Is the Declaration of Independence’s mention of "the pursuit of happiness" too hedonistic? That depends on what makes you happy.
A year or two ago, I listened to a friend of a friend of mine telling about his experiences studying with the Israeli Bible scholar Nechama Liebowitz. Among many things he related about her, he mentioned that they conversed for a while about the Declaration of Independence–presumably she brought this topic up because he was American. “She thought the mention of ‘the pursuit of happiness’ was too hedonistic,” he said. “The important thing is to do what G-d wants, not what you want.”
I was surprised, when I heard this, by the narrowness of the interpretation of happiness the speaker attributed to Liebowitz. The Declaration doesn’t say “the pursuit of pleasure,” but “the pursuit of happiness“; non-hedonistic things or activities are certainly capable of making one happy, especially if one is of a spiritual bent. It says, by implication, that if you find personal satisfaction in serving G-d, then serving G-d is your inalienable right.
Recently, and unexpectedly, I received expert validation of my attitude. As a side job, a friend of mine is paying me to transcribe recordings of lectures from a course on Aristotle’s Politicsgiven in 1960 at the University of Chicago by the great political scientist Leo Strauss. In one lecture, Strauss was summarizing the position of classical liberalism, derived mainly from John Locke and manifested strongly in the Declaration of Independence, that the state exists to protect the individual’s freedom to pursue happiness, and that what constitutes happiness differs from individual to individual. Strauss then added as an aside: “I believe Jefferson meant by “happiness” (and not only Jefferson, but some other people too), happiness, really how to understand it, i.e. including also the happiness in the other world, and the pursuit of happiness in the other world is popularly known as religion. And therefore I believe that Jefferson meant also the freedom of religion, which was, as you know, one of his major preoccupations.”
Indeed it was: Jefferson’s authorship of Virginia’s law guaranteeing religious freedom was one of the only three accomplishments (along with writing the Declaration of Independence and founding the University of Virginia) that he chose to mention in his epitaph. Accordingly, although he was most likely a Deist himself–believing in the impersonal “watchmaker G-d” of the Enlightenment”–Jefferson understood the religious notion that the true purpose of this life is to earn eternal life by living according to G-d’s will. Additionally, as the most philosophically minded and probably the most widely and deeply educated of the Founding Fathers, Jefferson would have been acquainted with the ancient Neoplatonist tradition, which deeply infused early Christianity (and even cast its reflection slightly on Judaism through Maimonides), holding that the physical, phenomenal world is essentially illusory and that therefore the only true happiness can be found in the eternal, spiritual realm of the ideal.
Thus, the Declaration of Independence a pledge for the freedom to believe, not–or at least not necessarily–a license for self-indulgence. Those of a hedonistic temperament will make of it what they will. It permits those of us who live for G-d, on the other hand, to keep our eyes on the prize.