The Pursuit of Happiness Rightly Understood - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

The Pursuit of Happiness Rightly Understood

On the day C.S. Lewis died, his last written work was already in press with the Saturday Evening Post. “We have no ‘right to happiness,’” Lewis declared in the essay, by which he meant that we have no moral right to trample the rules of justice to gratify our impulses.

Lewis did concede that the idea of a right to the pursuit of happiness is “cherished by all civilized men, but especially by Americans.” However, the authors of the American Declaration of Independence, according to Lewis, could only have meant that we have a right “‘to pursue happiness by all lawful means’: that is, by all means which the Law of Nature eternally sanctions and which the laws of the nation shall sanction.”

In her new book The Pursuit of Happiness in the Founding Era: An Intellectual History, Carli Conklin has assembled a wealth of evidence that supports Lewis’s basic insight.

Far from being a “glittering generality” or a euphemism for property, the “pursuit of happiness” had a distinct and widely understood meaning in the eighteenth century. It “refers to man’s ability to know the law of nature as it pertains to man,” Conklin concludes, “and man’s unalienable right to then choose to pursue a life of virtue or, in other words, a life lived in harmony with those natural law principles.” This broadly Aristotelian understanding of the pursuit of happiness cut across the eclectic intellectual traditions that informed the American founding, including the classical Greek and Roman traditions, Christianity, the English common law, and Newtonian science.

Read the rest over at Public Discourse.

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