Two hundred forty-one years ago, Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence to claim, among other things, the “unalienable” right to “the pursuit of happiness.” This pursuit was the hallmark of the Enlightenment, an intellectual tree of many branches that served as the foundation for the American Constitution. It included such European thinkers as John Locke, Edmund Burke and Montesquieu, and colonials like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and Ben Franklin. The trunk to this tree, however, was the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), whose most famous pupil was Alexander the Great.
To Aristotle, the key question of politics was, “In what does the good life consist?” His general answer lay in “the highest good,” which for him was happiness — since happiness was the virtue of the gods. But Aristotle was also a practical man; so on Earth happiness was to be found in everyone finding his proper function. For humanity, this function was a life governed by reason. Reason’s gift was its ability to find a balance between the excess and deficiency of every other virtue. Thus, for example, the midpoint between the excess of conspicuous, lavish giving and the deficiency of stinginess was generosity. Taking all virtues together, the touchstone to happiness was reasonable calculations that led to “moderation in all things.”
For Aristotle, moderation was also the Golden Mean that would free politics from violence. To achieve this, he called for a mixed government that would create a balanced and stable constitution to ensure a civil resolution of political issues. The extreme of tyranny would provoke revolution by the masses, but pure democracy would engulf society in the violent chaos of mob rule. The peaceful median to these extremes was in what he called a polity, a blend of oligarchy (persons of achievement and property) and democracy (the mass citizenry).
Indeed, the principles of a polity bear a strong resemblance to our Constitution. In a polity, a government naturally divided into three functions or branches: a judicial branch of wise persons, an administrative branch of experts, and a legislative branch elected by the mass of citizens. Aristotle further saw political power deriving from a blend of quality (the electoral college) and quantity (the popular vote). He was sure that this institutional framework would produce the social stability necessary for following the best intentions of the gods — the pursuit of happiness.
On this anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, sadly, we have fallen off this pursuit for a long time. Arbitrary decrees by the Executive Branch have alienated citizens of both political parties. The politicization of the Supreme Court has undermined any faith in reason under the law. And the lack of moderation in our Congress has brought us to the brink of mob rule.
Aristotle set up his polity as a barrier to civil violence, which he saw as the destroyer of happiness. Today, in America, this barrier appears to have been breached in the recent presidential campaign and its aftermath. Donald Trump provoked violence at his rallies. Bernie Sanders ignited his crowds with a call for revolution. Hillary Clinton did not help by deriding Trump supporters as “deplorables.” Since Trump’s election, the downward spiral has only steepened. Activists are preaching a mass “resistance” to his presidency. A comedian displayed an effigy of Trump’s decapitated head. A play depicted an assassination of Julius Caesar in the image of President Trump. Then just two weeks ago James Hodgkinson let loose a barrage of gunfire during a Congressional baseball practice wounding Representative Steve Scalise, a Congressional staffer, and two police officers.
One way to step back is to at least swear off the language of violence, with all the actions that this language provokes, and urge our national leaders to work to regain the Greek principles of an American polity. In a recent interview with Larry Kudlow, the much-maligned Nancy Pelosi revealed that she prayed every Sunday for the happiness of all her colleagues in Congress. In honor of our Declaration of Independence, and its intention of happiness, we would do well to join our prayers with hers. In so doing, we can heed the call of President John F. Kennedy at his first inaugural address that “God’s work must truly be our own.”
A Happy Fourth of July to all of you!