A (very) short time after we posted Monday’s blog concerning the Fulton Sheen’s call for an economic declaration of independence, we got a comment from a reader. As he said, “My American Government teacher in high school always insisted that ‘pursuit of happiness’ meant the pursuit of property. Would you agree with that?”
An easy one to answer. The short answer: No.
The long answer: “Pursuit of happiness” clearly refers to the acquisition and development of virtue, the habit of doing good, a concept that Thomas Jefferson probably got from Aristotle in The Nichomachean Ethics and The Politics, and from Montesquieu in The Spirit of Laws. What is happiness? Pursuit of the good. What is good? That which is in accordance with nature.
We only acquire and develop virtue, that is, build habits of doing good, as an ordinary thing by exercising our natural rights, among which are life, liberty, and property. Property, in fact, is the chief ordinary support for life and liberty.
This is because the ability to exercise rights requires power, defined as “the ability for doing.” “Power,” as Daniel Webster observed, “naturally and necessarily follows property.”
That being the case, property is necessary in order to have power, power is necessary to exercise rights, and the exercise of rights is necessary to acquire and develop virtue (“pursue happiness”). Thus, pursuit of happiness does not mean pursuit of property (and what if you never catch it??), rather, it requires ownership as a precondition of pursuing happiness.
Yes, ownership is a good, a very great good, but it is not the ultimate good, which is to pursue happiness, defined by Aristotle as the good, and understood by the Philosopher as becoming more fully human.
Now here is where some religious people might get confused.
Aristotle was speaking in human terms, as were the Founding Fathers of the United States. Pursuing happiness in a purely human context necessarily means exercising our natural rights to acquire and develop the natural virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and, above all, justice. That is as far as civil society can go, i.e., providing the environment within which people can, as an ordinary thing, become more fully human.
What about God’s law, the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity, however? The virtues that make us more fully adopted children of God, or however your faith or belief system defines conformity with revealed truth?
There the State has no business going, any more than officious individuals can claim to enforce God’s law. That is the business of organized religion, and must never be coerced, either for or against.
As long as someone’s faith does not harm others or the common good, he can believe anything he likes. The State must never enforce faith, hope, or, especially, charity, except in instances where to do otherwise would seriously harm the common good, and then only as an expedient permitted under the principle of double effect until such time as the institutions of the common good can be restructured to remove the cause of the problem. As Pope Leo XIII explained,
“But if the question be asked: How must one’s possessions be used? — the Church replies without hesitation in the words of the same holy Doctor: ‘Man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need. Whence the Apostle with, “Command the rich of this world... to offer with no stint, to apportion largely.”‘ True, no one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life, ‘for no one ought to live other than becomingly.’ But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over. ‘Of that which remaineth, give alms.’ It is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity — a duty not enforced by human law.” (Rerum Novarum, § 22.)