The Happy and The Wretched

“No man can know a happy man
From any passing wretch;
If Folly link with Elegance
No man knows which is which,”

William Butler Yeats, The Old Stone Cross

Four and a half years ago, one of these blog posts brought up the age-old question: when can a man be called “happy”? The reading for that week was from Herodotus, who related the story of Solon and Croesus. Solon enraged Croesus by refusing to call him happy. Happiness, Solon claimed, could only be determined after death. Sure, on any given day a man may seem happy. Or even for an extended period of time. But until a man has breathed his last, it is impossible to tell whether his life was happy or not. After all, “to many God shows but a glimpse of happiness and then plucks them up by the roots and overturns them.”

The above-quoted passage from Yeats looks like a similar claim: it is impossible for anybody to tell who is truly happy. But he goes even further; one cannot even tell happiness from wretchedness. He also says that it is impossible to tell folly from elegance. (An outsider’s view of fashion seems to confirm this notion. High-heeled shoes and all sorts of other fashionable attire appear to be equal parts folly and elegance.)

However, Yeats’s lines need more context. Solon apparently believed that it was never possible to say who was happy until after death. Yeats, however, qualified his claim. According to the man under the old stone cross, it is particular to our place and time that happiness cannot be discerned from wretchedness, nor folly from elegance. Such seemingly obvious distinctions cannot be made today “Because this age and the next age — Engender in the ditch”. Unlike Solon, Yeats seems to think that the happy should be easy to sort from the wretched. The reason that we cannot do so is the vulgar origins of our present society.

Society and Solitude #5

 

Beer of the week: Society and Solitude #5 – Alchemist Brewery may have all of the hype, but their neighbors at Hill Farmstead give them a real run for their money. This experimental imperial IPA pours cloudy and pale. The aroma has lots of mango and citrus. The beer is eminently smooth and there is hardly a hint of the high alcohol content. The hops are not overpowering, but they are perfectly balanced with the malt and the fruit notes. This is really a stellar beer.

Reading of the week: The Old Stone Cross by William Butler Yeats – Perhaps the driving factors in the degradation of society are modern politics and what passes for journalism. This poem starts with the statesman “who tells his lies by rote,” and the journalist who “makes up his lies.” This distrust for the political circus and the news media that foster it results in (what I consider) very sound advice from the poet: “stay at home’ and drink your beer — And let the neighbours’ vote”!

Question of the week: What would Solon say about the inability to distinguish folly from elegance?

Advertisements

The Silent Supreme

The death of Justice Antonin Scalia last week revealed yet again the terrible state of political discourse in our country. One clear problem involves the call by Senate Republicans to block any and all Obama nominations. This certainly looks like a dereliction of duty, and has been called an “impeachable offense.” (Of course, the most vocal critics of this behavior, ignore the attempted filibuster by Senators Kerry, Clinton, and Obama upon the nomination of Justice Alito.) But what I think is more telling is the personal vitriol toward members of the Court.

All of the biggest political actors had the tact to express their condolences at the death of Justice Scalia, but plenty of casual tweeters expressed their joy. Even worse than the schadenfreude over the death of a Supreme Court Justice were the attacks on (the still very much alive) Justice Thomas. Thomas became a “trending topic” on Twitter because there were so many people wishing that he would be the next member of the Court to die. Two particular themes came to the surface though these Tweets: the perception that Thomas was a mere puppet who always followed Scalia, and the racially charged claims that Thomas was either a slave or a traitor to his people.

I will ignore the racial statements. Those who made them deserve our scorn, but the statements themselves are not worth addressing. They are beneath the dignity of the Court and they are beneath me. The idea that Thomas was a puppet for Scalia, however, is worth evaluating.

According to SCOTUSBlog, Scalia and Thomas agreed in 78% of cases. This is lower than the percentage of cases where Thomas agreed with Alito (81%) and lower than the percentage of cases where Scalia agreed with Chief Justice Roberts (84%). But perhaps more tellingly, that number is positively dwarfed by the percentage of cases where the liberal justices agree. That same source tells us that Justice Breyer agrees with each Justice Ginsburg, Justice Kagan, and Justice Sotomayor a full 94% of the time. The lowest agreement rate among the liberal justices is 91%. Any claim that one or more of the Supreme Court Justices are mere puppets who vote the way they are told is probably nonsense. But if there is any legitimacy to the idea, the statistics indicate that we should be looking at somebody other than Thomas.

There are plenty of areas where I disagree with Justice Thomas, but it is simply ignorant to claim that he is not an independent thinker. He is a prolific dissenting voice on the court, and perhaps that alone is worthy of admiration. It would have been so much easier for him to “just go along” with Scalia, but Thomas was and is his own man.

Yankee Buzzard IPA

Beer of the week: Yankee Buzzard IPA – This IPA from Wisconsin Brewing Company is also known as beer #002. Yankee Buzzard is hazy and has a pleasant, hoppy aroma. Hops certainly dominates, but unlike in many IPAs, here they are balanced nicely with the malty body. This is a very good IPA, especially for somebody who does not favor over-the-top bitterness.

