Jefferson and Avoiding Pain
Thomas Jefferson once said “The art of life is the art of avoiding pain.”
Is the ultimate goal of life to avoid a painful existence? At first glance, it seems this avoidance is an active action, by virtue of placing one’s self in a position of avoiding such pain. However, it must be noted that a vast majority of people do not actually seek pain. Therefore, the acts avoiding pain lend themselves to a more reactive state, where a person acts in avoidance as pain, by virtue of living in an imperfect world, befalls us.
While I concede (though I am heavily in favor of the latter) that the avoidance of pain is an active or reactive act, the question remains of whether the avoidance of pain is the ultimate goal of life. It is well established that many philosophies and religions consider the ultimate goal of life is to achieve happiness. Here, several questions arise:
1. Does being happy mean not experiencing pain?
2. Does avoiding pain automatically yield happiness, or must happiness be achieved independently and actively?
With regard to the first question, it seems doubtful that history has ever witnessed a person exempt from at least some measure of pain (physical, emotional, etc.).
With regard to the second question, it is necessary to further analyze the experiences of happiness and pain. Even the most sedentary person would likely experience pain in life: either physical (by virtue of their static nature) or inevitable emotional pain stemming from depravations caused by time. In comparison to pain, however, happiness seems more ephemeral, like water caught by a lazy hand. Although, continuing with this analogy, when the fingers are cupped, water can be collected and maintained, though not indefinitely, as the water will undoubtedly begin to seep through the fingers.
Similarly, it seems that happiness must not only be actively pursued, but also actively maintained. In order for transient happiness to be maintained, one must set to accomplish such. As Abraham Lincoln once said: “A man is only as happy as he makes up his mind to be.”
While this opining has yielded interesting insights into the human condition, Jefferson’s statement remains unsettled, though, perhaps, that is the point. As elegant as an “ultimate goal of life” sounds, coming to certain conclusions, whether conclusive or not, as we have done above, seems somewhat satisfying itself.
Jefferson’s Transient Laws
Within his utopian visions of civilization, Thomas Jefferson believed that each generation of people should be considered a sovereign entity, unencumbered by any previous generation. To Jefferson, this independence also applied to the governing laws of prior generations. Accordingly, Jefferson thought that laws should lapse every 20 years, allowing them to be recreated, updated, and/or made more relevant to the current state of affairs.
While this idea may have some merits and demerits, I am primarily blinded by the seemingly contradictory tone it affects in its endorser. Was not Thomas Jefferson attributed with the primary authorship of the Declaration of Independence? Is not this document one of history’s finest examples that there are certain universal and inalienable rights for all men? Such permanency of tone seems to promote Jefferson’s view that men are governed by a higher law; one that cannot (and should not) be placed upon the chopping block every so often.
Perhaps here I am confusing laws (which Jefferson considered transient) and rights (which Jefferson considered permanent). However, I feel that rights often provide the foundation of the law-making process (e.g. Free Speech (Right) - First Amendment (Law)).