The Constitution vs. Early Philosophers
We all know that our Declaration was written to let us know what was happening in our world. It specifically showed us what actions Britain did to us and reassures the people of the United States that these incidents will no longer happen in our country. As our forefathers sat down to write this paper, they kept in mind the good of the nation and knew that we would look upon these words they wrote, forever in the future. But have you ever wondered what a person from the past might think of our Declaration of Independence? Our earlier authors have many of the same ideas the Declaration outlines. Specifically, Epicurus and Aristotle agree with our forefather’s idea of the rights of life, liberty and especially the pursuit of happiness. Another author that agrees with this document is Machiavelli. In his book, “The Prince” he lets us know about his feelings on prudence. If these philosophers were alive today, they would have only positive criticisms about one of the most famous documents of all time.
“All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (D of I 261). This statement, written by Thomas Jefferson, has to be one of the most controversial statements ever written. It does however agree with one of our earlier authors we read. Epicurus would agree with Jefferson in the manner that everyone should search for happiness. He tells us that “one must practice the things that produce happiness, since if that is present we have everything and if it is absent, we do everything in order to have it” (Letter to Menoeceus). It is apparent to Epicurus that the search for happiness is an absolute goal. Everyone either gets it or spends their life looking for it. Because of this, it is obvious to see how this author would agree with Jefferson by saying that we are given an unalienable right to pursue happiness. Another philosopher of our first semester that would have to agree with Jefferson is Aristotle. Unlike his teacher, Plato, Aristotle believed in the senses and also felt happiness was, what he called, one of the goods. “We think happiness is the most choiceworthy of all goods” (Nicmachean Ethics: Bk1 ch.7). As you know, Aristotle differed from Plato by the fact that Aristotle said the senses were all we had. He felt that since happiness was derived from the senses, people would need to be happy to feel good or feel pleasure. But the pursuit of happiness is not the only section of the Declaration that the early philosophers agreed with.
Another major point in the Declaration of Independence is that the people must be prudent to know when to change the government. If the government should change in a way to threaten the people and their security, they must have good judgment to choose another system of administration that will provide safety and happiness. Like us, Machiavelli feels that prudence is a major factor in government. He tells us that “one never seeks to avoid one trouble without running into another; but prudence consists in knowing how to distinguish the character of troubles, and for choice to take the lesser evil” (The Prince ch.21). It is apparent that Machiavelli knew governments would never remain perfect. It was his opinion that the people should help run the government and when they felt in danger, the people would change the government to feel safer. He also realized that trouble was inevitable. And that our government would encounter numerous troubles, but for us to succeed, we needed to be observant, patient, and prudent to choose the path with the lesser danger. It is amazing how close these two authors, Machiavelli and Jefferson, think. Apparently, Machiavelli would have no bad words about Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.
This document written back on July 4th, 1776 is one of our most famous works ever. It is quite astonishing how close this documents resembles the early words of our philosophers. Jefferson told us that we are endowed with those three unalienable rights. Like Jefferson, Epicurus and Aristotle both believed that the pursuit of happiness is an absolute must. A person needs to have happiness or else they will do what ever it takes to find it. The declaration also tells us that a prudent government will succeed. Machiavelli believes that in order to have a good government, you must be able to maneuver around the troubles that you encounter. The only way to move about the troubles is to have enough foresight to see them coming and enough judgment to move out of its way. There is no way that any of these three philosophers could have anything negative to say to the forefathers who wrote this Declaration of Independence.