In October of 1775, George III addressed both houses of the British Parliament to rally them to send forces of His Empire sufficient to compel His American colonies to obedience. He referred to His freedom seeking subjects as a “desperate conspiracy”. The word “desperate” derives from the Latin meaning “without hope”. “Conspiracy” starts back in Latin as well, meaning “breathes together”. George was right that the colonials aspiring to independence breathed together, committing their lives and treasure to each other and for liberty. He was woefully wrong that they had no hope.
This hope was expressed in July of the following year by Thomas Jefferson when he cried out for the ages, “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The great experiment that is America was based on these rights. We seem to have lost the thread. The right to Life is trampled upon with the murder of more than 50 million pre-born innocents. The right to Liberty is in jeopardy as many seem willing to lose it in a poor bargain for illusory security. The right to the “pursuit of Happiness” has devolved into a hollow right to Happiness, not its pursuit.
In his anti-utopian 1932 novel, “Brave New World”, Aldous Huxley projects into the year 3450 and foresees a carefully controlled culture characterized by asexual, laboratory reproduction with genetic engineering and prenatal conditioning to craft human beings bred for their task and station in life. A baleful aspect was the ‘happy’ drug, “Soma”. “Soma” was mandated by a beneficent government for a bovine, compliant population from their perfectly planned birth in the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre to the merciful end of their somnambulist lives.
Mustapha Mond, one of the World Controllers, receives an unsettling paper submitted by a ‘higher caste’ author who speculates that human life may, indeed, have a purpose. Mond suppresses the paper with a grave concern. “Once you began admitting explanations in terms of purpose—well, you didn’t know what the results would be. It was the sort of idea that might easily decondition the more unsettled minds among the higher castes –make them lose their faith in happiness as the Sovereign Good and take to believing, instead, that the goal was somewhere beyond, somewhere outside the present human sphere; that the purpose of life was not the maintenance of well-being, but some intensification and refinement of consciousness, some enlargement of knowledge.”
When Happiness becomes a right and the Sovereign Good, it portends catastrophe. Much has been made of the financial implications of an entitlement society. Margaret Thatcher: “The trouble with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.” With the national debt at 97% of GDP causing the first ever S&P downgrading of that debt, the costs of such fiscal misadventures by the current administration are profoundly concerning. However, we are superficial to demean only those who look to mother government to pay the bills; a deep spiritual malady is even more disturbing.
Happiness as the Sovereign Good incites distortion of human aspiration and virtue. The signs are readily apparent. Unrestrained hedonism is unabashedly pursued, indeed it is idolized; pleasure is a transcendent end unto itself. We become obsessed with good times, parties, inane entertainments, ‘reality’ television diversion, sports increasingly bizarre and violent, widespread recreational chemicals of every stripe, a medical community overprescribing “Soma” at every turn, adrenaline jacking thrill seeking, trivializing and normalizing all manner of aberrant sexuality, pornography increasingly graphic and demeaning, ubiquitous celebrity worship, narcissism and an absolute compulsion to remain forever young. We liposuction, tummy tuck, manically work out, Botox and face lift. We fear frown lines and liver spots more than we fear wasting unreflective lives. The “maintenance of well-being”, which we claim as our due, is a vapid, joyless gloom.
Our noble American experiment is in danger of degrading from a “desperate conspiracy” to a truly desperate dying social structure with acutely disconnected citizens stumbling along wondering what is the point of all this? With happiness as an entitlement, hope is stillborn.
We can address the financial costs of an entitlement culture with legislation or with elections, if we have the will for it. The underlying basis for the expectation that drives it is much more difficult to diagnose and to remedy. The purposeless life requires no sacrifice, no suffering; after all, happiness is a birthright owed to us. The pursuit of happiness on the other hand is inextricable from life, liberty, sacrifice, suffering, deferred gratification and commitment to future generations. The solution to the diseased root of an entitlement culture is spiritual and won family by family, heart by heart and mind by mind.
From Psalm 84 (NAB)
They are happy, whose strength is in You,
in whose hearts are the roads to Zion.
As they go through the Bitter Valley
they make it a place of springs.