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Am I living Freedom to the fullest?

Updated: Oct 27, 2021

Earlier this month many Americans celebrated the 4th of July as the date of America’s freedom. Americans commemorated the date when in 1776 the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. So, to honor this freedom many Americans gathered for cookouts, drinks, fireworks, parades, and much more. From the writing of the Declaration of Independence to the writing of the U.S. Constitution onwards our nation has struggled physically, economically, and socially under the pretext of “freedom.” So, what is this “freedom” we celebrate, and what are our responsibilities if any as a result of this “freedom”?

One of the most poignant phrases of the Declaration of Independence that is repeated so often comes to mind -- "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This phrase gives three unalienable rights that the Declaration asserts have been given to all humans by their creator, and which governments are created to protect. It appears that not every American can fully agree on each of these terms, however.

During the celebrations that occurred on the 4th of July I listened to a number of people speak on the Declaration of Independence with regards to “freedom.” Clearly, some of the ideas arose from different political points of view as each speaker’s interpretation of the meaning of each right was quite different.

Some speakers took these rights as something guaranteed to do as they want. Some iterated their individual right to do as they like as long as they do not hurt anyone else. Some disagreed on what this "hurting another" was, and yet some said that everyone has a duty to protect the "freedom" of others. As I listened, I asked myself whether or not I have been truly living the fullness of freedom as espoused by our Founding Fathers? So, I returned to these three unalienable rights that all people are expressly given and looked for their original intent.

I begin with the first word of the phrase, which is “life.” Here is a term that raises many emotions in certain conflicting contexts today be it with regards to when a human life begins, to a mother’s right to carry a child, to how our society should punish a convicted murderer, etc. One government textbook definition with regards to the right to life provides that “no one is born with a natural right to rule over others without their consent, and that governments are obligated to apply the law equally to everyone.” Some contend that life is not being protected by the government with regards attainable health care. Some say that a strong public health system will be less than what most can obtain today with reasonable health insurance. Others say that life is put in danger without a stronger public health system. Some will say proper care concern for life is being properly maintained under our legislative and judicial systems, while others argue that it is not. So, the debates continue.

With regard to word “liberty,” the freedom of the individual comes to mind. The word “liberty” is an English derivative of the Latin word “libertas,” which essentially means “freedom.” Of course, there is much more than just a single word translation of the derived English term. According to Michael da Vaan’s Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic Languages the Latin word derived from the Proto-Indo-European “leudero,” which means “belonging to the people.” With this understanding the word "freedom" can be seen as a personal freedom as well as a societal freedom. This again can cause different people to question how we deal with issues like the death penalty, abortion, public health care, food stamps, etc.

Interestingly, when considering personal freedom to do what one wants versus an understanding of freedom for society one has to ask if there is a conflict at all between the two. Abraham Lincoln addressed this when he wrote, “Freedom is not the right to do what we want, but what we ought. … let us; to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” Under Lincoln’s definition of freedom, it seems that the purpose of freedom requires doing “what we ought” by “doing our duty. …” But what is “our duty?” To address this question, the understanding of our “the pursuit of happiness” draws us closer to knowing the founders intent of this “freedom” we celebrate.

Aristotle wrote in his Nicomachean Ethics that “happiness is a final end or goal that encompasses the totality of one’s life. … It is more like the ultimate value of your life as lived up to this moment, measuring how well you have lived up to your full potential as a human being.” So, is there more to "happiness" than what we think?


In English we have one word for “happiness,” which arose from the Old English “hap” which means “good fortune” or “something that brings instant happiness.” From here we see why so many see “happiness” as type of instant glee from things or received pleasures. But in English we use the word “happiness” to mean much more than instantaneous gratification.

Once again, we look to all of the English definitions of happiness we also must look to the many philosophers who commented on these various definitions. In doing so we discover that there are four different words in Latin for our single word “happiness.” As we review these different words in Latin, we see something quite unique in understanding happiness altogether that relates very much with something we are to pursue. Happiness, we learn is a maturing process from the simple to the transcendent.

The four Latin words that mean happiness follow in a maturating level as you will see. They are: 1. laetus, 2. felix, 3. beatitudo, and 4. sublimitas.

The first Latin word for “happiness” is laetus, which essentially means a “happiness from things.” This is the happiness that many children express when they receive a gift. Many may experience laetus from biting into a tasty treat or buying a new car or engaging in some immediate pleasurable activity. It is something that comes and goes, and it has the potential to develop into a bad habit if it becomes the dominant form of happiness.

Next, is felix, which means “happiness from notoriety” or the “boosting of one’s ego.” This level takes a little more time to achieve than laetus, but it is still regarding the individual. Many may experience this from being recognized, receiving honors, etc. Since this form of happiness takes a little more to achieve it also lasts a little longer. It too, however, can end rather quickly. As a result, it too has the potential to develop into the disregard of others if it becomes the dominant form of happiness.

The third Latin term for happiness is beatitudo, which means a “happiness from considering and serving others.” A teacher, tutor or a coach may experience this when he or she sees a light go on within a student or player. A volunteer for a homeless shelter may experience this when something he or she does for another brings a smile to another. Essentially, this type of happiness comes from seeing good happening for others. It is a happiness being selfless. As such, it takes even longer to achieve, and it lasts even longer than the previous two. The potential of a negative side effect is less than the lower forms, but a hardening of the heart may arise if this level of happiness does not rise to the fourth level.

Finally, the fourth Latin term for happiness is sublimitas, which means a “happiness from entering into transcendence.” This is a happiness that comes from a spiritual connection, from a closer to connection with God and recognizing the interconnection with other people. This type of happiness may come from being able to see God or likeness to self in others. It too takes time to develop, and one may not even recognize when he or she has actually achieves it, but when achieved it gives much more to the lower levels of happiness.

These terms do not mean that lower levels of happiness are bad, but that if that is where one stays then he or she prevents himself or herself from obtaining a higher, longer lasting joy and thus stays trapped within his or her lower level trying to satisfy this more self-centered form of happiness. The higher forms of happiness strengthen the lower levels much more as one can see each having its place beyond the individual. The lower levels of happiness take on a whole new meaning for the recognition and benefit of the higher levels. For example, I can be happy for a local sports team because I can see and apply it towards interaction with others. However, when I support “my team” for my “bragging rights,” then I begin to harm myself and others in the process, and the issue can grow in separation and negativity.

According to these Latin terms it can be seen that the “pursuit of happiness” is something that may begin with the simple things, but this pursuit must grow beyond things and ego boosting alone to something much higher that is in accordance with the intent of the American Founding Fathers. Freedom, therefore, is not simply the freedom to do whatever an individual wants to do for selfish pleasures, it is the ability for a person to do what he or she ought to do.

Justice Anthony Kennedy seemed to iterate this understanding in his 2005 lecture at the National Conference on Citizenship. “Kennedy notes that ‘while in modern times there is a ‘hedonistic component’” to the definition of happiness, “for the framers of the Declaration of Independence ‘happiness meant that feeling of self-worth and dignity you acquire by contributing to your community and to its civic life.’”

So, after our American celebration of the 4th of July earlier this month, I have to ask myself how am I doing with regard to what I was celebrating that day? How am I contributing to the continuation of all that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” can mean? Am I simply seeking individual pleasure? Am I doing what I ought to do? Am I encouraging the same among others? When I consider my freedom within the context of the Declaration of Independence, I see it about the fullest of happiness, which rests in pursuing its highest form that builds upon the lower forms.

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Larry Monks
Larry Monks
Jul 23, 2021

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