By Dayna Mason
Challenging times cause us to reflect on what’s most important, what we truly value. The rules for our lives are changing daily. For some, our day starts with checking the news to determine what new way our day-to-day life has changed, what new limit has been placed on our pursuit of happiness.
Thomas Jefferson contributed “pursuit of happiness” to the Declaration of Independence based on his political and spiritual beliefs. Beliefs which define happiness not as a momentary feeling of pleasure, but as an unchallengeable right to thrive, prosper and fulfill our potential—as a way of being—that we get to choose as long as it doesn’t encroach on the rights of others.
The Declaration of Independence was designed to boldly proclaim the break from the tyranny of an oppressive King, while simultaneously declaring a new independent way of life—secured by a limited government through consent of the governed—that would compel people to fight for its continuance.
America was intended to be a place where we could safely, respectfully, and freely prosper both individually and collectively with the protection of a chosen government. The pandemic may end up being the reset that gets us back to that original intention.
Jefferson’s Libertarian and Epicurean beliefs shaped the Declaration
Jefferson subscribed to the Libertarian belief that a limited government was needed to maintain peace and enforce the rules of just conduct, resulting in a flourishing life. That liberty—the right to pursue the natural, reasonable, and religious directives of our own minds—is the divine source of all happiness.
Jefferson was a follower of Epicurus. According to Epicurus, the goal of human life is happiness. Epicureans equate happiness with health of body, calm of the soul, freedom from pain, and peace of mind. The tradition of living life in a full and deeply satisfying way, directed by reason and virtue to determine the best long-term fulfillment.
According to Epicurus, all virtues—courage, self-sufficiency, integrity, justice, honesty, pride, generosity—are necessary for each person to be happy and as free as possible to plan his or her own life.
The pursuit and protection of happiness
The Declaration of Independence proclaims that not only is the pursuit of happiness a right of every individual, but that our government’s most important job is to protect that right.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Pursuit of happiness is the foundation of individual liberty and the government’s role is to protect that liberty, not to interfere with it unless it hinders others’ rights to pursue happiness. One of the ways government is intended to protect us is by keeping us safe, not only from violence, but from all bodily injury including widespread illness.
Hope for a new future
Tom Nichols, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College believes that America’s disregard for “expertise” is what led us to elect a reality TV star to the presidency and that the COVID-19 pandemic has already forced us back into accepting that expertise matters as we look to the authorities on disease to guide us. He speculates that this renewed emphasis could lead us to demand more from our government than emotional satisfaction.
The battle against the coronavirus has already made us aware of the importance of expertise in leadership as we seek daily guidance, reassurance and hope from our government and public health officials. This reminder of the critical role of wise and knowledgeable leaders in times of crisis may drive our choices about who we want in those roles in the future.
According to Peter T. Coleman a professor and conflict researcher at Columbia University “The extraordinary shock(s) to our system that the coronavirus pandemic is bringing has the potential to break America out of the 50-plus year pattern of escalating political and cultural polarization we have been trapped in, and help us to change course toward greater national solidarity and functionality.” When we are faced with a “common enemy” (the coronavirus) we let go of our differences and come together in unity of purpose. This alliance has the potential to dissolve our political polarization.
The “united” states of America
Similar to the way we responded to the 9/11 event, we are already seeing how capable we are of laying down our differences to come together for the greater good. We are asking, “What do I have to offer? What do people need? How can I help?” Then, coming up with ridiculously creative solutions to benefit others and our other-oriented instincts not only helps others, but relieves anxiety and improves our personal wellbeing.
This pandemic is unifying us and transforming our thoughts about government being inherently bad, instead stressing that a functioning government is crucial for a healthy and flourishing society. That public trust is critical and depends on the truth.
Perhaps by the end of this we will view patriotism as the cultivation of health and happiness for our community rather than war over resources and be a kinder, gentler nation of people focused on the pursuit of happiness for all of its citizens.
Declaration of Independence – https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript
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