The “Pursuit of Happiness”

I remember an interview long ago that William Buckley did with journalist and social critic Malcolm Muggeridge.  The interview touched on the idea of happiness, and Muggeridge commented that the words, “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence had done terrible harm to America and the west in general.  Whatever the original meaning and purpose of the phrase, Muggeridge believed that the Declaration teaches its readers that happiness can be effectively hunted down, caught, and then enjoyed.  He stated,

There is something ridiculous and even quite indecent in an individual claiming to be happy. Still more a people or a nation making such a claim. The pursuit of happiness… is without any question the most fatuous which could possibly be undertaken. This lamentable phrase ”the pursuit of happiness” is responsible for a good part of the ills and miseries of the modern world.

The truth is that a lost empire, lost power and lost wealth provide perfect circumstances for living happily and contentedly in our enchanted island.

I can say that I never knew what joy was like until I gave up pursuing happiness, or cared to live until I chose to die. For these two discoveries I am beholden to Jesus.

In reality, Muggeridge argued the very act of pursuing happiness will in fact ensure that we will never achieve happiness at all.  Instead, happiness comes unbidden.  It is a gift.  We immerse ourselves in particular person, thought, book, or what have you, and suddenly we realize, “I’m happy.”  Adherence to the Declaration’s view of happiness would lead us down a path of restlessness, materialism, cynicism, or flight into fanciful and frightful utopia’s.

I could not find the original clip of this on Youtube.  The clip below deals with an entirely different question, but it’s still worth watching.   Whether  your agree with Muggeridge or not (and he makes another controversial assertion), we must all agree that Muggeridge possessed the greatest English accent of all time.

I thought of Muggeridge on happiness when reading a brief post from David Derrick about individuals or nations that seek to “leave their mark upon history.”  In it he quotes Toynbee, who mentions that since Austria and Bavaria parted company centuries ago, the two have pursued different paths.  Austria looked to do “great things,” and they did achieve a kind of greatness with the city of Vienna.  But they also involved themselves in numerous wars that they often lost.  They got crushed by Napoleon in the 19th century, then by Russia and the allies in W.W. I.  Toynbee’s thoughts in the post above date from 1934.  In the few years that followed Austria continued to try and “leave its mark” by joining up with Nazi Germany, and of course that too ended very badly.  I have some friends who visited Austria years ago, and they saw this same attitude of “we’re special” at work in those they met (though in the modern context it had the manifestation of strong hostility to foreigners and immigration).  This approach has not helped them find their place in the world.  It appears that pursuing a place in “History” might be as futile as pursuing happiness.

What of Bavaria?  How did they do in the great trial of German history between 1933-45?  I know nothing about the history of Bavaria, but after a little research (read: I looked on a Wikipedia page), I note the following;

  • During the tumultuous period of the Weimar Republic, Bavaria avoided radicalism and voted for the mainstream conservative “Bavarian People’s Party.”
  • Hitler was fond of Bavaria, and the Nazi’s held many of their rallies in the Bavarian city of Nuremberg.
  • The White Rose, the heroic student resistance movement to Nazism, had its origins in Bavaria.

Before examining these points, we should note that no country, just as no person, should be judged only by their sins, no matter how bad those sins may be.  Still, defenders of Bavaria’s relaxed approach to their own history need to examine this period.  Points two and three stand out most sharply.  As to Nuremberg, Hitler may have held rallies there simply because he was known to be fond of Bavaria.  On the other hand, Bavaria may have been a stronghold of Nazi power.  The White Rose may have originated in part due to a strong underground of resistance in Bavaria, or it may have arose for entirely other reasons.  Without further knowledge (and I have none), we might say these two factors cancel each other out.

I think the first category may hold the most weight.  In the Weimar years Germany swayed to a fro between extreme ideas and stark resistance to the Versailles Settlement.  Both Nazi’s and Communists, for example, sought to “leave their mark” upon history.  The fact that the German people went with the Nazi’s shows their general bent towards radicalism.  The “Bavarian People’s Party” in contrast, wanted to bypass all of the immediate debates and return to traditional concepts of governance.  They contemplated separation from the rest of Germany to achieve this, not unlike the “Bloodless Revolution” in England in 1688.  Perhaps they understood the secret that Muggeridge knew, that seeking “History” can hold just as much danger as seeking happiness.

