essential qualities. The list of injuries Jefferson establishes rests upon a claim that the pattern of conduct laid at the feet of the monarch amount to violations of our humanity.

“Happiness” in the Declaration, then, is buried for us as effectively as Jefferson’s “subjects” was buried in the earlier draft.

Danto points out that Jefferson substituted “happiness” for Locke’s “property” in Locke’s famous rights pantheon of life, liberty, and property. “Violating property rights would in effect have meant robbing them of the fruits of their labor, in Locke’s view. Putting aside the concept of property enabled Jefferson to table the problem of slavery,” Danto says. At first, I took Danto to mean that by not specifying a right to property in the Declaration, Jefferson was making a concession to his Northern compatriots by refusing to make a war aim out of a master’s property rights in his slaves. But Danto is saying instead, I think, that Jefferson was making a concession to his Southern neighbors by not asserting an argument that any slave would make – in fact, an argument that Locke had made and that Lincoln would make against slavery.

Jefferson’s substitution of the term happiness for property assured that America’s understanding of natural law would include the teleological perspective of classical and medieval natural law. From Jefferson’s point of view, to enumerate a right to property would have been redundant because Locke had seen the right to property mainly as an ancillary right – a means of assuring the greater right to life. If I cannot eat the fruit of my labor, after all, I might die. Instead of focusing only on mankind’s basic needs for existence, as Locke mostly does in his Second Treatise of Government, Jefferson follows Aristotle, Aquinas, and the Anglican theologian Richard Hooker, all of whom defined natural law with respect to a person’s telos – her end, her fulfillment or her reason for being. Aristotle, Aquinas, and Hooker each came to the conclusion that man’s proper end was happiness. Jefferson’s natural rights hierarchy therefore took his fellow citizens from cradle to grave, from beginning (life) to end (happiness).

Jefferson’s switch changed Locke’s list into something like a hierarchy of desire or of fulfillment. One might understand Jefferson’s resulting list as a pattern for human development by comparing it with Steven Covey’s famous hierarchy in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: actualized people move from dependence (life) to independence (liberty) to interdependence (pursuit of happiness). Or, better yet, compare the breadth of Jefferson’s list from life to the pursuit of happiness with Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which moves from the most basic, physiological needs (“These include the most basic needs that are vital to survival, such as the need for water, air, food and sleep.”) eventually to needs involving self-actualization (“Self-actualizing people are self-aware, concerned with personal growth, less concerned with the opinions of others and interested fulfilling their potential.”). (Quoting the About.com Psychology page “Hierarchy of Needs.”) One might think also of the New Testament’s references to spirit, soul, and body (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 5:23) as a hierarchy similar to Jefferson’s: body (life), soul (liberty) and spirit (pursuit of happiness).

Hooker’s elaboration of man’s end is along the lines of Paul’s hierarchy of body, soul, and spirit, with the last something that can only be pursued but never fully attained before death:

Man doth seek a triple perfection. First a sensual, consisting in those things which very life requireth either as necessary supplements, or as beauties and ornaments thereof; then an intellectual, consisting in those things which none underneath man either is capable or acquainted with; and lastly a spiritual and divine, consisting of those things whereunto we tend by supernatural means here, but cannot attain unto them. (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, I.11.4.)

Aristotle, Aquinas, and Hooker all believe that the “sumum bonum, which is the end that all men universally desire for its own sake, is happiness. ‘All men desire to live in this world an happy life. That life is lived most happily wherein all virtue is exercised without impediment or let.’ There is therefore no conflict between virtue and happiness since virtue is none other than the right ordering of desires so as to obtain happiness.” (Alexander Rosenthal, Crown Under Law, quoting Hooker, 57.)

With the classical concept of happiness bound up with perfection, virtue, and “the right ordering of desires,” it may be harder for us to recover “happiness,” at least as Jefferson understood it, than it was for the Library of Congress to recover “subjects.”

Happy Fourth, fellow citizens! And nothing herein should be construed as denying anyone the classic, if not classical, happiness of sticking a few Mentos into a bottle of Diet Coke. Enjoy your own fireworks.

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Posted July 4, 2010.