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Reinhold Niebuhr, on the pursuit of happiness

March 20, 2014

Happiness is desired by all men; and moments of it are probably attained by most men. Only moments of it can be attained because happiness is the inner concomitant of neat harmonies of body, spirit and society; and these neat harmonies are bound to be infrequent. There is no simple harmony between our ambitions and achievements because all ambitions tend to outrun achievements. There is no neat harmony between the conscious ends of life and the physical instruments for its attainment; for the health of the body is frail and uncertain…. There is no neat harmony between personal desires and ambitions and the ends of human societies no matter how frantically we insist with the eighteenth century that communities are created only for the individual. Communities, cultures and civilizations are subject to perils which must be warded off by individuals who may lose their life in the process. There are many young American men in Korea today who have been promised the ‘pursuit of happiness’ as an inalienable right. But the possession of the right brings them no simple happiness. Such happiness as they achieve is curiously mixed with pain, anxiety and sorrow. It is in fact not happiness at all. If it is anything, it may be what Lincoln called ‘the solemn joy that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.’

(from The Irony of American History, 1952)

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