Sunday, October 12, 2014

Bradley J. Birzer: "Happiness: Did the Greeks and the Founders Share a Definition?"

This is a very interesting article by Bradley J. Birzer in "The Imaginative Conservative." Though I'm not sure I "get" it.

The thesis of the article seems America was Cicero's country not Aristotle's. America's Founding had a strong "Greco-Roman" component (however they "re envisioned" that heritage). And yes, if you draw a distinction between the Greeks and the Romans, it was the latter who more influenced the American Founding than the former.

The author is also aware that Thomas Jefferson, in "his famous letter of 1825 to Henry Lee," claims Aristotle as one of the four principle sources of the Declaration along with "Cicero, Locke and Sidney.”

But then, like a scholar with a thesis, Birzer explains away the import of that quotation.

(It's possible, as Birzer notes, to draw a distinction between the "Founding" or "Foundings" as represented by the Declaration and by the "Constitution." John Locke, for instance, profoundly influenced the Declaration in the sense that Jefferson quoted part of Locke's Second Treatise on Government and the Patriotic Preachers likewise quoted Locke for the principles of revolution in the face of Romans 13; but Locke's influence on the Constitution is debatable. Perhaps Aristotle was like Locke in this sense.)

Here is nice passage from Birzer's article:
When James Wilson, one of only six men to sign the Declaration as well as the Constitution, and a future member of the U.S. Supreme Court, gave his famous lectures at what is now the University of Pennsylvania in 1790 and 1791, describing the meaning and philosophy of the American founding, he offered an almost purely Ciceronian vision of Natural Law and Natural Rights. Though he draws upon Aristotle here or there, he constantly refers back to Cicero, though his Cicero is, admittedly, more mythologized than real. As with John Adams, the two revered Cicero, focusing almost exclusively on the Roman’s Stoic ethics.
Note the lead to Birzer quoting George Washington's first inaugural address:

"When Washington famously submitted the following on April 30, 1789, he did so much more as a Roman than a Greek:
"There is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity; since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained; and since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people. (First inaugural address)"
This article, to me, smacks of the logical fallacy of the "false-dichotomy"; yes Washington thought of himself more as a Roman Statesman than a Greek; but did not one system of thought lead to the other? And how is Aristotle incompatible or in any way not complementary to Cicero?

Likewise the notion that there is an "indissoluble" connection between virtue and true happiness is, as far as I understand him, Aristotle's Ethics 101. (Groundhog Day was a wonderful representation of that teaching.)


Tom Van Dyke said...

It's hard to believe Birzer gets through the whole deal without ever once mentioning

the Greek word and concept for "happiness" as virtuous living. See also this

which argues that "The pursuit of happiness" is actually a derivation of "eudaimonia."

As for Aristotle, he is taken up and "Christianized" by Aquinas, who is later "Protestantized" by Hugo Grotius, Puffendorf, and the "Father of Anglicanism" Richard Hooker.

Hooker is a "Thomist," which by philosophical geneology, makes him an Aristotelian.

James Wilson cites "The Judicious and excellent" Hooker 8 times in his Lectures on Law

Etc. So too, Stoicism is more congenial to traditional Christian thought than any of the ancient world. Aquinas himself cited Cicero on natural law.

The Western intellectual system had its ups and downs, but Aristotle makes it through to the Founding, albeit via the Stoics and Aquinas.

And how could the French Catholic Montesquieu have avoided Aquinas?

JMS said...

I agree with TVD. Birzer's article and thesis are so weak, I am surprised he would put them out on a blog.


"It's most likely Jefferson stole the phrase "the pursuit of Happiness" from Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding: “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. 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…”

Eudaimonia: the Greek word for “happiness”, or more accurately, “the flourishing life” or “the good life”. But we are not referring to an emotional state or pleasure, but rather a fulfilled life, one that is lived in accord to our deepest values and aspirations not just for ourselves but for our families and community. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes, “the happy man lives well and does well; for we have practically defined happiness as a sort of good life and good action.”

For Aristotle and Epicurus Eudaimonia is derived from arĂȘte: "virtue" or “excellence”: one being at one’s best. Usually it also contains a civil element: we are measured in relation to our families, communities, friends. In other words, one attains virtue usually by service or sacrifice to others.

This seems similar to the Hebrew scriptures use of the word ahav or ahev to mean "love", the root of which is "give" and is used in context of God's covenant: a political and/or sacred contract. For both the Classical Greeks and ancient Hebrews, one achieves "happiness" through virtuous treatment of others. For the Hebrews this is emulating God; for the Classical Greeks, it's simply rational."

Tom Van Dyke said...

Good stuff, JMS.

On a related note, it's why I can't quite reconcile libertarianism with the Founding principles. As Locke and others note, liberty is not license. Likewise, the pursuit of happiness is not the pursuit of pleasure.