8th Grade: The Golden Age of Athens


This week spent some time discussing the elements of ‘golden ages’ and the factors that went into the birth of what we know as Periclean Athens.

From 480-431 B.C., Athens experienced an explosion of creativity and culture perhaps unparalleled in human history.  Much of what we consider to be modern democracy, philosophy, literature, drama, science, and architecture have many of their roots in this period and place.

What is needed for a golden age?

As we compare them across time (Periclean Athens, Dutch early 1600’s, Elizabethan England, 12th century France, etc.) some common factors emerge:

  • Some kind of cross pollination of culture based on access to the sea, or at least, extensive travel
  • A burst of confidence based on a defeat of a large power — you were the underdog and emerged on top.  The unexpected victory serves as a validation of your uniqueness.
  • An educational base to build the cultural explosion on.  There has to be some kind of literate and curious population base to build on.
  • The willingness to tolerate the possibility of new ideas, which usually has something to with #1 listed above.

With all these factors possibly needed (and possibly more that I have not accounted for), golden ages do not come often in history, but they leave their marks long after they disappear.

The Pynx, Meeting place of the Assembly

We also looked at the flowering of Athenian democracy.  As we examined how it functioned, we arrived at a proposition to debate next week, which is

Athenian Democracy in the age of Pericles was more democratic than America is currently.

Part of how you evaluate this statement depends on a few factors:

1. What do we mean by “Democracy?”

We are so used to the word “democracy” we may not consider what we even mean by the term.  Clearly it must mean more than mere voting.  Some elections have only one candidate, or the different candidates do not give us different options in reality (that is, the candidates would do basically the same thing if elected).    It must also mean more than mere majority rule.  If 51% of the people vote to oppress the remaining 49%, we would not call that democracy.

Democracy attempts the trick of giving power and choice to the people, while at the same time preserving freedom in some measure for all citizens.  Thus, the ‘losers’ in a contest are still protected from the possible pitfalls of majority rule.  At the same time of course, the majority cannot be obstructed too much, otherwise the point of voting and majority rule would be lost.  Historically this balancing act has never been easy.

2. What is most important in a democracy?

In the Athenians favor we note the following:

  • They had much more direct participation from their citizens in government than modern Americans.
  • The average citizen would not only vote, but could also speak in the Assembly.  Most citizens would probably serve in some political capacity during their adult lives.

Against them we can say that:

  • Women and slaves were excluded from voting and participation
  • The very fluidity of their democracy opened up the real possibility that the checks and balances of law could easily be overridden, as happened on a few occasions.
  • Critics of Athenian democracy (ancient and modern) believed Athens was easy prey for the “cult of personality.”

For modern America we note that

  • All citizens of a certain age are eligible to vote.
  • We have minority protection built into the system.

Against us some might say

  • Representative government has tended toward an oligarchy of the rich, with powerful interests controlling both parties.
  • This, in turn, has led to a real distance between Government and the people which results in an “Us and Them” attitude.

I will look forward to their debate when we return next week.

Below is a very detailed chart of the ins and outs of Athenian democracy for the very interested.

Many thanks,

Dave Mathwin

Edmund Burke on how to Prevent a Revolution

UnknownIt might be a good sign when those one admirers disagree among themselves, but for me it can be painful.  Few have taught me more than G.K. Chesterton, but I also like Edmund Burke.  Had the two co-existed they would not have been friends.  Chesterton believed that Burke’s innate conservatism meant that he disapproved of any change at any price, or that whatever political and social order in existence had divine sanction behind it.  Burke tended towards the stodgy, but I think Chesterton overreacted.  I see Burke as a champion of workable, reasonable policy, an Enlightenment man in a Romantic era.  Perhaps this is what Chesterton, the art school dropout, could not forgive in Burke.  Practicality can be maddening.

