Hannah Arendt on Action and the Pursuit of Happiness

Hannah Arendt on Action and the Pursuit of Happiness

“What is happiness, anyhow? … so impalpable — a mere breath, an evanescent tinge,” Walt Whitman wondered in his diary precisely 100 years after the Founding Fathers wove the pursuit of that evanescent tinge into the material of what Whitman thought-about America’s “democratic vistas.”

The notion of “the pursuit of happiness” has been with us lengthy sufficient to have change into normalized — not merely an merchandise of the American Constitution, however an idea permeating the world’s well-liked tradition in an infinite array of guises. And but, as a political intention, it’s extremely uncommon — odd, even, with the oddness of squinting to discern a stroke of genius from a stroke of foolishness, not sure which it’s we’re perceiving.

The origin and penalties of that singular, epoch-making oddity is what the nice German political theorist Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) examines in a 1960 piece titled Action and “the Pursuit of Happiness,” discovered within the posthumous Arendt anthology Thinking Without a Banister: Essays in Understanding, 1953–1975 (public library).

Hannah Arendt by Fred Stein, 1944 (Photograph courtesy of the Fred Stein Archive)

Arendt, herself a refugee in America, writes:

Among the numerous surprises this nation holds in retailer for its new residents… there may be the superb discovery that the “pursuit of happiness,” which the Declaration of Independence asserted to be one of many inalienable human rights, has remained to today significantly greater than a meaningless phrase in the private and non-private lifetime of the American Republic. To the extent that there’s such a factor because the American mind set, it actually has been deeply influenced, for higher or worse, by this most elusive of human rights, which apparently entitles males, within the phrases of Howard Mumford Jones, to “the ghastly privilege of pursuing a phantom and embracing a delusion.”

Writing two years earlier than her landmark treatise on the alternative — the politically driven normalization of evil — Arendt examines the origin of this American promise of the last word good, the essential human proper to happiness:

The grandeur of the Declaration of Independence… consists… in its being the right method of an motion to seem in phrases. And since we deal right here with the written and never with the spoken phrase, we’re confronted by one of many uncommon moments when the facility of motion is nice sufficient to erect its personal monument.

What is true for the Declaration of Independence is even more true for the writings of the boys who made the revolution. It was when he ceased to talk in generalities, when he spoke or wrote when it comes to both previous or future actions that Jefferson got here closest to appreciating at its true well worth the peculiar relationship between motion and happiness.

Art by Maira Kalman from And the Pursuit of Happiness

Like Whitman, who believed that literature is the seedbed of democracy, the Founding Fathers have been enormously impressed by the literature and philosophy of the Renaissance — notably by the “males of letters” of eighteenth-century France. Arendt traces the chain of ideological affect throughout time, area, and tradition to the French Revolution and its excellent of “public happiness,” which Jefferson appropriated. In a paper penned two years earlier than The Declaration of Independence, he argued that the ancestors who had left Europe for America had enacted “a proper which nature has given all males… of creating new societies, underneath such legal guidelines and rules as to them shall appear most definitely to advertise public happiness.” He then integrated this insistence on happiness into his blatantly apparent but one way or the other stealthy revision of The Declaration of Independence, altering the formulation of inalienable rights from “life, liberty and property” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

That such a refined one-word revision of language can impact so profound a revolution in ideology could also be unusual, however not almost as unusual, Arendt factors out, as the truth that it was undebated in Jefferson’s day and went virtually unnoticed because it reoriented your entire nationwide ethos for the centuries that adopted.

Art by JooHee Yoon from The Tiger Who Would Be King by James Thurber

With an eye fixed to the French Revolution and the beliefs that knowledgeable and impressed Jefferson’s, she explores how the eighteenth-century understanding of tyranny and freedom formed the political insistence on happiness as a private and non-private good:

Tyranny, based on historical, pre-theoretical understanding, was the type of authorities wherein the ruler had monopolized for himself the suitable of motion and banished the residents from the general public realm into the privateness of the family the place they have been presupposed to thoughts their very own, personal enterprise. Tyranny, in different phrases, disadvantaged males of public happiness and public freedom with out essentially encroaching upon the pursuit of private pursuits and the enjoyment of personal rights. Tyranny, based on conventional principle, is the type of authorities wherein the ruler guidelines out of his personal will and in pursuit of his personal pursuits, thus offending the personal welfare and the non-public liberties of his personal topics. The eighteenth century, when it spoke of tyranny and despotism, didn’t distinguish between these two potentialities, and it discovered of the sharpness of the excellence between the personal and the general public, between the unhindered pursuit of personal pursuits and the enjoyment of public freedom or of public happiness, solely when, throughout the course of the revolutions, these two rules got here into battle with one another.

Drawing on this cross-cultural lineage and constructing on her earlier writings on action as an indelible form of thought, Arendt illuminates the clear relationship between motion and happiness:

Every trendy principle of politics must sq. itself with the info delivered to mild within the revolutionary upheavals of the final 2 hundred years, and these info are, in fact, vastly completely different from what the revolutionary ideologies would love us to consider.


The rediscovery of motion and the reemergence of a secular, public realm of life could be probably the most treasured inheritance the trendy age has bequeathed upon us who’re about to enter a wholly new world.

Thinking Without a Banister is an intellectually exhilarating learn in its entirety, exploring the intersection of politics and human life from angles as various because the creativeness, conflict crimes, Emerson’s legacy, the which means of revolution, and the connection between personal rights and public good. Complement this specific portion with Elizabeth Barrett Browning on happiness as a moral obligation, then revisit Arendt on how tyrants use isolation as a weapon of oppression, lying in politics, the power of being an outsider, the life of the mind, and the difference between how art and science illuminate the human condition.