Blessed are The Free

'Happiness consists in doing as we would be done by. Judaeo-Christian morality is integral to Enlightenment ethics'

The American Founding Fathers knew which rights their republic was intended to protect: “…the preservation of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. Many of this month’s articles are variations on these themes: Nigel Lawson’s defence of free markets and free trade; Nick Cohen’s indictment of artistic censorship in the name of religion; Douglas Murray’s warning that free societies, such as the US, must stop appeasing political Islam. In their Dialogue, Necla Kelek and Karen Horn consider how Germans of Turkish origin can be liberated from the petty tyrants of their communities to pursue happiness as individuals in a Western democracy. And in his Cosmos column, Neil Scolding reflects on the preservation of life: how our preoccupation with the prevention of suffering has led us to neglect the rights of the unborn and the dying. 

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness: these are our Western values in a nutshell. They are framed to include those of all faiths and none, and they presuppose the separation of church and state, to preclude any attempt to deny individuals the freedom to pursue happiness in their own ways. But the notion of “happiness” should not be interpreted as hedonism or materialism: it should, rather, be seen as closer to what the Bible means by “blessedness”.

In one of the most justly celebrated passages of St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount by invoking God’s blessings upon those who are righteous but not self-righteous: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus was speaking here in the Jewish prophetic tradition; his sermon is saturated with scriptural references. The Hebrew term for “blessed” is “Baruch” — also used as a name. The Greeks had no exact equivalent for the Jewish concept of blessing, so the evangelists used the word “makarios“, meaning divine favour. In the Latin Vulgate, the term is “beati“, hence “Beatitudes”, the term by which this passage is still known. Tyndale’s translation of the Beatitudes published in 1526 was adopted verbatim by the authors of the King James Bible. Modern translators usually substitute “happy” for “blessed”, perhaps because a secular vocabulary seems to suit a secularised world. But we need to rediscover the deeper meaning of “happiness”. The word implies good fortune, in contrast to its synonym “bliss”, which conveys something sublime, even divine. The Judaeo-Christian God is not the pagan Fortuna or Fate.

All this is by way of a reminder that the pursuit of happiness is by no means identical with materialism or hedonism, but is intimately bound up with the other two inalienable rights, life and liberty. Enlightenment figures certainly saw happiness as something more than materialism. In one of their favourite books, Spinoza’s Ethics, the philosopher (whose given name was Baruch, or Benedict in Latin, both meaning “blessed”) proposes that “our salvation, blessedness or liberty” consists in the “intellectual love of God”. In some ways, modern Western culture is closer to Spinoza, who identified God with Nature, than to the Biblical tradition, which emphasises our individual relationship with a personal Creator. Spinoza, however, is clear that “blessedness is not the reward of virtue, but virtue itself”. Happiness consists in doing as we would be done by. Judaeo-Christian morality is integral to Enlightenment ethics.

Hence much of the present debate about whether the West is in terminal decline misses the point: Western civilisation has no geographical or cultural limits, but is the first in history to be universal. The West is not a place but a state of mind: the state of harmony between faith and reason. Western values can only be supplanted by those who hold to theirs more tenaciously than we do. Some doubt our tenacity. When Communist China refused to allow Liu Xiaobo, the leading dissident, to receive his 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, 16 other governments followed the Chinese lead and boycotted the ceremony. Liberty inspires neither love nor fear in Beijing’s cabal.

Yet the doughtiest fighters for freedom still cleave to the West. When the Nobel Literature laureate Mario Vargas Llosa received his prize, he denounced the “new forms of barbarism” which must be confronted and defeated: “We should not allow ourselves to be intimidated by those who want to snatch away the freedom we have been acquiring over the long course of civilisation.” Vargas Llosa has never let himself be intimidated, even when accused of treason, and he has always asserted his right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. After a lifetime of struggle, he is still demanding those same rights for the peoples of China and Burma, of Cuba and Venezuela, of Iran and Afghanistan. Just as he denounced dictatorship as “an absolute evil”, so he sees literature as “an absolute necessity” for civilisation. When he evoked his native Peru, he was not afraid to praise the Spaniards who brought with them “Greece, Rome, the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the Renaissance, Cervantes”. This is the civilisation we defend: from the Andes to the Alps, and from the Yangtze to the Nile. Wherever Mario Vargas Llosa is — and he is a man of the world in the best sense — there is Western civilisation.

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