The Enlightenment Myth of “The Pursuit of Happiness”

“Is the “pursuit of happiness” not, according to the myth created by the founding fathers of the American Republic, an “inalienable right?” That concept has, in fact, entered so deeply into the thought and conscience of generations of North Americans that it is difficult to question it without being suspected of being, if not actually some kind of foreign agent, at least “un-American.” The concept of “the pursuit of happiness” itself is, however, diametrically opposed to Orthodox Christianity’s view of the Christian’s fundamentally sacrificial and intercessory role in the cosmos, to say nothing of Christianity’s most basic tenant: the sacrifice of Christ is absolutely essential within the divine economy of His Incarnation.

“The pursuit of happiness” actually opposes, moreover, man’s intimate relationship with God and that total submission to God the holy fathers of Orthodoxy teach us is basic to the spiritual life. The true lover of Christ, in fact, can never take the concept of the “pursuit of happiness” seriously as something that might ever be incorporated into his own life in Christ.

The “pursuit of happiness” inevitably fosters a totally self-centered view of life, ignoring completely all cosmic sense of man’s place in the universe. It further ignores the inevitable, perennial and very basic dimension of sacrifice demanded of man at every level of his human existence. Whether in pursuing the bonds of love with a future spouse, or in bringing forth and rearing children, or in caring for those one loves, or in maintaining the well-being of one’s own family, sacrifice and suffering are far more basic necessities to human well-being than is the “pursuit of happiness.””

Excerpt from The Heart of Orthodox Mystery, by William Bush

I have been thinking a lot recently about happiness. It does not seem to me a foundational tenet of Christianity but, as discussed above, a construct of Enlightenment thinking. In its place, I think it might be better to use the concept of St. Paul’s “contentment” (αὐτάρκεια; autárkeia), best expressed in Philippians 4:11-13:

“Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content [αὐτάρκης; autárkes] with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

Perhaps we should be pursuing “contentment”, which is a state achievable regardless of circumstance, instead of “happiness” which is inherently emotional, self-centered, illusory, and transitory.

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