The Irascible ProfessorSM
by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
Commentary of the Day - October 8, 2011: Democracy and the True Meaning of Happiness. Guest commentary by Todd Pettigrew.
Those of us who teach in the humanities continue to insist that higher education should be about more than training people for high-paying jobs. Quaint though it may seem, many of us still contend that a deep understanding of history, philosophy, of language in its various forms makes people better. More skeptical, more thoughtful, more reasonable.
Such a project matters especially in democratic societies where the well-being of the state relies on citizens capable of critically evaluating the things that their leaders and potential leaders say. As those who have studied rhetoric know, it is easy, like Milton's Belial, to make the worse case seem the better. Reading history and literature and philosophy help refine our sensibilities so that nonsense can be recognized for what it is.
Examples of political nonsense abound, of course, but Rick Santorum's recent comments on whether gay and lesbian Americans should be able to marry given that the Declaration of Independence promises the right to the pursuit of happiness presents an excellent example.
Santorum begins by saying that in the USA, rights come from God and that the pursuit of happiness has been misunderstood. It doesn't mean the pursuit of what makes one pleased or content, but rather the ability to do good according to God's laws. Santorum says:
God gives you the rights. He doesn't give them to you and says, 'Do whatever you want.' He gave them to you and said -- well, look at later on in the Declaration they refer to nature and nature's God. That we are to live by the natural law and God's laws.
That is what when they talked about the 'pursuit of happiness.' If you go back and read the definition in Webster at the time of the Declaration, or certainly thereafter, what 'happiness' was defined as was doing good. Doing good, doing what is moral. So the pursuit of something ordered and morally good is what our founders were saying.
There's lots of ways to object here, but as an English professor, I'm particularly interested in the history-of-the-language argument. At first it sounds like a profound insight. Words, after all, can and do change meaning -- as every Shakespeare student learns when they try to make sense of Elizabethan English. So it's possible that happiness didn't mean then what it means now, we may all be fundamentally misreading a crucial document of American history, and Santorum has set us straight.
The problem is that even a little research shows that Santorum is simply wrong about the meaning of the word in the period. For one thing, Webster didn't publish his definitive comprehensive dictionary until 1828, more than fifty years after the Declaration was made (he did publish a smaller dictionary in 1806 but the point remains the same). So to cite Webster in this context is a historical blunder, even with Santorum's odd interjection "or certainly thereafter." Still, couldn't the larger point be valid, that the "happiness" in the pursuit of happiness did not have its modern meaning in 1776? It could be, but it's not. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, which (as humanities students know) traces the meanings of known English words over time, happiness takes on its most current meaning "the state of pleasurable content of mind" as early as 1591. So the meaning of "happiness" as we normally understand it, and as it is clearly intended in the Declaration of Independence, was already almost 200 years old by the time Jefferson and company wrote the fabled line.
Still, isn't it possible that somehow Jefferson meant happiness in an obscure sense, later recorded by Webster in the 1820s? No, because when you look at Webster, you find that Santorum has misread even that definition. The primary definition of happiness in Webster’s 1828 dictionary reads as follows:
The agreeable sensations which spring from the enjoyment of good; that state of a being in which his desires are gratified, by the enjoyment of pleasure without pain; felicity; but happiness usually expresses less than felicity, and felicity less than bliss. Happiness is comparative. To a person distressed with pain, relief from that pain affords happiness; in other cases we give the name happiness to positive pleasure or an excitement of agreeable sensations. Happiness therefore admits of indefinite degrees of increase in enjoyment, or gratification of desires. Perfect happiness, or pleasure unalloyed with pain, is not attainable in this life.
If you read only the first sentence of the definition, you might think Santorum was partly right (even though this definition is still two generations later than the Declaration). After all, Webster does say happiness means enjoying what is good. But read on and you see clearly that "good" here is not "good" in the sense of "doing what is moral." Clearly the good meant here is good in the sense of what one finds pleasant, where "desires are gratified" and one enjoys “"pleasure without pain." This, too is happiness in the normal sense (though expressed somewhat more poetically than modern lexicographers would do.)
My point here is not to advocate for gay marriage. Or against it. My point is that whatever one's stance on gay marriage, whatever one's stance on anything, one must have one's facts straight, and those facts must be, in fact, facts. Democratic societies cannot thrive without vigorous debate, but vigorous debate must respect truth. We all bemoan politicians who lie, but we must also be watchful for politicians who, through ignorance or zealousness, are just plain wrong.
Humanities education, when done well, is designed to train students to be skeptical. That’s why we ask them to pore over ancient arguments about right and wrong and to consider the insights of great writers. Continuous interrogation provides one with the willingness to question, the habit of curiosity, and courage to challenge what seems false. Humanities education is not the only way to develop such a mind, but it is the one mode of education that makes the development of such a mind its primary mission, and having people so trained protects us from politicians and demagogues who would manipulate us with claptrap disguised as acumen. All societies need workers specialized in practical trades, but the greatest societies also need a critical mass of citizens highly skilled at recognizing and exposing falsehoods when they see them. Every country that doesn't make it a priority to educate such people does so at its peril.
© 2011, Todd Pettigrew.
The Irascible Professor comments: Perhaps the most dangerous thing about Rick Santorum, and politicians like him, is that they actually believe the nonsense that they spout on the stump. Personally, I prefer a politician who knows that the pap he or she spouts is a pack of lies over the one who has deluded himself into thinking that his pack of lies actually is the truth. At least the former has a bit of a grip on reality.
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