The following is an edited dialogue that took place on our Epicurean Friends forum.
Cassius. This is to pose a series of questions about one of the most famous passages of the American “Declaration of Independence.” As discussion develops on one or more of these in particular we can split the discussion into separate threads, but to start here is a list of questions:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that 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. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
What do we know about whether this paragraph was written entirely by Thomas Jefferson, or contains modifications from others?
Hiram. According to this source,
Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?
Although we know Thomas Jefferson as the true author, the Second Continental Congress initially appointed five people to draw up a declaration. The committee included Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was then given the task of writing a draft for the Declaration of Independence, which from June 11 to June 28 he worked on. Before he presented the Declaration to the Continental Congress, he showed it to John Adams and Benjamin Franklin; they made revisions. He presented the draft to Congress on July 1, 1776 and more revisions were made. On the fourth of July the delegates met in what we know today as Independence Hall, but back then was known as the Pennsylvania State House, and approved the Declaration. John Hancock, the President of the Continental Congress signed the declaration along with Charles Thomson and it was sent to John Dunlap’s print shop for printing.
So it seems like this was a process not too different from how we have co-written together the narratives for videos on YouTube and some of our dialogues. Jefferson wrote it with feedback from four other men who were, presumably, steeped in the political philosophy of the day (Locke, Rousseau, and others).
Cassius. Yes that is exactly what would need to be analyzed in order to determine how much of the final result came about through Epicurean thinking, and how much was diluted/mutated by Christian or other ideas.
I am not aware that copies of the initial draft survive, but as we proceed with this investigation, if anyone has more detail on who added what, and when, that would be great.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that 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.
Would an Epicurean agree that what follows in the paragraph after the first phrase are “self-evident?” What does “self-evident” mean?
Would an Epicurean agree that “all men are created equal.” It is absolutely clear that all men are NOT created equal in every respect (health, sex, race, capabilities, preferences, etc.) It is also clear to an Epicurean that men are not “created” if that term implies a supernatural god. In what respect, if any, would an Epicurean say that “all men are created equal.”
What does it mean to say “endowed by their Creator?” Would an Epicurean use this phrasing? If so, what would an Epicurean mean by “their Creator?”
What are “inalienable rights”? What is a “right”? How is a right “inalienable”?” It seems clear that this cannot be read superficially, as much of what we think of as “rights” are certainly taken from people all the time and thus are not “inalienable.” In what way, if any, can this phrase be reconciled with Epicurean philosophy?
What does the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” mean in Epicurean terms?
Hiram. I don’t think they are self-evident, or that Epicurus would agree that men were created (as there is no creator).
We know today that men evolved through natural selection, and that nature did not have an intention of creating men or any other particular species. Natural selection follows the path of least resistance, of greatest opportunity / advantage, if and when / insofar as species are able to adapt to their environment.
The document was written in the context of setting the grounds / seeds for a new country with a new law and a new constitutional framework. An Epicurean would consider these matters in terms of mutual benefit / mutual advantage. Within this context, I think “self-evident” implies that these are matters beyond reproach and that are not up for negotiation, that they constitute the minimum standard by which they were willing to found a new country and a new law, that the social contract would have to abide by these principles.
Men are not ‘created’. If we understand nature, metaphorically, as Creatrix, then we may concede this, but there is WAY too much religious baggage here to accept it in my view.
We are endowed by nature with certain instincts and faculties and tendencies, and (a very strong case can be made) with a sense of morality and justice, but not with rights, inalienable or not.
Rights are born from the laws or rules we create to facilitate co-existence. The only way in which we could say that they come from “the Creator” or “Nature” is if we ourselves are understood to be co-creators or part of nature, and you could make that case, but it’s best to speak clearly, and the original language seems to indicate a Creator in the deist sense, which is an error.
“Life, liberty, pursuit of happiness” – I want to go back to the idea of negotiating a new social contract for a new country, if I was Thomas Jefferson and if I had to negotiate the terms under which I, as an Epicurean, wanted to or was forced to co-exist with others OF RELIGIOUS CONVICTION, these ideas would definitely belong there. I would not care if others believe that these “inalienable rights” come from “the Creator” if, for the sake of mutual benefit, these rules are agreeable to me and others, even if I’d rather not word these principles as inalienable rights coming from a Creator.
In other words, this is a Charter for religious and non-religious people of various convictions and faiths to co-exist, and what pass for “inalienable rights” are acceptable to a non-religious person.
Life is safety; liberty is autarchy; and pursuit of happiness is self-explanatory and a natural extension of liberty; these are natural pleasures, and necessary to happiness and life in Epicurean terms.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Cassius. This passage is perhaps easiest to reconcile given the Principle Doctrines on “justice.” How could we elaborate on this in Epicurean terms as to the meaning of “just powers” and “consent of the governed?
Hiram. As for “just powers”, PD 37 speaks of them in terms of mutual advantage, and these powers may change and evolve and apply differently in different situations and to different people: