Last week’s installment in my geopolitics series received a mixed response from readers. There were three main arguments against my article on the relationship between the individual and community. Some said the nation, family and individual happiness could be reconciled; others argued that happiness had a subtler meaning than I gave it; and others still said my focus on the nation, family and the individual left out religion. The comments were well taken. Rather than try to respond to each email, I will grapple with the problems presented here.
The Good Life
In speaking of the happy life, we also need to speak of the good life, and the difference between the two. There are many definitions of human happiness, but they all advocate that it derives from a singular goodness. That goodness might come from placing one’s body between his nation and war’s desolation. It might also come from, as Plato argues, self-knowledge and living the life of the mind. Both of these definitions, however, define happiness as intimately linked to duty because they both conjure pain or anguish. The pain that comes from military service is obvious; the pain involved in living a life of the mind comes from being immersed in a discipline that requires you to forego other pleasures. Military valor and philosophical contemplation may have the potential to bring the highest sort of happiness, but most of us can’t attain that sort of happiness, nor can we even imagine wanting to. In other words, the good life is seen as a life of unhappiness. Some may believe that not living the good life makes you unhappy. But can you really be unhappy if you think you are happy?
The United States is a democratic entity because, while it is a republic, it also has “We the People” as one of its defining slogans and protects the right to national self-determination. Neither military valor nor philosophy was ever conceived of as a universal virtue. Their value is that they are rare. The founders themselves may well have had a full measure of both virtues, and this might have made them happy, but for the rest of us, happiness is something that brings us pleasure. That may involve loving your children, your God or yourself. The problem is that, when happiness is liberated from a universally accepted and attainable good life, it becomes both subjective and self-indulgent. Happiness is an individual sensibility, and the invitation to pursue it is ultimately bound to the individual’s desires.
Religions often promote a certain interpretation of the good life and promise happiness as a reward for living that life. The reward is usually reaped after the life has ended, but in some cases, it’s given to those who are still living. The definition of the good life is bound to an explicit teaching, frequently written in a book or held in the memory of people. In religion, therefore, happiness and duty are bound together. But men like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington were men of the Enlightenment. (This isn’t usually said about Washington, but he was a mason, and masonry and the Enlightenment were linked.) There was a powerful strand of the Enlightenment that regarded the individual as the repository of rights. This strand is best represented by the U.S. Bill of Rights, which protects individual freedoms and limits the state’s ability to intrude on those freedoms. The Bill of Rights regards the good life as the life that suits the individual, within certain practical limits.
The Pursuit of Happiness
One reader made the point that her mother taught her that the founders’ definition of happiness was related to the Greek notion that we might now call “felicity,” a happiness that comes from leading the good life. The founders, I believe, had an idea of what a good life should look like and created a republic so that its leaders would be people who live that life. But they also, with some reluctance, left the definition of happiness open to interpretation. They left happiness in the realm of liberty and rested liberty on the individual. Felicity is what the individual chooses it to be.
Religion and moral excellence were explicitly left to the individual, but the Bill of Rights envisioned the individual as described by John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. The phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” derives from Locke, who argued for “life, liberty and property.” Hobbes and Locke defined human beings as creatures of pain and pleasure. They avoid pain and seek pleasure in a physical sense (hence Locke’s use of the term “property,” which denotes physical goods that satisfy needs).
The founding fathers, therefore, invited Americans to pursue the pleasures of the physical world. Individuals are free to pursue other types of pleasure, too, but they have little interest in those other types that might involve sacrifice or reflection. This is the foundation of capitalism and much of the pleasures of American life.
This brings us back to the definitions of the good life. The pursuit of pleasure would seem to run counter to military virtues and the life of the mind. And this is the empirical dilemma of liberalism as personified by the United States. In the American Revolution, 5 percent of all white men died to create a regime based on the pursuit of happiness. Despite the demands of military sacrifice and the openness to the life of the mind, both of these pursuits ran counter to the basic moral thrust of the regime. One can expand happiness to include death and injury, but that is an unsatisfying maneuver designed to avoid the question.
War is for almost all an experience of pain and fear. What virtues come from it come only to some and only once the guns fall silent and the nightmares subside. The term happiness, in the sense the founders used it, cannot be applied to military virtue. Similarly, it cannot be applied to a life of the mind. The contemplation of the true and beautiful might bring happiness to a few, but for most of us, it only brings frustration and anguish. It may not leave nightmarish scars, but for many of my students, it created excruciating boredom.
This goes to the heart of the mystery of geopolitics. The nation can exist only when citizens forgo the pursuit of their own pleasures and accept the burdens of an unhappy fate. America is a country born in battle and forged in war. The United States was at war for 17 percent of the 20th century, and it has been at war for almost 100 percent of the 21st century. The 18th century, when the U.S. was founded, was relatively peaceful, as was the 19th, if you ignore the bloodiest war the U.S. ever fought – the Civil War – and the conflicts with the Indian nations. War and the pursuit of happiness coexisted.
Therefore, the tension between the nation and the individual remains. And the tension between the individual and family also remains, as the family exacts a price from its members even while making them happy. The point I am trying to make is not that happiness is the highest good but that human existence cannot take place absent a communal structure, which then turns man into a political animal, as Aristotle put it. In doing so, it undermines the liberalism of the Enlightenment. And this is the philosophical mystery at the root of geopolitics.