POLITICS AND HAPPINESS: THE SUBLIME PARADOX

What matters? The Old and New Testaments, the Sermon on the Mount, Christ-like compassion, the US Constitution, the Federalist Papers, Socratic wisdom, Platonic philosophy, Aristotelian ethics, Western Democracy and political theory and practice.

What matters? C++, Java, Python, Modern architecture, structural engineering, carpentry, circular saws with magnesium worm drives, Japanese woodworking, Impressionism, literature, poetry, history, the Overton Window, and Davinci’s notebooks.

What matters? Pigskin, AstroTurf, Cover-2-man, hybrid Quarterbacks, the collision of hard plastic, Friday night lights, the spiral of a perfectly thrown football, the struggle of pulling in a salmon from the Pacific, and the primal thrill of tracking big-game.

Conversations about manners and habits, curiosities and conundrums, social and ethical: sin and righteousness, equity and justice, accolades and statistics, Creation and Evolution, religion and spirituality, war and diplomacy, hunting and conservation, philosophy and pragmatism, government and liberty, poverty and capitalism, supply-side economics and demand-side economics. These are the things that pull me and command my pen. They fill my days with curiosity and disrupt my nights with insomnia. They force me to ponder, contemplate and pleasantly wonder. They make me grateful for the gift of consciousness. 

I am not claiming these things should matter to everyone. I certainly have my own eccentricities. Particularly as a millennial in the Age of Information, life can be something of an abstract, meandering adventure. . . Therefore, I see it imperative that we find our “anchors” early and keep our “maps” close by. Those “anchors” and “maps” will vary accordingly from person to person, as each individual is influenced and molded by genetic predisposition and natural environment. Maps and anchors are the things in life which guide us and keep us grounded in the inevitable turbulence of life. They are the finer, more elegant things in life and should be respected as such. They should obviously play a key role in contributing to our overall happiness in life. Happiness being the essence of what gives our life purpose, not to be confused with temporary joy or fleeting pleasure. Now, what makes us happy is ultimately our own preference and right to choose, but according to Aristotle, happiness is most easily achieved when we seek to live a good life. Naturally, we’re then forced to ask what good actually is. For Aristotle, “good” wasn’t something for each of us to define for ourselves, it was pronounced eudaimonia in his native Greek tongue and it literally means “human flourishing”. He perceived that a human life is only good if it fulfills a purpose, grows, and flourishes. As beings endowed with the capacity to reason and communicate in advanced dialects, we further separate ourselves from the animal kingdom by utilizing our reasoning to live with a moral purpose. To simply sum it up, a good human acts in accordance with right reason. Aristotle even goes as far as to say it is impossible to achieve happiness without virtue, which means living with a moral purpose is the essence of happiness. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle simply declares, “The happy man lives well and does well; for we have practically defined happiness as a sort of good life and good action.”

This concept of happiness is found at the center of Aristotelian philosophy, and was enshrined in Western Democracy when Thomas Jefferson famously declared that every man has the God-given right to pursue his own happiness. Jefferson didn’t just glean from the ancient Greek philosopher, he actually borrowed the phrase from his own intellectual hero, 17th century political philosopher John Locke.

The 17th century vocabulary can be prickly and cumbersome, but in an excerpt from the lengthy 1690 essay Concerning Human Understanding, this is what Locke wrote:

The necessity of pursuing happiness [is] the foundation of liberty. As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty. The stronger ties we have to an unalterable pursuit of happiness in general, which is our greatest good, and which, as such, our desires always follow, the more are we free from any necessary determination of our will to any particular action, … “

These words undoubtedly inspired the thirty-three-year-old Jefferson when facing the stark tribulations of revolution in his own lifetime. Jefferson incorporated and infused this very philosophy into the founding documents, and firmly imprinted it within the American lexicon.

Jefferson, the man who successfully petitioned the Crown of Great Britain to grant Americans the right to pursue happiness, declaring independence of the Colonies, knew very well that happiness lies outside of politics; he essentially understood politics only provides the framework to pursue happiness. Jefferson further provided the framework when he perpetrated the Louisiana Purchase. It wasn’t just an extravagant, land-grab, or opportune politics. It was a proud extension of the original vision the Founders had at the conception of the nation, afforded by the foresight of Jefferson.

