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Desert Sage

How the founders linked happiness to virtue


If Benjamin Franklin was right when he said virtue and a trade are a child’s best portion, succeeding generations of Americans have neglected at least part of that birthright.

Mass education, often captured by the interests of universities and industry, tends to emphasize economic fitness as the purpose of education, and even discussions of other values – instilling a lifelong love of learning, civic participation and self-reliance – gravitate back to economic development.

In our time, we often invoke “the Founders” to borrow their authority without acknowledging how different they were than us, beginning with how they were educated and what they discussed with each other through their lives. Their religious views varied, yet even the Christian beliefs and practices were different than how most Americans associate church, prayer and faith to daily life today.

A new book, “The Pursuit of Happiness: How classical writers on virtue inspired the lives of the founders and defined America,” offers an intellectual history, reader’s guide and even some practical suggestions aligning with how “happiness” was linked inextricably to the development of certain virtues. Its author, Jeffrey Rosen, is a law professor and writer who heads the National Constitution Center. The book was published in February by Simon and Schuster.

“The pursuit of happiness” is upheld in our Constitution as an inalienable right next to life and liberty, and thus a foundational idea of the U.S., but what the makers of that document thought happiness meant – based on what they wrote in diaries, letters and recommended reading lists among other documents – had less to do with gratification and more to do with a lifelong practice of improvement, self-mastery and embodying goodness. It’s an idea rooted in the classical literature that was part of their education: Happiness was about being good, not so  much about desire.

Rosen explores the guiding notions of virtues such as temperance, frugality, industry, justice and the like through the classical works they often cited, from authors like Cicero, Xenophon, Epictetus, Seneca, and the influence of certain Christian leaders seeking to reconcile theology and rational philosophy.

And Rosen does not shy away from pointing out that the founders weren’t consistent in their practice, exposing in particular the self-conscious and admitted hypocrisy of Thomas Jefferson and other slaveholders who knew human bondage violated their precepts but, out of avarice, refused to do without them.

What emerges is a humanizing portrait of some of the most familiar characters from 1776, along with an introduction to some of the books that shaped their consciences (if not always their habits). The same ideas also inspired other figures showcased in the book, such as Frederick Douglass and Phyllis Wheatley, who emerged from slavery as exemplars of learning, resilience and affecting change.

Yet this is no dry history, as Rosen includes his own shadow in the margins of every chapter, reading and applying classical ideas and practices to his own life during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, rising at dawn to read instead of browsing social media and writing sonnets about what he learned.

It is a congenial book rich with enthusiasm for a life of reflection, a love for history and a call to consider what we lose when we seldom read or converse about the behaviors that constitute a good life.

Opinion, Desert Sage, The Founders, The Pursuit of Happiness