What is this searched after state we Americans pursue, one of only three “unalienable rights” specifically named as worthy of praise in the American Declaration of Independence – “the pursuit of happiness”?

Did the writers of the Declaration mean what we mean? Or was it something different? Why was such a subjective term as ‘happiness’ listed with Life, and Liberty?  Was there a reason why the pursuit of Happiness was listed as the last of the three? What it considered least important, of equal importance, or, perhaps, as most important?

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, the principal writers of the Declaration, were well-schools in the Classics – the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, novelists, playrites and poets; Democritus, Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Cicero and Diogenes. They read Plato’s Republic, Cicero’s Disputations, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Metaphysics, and Politics; Virgil’s The Aeneid, and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex in their original Greek or Latin language. They translated the New Testament Gospel of John from its original Greek into Latin and into English.

What did happiness mean to these classical writers? How did it inform Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and the rest?

The word εὐδαιμονία’ (eudaimonia) expressed the Greek philosopher’s understanding of what Jefferson and Adams called happiness.

The term “eudaimonia” is a classical Greek word, commonly translated as “happiness“, but perhaps better described as “well-being” or “human flourishing” or “good life“. More literally it means “having a good guardian spirit”. Eudaimonia as the ultimate goal is an objective, not a subjective, state, and it characterizes the well-lived life, irrespective of the emotional state of the person experiencing it. ….

Socrates, as represented in Plato‘s early dialogues, held that virtue is a sort of knowledge (the knowledge of good and evil) that is required to reach the ultimate good, or eudaimonia, which is what all human desires and actions aim to achieve.

The Basics of Philosophy

Happiness, as understood in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, is the full human flourishing which is the highest of all good according to Nature.

The Committee of Five that wrote the final draft approved by the Second Continental Congress had something like that in mind.

One researcher claims the following:

“Actually, happiness was defined by the Continental Congress in the original May 1776 declaration of independence as “internal peace, virtue, and good order,” closely following Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations; the definition of happiness was drafted by John Adams, not Jefferson.” [Link inserted by VFTE]

[Unidentified source within longer article on the origins of “the pursuit of happiness in the American Declaration of Independence.] -Other Choices (talk) 00:14, 16 June 2012 (UTC)

Whether we are happy in America is a matter of perspective and definition. Some of us would say we are; others would say not. But a fresh look at the Declaration of Independence’s original meaning of the word as human flourishing might lead us to the discussion of “the full human flourishing which is the highest of all good according to Nature” in a consumer society intoxicated with distraction and superficial definitions of happiness.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 28, 2015

2 thoughts on “Happiness

  1. If one has ever taken a class in the study of word usage and meanings and origins, I think time has changed the shades of meaning of words quite dramatically in some casee, and quite softer in others. Never mind that ten people will hear and thus interpret the same prose in at least ten different ways…..


    • Yes, language changes all the time, sometimes quickly, more often slowly. What happiness means in a an entertainment culture driven by consumer advertising is a far cry from what it “the pursuit of happiness” meant to the Greek philosophers or to the Committee of Five.


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