Sins of the past and future happiness

‘Unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” says the Declaration of Independence. What Jefferson was saying is that we should aspire to these rights, unalienable or not at the time, and thereby create a more perfect union of commonality. To get there, we, as a People, had to agree to get over every obstacle that was, then and now, huge. And, further, as time has shown, we have to face and overcome other major obstacles that eventually became too onerous to allow to remain in place; like slavery, inequality of the sexes, religious freedom and, yes, autocracy, be it here or around the world.

How can you get over historical events and laws and morals and move to a new place closer to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness?” The Declaration makes this clear: “…Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations… it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

Aristotle — well known to Jefferson — the Greek philosopher 2,350 years ago, wrote: “For every type of activity, everything from philosophical inquiry to carpentry, all these things have a goal… We need to know what the ultimate goal is for being a human being: Eudaimonia.” Eudaimonia translates as happiness or welfare or human flourishing, as Aristotle protested the opposite value of “life of cattle, content to graze.” Embedded in the ancient term, and as used by Jefferson (a scholar of Aristotle), is endeavor, reward, welfare and flourishing, but Aristotle strenuously excluded mock virtue and blind belief from his definition. Jefferson would have understood this. And he would have known that making money was, similarly, defined by Aristotle as not providing happiness. Money can buy you things and things can make you momentarily happy, but money in and of itself cannot provide happiness.

Endeavor, reward, welfare and flourishing — these are the attributes attested in the Declaration. But to get to attempt and attain these values, we have had to “throw off” the past, discard that which was and move forward. Time and again, this has been the ethic of America: to discard that which once were our values, values that came before enlightenment, and move forward. Such upheaval is painful at times. The Civil War was a baptism of death and destruction, but a new beginning was forged — a new America that has continued, sometimes too slowly, to emerge past the obstacles and evils of the past.

The Declaration says that “mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable…” and indeed these past few years have been a baptism of patience, frustration and a burning desire for revolt. The words and ethic of the Declaration are more apt today than they have been for a century. We must overcome, fight against, prevail against the evils we see around us and then “provide new Guards for their future security.”


Writer Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now resides in New Mexico.

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