On prosperity and the pursuit of happiness

The real question is whether a religion or culture is capable of interpreting life in a dimension sufficiently profound to understand and anticipate the sorrows and pains which may result from a virtuous regard for our responsibilities; and to achieve a serenity within sorrow and pain which is something less but also something more than “happiness.” Our difficulty as a nation is that we must now learn that prosperity is not simply coordinated to virtue, that virtue is not simply coordinated to historic destiny and that happiness is no simple possibility of human existence.

This passage appears in Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History (1952), in a chapter where he meditates on the problem of Americans’ exceptional moral self-regard, which depends on confusing the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of prosperity and consequently measuring the virtue of our nation on its achievements in the latter. His conclusion — which ought not to surprise any Christian — is that material prosperity is not a measure of virtue, whether collective or individual.

In the context of the early Cold War, the danger Niebuhr senses is that, like the communists, Americans believe that their political philosophy is uniquely virtuous, but the proof of our superiority lay in our capacity both to generate more wealth collectively, as a society, and to distribute it more effectively (if less equally) to individuals than our ideological rivals. Niebuhr acknowledges the fact of the U.S.A.’s prosperity, but cautions his American readers against adopting it as a measure of moral self-worth. Doing so would mean creating an ideological illusion of perfect consistency in ideal and practice, one that leads inevitably to bellicosity and self-deception.

The more that Americans consider our individual rights to pursue happiness to be coterminous with our good fortune in creating and maintaining a high standard living, the more we confuse accidents of history with historical destiny. Thus delusions of historical destiny enable us to paper over our own failures, mistakes, and peculiar moral blindnesses. And the root of it is a simple categorical error, which is that happiness is material comfort. All manner of political evil derives from this error, and Niebuhr takes great pains to illustrate that both communists and apologists for capitalism are guilty of it. Striving for material gain is not a moral virtue, but Niebuhr views it as both the means and end of modern politics. That’s why, he argues, we need a religious perspective on this endless–and endlessly unfulfilling–pursuit of worldly happiness.

Over these exertions we discern by faith the ironical laughter of the divine source and end of all things… The scripture assures us that God’s laughter is derisive, having the sting of judgment upon our vanities in it. But if the laughter is truly ironic it must symbolize mercy as well as judgment. For whenever judgment defines the limits of human striving it creates the possibility of an humble acceptance of those limits. Within that humility mercy and peace find a lodging place.

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