Jeffrey Rosen is President and CEO of the National Constitution Center and professor of law at the George Washington University. His new book is titled The Pursuits of Happiness: How Classical Writers on Virtue Inspired the Lives of the Founders and Defined America. The Atlantic is running an excerpt. Here is a taste:
“…And what was the connection Jefferson saw between virtue and happiness?
A reading list that Jefferson first drafted in 1771, five years before he wrote the Declaration of Independence, provides the beginning of an answer. Jefferson sent the list to his friend Robert Skipwith, who had asked for books to include in a private library. There, under the category of “religion,” Jefferson listed his favorite moral philosophers—the “sages” of his letter. They included Cicero as well as the classical writers Xenophon, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca and the Enlightenment writers John Locke, David Hume, Lord Bolingbroke, and Lord Kames.
During the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, I set out to read many of the books on this list, nearly all of which I had somehow missed. I’ve had the privilege of a wonderful liberal-arts education and have studied literature, history, political philosophy, and law with great teachers at great universities. But I’d never encountered the works of Greek, Roman, and Enlightenment moral philosophy on Jefferson’s reading list that offered guidance about how to live a good life—nor had I ever explored the ways the Founders incorporated these ideas into their own lives. What I learned changed the way I thought about the psychology of the Founders and, in particular, about how self-consciously they tried to use each moment of the day for emotional self-regulation and industrious self-improvement. By reading the books the Founders read and following their own daily attempts at self-accounting, I came better to understand the largely forgotten core of their moral and political philosophy: that moderating emotions is the secret of tranquility of mind; that tranquility of mind is the secret of happiness; that daily habits are the secret of self-improvement; and that personal self-government is the secret of political self-government.
In college, I remember yearning for this kind of guidance. The 1980s were the “greed is good” decade, and I was looking for an alternative to the unchecked hedonism and materialism celebrated by popular culture. Unconvinced by the rigors of Puritan theology, which I had been studying as an English major, I craved an answer to the question of whether spiritual and moral truth could be obtained by reason rather than revelation, by good works and reflection rather than blind faith. What I didn’t realize, because classical moral philosophy had fallen out of the core curriculum, was that this was precisely the question the ancient philosophers had set out to answer.
What I learned in my year of daily reading from March 2020 to March 2021 was transformative. Today we think of happiness as something that results from the pursuit of pleasure. But classical and Enlightenment thinkers defined happiness as the pursuit of virtue—as being good, rather than feeling good. The Scottish philosopher Adam Smith described virtue as “the temper of mind which constitutes the excellent and praiseworthy character.” The Founders believed accordingly that happiness results from the daily practice of mental and spiritual self-discipline, mindfulness, and rigorous time management. What they called virtue and character improvement we would call being a lifelong learner, with a commitment to practicing the daily habits that lead to self-regulation, emotional intelligence, flourishing, and growth. Understood in these terms, happiness is always something to be pursued rather than obtained—a quest rather than a destination.
Read the entire piece here.