Just a week ago here on the blog I wrote about "the pursuit of happiness," and my belief that the idea that all of us should be busy pursuing happiness is suspicious for many reasons.
One or two commenters that day mentioned that in the deliberations over the Declaration of Independence, where that language is found, the phrase originally was "life, liberty and property." The "pursuit of happiness" phrase was used instead of "property," perhaps to avoid the awkwardness of the reality that some humans then were considered property and that lots of people who didn't own property were not allowed to vote.
I want to return to that "property" phrase today to pass along some addition information about its source and what it might say about religion.
In his marvelous book, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, Jacques Barzun reports that the phrase can be attributed to 17th century English physician and philosopher John Locke (an ancestor of my wife, whose mother's maiden name was Locke). (He's depicted here.)
Feeling pressured under the monarchy of the Stuarts, Locke spent eight years as "a wanderer in Holland and France," Barzun says. "When James II was forced out in 1688, Locke returned home and became the voice of the party that had effected the change. The Declaration of Rights that went with it needed a theorist to make it respectable. Locke was the man to do it. . ."
Later, Barzun says that "for Locke and the English who bargained with the new king, William III, the terms of the social contract were the 13 provisions of the Declaration of Rights. . . .The universal rights came down to three: life, liberty and property."
I generally avoid Wikipedia as a source because it has been shown to be inaccurate and unreliable at times, but it seemed to me that this entry on our subject today had some useful information, especially that Ben Franklin agreed with Thomas Jefferson that the Declaration of Independence should downplay the role of government in protecting property.
Well, the point is that, as the author of the book of Ecclesiastes wrote long ago, there is nothing new under the sun. Our ideas come to us via a winding path, and our "pursuit of happiness" today has antecedants. But most of the great religions teach that pursuing happiness is a self-centered enterprise. Rather, happiness is a byproduct of a useful, productive life that focuses on serving others.
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A LESSON IN SIN'S ENTANGLEMENTS
You can get an idea of what original sin is all about when you ponder the recent Vatican criticism of corruption in Spain. The case had to do with money siphoned off from the pope's 2006 visit there. The pope knew nothing about it until recently but sometimes even when you abide by all the rules, those around you can draw you into what the Vatican called an "ugly case." One of the implications of the doctrine of original sin is that no matter how righteously we live, we inevitably get entangled in sin.
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P.S.: My latest column in The Presbyterian Outlook now is oneline. To read it, click here. To read this and previous Outlook columns, click on the Outlook page on the right side of this page under the "Check this out" headline.