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.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Pursuit of Happiness: Sidney and the Declaration of Independence

ALGERNON SIDNEY IS THE FINAL of four names expressly identified by Thomas Jefferson as a source of the ideas behind the Declaration of Independence. In Aristotle and with Cicero we have the classical foundation of the American experiment. In Locke we have the more conservative Enlightenment strain, as distinguished from the radical Enlightenment strain of the French philosophes, mixed in. With Sidney we have a form of radicalism, but a Republican radicalism, a radicalism bred of Puritan emphasis on the Old Testament and its disdain for kingly rule, a radicalism based ultimately on the rights of Englishmen against the King and Crown, rights based upon the notion that government was not a private thing, but was a thing of the commonwealth, a res publica, a "public thing."

Who was this Algernon Sidney, this
British Cassius, fearless bled;
Of high determin'd spririt, roughly brave,
By ancient learning to the'enlighten'd love
Of ancient freedom warm'd?*

For Jefferson, Sidney was a martyr for republican principles, a symbol of republican ideals against the tyranny of kings. Sidney's never-completed work, his Discourses Concerning Government--a work which was used against Sidney as evidence in his trial that led to his death on the Scaffold for his opposition to Charles II--was given high praise by Jefferson. In a letter to Mason Weems, Jefferson said that Sidney's discourses "are in truth a rich treasure of republican principles," and vouched that it was "probably the best elementary book of the principles of government."** In the minutes of the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia dated March 4, 1825, it was resolved that "as to the general principles of liberty and the rights of man, in nature and in society, the doctrines of Locke, in his 'Essay concerning the true original extend and end of government,' and of Sidney in his 'Discourses on government,' may be considered as those generally approved by our fellow citizens of this, and the United States."***

Algernon Sidney

What was Sidney's view on happiness and its pursuit? The answer to that question requires to look at Sidney's Discourses, but it also warrants us to preview an earlier work of Sidney, his Court Maxims written 20 years before his Discourses.† It is not that Jefferson or his contemporaries would have known of these, as they were not published during Sidney's lifetime, and indeed were not discovered and published until the 1970s. However, the thought of Sidney in the Court Maxims is well-encapsulated, and its classical and Scriptural sources are well-identified.

Sidney's notion of happiness is Aristotelian and eudaimonistic. He sees happiness as intrinsically connected with virtue. Indeed, happiness is impossible unless one is freed from the tyranny of the passions, for the passions may steal one of freedom just as surely as any tyrant:

We need seek no other definition of a happy human life in relation to this world than that set down by Aristotle as the end of civil societies, namely that men may in them enjoy vita beata secundum virtutem. For as there is no happiness without liberty, and no man more a slave than he that is overmastered by vicious passions, there is neither liberty, nor happiness, where there is not virtue.

Maxims, p. 24. The Aristotelian reference is manifest. When Sidney says that happiness is a vita beata secundum virtutem, a happy life according to virtue, he is quoting from a Latin translation of Aristotle's Politics, Book III, 1281a (τὸ ζῆν εὐδαιμόνως καὶ καλῶς: to zēn eudaimonōs kai kalōs). Happiness is life in accord with the virtues, life in accord with the good.

Happiness, however, is not based upon subjective desires and their fulfillment. Rather, happiness must be defined with reference to what is good by nature.
[H]e is not happy that has what he desires, but desires what is good and enjoys it. For we very often desire things that are evil and hurtful to ourselves. Nor is there a greater misery than the satisfaction of such ill-conceived desires.

Maxims, p. 4. Indeed, ultimately happiness must refer to God and to his laws, the law of nature and the laws in Scripture. "God seeks the happiness and perfection of his creatures," Sidney states, and He "has given laws to mankind which show the way to that happiness and perfection." Id.

Happiness is an important concept to Sidney, as ultimately it is the happiness of the people that is the source and end of any leader's power:
According to Socrates a king is not created, that he may carefully provide for himself, but for the happiness of those that create him. This agrees with Isidore. That is the rule of government, says he, which refers to all to the profit of those who live under it.
Maxims, p. 4. The purpose of the king, then, is not his own aggrandizement or private good, but the common good, and that requires liberty, a right order, and the promotion of the virtuous life of its citizens.

Indeed, if the King's reign impinges upon the happiness of the populace, then the populace have the right to overthrown the king, to justify revolution:

[I]f it appears that another government does more conduce to their good than that of kings, [the people] may choose some other form of government from which they may expect more happiness.

Maxims, p. 11. This, of course is exactly the burden of the argument of the Declaration of Independence.

Happiness not only justifies the king, it justifies law.

When the law is good, it directs how it should be rightly administered. The observation of such rules we call just government. This good government still refines and betters the law. . . . Where things are in this right order, there is a perpetual advance in all that is good, until such nation attains unto the political perfection of liberty, security, and happiness, which were the ends for which government was constituted.

Maxims, p. 132. Happiness then, along with liberty and security which are concomitants to it, is what governments are for.

Sidney's individualism is manifest in his view of government. There is already in Sidney a strong libertarian trend:
So in civil societies those deserve praise that make such laws as conduce to a civil harmony wherein the several humours, natures, and conditions of men may have such parts and places assigned [to] them, that none may so abound as to oppress the other to the dissolution of the whole . . . But everyone, in his own way and degree, may act in order to the public good and the composing of that civil harmony in which our happiness in this world does chiefly consist.

Maxims, p. 23. Liberty is defined in this manner by Sidney in his Discourses. He defines liberty as "that exemption from the dominion of another," and believes that it is not something given to us by government, but rather is something that is "the gift of God and nature." Discourses, I.17:44.

The purpose of liberty, then, is not a "liberty from" only, but is a "liberty for" also. It is a liberty for the purpose of working out our happiness, a happiness that is built upon our free conforming of ourselves to the good, the good that is manifest in our nature and in the laws of God.
“[T]he principle of liberty in which God created us . . . includes the chief advantages of the life we enjoy, as well as the greatest helps towards felicity, that is the end of our hopes in the other.
Discourses, I.2:5.

In summary, Sidney's view of happiness is no different than that of Aristotle, Cicero, or Locke. We have in Sidney a view of happiness that requires conformity with the good. The good is something objectively measured: it is known with reference to nature and with reference to the law of God. It is an objective moral order within which man must conform. It is this conformity to the right that leads to happiness. It is for this that governments are instituted among men. It is for this that there is a ruler and there is a ruled. It is for this that measures the rightness of that rule, whether it be the rule of a man or king or the rule of law. It is for this that liberty is given to men by the author of liberty, God. Happiness--life in accordance with virtue and the natural moral law--is the end of man and the end of man's government.

*James Thomson, The Seasons, "Summer"
**Thomas Jefferson, "Letter to Mason Weems," December 13, 1804.
***"From the Minutes of the Board of Visitors,” University of Virginia, March 4, 1825, quoted in Merrill Petersen,
Writings of Thomas Jefferson, (New York: Library of America, 1984), 497.
†See Algernon Sidney,
Court Maxims (Hans Blom, Eco Haitisma Mulier, eds.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). References to the Court Maxims are to this text.

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