Burke’s marshaling of logic expressed in dense Enlightenment style can infuriate, all the more so when he’s right.  His Reflections on the French Revolution is a hard read but deserves its acclaim for its early prediction of all that would go wrong in France.   When I saw his Speeches and Letters on American Affairs for sale cheap, I felt I had to pounce and take a dose of good sense, albeit in protein bar form.

Burke speaks better than he writes, but I still found it rough going.  Despite this, Burke’s patented insight strikes again in England’s dealings with America. Burke saw England kill the golden goose between the years 1765-74 through one bad decision after another.  England never heeded his advice, and two wars resulted.  Burke’s thoughts have universal roots and application, and proceed as follows:

I hear the honorable gentlemen say, ‘I don’t care how we got into our predicament.  I only care now how to get out of it.’  . . . No possible good can come from this attitude towards our situation . . .

Burke calls England back to first principles.  Is the problem English debt, or colonial recalcitrance?  By 1774 the revolution had nearly begun, and England scrambled to make things right.  Burke saw England concerning itself only with dealing with whatever situation lay in front of them.  Constantly reacting, they never reflected.  One can’t solve a problem until you understand the problem, and this England never bothered to do.

In this case, Burke calls England to look in the mirror.  However bad the colonies have acted, we ourselves first damaged the relationship by our own actions.  Their policy adjustments thus amounted to little more than course corrections to avoid icebergs, when you should think more about heading south in the first place.

Besides, some of the things taxed were so trivial, that the loss of the objects themselves and their utter annihilation out of American commerce would have been comparatively as nothing.

Perhaps the English had a right to tax the colonists in some respects.  But Burke rightly calls out the English for foolish and paltry duties on things like playing cards.  Such taxes only aggravate and obscure whatever good purpose you might have.

. . . but whatever it is, [you] gentlemen will force the colonists to take the teas.  You will force them?

Burke admits that the Tea Act had many benign and even generous provisions.  To then use force risked ruining everything.

“Incredible as it many seem, you know that you have deliberately thrown away a large duty [the normal course of trade in tea] for the vain hope of getting one 3/4 less, through every hazard, certain litigation, and possibly through war.”

Had they left well enough alone they would have collected plenty of money.  They reduced duties on tea, but then used force to ensure they would collect it.  Again, Burke argues that it appears that the true purpose of the British is to assert their authority rather than enrich their people and make peace.  This gets to the root of the problem itself — England had its priorities all wrong.

Force over time wastes away.

Burke continues . . .

To repeal by the denial of our right to tax in the preamble would have cut, in the heroic style, the Gordian knot with a sword.

The English piddled around the fringes of the various taxes they imposed, modifying this or that over time.  True, sometimes they lessened the duties instead of increasing them, but this yo-yo act ensured colonial aggravation.  Had they simply denied their right to tax altogether they would solved the problem immediately.  Nor would it have cost them money in the long run.  Burke cites the exponentially increasing British imports pouring into America over the past 50 years.  Forcing certain duties, having the Americans object, followed by the inevitable British penalty of closing ports, has the British run the long way round for nothing, or less than nothing.  Much better to act on principle (which the colonists would respect) and be done with it.

Freedom is to them not only an enjoyment, but a kind of rank and privilege. . . . I do not mean, Sir, to commend the superior morality of this sentiment, which has at least as much pride and virtue in it; but I cannot alter the nature of man.

Burke acknowledges that some colonists talked far too much of liberty, perhaps without any sense of responsibility.  John Wesley certainly thought so.  Slavery proves it.  But Burke realized that England had no ability to change what the colonists believe.  Force would certainly not accomplish this, and likely make it worse.

But England would not back down, because at least on Burke’s reading of the situation, they cared more about asserting power than peace.  Perhaps they cared about peace, but it would have to be on their terms.  The outbreak of war and its result proved how wrong they were, and that sometimes stodgy, methodical wisdom is best after all.

I can’t assert this with blanket accuracy, but it seems to me that whenever nations disconnect from reality by doing one thing not for the purpose of the thing itself, but as a placeholder for something else entirely, the results never pan out.  One thinks of Johnson’s bombing in Vietnam.   No one thought the actual bombing particularly effective, but we assumed it would send a political message to the North.  We know how that worked out.  Burke’s message to live in reality stands the test of time.