Jacob Needleman —
The Inward Work of Democracy

Krista Tippett speaks with philosopher Jacob Needleman. As new democracies are struggling around the world, it’s easy to forget that U.S. democracy was shaped by trial and error. A conversation about the “inward work” of democracy — the conscience that shaped the American experiment.

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is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at San Francisco State University and author of The American Soul.

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Conversations with Diana Eck

In these conversations not included in the radio broadcast, Krista speaks with Diana Eck, founder and director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard. She talks about expressions of religious liberty far beyond the American founders' imaginations.

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A Jewish man looks at an American flag that was part of a multimedia exhibit in "Democracy Plaza" on October 20, 2004 in New York City.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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I am actually anticipating this conversation. As a comment on Professor Needleman's quotation regarding individuality v. individualism, I believe it's important to keep in mind that the opposite of the Greek "polis," the citizenry, was the "idiotays," from which we get our English word "idiot." The "idiotays" was the individual or private person, without the capacity (and perhaps desire) to be involved in public affairs. A government of such individuals, if there could be such thing, may well be referred to as an "idiocracy." With our continuing collective love affair with individual rights, often absent individual, much less collective, responsibility, are we, however unintentionally, creating such an "idiocracy"?

The Enlightenment thinkers weren't the first to think that God could be found by examining the natural world: St. Paul states it in Romans.

Great show. If we don't use freedom to promote and practice virtue, we will lose our freedom. As he said, freedom is not for doing whatever we want.

The only thing I would add is that organized religion is the main force in society that upholds virtue and encourages virtue, and virtue is needed, as he argues.

This program brings to mind the classical Greek distinction between the notions of the "polis," the citizenry those involved with public and political affairs, and the "idiotays," the private person or "the individual" who was regarded as unfit (or perhaps lacking the desire) to participate in the public work of democracy. It is from "idiotays" that we get the English word "idiot." Properly understood, this has less to do with native intelligence as it does with a person closed in upon him- or herself. In our current political landscape, which seems to be increasingly a nation of "private persons" clinging to their individuality and individual rights, absent from any sustained thinking on public responsibility, we are, perhaps, moving away from democracy and toward an idiotocracy.

Yes, the deeper spiritual thinkers among my most treasured friends & associates are all angry at what America has become: a superstore cathedral dedicated to money, power, consumption and the lust for more. The endless triumphs of the moneyed private good over the disenfranchised public good, the pandering to all manner of well-connected special interests, the Roman spectacle of misinfotainment passing as tv news journalism and slaying all possibilities for informed civil debate, and the dozens of profitable banal addictions that keep the masses sedated to the point of spiritual unconsciousness. We might as well replace "In God We Trust" with the more contemporary "Just Show Me the Money". A thoughtful examination of the Subprime Meltdown and the subsequent Great Recession reveals the widespread moral corruption, collusion and unfettered greed that has come to dominate Wall Street, our corporate boardrooms, the financial services sector, and our politicians and watchdog regulators. The Great American Experiment has come off the rails, and most of the civilized world can see that even if we cannot. As Globalism proceeds on its merry way, we shall find our economic power in the world waning evermore, so if our moral power declines as well, then fledgling democracies around the world will find it increasingly necessary to ignore our poor example and go their own way. Right now, they are watching how we handle our Federal Debt Limit: will we share the pain as One People or simply pander to the wealthy once again and throw the newly impoverished masses to the dogs? We shall see...

Your eloquent statements are so enlightening. I del the same way you do, what can we do about it. I am visiting Canada. We can learn a lot about humanity from our neighbors. Thank You SW

Always the broadcasts are helpful. I listen at 7 am on Sunday morning. I,too, am from Philadelphia. I passed along the link to those I listen to on MSNBC asking Rachel to bring them together to reflect on the meaning of our democracy as Mr. N. suggested our senators/congressmen need to do. I am concerned that we are stripping away the essence in honor of the superficial. Profound thinking is discouraged often. It is a quiet, rainy Sunday morning. I wish so many of us would not feel we are wasting our time if we are taking time to think and reflect. Thank you Krista. I do wish your broadcasts could reach more people. Maureen J. Quinn

An inspiring and enlightening conversation with Jacob Needleman. Thank you Krista.
The challenge for all peoples as well as Americans is an appreciation for history, knowledge, philosophy and religious thought. Needleman's comments in response to your request for a further elaboration of 'the pursuit of happiness' calls for a what he states as the development of conscience and its continuing process of self-examination.
Most people are not inclined to pursue that development. Most people are inclined toward what Needleman spoke of as 'ego gratification' and images of the 'good life' materialism.
Krista, thank you for your service and inclusiveness of many areas of thought, religions, philosophies, science and literature, music, etc. You are an infinitely precious soul.

