When the original thirteen American colonies issued the Declaration of Independence (1776) they briefly described what they wanted to do. What they described was simple and profound—they wanted “to institute a new Government … as shall seem to them most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”
These two words, safety and happiness, cannot buy a loaf of bread or a cup of coffee but they can, like high flying banners, rally a nation to battle against tyranny. Still, even great words such as these, if not brought down to earth, will blow away in the wind. We will see in this essay how and why colonial Americans thought safety and happiness could become reality for the new country.
The document concludes, “And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”
Here an intangible idea, honor, is pledged equally with two tangible things, life and fortune. To include both an intangible idea and tangible things together in the same pledge only makes sense if the signers believed them both to be real. This tells us a great deal about how the writers of the Declaration thought. The signers of the Declaration believed at least some intangible ideas like safety, happiness, providence, and honor were just as real as tangible things: lives and property. This high respect for intangible ideas is a telltale sign of classical Greek (Plato) and Christian (St. Augustine) cultures.
We can summarize the Declaration of Independence is based on at least two principles:
- Some ideas are as real as physical things.
- God, his divine providence, is a firm reliance for human society.
These two principles came to America from classical Greek and Judeo/Christian origins.
The Greeks invented a State governed by laws which ensure safety. Divine providence provides the basis for a happy life. We will look at each in turn.
Over two thousand seven-hundred years ago Alcaeus wrote in “The State” the following.
What constitutes a State? Not high-raised battlement or labored mound, thick wall or moated gate; nor cities fair, with spires and turrets crowned; no: men, high minded men, with powers as far above dull brutes endured in forest, brake or den, as beasts excel cold rocks and brambles rude—men who their duties know, but know their rights and knowing, dare maintain; prevent the long-aimed blow and crush the tyrant while they rend the chain.1
Safety is found when men know “their duties… their rights and knowing, dare maintain,” that is the spirit of America. Now look at what Cicero said about natural law in The Republic, 51 BC.
Of all these things respecting which learned men dispute there is none more important than clearly to understand that we are born for justice, and that right is founded not in opinion but in nature. There is indeed a true law (lex), right reason, agreeing with nature and diffused among all, unchanging, everlasting, which calls to duty by commanding, deters from wrong by forbidding….
It is not allowable to alter this law nor to deviate from it. Nor can it be abrogated. Nor can we be released from this law either by the senate or by the people. Nor is it one law at Rome and another at Athens, one law today and another hereafter; but the same law, everlasting and unchangeable, will bind all nations and all times; and there will be one common lord and ruler of all, even God, the framer and proposer of this law.
In Cicero’s summary we observe at least three philosophical statements. First, “We are born for justice,” that is, to behave lawfully. For the well-being of an animal, the animal follows its instincts. For the well-being of people, we follow laws. Second, “right is founded not in opinion but in nature.” Right is fulfilling one’s duty and avoiding wrong; it is not a subjective opinion but determined by nature or God. Finally, “a true law…agreeing with nature is diffused among all, unchanging, everlasting.” The universal, absolute laws of nature give stability to society and unite one generation to another. To rewrite Cicero’s statement in a single phrase, it might read: natural law, not opinion, provides stability needed by all nations.
The two quotes from the Greek Alcaeus and the Roman Cicero can be resumed in five words, “Nobody is above the law.” This is how safety for everyone is achieved. Generally speaking, people are just as quick as chickens in setting up some kind of pecking order. The people on top want to keep those at the bottom from taking their perch, those at the bottom will try to do just that. This is all we need to know to understand why so many people go to such lengths to silence free speech—they want to smother the sound of these five words, “nobody is above the law.” There are endless efforts made by self-serving politicians, warlords, crooked bankers, religious impostors, hormonally dominated youngsters, unscrupulous businessmen and criminal bosses who all together wish nothing other than to purge our society of objective laws that judge everyone equally.
When enforcers of the law are challenged by someone who complains like an impetuous child, “I don’t like the law you enforce”, then there must be the strength of wisdom and a will that does not bend; for the safety of all, no one is above the law. Once a child has learns they are not being singled out for discipline but everyone must obey the law, then they can help keep the country safe and take the next step to happiness.
A healthy society needs more than just the safety of law and order. Many people who are perfectly safe are nevertheless most unhappy. Safety is an external thing, happiness is internal.
We began this essay saying there were intangible ideas that are just as real as tangible things. This has largely been forgotten in America today. Intangible ideas, values, are regarded as mere opiniones. It is this change in thinking about values, reducing them to mere opinions, that prevents people from reaching for the happiness the founding fathers sought. Read what William Henry Channing wrote:
To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion, to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly, to listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with open heart, to bear all cheerfully, to all bravely await occasions, hurry never. In a word, to let the spiritual unbidden and unconscious grow up through the common. This is to be my symphony.
Ask yourself, when was that written; before or after America became a consumer society?
From birth to death we are told that happiness is about having or getting something. A consumer society means more sales but it is based on creating endless dissatisfaction – not happiness. This is the opposite of what the Declaration of Independence sought to achieve. When consumers can’t buy enough, credit is offered to them at high rates of interest and the quality of the goods is cheapened, finally all levels of the government are brought in to assuage the woe the advertisers aroused. Note: happiness is not found in hoarding.
Why have people fallen so deeply into the trap of consumerism? This has a spiritual root. Modern philosophy which has largely supplanted Christianity in America has no balm for the soul, indeed it does not believe people have a soul. Modernism teaches our children they are the result of a meaningless fluke, a big bang, which created the universe. People are biological flukes sitting on a ball doing boring circles about a pointless sun in a galaxy that is lost among thousands of other galaxies all of which signify nothing at all. What are we to do in such a desolate condition? Advertisers have become modern America’s spiritual guides, their advice is unanimous, “buy stuff and you shall be important and happy”.
This is none sense. To be happy people must have a purposeful inner life. St. Augustin described this happiness in a simple phrase, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.”
When our mortality is joined to immortality our existence becomes significant and joyful. This is where happiness is found.
Natural law and Christian faith blend perfectly. From natural law we learn that we are born to live lawfully, nobody is above the law. To behave otherwise is to invite tyranny or chaos into our home. This is the path to a society safe for all.
Happiness is lost when we get stuck on the idea that the world is no is not as we wish it to be. This is what causes the childish tantrums beating one’s fist in frustration against the law. The happiness of which the Declaration of Independence speaks is the happiness of resting in divine providence, enjoying the world as it is.
America, a nation of safety and happiness is still there on the horizon – let us renew the journey towards it.