The Relationship of Freedom to Happiness

One frequently repeated notion in Western thought is that of an intrinsic link between liberty and happiness. Perhaps the best known repetition of this idea is in the Declaration of Independence, in which Thomas Jefferson proclaims the “unalienable rights” to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Whether this relationship is one of cause and effect, as authors and thinkers like Jefferson would seem to believe it to be, however, is highly questionable. On the contrary, it would seem rather that while a certain sort of liberty is necessary to happiness, one is not necessarily productive of the other.

While the iteration of this idea in the Declaration of Independence is the best-known example, the insistence upon a link between freedom and happiness is an ancient one. The Discourses of the Roman Stoic philosopher Epictetus, for instance, contain a section titled “Of Freedom” in which he insists that a Stoic sort of freedom is necessarily productive of happiness. According to Epictetus, “The man who is unrestrained, who has all things in his power as he wills, is free; but he who may be restrained or compelled or hindered, or thrown into any condition against his will, is a slave.” It is necessary to happiness, then, that one bring his will in conformity with that of God or Fate in order to attain this freedom that leads to happiness.

Writing nearly sixteen centuries later, John Locke similarly links freedom to happiness in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, writing, “As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness, so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty.” As for Epictetus, then, Locke asserts that liberty is a necessary prerequisite to happiness, or, at least, the ability to pursue happiness.

For both, the link rests upon similar assumptions. Lack of liberty, whether externally or internally, prevents one from following the path toward his or her happiness. To be free from the external constraints of bondage and tyranny and the internal constraints of vice, then, is the means by which one can free his person and his will to pursue happiness.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, however, presents something of a counterpoint to this long Western tradition linking freedom and happiness. “Men are themselves to blame, I suppose” for their unhappiness, he writes in the voice of Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov; “they were given paradise, they wanted freedom, and stole fire from heaven, though they knew they would become unhappy, so there is no need to pity them.” From this perspective, it is possible that freedom can in fact be the cause of unhappiness. To pursue one’s own will is to necessarily to fall short of happiness.

True happiness, as Dostoyevsky writes in the words of a visiting monk, is in fact found only in a state of bondage of the will to God and perhaps even subject to earthly tyranny. The monk says, “men are made for happiness, and anyone who is completely happy has a right to say to himself, ‘I am doing God’s will on earth.’ All the righteous, all the saints, all the holy martyrs were happy.” It is service and submission to the will of God, then, that Dostoyevsky posits as the causative factor preceding happiness. And, given the happiness of “all the holy martyrs” Dostoyevsky posits that those who died under tyrannical government on earth may in fact enjoy the greatest happiness. This is an attitude, of course, quite distant from and apparently at odds with that of Jefferson as well as the tradition of Epictetus and Locke behind Jefferson’s famous proclamation.

Ultimately, the difference between Dostoyevsky and Jefferson may be one of definition. Both freedom and happiness can be defined in quite different ways. On the one hand, freedom may be defined as the absence of obstacles toward happiness and, on the other, as a sort of self-will. Similarly, it is possible to define happiness in terms of pursuing one’s interests and desires or of living in a state of pleasure and without pain, or it can be defined in terms of a state of spiritual blessedness attained by the saints. Nonetheless, the difference between the tradition of Epictetus, Locke, and Jefferson, on the one hand, and that of Dostoyevsky on the other is not merely apparent, but quite real. And as its heart is a disagreement over the relationship between liberty and happiness, and whether this relationship is one of causation or, perhaps, one of prevention.


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