Conversations in Management: Thomas Jefferson

Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Declaration of Independence

Thomas_JeffersonOk—everyone pretty much gets life and liberty, but what’s this business about the pursuit of happiness? If you thought it had something to do with the 74 million barbeques planned for the Fourth of July holiday or the 155 million hot dogs and 700 million pounds of chicken that will be consumed you’d be wrong. Then again, if you thought it had something to do with the 68 million cases of beer that will be sold or the $200 million worth of fireworks that will be detonated on Independence Day you’d still be wrong but it’s an error easily forgiven. As it turns out, Jefferson himself was a bit vague on the subject. None-the-less, according to the Declaration of Independence, it’s a self-evident truth. Moreover, along with life and liberty, it’s endowed by God and is unalienable—can’t be bought, sold or given away. That’s a lot of horsepower for a right that’s a bit short on specifics. But Jefferson wasn’t the only one who thought it was important. His first draft underwent heavy congressional editing which reduced the original by a quarter but retained the pursuit of happiness. It was comfortably in place when the Continental Congress adopted the declaration on July 2 and was still there in the final revised version adopted on July 4, 1776. Yet popular support among the Founding Fathers still doesn’t explain what anyone thought it meant. To find that out, we have to turn, along with Mr. Jefferson, to ancient Greece.

Jefferson was a student of the classics and no philosopher influenced him more than Epicurus. In fact, he styled himself an Epicurean and corresponded with others on the subject. Nowadays, we associate Epicurus with a hedonistic, self-indulgent lifestyle, but his is actually the opposite of what he taught. Epicurus proposed that good and evil are related to our sensations of pleasure and pain. Pleasure is understood as the absence of both physical and psychological pain. Over-indulgence in anything is seen as a problem because it can lead to suffering. Epicurus specifically warns against pursing ardent love for that reason and not many of us would dispute him on that score. Pleasure—and ultimately happiness—is found in the absence of pain and suffering. The path to this destination, according to Jefferson’s reading of Epicurus, is through the application of, “prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice,” in our daily lives. It also requires that we shun, “folly, desire, fear and deceit.” The summum bonumor highest good, as Jefferson calls it, “is to be not pained in body, nor troubled in mind.” Happiness, then, is the state of contentment and peace of mind that comes when one has just enough and is thereby free from all anxiety. In the parlance of the day, pursuit was a word used to describe the principal activity of one’s life or a vocation.  Thus, the declaration tells us that we have the right to lives of tranquility, satiation and well-being.

In the end, the pursuit of happiness isn’t about having the biggest house, fanciest car or fattest wallet. It isn’t about the relentless chase after self-gratification. The pursuit of happiness is about moderation and the freedom from anxiety born of having too much of a thing. It’s about having just enough. And because we’ve included it in the Declaration of Independence, it’s a communal commitment to make sure every citizen has just enough as well. This Fourth of July, remember that each of us has the right to life, the right to be free and the right to enjoy the other two by having just enough of what we need. That’s happiness and it’s worthy of fireworks!      —Ebert

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