By David Hegg
As we look to the year ahead, I know we’re all still wondering what place the challenges of 2021 will continue to play in our lives. Over the Christmas break when I had a few days off I spent hours reading and thinking about the form of government our founders envisioned, and that sent me back to the Declaration of Independence.
My entire career as a pastor and academic theologian has been based on the principle that the beginning meaning in any document is found by accurately answering this question: What did the original author intend the original readers to understand from the words he or she used?
Specifically, I sought to know just what Thomas Jefferson meant when he enumerated three of mankind’s “unalienable rights” as “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” To do this I had to research the sources that influenced Jefferson so I could understand his words in the way he meant them to be understood.
From ancient times life was understood as God’s gift, and since it was gifted to mankind by God the right to life became unalienable. Given that it comes from God, no one can deprive a human of life arbitrarily, including ourselves.
The idea of liberty had long referred to those areas of individual freedom that existed within the boundaries of law. That is, whatever the law neither prohibited nor required was left for the individual to decide and choose. Liberty in terms of freedom of personal choice was considered a “right” granted as well by the Creator and was, as such unalienable. Government did not have the right to invade the sphere of individual, personal liberty.
Today, we have little trouble understanding what Jefferson meant by “life” and “liberty.” The same is not true when we come to “the pursuit of happiness.” Today, “happiness” is among the most subjective concepts in our world. With the rise of the modern “self” as sovereign, “happiness” is now defined by each individual. This has, in turn, redefined the rights of “life” and “liberty” in terms of the freedom to live life in any way that makes one happy.
But that is not at all what Jefferson meant. When it came to “the pursuit of happiness” he was highly influenced by Aristotle, who considered that the nature of anything was determined by its purpose, or in his terms, its final cause. He reasoned that the purpose of human life was happiness expressed by the Latin eudaimonia, which he understood to be the process of maturity in virtue through reason. For Aristotle the pursuit of eudaimonia was the life-long development of a virtuous, excellent life.
When Jefferson penned those famous words setting forth the “rights” owned by the people of the United States, he was reminding all who came after him that life was sacred, personal liberty was not to be impinged by government, and each individual was responsible under God to pursue a life of virtue. These were rights but were also the “stuff” that would make and keep America strong, prosperous and free from the tyranny Jefferson and his peers recognized as the weakness of all previous civilizations.
So, here’s my take. I believe strongly that these three “rights” are not independent of one another. As the purpose of life becomes the modern idea of being happy instead of living a disciplined life intentionally set on gaining virtue and godly character, both “life” and “liberty” are also being re-imagined to our detriment. “Liberty” is fast becoming synonymous with casting off all moral and reasonable restraint and this explains the absurdity all around us today. And without moral and reasonable restraint, “life” itself has fast become a throw-away commodity.
The answer is simple. To paraphrase an old declaration, erroneously attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville, but nevertheless true, America has been great because Americans have been good people. But if our goodness is drastically eroded by selfishness and wantonness, America will no longer be great, and that won’t be good for us or our children.
The new year is here, and we can’t predict what lies ahead. But we do know the foundation on which our society was laid. May the God who endowed us with these unalienable rights be merciful in opening our eyes to the challenges and then strengthen our hearts and hands to meet them with fortitude and faith. Happy New Year!
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.