Lewis and the "Pursuit of Happiness"

Quite by accident, I came across a short article by Lewis that he wrote just prior to his death, entitled “We Have No ‘Right to Happiness’” (Saturday Evening Post, December 11, 1963). In it, he writes about an emerging issue in culture and even offers thoughts on the American Declaration of Independence. In this short essay, Lewis takes on a growing concept in the West in the mid-20th century that human beings have a “right to sexual happiness.”

In the essay, Lewis conveys that he is having a discussion with a female friend, Clare, who is convinced that men and women, even though they are married, have a basic right to separate from their spouse if they are no longer experiencing sexual fulfillment in the marriage relationship. Clare argues that they have a moral and legal right to separate to seek out sexual fulfillment in another relationship. According to Clare, all people have a right, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, to the “pursuit of happiness.” Men and women are not “bound” by their marriage vows if they cease to experience happiness; they are free to pursue fulfillment elsewhere.

Lewis disagrees with Clare, and he decides to examine the Declaration of Independence to discover what the American Founding Fathers meant when they agreed to accept the wording, “the pursuit of happiness.” Lewis suggests that they obviously did not mean that everyone could pursue happiness by any means available. People are limited by the Law of Nature and the laws that nations agree to sanction. He suggests that the Declaration of Independence was primarily a denial of the political principles that had long governed Europe; “whatever means of pursuing happiness are lawful for any should be lawful for all; that ‘man,’ not men of some particular caste, class, status or religion, should be free to use them.” Thus, according to Lewis, the Declaration of Independence did not guarantee any particular form or ideal of “the pursuit of happiness” but that the law related to that pursuit would be applied to all.

Lewis is most frustrated that some in society argue that we need to treat “sex” just as we treat all other impulses; we must set all our impulses free! Lewis, of course, discovers that this is not really what they mean. He argues that society “bridles” other passions through the law in the interests of community. The wealthy capitalist is limited by the American tax code (at least in theory) in his or her ultimate pursuit of happiness through the acquisition of material possessions. A man or woman is honored by society for bravery if he or she overcomes the “instinct” of self-preservation. Lewis concludes that “if we establish a right to sexual happiness which supersedes all the ordinary rules of behavior, we do so not because of what our passion shows itself to be in experience but because of what it professes to be while we are in the grip of it.”

What I find fascinating about this particular piece by Lewis is that he foresaw the development of a culture that would give priority to the “passions,” or what we might call today, the genetic tendencies of a person to behave in a particular way. As American culture has expanded commitments to the pursuit of individual freedoms over the past 40 years, it has found it increasingly difficult to define new boundaries that are acceptable. Juan Williams, in an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “The Tragedy of America’s Disappearing Fathers,” noted that “it is now common to meet young people in our big-city schools, foster care homes and juvenile centers who do not know their dads.” In the United States, the out-of-wedlock birth rate is roughly 40 percent. It is a problem that hits whites, African-Americans and Hispanics. We know that the odds for a child’s psychological and financial success increase when there are two parents in the home. Greater freedom for the individual pursuit of “happiness” in the moment does not necessarily translate into the achievement of happiness for a family or a culture over time.

Perhaps it is a conservative notion that one must discipline one’s passions or impulses to achieve “happiness” for the community at large, but it would seem to me to be an appropriate one and one also that the founders of the American experiment accepted. Lewis ends his essay noting that if we do not accept discipline in our pursuit of happiness we “advance toward a state of society in which not only each man but every impulse in each man claims carte blanche. And then, though our technological skill may help us survive a little longer, our civilization will have died at heart, and will – one dare not even add ‘unfortunately’ – be swept away.”

Robin E. Baker is president of George Fox University in Newberg, OR. His research has focused on the American Civil War and Reconstruction, 19th-century American political/quantitative history, and the history of the southern United States. Baker has taught classes at George Fox as professor of history. He also speaks frequently on the integration of faith and learning in the Christian university and he has a special interest in the works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien

Leave a Reply