Reading for the week: Kelo v. New London, Dissenting Opinion of Justice Clarence Thomas – The City of New London used eminent domain to kick several of its citizens out of their homes and turn the land over to the drug company Pfizer. The Supreme Court ruled that the city did not violate the Constitution by doing so. Justice Thomas, predictably, dissented. In part, I chose this reading because the public response to this case was so negative; most states now have laws that prevent this kind of eminent domain action. But mostly, this reading shows the way that Justice Thomas works. His appeals to original texts are especially interesting to me. (In case the Readings page of this blog left any doubt on that point.)

Question for the week: Do the Justices of the Supreme Court venture too far into the world of practical politics (as Justice Thomas believes), or does the Supreme Court have a right (or duty) to effectuate policy?


A Curious Substitution

It is no secret that the philosophy of John Locke was a profound influence on the American Founding Fathers. After all, his concept of natural rights to life, liberty, and property was prominently displayed at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence. But there was also a dramatic change in that document’s language: “property” was replaced with the “pursuit of happiness.”

First, let’s be clear on what Locke actually said: “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” How “health” got dropped from popular discourse, I do not know. I suspect that health can easily be subsumed by life, liberty, or both. Health is an integral part of life since an ultimate failure of health results in death. It is also an integral part of liberty, since any failure of health impairs liberty to some extent and a serious failure of health (just short of death) totally prevents one from exercising his liberty. (Those in a coma, for example, can hardly be considered “free”.) So, with health out of the way, we are left with the common formulation of Locke’s natural rights: life, liberty, property.

But when it came time to draft the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson substituted “the pursuit of happiness” for “property.” But why? I have done a little reading and asked a few professors, and gotten three answers:

1. That Jefferson, a land-owner, was appealing also to those who did not own land. Since he did not advocate a system where all men got an equal share of the land, he substituted the pursuit of happiness as something that everybody could achieve (even those destined to be tenants.)

This answer seems least likely to me. Of course the Declaration was a practical document, intended to rally support for the cause of independence, but it was also an exposition of Jefferson’s philosophy. Would he really substitute an entire third of his philosophy of natural rights for a relatively minor appeal to the lower class colonists? I am extremely reluctant to consider anything in the first part of the Declaration to be disingenuous. (Whether all of the complaints leveled at King George were all made in good faith is another question.)

Further, under Locke’s formulation, the right to property relies on the assumption that there is enough property to support everybody. The American continent was regarded as practically limitless in size at that time. Why would Jefferson object to the idea that anybody who did not then own land could just move west and acquire property by mingling his labor with the land? And if he did believe that, then why not present that as yet another reason why even landless Americans should support the cause of independence?

2. That the right to property is merely a subset of the right to pursue happiness.

What could that really mean? Even if we allow that acquisition and possession of property is but a single possible path to happiness, what else falls in that category? What else is included in the right to pursue happiness that is not already included in liberty? And how are these other subsets of the right to pursue happiness related to the right to property?

I have heard that the pursuit of happiness can be divided into pursuit of earthly happiness (i.e. through the acquisition of property,) or heavenly happiness. This makes this language a nod to freedom of religion.

It is worth noting that later in 1776, but also in Philadelphia, another important document was drafted: the first Constitution of Pennsylvania. In its Declaration of Rights, the drafters asserted “That all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and inalienable rights, amongst which are, the enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” Here, the pursuit of happiness is separate from the right to acquire, possess and protect property. It appears that at least the Pennsylvanian Founders did not consider property rights to be a mere subset of the pursuit of happiness. Religious freedom was also provided for by the Constitution of Pennsylvania, undermining the earthly/heavenly distinction suggested above. If property and religion are the two parts of the pursuit of happiness, why name all three separately?

3. That Jefferson did not believe that property rights were natural rights; that property rights are derived entirely from society.

This is a very interesting answer to the question of why property is replaced by the pursuit of happiness. I first saw this hypothesis in an article by Albert Alschuler of the University of Chicago. Alschuler claims that Jefferson’s departure from Locke on the point of property is the result of Jefferson siding with Scottish Enlightenment thinkers (including Lord Kames, Francis Hutcheson, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, and David Hume) on the issue. The Scots apparently diverged from Locke on the question of whether property rights were natural or wholly societal in origin.

Of course, this could explain why the right to property is not listed in the Declaration, but it does not explain what the pursuit of happiness is. I’d better do some more reading and have a beer…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Beer of the week: Philadelphia Pale Ale – From the same city that brought us the Declaration of Independence, the Pennsylvania Constitution, and the United States Constitution comes this pale ale. Yards Brewing Company produces this very light-colored beer. It is very crisp and refreshing despite a decent malt body. Although it is an ale, it drinks more like a pilsner. I think that this beer is quite good.

Reading of the week: Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, Declaration of Rights – The rights to life, liberty, and property are accounted for by this document, but there are a great number of more particular rights besides. Among the rights provided for are procedural protections for criminal defendants, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right of the people to modify or abolish the State government if they deem it best to do so. And, since the state was founded by Quaker pacifists, the right of a conscientious objector to refuse military duty is also guaranteed (provided he pays for a replacement).

Question of the week: What is the pursuit of happiness?