“What is happiness, anyhow? … so impalpable — a mere breath, an evanescent tinge,” Walt Whitman wondered in his diary exactly one hundred years after the Founding Fathers wove the pursuit of that evanescent tinge into the fabric of what Whitman considered America’s “democratic vistas.”
The notion of “the pursuit of happiness” has been with us long enough to have become normalized — not merely an item of the American Constitution, but a concept permeating the world’s popular culture in an infinite array of guises. And yet, as a political aim, it is highly unusual — odd, even, with the oddness of squinting to discern a stroke of genius from a stroke of foolishness, unsure which it is we are perceiving.
The origin and consequences of that singular, epoch-making oddity is what the great German political theorist Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) examines in a 1960 piece titled Action and “the Pursuit of Happiness,” found in the posthumous Arendt anthology Thinking Without a Banister: Essays in Understanding, 1953–1975 (public library).
Arendt, herself a refugee in America, writes:
Among the many surprises this country holds in store for its new citizens… there is the amazing discovery that the “pursuit of happiness,” which the Declaration of Independence asserted to be one of the inalienable human rights, has remained to this day considerably more than a meaningless phrase in the public and private life of the American Republic. To the extent that there is such a thing as the American frame of mind, it certainly has been deeply influenced, for better or worse, by this most elusive of human rights, which apparently entitles men, in the words of Howard Mumford Jones, to “the ghastly privilege of pursuing a phantom and embracing a delusion.”
Writing two years before her landmark treatise on the opposite — the politically driven normalization of evil — Arendt examines the origin of this American promise of the ultimate good, the basic human right to happiness:
The grandeur of the Declaration of Independence… consists… in its being the perfect way of an action to appear in words. And since we deal here with the written and not with the spoken word, we are confronted by one of the rare moments when the power of action is great enough to erect its own monument.
What is true for the Declaration of Independence is even truer for the writings of the men who made the revolution. It was when he ceased to speak in generalities, when he spoke…
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