Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Pursuit of Happiness: Locke and the Declaration of Independence

IN HIS LETTER TO RICHARD HENRY LEE, Jefferson expressly referred to four sources of the thoughts behind the Declaration of Independence: Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, and Sidney. Aristotle and Cicero, whom we reviewed in prior postings on this subject, represent the Graeco-Roman tributary of thought which flowed into the American mainstream like the Missouri into the Mississippi. Three other tributaries--represented by Locke and by Sidney and the vague "Etc." referred to by Jefferson--remain to be reviewed from the perspective of what they may have contributed to the notion of the Declaration's meaning of the "pursuit of happiness."

John Locke represents the intellectual English contribution to the Declaration of Independence's blended heritage. Locke may be seen as a symbol of Enlightenment thought, yet this was not the radical Enlightenment of the French philosophes. Rather, we have here a tempered Enlightenment. Through Locke (and his frequent reference to "judicious" Richard Hooker who was deeply affected by Thomistic and Suarezian sources) we have an indirect link to the Dominican St. Thomas and the Jesuit Francisco Suarez. The Declaration of Independence is, without question, a much more conservative document than, say, its French analogue, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (Déclaration des droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen) of 1789.*

John Locke

Locke, of course, is generally viewed as the Father of the Declaration of Independence, yet his "trilogy" of rights** was clearly rejected by Jefferson. Locke's "trilogy" of basic rights was "life, liberty, and estate." In his Second Treatise on Government, Locke sounds eerily like the Declaration of Independence:

Man being born, as has been proved, with a title to perfect freedom and an uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of Nature, equally with any other man, or number of men in the world, hath by nature a power not only to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty, and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men.

Second Treatise, § 87.

Yet it is apparent that the Lockean "trilogy," or at least the third term "estate," was not slavishly copied by Jefferson from Locke. It is perhaps a "mystery" why Jefferson substitute the Lockean "estate" (which is equivalent to "property" in the broadest sense) with "pursuit of happiness." Since Jefferson left us no clear clue on the matter, we enter into realms of probability and uncertainty. In one sense, then, substituting "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" for "life, liberty, and estate" may be taken to be a rejection of pure Locke. Yet in another sense, it should not be seen as a pure rejection of Locke. The notion of "pursuit of happiness" is, in fact, found in Lockean texts, though not as part of any trilogy.

For example, if we turn from Locke's book of "public right," the Second Treatise, to Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, we come across this statement of Locke which could clearly have informed Jefferson's thinking on this subject:
The necessity of pursuing happiness [is] the foundation of liberty. As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty.
Essay, Bk 2, ch. 21, § 51.

The subject of the pursuit of happiness is further parsed by Locke in his continuing discussion of the subject:
The stronger ties we have to an unalterable pursuit of happiness in general, which is our greatest good, and which, as such, our desires always follow, the more are we free from any necessary determination of our will to any particular action, and from a necessary compliance with our desire, set upon any particular, and then appearing preferable good, till we have duly examined whether it has a tendency to, or be inconsistent with, our real happiness: and therefore, till we are as much informed upon this inquiry as the weight of the matter, and the nature of the case demands, we are, by the necessity of preferring and pursuing true happiness as our greatest good, obliged to suspend the satisfaction of our desires in particular cases.

As Carol Hamilton explains,*** the Lockean reference to "happiness" in this text is clearly a haling back to Graeco-Roman sources. The Locke we have here is not the Locke of the Enlightenment, but a classical Locke:

“The Greek word for “happiness” is eudaimonia. In the passage above, Locke is invoking Greek and Roman ethics in which eudaimonia is linked to aretê, the Greek word for “virtue” or “excellence.”

The Lockean notion of happiness, then, is not too far from the Aristotelian and Ciceronian notions. Locke's notion of the "pursuit of happiness" is one that is governed by a natural law, a law that is clearly based upon that part of man's nature which makes him unique from all the rest of creation, his reason. "The law, that was to govern Adam," Locke tells us, "was the same that was to govern all his posterity, the law of reason." Second Treatise, § 57. It is a notion of happiness that does not exclude law. Indeed, it is a notion of happiness that does not exclude God, as the existence of God--which is a truth that reason itself establishes--is is "so fundamental a truth, and of that consequence, that all religion and genuine morality depend thereon." Essay, Bk IV, ch. 10, § 7.

In fact, Locke is sufficiently traditional in his reference to God and his Law to sound like he falls into the Scholastic tradition of St. Thomas, Francisco Suarez, and Richard Hooker, where the natural moral law, which is equated with the Mosaic revelation (the Ten Commandments), is seen as a participation in the eternal and immutable law of God. As he phrases it in his work the Reasonableness of Christianity, the moral part of the Mosaic law is distinguished from the ceremonial judicial, and the “moral part of it,” which is the natural law, “being conformable to the eternal law of right, is of eternal obligation.”†

We do not find in Locke any warrant to inject into the Declaration of Independence a notion of happiness which is subjective, without reference to objective moral norms of right and wrong or without reference to God, the author of those norms.
*Though a comparison of the Declaration of Independence to the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1776 and of the Citizen of 1789 beyond the scope of this particular posting's topic, we might note the much more traditional, theistic invocations of God in the Declaration of Independence ("Nature's God," "Creator," "Supreme Judge of the world," "divine Providence") compared to the clearly vague deistic (and Masonic) reference to the "Supreme Being" (l'Être Suprême) in the Declaration of the Rights of Man.
**It is remarkable how rights are frequently declared in "trilogy" form: The "liberté, égalité, fraternité" (liberty, equality, fraternity) of the French Revolution, the "Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit" (unity, justice and freedom) of the German Deutschlandlied, the "peace, order and good government" (in French: in French, "paix, ordre et bon gouvernement") in the Canadian British North America Act of 1867. The trilogy of "life, liberty, and property" is found in the Declaration of Colonial Rights, a resolution of the First Continental Congress. The Fifth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution declare that governments cannot deprive any person of "life, liberty, or property" without due process of law. More recently, one may turn to Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which reads, "Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person."
***See Carol V. Hamilton, “The Surprising Origins and Meaning of the ‘Pursuit of Happiness’” at
†John Locke, Reasonableness of Christianity, Works (1824), Vol. VI, p. 13.


  1. Locke was a sociniast, an anti-trinitarian. What God? not the Christian one.

  2. As has been discussed in this blog, Locke was not as judicious as Richard Hooker, and his theological and philosophical positions, his emphasis on individualism, on liberalism, on the human person, have all been criticized.