Monday, May 13, 2024

The Pursuit of Happiness: How Classical Writers on Virtue Inspired the Lives of the Founders and Defined America (Jeffrey Rosen)

Along with life and liberty, the Declaration of Independence mentions "the pursuit of happiness" as an unalienable right. What this phrase means has changed over time. In the early days of America, the Founding Fathers meant for the pursuit of happiness to be a pursuit of virtue -- of being good and and doing virtuous work by bettering yourself with knowledge. In The Pursuit of Happiness: How Classical Writers on Virtue Inspired the Lives of the Founders and Defined America, author Jeffrey Rosen profiles six of American's most influential founders.

The six men profiled (Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton) all had varied lives and a tremendous impact on America's beginnings. Each valued industry, self-control, moderation, and sincerity and strove (and failed) to secure moral perfection. Jefferson and Adams kept vast diaries and piles of correspondence. Washington strove to lead a regimented, disciplined life and control a temper that only rarely got the best of him. 

The pursuit of virtue and self-betterment from our Founding Fathers was a bit hypocritical given a number of them owned slaves. While they also knew that the pursuit of virtue was incompatible with enslavement, many couldn't or wouldn't take the step to emancipate their slaves. Rosen does talk about the evolution of John Quincy Adams, John's son, in becoming a fervent abolitionist in his post-presidency as his virtuous pursuit.

Rosen effectively interweaves these stories of the pursuit of virtue and self improvement with our modern day worship of social media, influencer culture, and tweets, showing that what the Founders thought of as happiness is not how we see it today. Rosen articulates the spirit of self improvement that many early Founders strove for, despite their flaws and sins, and that they perhaps were better at maintaining a spirit of mindfulness that many of us could learn from in today's tweeting. TikToking world. The idea that we should take a step back and think before we speak, tweet, or TikTok is something that every Founder would consider a virtuous and wise move.