Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

 Have you seen “The Way Back”? No, not the one with Ben Affleck, the one with Ed Harris. It is Peter Weir’s best film, and well worth your time. It offers you a thoroughly enjoyable and deeply satisfying film experience. It also offers you the opportunity to have a profound experience of what the founders were getting at when they proclaimed it is self-evident that you and I have certain unalienable rights. The people in this film risk everything to claim their right to a life in liberty, and you are there with them.

The American founders claimed our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is inherent, natural, unalienable, part of what it means to be a human being. In the founders’ day, this claim had a meaning that was unmistakable, perfectly clear—and utterly radical. Virtually everywhere the individual was a royal subject, that is, a person subject to the rule of a king, an emperor, a tsar. In those days, all of what is encompassed by the phrase life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the whole realm of individual human action, belonged not to the individual but to the royal sovereign. 

Against that background of a world of sovereigns and subjects, the meaning of the founders’ proclamation of unalienable rights rang out loud and clear. A royal subject who longed to live as a free person in a free country could readily understand the deep meaning of the founders’ words. Upon hearing those words many chose to throw off their condition of royal servitude and endure countless hardships to become an American.

The story of Weir’s film is simple: a handful of men escape the Soviet gulag and walk from Siberia to India; they stake their lives on a bid for liberty. They know a life in liberty is worth the risks they take; it is self-evident. They don’t question it, and you won’t either. The only question is whether they can survive the attempt.

In their writings, the founders’ truth is stated as an abstraction—necessarily—but the truth they proclaim is a deeply meaningful existential truth. Today, because the life of American liberty is all most of us have ever known, it is too easy for us to take it for granted. Many of us who were fortunate enough to be born in America take for granted the idea that we have an unalienable right to life and to the pursuit of happiness. 

The ideal way for us to understand the founders’ truth as a lived truth is for us to experience for ourselves what life is like for those who are denied their right to pursue happiness in a life lived in liberty. In an earlier time, Americans could experience life without liberty simply by going behind the Iron Curtain. I went through Checkpoint Charlie back in the day. The shock of what I witnessed of life in East Berlin and the relief I felt when I was once again safely back in the West are vivid for me today after more than 50 years. I learned then, first-hand, to appreciate the founders, the meaning of their words, and what they did for us.

Thanks to Weir’s film I experienced that again recently, and thanks to the film that experience is at hand for all of us. Because of the vividness and immediacy of film, and because of the brilliance of this particular film, we can experience the founders’ truth about liberty by way of the powerful lived experience only a film can provide. Though the founders are never mentioned, “The Way Back” will enable you to understand by experience the self-evidence of the founders’ truth.

If you have seen the film in the past, please consider watching it again, this time with the founders’ words on your lips.

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