On English: the word “pursuit”

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Essays

Let’s take a moment with the word pursuit. Its most famous application will serve as an interesting case study for its use, and for our understanding of it.

The goal of government, so famously wrought by the framers of the United States in the Declaration of Independence, is to protect the “unalienable rights” of Life, Liberty, and pursuit of Happiness. This trio of rights serves as the standard upon which political theorists plant their flags. And pursuit of happiness is the most interesting, and largely the least clear. How does one ‘pursue’ happiness? One definition in the Oxford English Dictionary describes a pursuit as “an activity of a specified kind, especially a recreational or sporting one.” In this case, pursuit of happiness is little more than a way of describing the activity of happiness. Cool. But the static version of pursuit may not be the one intended with the “pursuit of happiness”. After all, we tend to think of the pursuit of happiness in terms of the chase for it. The other definitions and etymology of the word affirm that instinct. The Middle English definition of pursue is to “follow with enmity.” In fact, the Anglo-Norman French pursuer comes from the Latin prosequi, which is also the root for prosecute. Is happiness the rabbit, and us the fox? Why did we decide on the pursuit of happiness? Why not the search, or the discovery? Why not exploration, or even the enjoyment? I wonder if hunting for happiness limits the other two goals. If I were to discover happiness, would that not give me life and liberty? The framers of the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights are often hailed as visionary beyond what they may even have understood. But I admit: I think about hunting, or car-chases, as I consider the word pursuit. Is happiness something we should be chasing with hostility?

I’m going to commit to the pursuit of happiness as the activity, rather than the chase. Gratitude, patience, prayer, song. That’s more like it.

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