Indeed, all of the founders understood that politics done right, would eventually birth the New World they had envisioned; the free and happy, prosperous, bustling continent they fondly deemed the “great American experiment”.

Charles Krauthammer wisely said the deepest purpose of politics is to create the conditions for the cultivation of the finer things in life, acknowledging, “…what makes us fully human are all of these endeavors, disciplines, confusions and amusements that lie outside of politics.”

He poignantly continued, “While science, medicine, art, poetry, architecture, chess, space, sports, number theory and all things hard and beautiful promise purity, elegance and sometimes even transcendence, they are fundamentally subordinate. In the end, they must bow to the sovereignty of politics. Politics, the crooked timber of our communal lives, dominates everything because, in the end, everything–high and low and, most especially, high–lives or dies by politics. You can have the most advanced and efflorescent of cultures. Get your politics wrong, however, and everything stands to be swept away. This is not ancient history. This is Germany 1933.… Turns out we need to know one more thing on earth: politics–because of its capacity, when benign, to allow all around it to flourish, and its capacity, when malign, to make all around it wither. This is no abstraction. We see it in North Korea, whose deranged Stalinist politics has created a land of stunning desolation and ugliness, both spiritual and material. We saw it in China’s Cultural Revolution, a sustained act of self-immolation, designed to dethrone, debase and destroy the highest achievements of five millennia of Chinese culture.”

John Adams wrote, “I must study politics and war, that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, and naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”

“Adams saw clearly that politics is the indispensable foundation for things elegant and beautiful. First and above all else, you must secure life, liberty and the right to pursue your own happiness. That’s politics done right, hard-earned, often by war. And yet the glories yielded by such a successful politics lie outside itself. Its deepest purpose is to create the conditions for the cultivation of the finer things, beginning with philosophy and science, and ascending to the ever more delicate and refined arts. Note Adams’ double-reference to architecture: The second generation must study naval architecture — a hybrid discipline of war, commerce and science — before the third can freely and securely study architecture for its own sake. The most optimistic implication of Adams’ dictum is that once the first generation gets the political essentials right, they remain intact to nurture the future. Yet he himself once said that ‘there never was a democracy yet that didn’t commit suicide.’ ” (1)*

Krauthammer concludes, “Indeed, the lesson of our history is that the task of merely maintaining strong and sturdy the structures of a constitutional order is unending, the continuing and ceaseless work of every generation.” 

We’ve firmly established that the purpose of politics in a modern democracy is to provide the groundwork for a free and happy life. The present issue in America, and cause of the issue, is too many Americans, specifically those in the media, have turned to politics as their primary source of happiness. For people without religion or spirituality, politics can easily fill the void, providing a religious sense of activism. In America, now more than ever, politics is being utilized as a tool to enhance careers and weaponized as a blunt instrument to strike down dissidents. The media, including social media, with its dogmatic approach to journalism, should bear the blame for the dumpster fire that is currently our national discourse. The Trump administration was unique, to say the least, but the media was on this current, authoritarian war-path long before Trump even announced his candidacy. To blame the current state of affairs on Trump is asinine. The media has effectively held the megaphone for one party for an entire generation, and they’ve acted as political activists more than objective journalists. . . You cannot attempt to blame the current condition on someone that held office for four years and was obstructed nearly every day of those four years, while the Democrats have spun their silky narratives controlling 90% of the airwaves for decades.

We must point out the hypocrisy of the media–on both sides–while bringing common sense and civility to the discussion. We must recognize the integral, elemental importance of political theory and political practice in a modern, functioning, democratic society. That begins with holding people in the media accountable to ethical journalism standards, not aiming to score cheap political points. That means learning to stop blurting, “white supremacist”, “nazi” and “fascist” just because it’s politically expedient for the moment. That means stop calling for deprogramming and reeducation of political opponents. As cliche as it is, that also means finding the primary source of our happiness in our families, friends, and communities, rather than elected officials. It means finding our “maps” and “anchors” and using them correctly as we steer through life. If we do not begin to correct our political orientation as a country, I solemnly fear the potential consequences could be dire and irreversible.


*(1) Excerpt from “Things That Matter”, Charles Krauthammer, Crown Forum 2013: p. 3, 4

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