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.

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