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The Marginalian

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 exactly one hundred years after the Founding Fathers wove the pursuit of that evanescent tinge into the fabric of what Whitman considered America’s “democratic vistas.”

The notion of “the pursuit of happiness” has been with us long enough to have become normalized — not merely an item of the American Constitution, but a concept permeating the world’s popular culture in an infinite array of guises. And yet, as a political aim, it is highly unusual — odd, even, with the oddness of squinting to discern a stroke of genius from a stroke of foolishness, unsure which it is we are perceiving.

The origin and consequences of that singular, epoch-making oddity is what the great German political theorist Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) examines in a 1960 piece titled Action and “the Pursuit of Happiness,” found in 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 many surprises this country holds in store for its new citizens… there is the amazing discovery that the “pursuit of happiness,” which the Declaration of Independence asserted to be one of the inalienable human rights, has remained to this day considerably more than a meaningless phrase in the public and private life of the American Republic. To the extent that there is such a thing as the American frame of mind, it certainly has been deeply influenced, for better or worse, by this most elusive of human rights, which apparently entitles men, in the words of Howard Mumford Jones, to “the ghastly privilege of pursuing a phantom and embracing a delusion.”

Writing two years before her landmark treatise on the opposite — the politically driven normalization of evil — Arendt examines the origin of this American promise of the ultimate good, the basic human right to happiness:

The grandeur of the Declaration of Independence… consists… in its being the perfect way of an action to appear in words. And since we deal here with the written and not with the spoken word, we are confronted by one of the rare moments when the power of action is great enough to erect its own monument.

What is true for the Declaration of Independence is even truer for the writings of the men who made the revolution. It was when he ceased to speak in generalities, when he spoke or wrote in terms of either past or future actions that Jefferson came closest to appreciating at its true worth the peculiar relationship between action 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 were greatly inspired by the literature and philosophy of the Renaissance — particularly by the “men of letters” of eighteenth-century France. Arendt traces the chain of ideological influence across time, space, and culture to the French Revolution and its ideal of “public happiness,” which Jefferson appropriated. In a paper penned two years before The Declaration of Independence, he argued that the ancestors who had left Europe for America had enacted “a right which nature has given all men… of establishing new societies, under such laws and regulations as to them shall seem most likely to promote public happiness.” He then incorporated this insistence on happiness into his blatantly obvious yet somehow stealthy revision of The Declaration of Independence, changing the formulation of inalienable rights from “life, liberty and property” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

That such a subtle one-word revision of language can effect so profound a revolution in ideology may be strange, but not nearly as strange, Arendt points out, as the fact that it was undebated in Jefferson’s day and went practically unnoticed as it reoriented the entire national ethos for the centuries that followed.

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

With an eye to the French Revolution and the ideals that informed and inspired Jefferson’s, she explores how the eighteenth-century understanding of tyranny and freedom shaped the political insistence on happiness as a public and private good:

Tyranny, according to ancient, pre-theoretical understanding, was the form of government in which the ruler had monopolized for himself the right of action and banished the citizens from the public realm into the privacy of the household where they were supposed to mind their own, private business. Tyranny, in other words, deprived men of public happiness and public freedom without necessarily encroaching upon the pursuit of personal interests and the enjoyment of private rights. Tyranny, according to traditional theory, is the form of government in which the ruler rules out of his own will and in pursuit of his own interests, thus offending the private welfare and the personal liberties of his own subjects. The eighteenth century, when it spoke of tyranny and despotism, did not distinguish between these two possibilities, and it learned of the sharpness of the distinction between the private and the public, between the unhindered pursuit of private interests and the enjoyment of public freedom or of public happiness, only when, during the course of the revolutions, these two principles came into conflict with each other.

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

Every modern theory of politics will have to square itself with the facts brought to light in the revolutionary upheavals of the last two hundred years, and these facts are, of course, vastly different from what the revolutionary ideologies would like us to believe.


The rediscovery of action and the reemergence of a secular, public realm of life may well be the most precious inheritance the modern age has bequeathed upon us who are about to enter an entirely new world.

Thinking Without a Banister is an intellectually exhilarating read in its entirety, exploring the intersection of politics and human life from angles as varied as the imagination, war crimes, Emerson’s legacy, the meaning of revolution, and the relationship between private rights and public good. Complement this particular 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.

Published March 12, 2018




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