Probably the biggest take-away is this reality that I've never acknowledged: the United States is a guardian of conscience. Wow. True, I've always been aware of the variety of churches, synogogues, etc., but I always considered that a personal issue or a family issue. But I now realize it's much broader than that. It's hard to imagine, e.g., if we lost WWII and we were all speaking German and had to adopt whatever religion the Nazis would allow. What would our nation's conscience look like under Nazi rule? Hard to imagine.

I truly enjoyed this timely discussion on the spiritual and moral aspects of our country's founding. This excellent broadcast is a reminder that the proper roll of government at its core is not to take care of us, but to allow us the freedom to take care of ourselves. I share Professor Needleman's view that it is not too late to change direction. I am happy to report that our high school sophomore son has studied Frederick Douglas. Thanks to NPR, Krista Tippett and Professor Needleman!

I am taken by the discussion about "free speech" and Mr. Needleman's point about the inward responsibility of not only hearing what someone else is saying but also listening and absorbing the concept of what they have said. In this day of tolerance, I think we have regressed to allowing someone to speak in their allotted time but we need to go beyond that, listen and process what they have said. Great topic that could be discussed much further.

First I applaud everything Mr. Needleman says about "America" as an idea. I have long advocated the idea of "America" as a vibrant and continuously evolving philosophy – not to be confused with the "U.S.A." which is an increasingly deteriorating government.

Unfortunately Mr. Needleman seems to have missed a fatal contradiction in his assertion that "Government protects society. Society is the realm where people relate to each other in subtle, aesthetic, ethical, spiritual ways that can't be legislated."

Reverse the order of the two sentences in the above statement and the completely self defeating reasoning will become glaringly obvious.

Society is the realm where people relate to each other in subtle, aesthetic, ethical, spiritual ways that can't be legislated. If this is true and I agree that it is, then it is impossible for any government to be anything but hostile to the society it purports to "protect".

Governments have only one mechanism to do what they do. They make laws, they legislate. Then they add injury to insult by enforcing those laws through (the threat of) violence.

Another disappointment for me was how Mr. Needleman uses the collectivist conceit of so many self-proclaimed intellectuals when he says "We need to be able to think together about what these things mean. People don't think." [My emphasis]

"The People" is a fantasy. It is a political illusion without factual reality in nature. There is no such entity. One cannot have a direct conversation with "the People" any more than one can have a direct conversation with “the Government” (another legal illusion). One can only have conversations with individuals. The collectivist conceit I refer to above is manifested in the way those who speak of “the People” invariably exclude themselves when doing so.

I don't know with whom Mr. Needleman has these “conversations about freedom, liberty, representational government, etc., etc”. — and when he stopped and asked them what they meant by these things, “they were tongue-tied or they just shouted.” My experience is a very different one. Every day I engage people in all walks of life in such conversations. Almost without exception, they prove to be thoughtful and concerned in their responses, ready to express a viewpoint and defend it.

I loved this essay because in my reading it was so far away from the others and the way I heard the program. Would love to hear more about your foundational elements for the role of government in Society. All I could infer is that your philosophy was in keeping with that of many of our founding fathers that Government is Evil, on the one hand, but I couldn't find the other half of the Founding Fathers Debate about how to define government so that it did support society, like Mr. Needleman tried to do, in my hearing. I'm afraid my Mind isn't up to seeing the glaringly obvious things you suggest. Perhaps a few more less subjectively ambiguous words would help. It would appear you are against law, and have some idea about how to enforce laws without "violence", which you seem to use synonymously with "force", as in enforcement. sounds cool. thanks!

I'm reflecting on "what is conscience" in the manner in which Jacob N. uses it/understands it. I'm also wanting to read his book the "American Soul". Finally my mind wandered to imagining a community of thinkers who would meet and engage under a friendly, informal charter to ponder and share thoughts about our understandings of American democracy. And I was gently and kindly inspired by Mr. Needleman's wisdoms and beliefs about the underpinnings of our society and government.

Thank you so much for your wonderful conversation with Jacob Needleman this morning. As one who is very frustrated with the political polarization in our country, I wish everyone could hear Prof. Needleman's take on the beauty of the American system, warts and all. I love that he includes Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglas, and Walt Whitman in the 'founding fathers,' because they did truly shape the heart of American democracy just as Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and others did. I must say that the discussion renewed my sense of patriotism and reminded me to focus on the deeper meaning of why so many people around the world aspire to become Americans. The notion of 'well being' that many here take for granted is a real luxury in many parts of the world. Thanks you again for the thought-provoking conversation. Keep up the good work. I love your show, it's my alternative to church!

