What's Old Is New Again: William Blackstone's Theory of Happiness Comes to America

By Temple, Kathryn | Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

What's Old Is New Again: William Blackstone's Theory of Happiness Comes to America


Temple, Kathryn, Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation


When I think of political emotions I always presume that even the norm is incoherent.

-Lauren Berlant1

In a conversation that draws upon her work on "the cultures of affect," Lauren Berlant asks, "What if people were to take the opportunity to reimagine state/ society relations . . . in which consumer forms of collectivity were not the main way people secure or fantasize securing everyday happiness?" What we need, she feels, is better fantasies: "new misrecognitions of the relation of the mate- rialized real to a projection but now a projection that reorients us to a different better mode of the reproduction of life . . . a different structure of feeling associ- ated with the good life."2

In trying to come up with better fantasies, we might want to look at one overlooked fantasy from the past, one promulgated by William Blackstone, first in his early and obscure poetry, and later in his hugely influential 1765 Commen- taries on the Laws of England.3 The encounter with justice was, for Blackstone, a central emotional and aesthetic experience, available to anyone, associated not with vengeance or self-satisfaction, but with a pure form of happiness. The first hint of this idea appears in his best known poem, "A Lawyer 's Farewell to his Muse" (1755), where Blackstone offers us a very unhappy young poet-lawyer whose only happiness occurs when he fights his way through a brambly maze of harsh legal doctrines to find justice.4 Justice, it turns out, is personified in a lady "like an Eastern queen," while the content of justice can be easily recog- nized because of its satisfyingly harmonic nature:

observe how parts with parts unite

In one harmonious rule of right;

See countless wheels distinctly tend

By various laws to one great end;

While mighty Alfred's piercing soul

Pervades, and regulates the whole.5

The poem describes what we might call "harmonic justice," the idea that both the ideal of justice and a just world involve a great harmonic organization in which all parts, all sectors of society, all goods and benefits and duties, are in balance with each other. In this idealized understanding of justice, the world evolves "to one great end," which for Blackstone was an English liberty grounded in a careful balance of power and influence-an end that resulted in what we have recently been calling "the good life" or more simply, in happiness.

In the Commentaries, Blackstone offers a more sustained, carefully articulated discussion of the relationship between happiness and justice. He begins in the "Introduction to the Study of Law" where he asks, how do we determine just results? Must we have a detailed knowledge of the law or a highly evolved intel- lect that allows us to reason our way to justice? Answering his own questions, Blackstone offers a remarkably democratic take on justice. If the only way we could understand justice is through "the due exertion of right reason," or what he also calls "metaphysical disquisitions," most average humans would spend much time in "mental indolence" with "ignorance it's [sic] inseparable compan- ion" (I:40). only the highly educated would be able to recognize justice. Instead, Blackstone tells us, God has given us the ability to recognize justice affectively:

[The creator] has so intimately connected, so inseparably interwoven the laws of eternal justice with the happiness of each individual, that the latter cannot be attained but by observing the former; and, if the former be punctually obeyed, it cannot but induce the latter. In consequence of which [God] . . . has graciously reduced the rule of obedience to this one paternal precept, that man should "pursue his own happiness." (I:40-41, emphasis added)

That Blackstone chooses "observing" to designate our apprehension of English law suggests more than the usual pre-utilitarian argument that English law must be enacted for humankind to be happy. The double use of "observe," first in the poem and later in this crucial passage from the Commentaries, suggests that happiness will result not only from justice's enactment, but also through aesthetic observation of its wondrously complex but harmonic workings. …

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