This was a very thoughtful and moving interview. Needleman calls for something that may well be beyond our national means; THINKING together. Not in coarse political action, but real political thinking; reasoning. However, it seems most odd that throughout this entire discourse on our unique national political experiment, not once does either the author or the host breathe the word which embodies and mythologizes the experiment they so earnestly yearn to analyze, the word ‘Republic’. Where, in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution will you find the word Democracy? Nowhere. Try saying the Pledge of Allegiance and pause when you get to the word. Why didn’t it say Democracy? What so inspired the Continental Congress to deliberately and decidedly avoid constituting this national experiment as a Democracy? And how is it, that over countless decades without really thinking about it, our national collective mind blatantly and unwaveringly makes the most ignorant of political assumptions, that “We are a Democracy”? If we actually THINK about it and not robotic-ally pay lip-service to what has become the current collective illusion, the answer that has been standing there before us for the last 235 years may magically re-appear before our eyes. We are not a Democracy. We are a Republic. As it is said, don’t compare apples to oranges.

Krista, I find each of your shows I listen to thought provoking and mind expanding. Thank you all for what you do.

Conrad Haas
Suffolk, va

I'm so glad I found On Being with Krista Tippett - wonderful brilliant radio broadcast. Liz

Forever grateful for this show, thank you Krista!

Has something changed? I can't find your broadcast on the radio @ it's usual time of 11:00 a.m. 94.1 FM in Tacoma WA.

Trent Gilliss's picture

Hi Mary. I have a question out to our distribution representative at APM about your question. I'll respond as soon as I know something more. Many thanks for contacting us.

I'd love to know which Frederick Douglass letter Ms. Tippett read from toward the end of the interview. It was intriguing and I'd love to read the rest of it.

I also want to say that I think that the role of race relations and how they have shaped our American "democracy" cannot be overstated. Mr. Needleman, somewhat cavalierly, states that "there is no more slavery in America" which is not altogether accurate, considering the way the laws of the land have been used to create a prison industrial complex that is surpassed by NONE in the world in size, formidability and lucrativeness for the people who build them.

Addendum to my earlier comment: I actually found the Douglass speech and find it interesting and disappointing that the editors of the show (perhaps of Needleman's book?) have edited out the very first sentence in the paragraph that was read. The sentence that begins: "Americans! your republican politics, not less than your republican religion, are flagrantly inconsistent." I think that he purposely brings up religion is actually pretty relevant in this context and wonder why it was left out?

The whole speech is here in case anyone is interested:

Thank you so much for the dialogue with J. Needleman - I listened to it twice and have ordered the book. Brilliant - it has given me a whole new way to view this country.

Is there any way I can hear the whole interview of Diana Eck. I love the whole, unedited interviews you keep for us to listen. I love being about to hear the actual show, too. But so much is said in the voice of it all. I love it when the interviewed first gets there and yu make connection with the person. Even the glitches, when there are technical problems it expands it all into realness for me. Thank yu to all of you.. i can not even imagine the work On Being must take to produce. I am deeply grateful. And I love seeing and "feeling" the Jefferson Bible. You all led me to be able to "touch" it and read it. I weep for the joy of it all. Cassandra

In the eletion of 2012 there were 65 million Democratic votes and 60 million Republican votes this produced a House of Representatives of 208 Democrats and 234 Republicans, In what world was that considered a democracy.Ionly hope that my vote was not one of the 5 million thrown in the garbage. In a true democracy the recent congressional shenanigans would never have happened!!!!!

Your meaningful interview reminded me of this excerpt from Simone Weil. She had also expounded on the relationship between rights and obligations. She asserts that the help of grace is necessary to become capable of it. Consider how her thoughts here relate to the interview:

"The combination of these two facts — the longing in the depth of the heart for absolute good, and the power, though only latent, of directing attention and love to a reality beyond the world and of receiving good from it — constitutes a link which attaches every man without exception to that other reality.
Whoever recognizes that reality recognizes also that link. Because of it, he holds every human being without any exception as something sacred to which he is bound to show respect.
This is the only possible motive for universal respect towards all human beings. Whatever formulation of belief or disbelief a man may choose to make, if his heart inclines him to feel this respect, then he in fact also recognizes a reality other than this world's reality. Whoever in fact does not feel this respect is alien to that other reality also.