Krista's Journal: The Conscience Behind the "Idea of America"

June 30, 2011

It's easy to forget, even and especially around July 4th, how much trial and error went into the creation of American democracy; how much of what Americans now take for granted wasn't fully formed for decades after 1776. The warm and wise philosopher Jacob Needleman looked back at the American founders with this in mind for his book The American Soul. He took apart the ingredients that grew our democracy up. And he found that every iconic institution, every political value, had "inward work" of conscience behind it. Every hard-won right had a corresponding responsibility.

It feels important to me, right now, to revisit the 2003 conversation I had with Jacob Needleman about this, and have been formed by ever since. In our historical moment, it is as clear as ever before that the American republic is an ongoing work in progress. And at the very same time, young democracies are fighting to emerge across the world and are looking for instruction and models. To rise to this occasion, I believe, we need to remember and pass on this inward work as much as the outer forms of government that were long in the making. As we created this show, we also pulled in words Jacob Needleman points to — of founding voices of "the idea of America." These include George Washington and Thomas Paine, but also Frederick Douglass and Walt Whitman.

For my journal this time, I offer excerpts of Jacob Needleman's insights in this interview — and a little Walt Whitman — for remembering and reflection.

On the rights of the individual

"Individualism and individuality have to be separated. Individualism can take a turn where it's a kind of egoistic, selfish thing: Me, me, me, me, and what I want and what I care, what I think and what I like. Oh sure, we need to have the liberty to express all that, but a real individual is a different thing. And to be truly one's self is to be truly in contact with this great self within, this divinity within. And the paradox of true individuality is that the more you are in touch with what all human beings have in common under God, the more you are uniquely what you, yourself, are. And that's why I say we need to bring back the obligations that go along with the rights in order to understand the depths of what the human rights really mean."

On freedom

"A democratic citizen is not a citizen who can do anything he wants. It's a citizen who has an obligation at the same time. And just to give you an example, if I may, the freedom of speech, what is the duty associated with it? Well, if … I have the right to speak, I have the duty to let you speak. Now, that's not so simple. It doesn't mean just to stop my talking and wait till you're finished and then come in and get you. It means I have an obligation inwardly — and that's what we're speaking about, is the inner dimension. Inwardly, I have to work at listening to you. That means I don't have to agree with you, but I have to let your thought into my mind in order to have a real democratic exchange between us. And that is a very interesting work of the human being, don't you think?"

On conscience

For the founders and for all spiritual teachers — and by "founders," by the way, I want to broaden the founders to include people who came later, including such people, of course, as Lincoln and also — one people may find strange — Frederick Douglass and people like that who spoke very powerfully of conscience. Conscience is an absolute power within the human psyche to intuit real values of good and evil and right and wrong. We are born with that capacity. It's not just socially conditioned into us. This is what the great traditions teach. This is what I think. But it is covered over by a lot of the egoism and chaos of our un-free inner life."

On the importance of "thinking" in public, political life

"Shouting is not thinking. 'Come let us reason together,' the prophet says, God says to Isaiah… I think the moment you start thinking together with someone, immediately their eyes light up… I must confess I spoke to — I won't say who, but I spoke to some members of Congress not long ago. We had a very quiet evening together and we started opening up, just what you and I are doing now. And they said, in effect, you know, 'We never get a chance to do this. We're in there trying to, you know, speak to television cameras or make points with electorates or with lobby groups, but we never…' I said, 'You mean you never come together and just reflect together?' And they said no. To me, that's the dirty secret of America at the moment. That's the problem."

From Walt Whitman's essay Democratic Vistas, which Jacob Needleman also includes as part of the long tradition of the foundational "idea of America," and which ends our show.

"I say the mission of government, henceforth in civilized lands, is not repression alone and not authority alone, not even of law, nor the rule of the best men, but higher than the highest arbitrary rule, to train communities through all their grades beginning with individuals and ending there again to rule themselves. To be a voter with the rest is not so much. And this, like every institute, will have its imperfections. But to become an enfranchised man and now, impediments removed, to stand and start without humiliation and equal with the rest, to commence the grand experiment whose end may be the forming of a full-grown man or woman — that is something."

Recommended Reading

Image of The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders
Author: Jacob Needleman
Publisher: TarcherPerigee (2003)
Binding: Paperback, 400 pages

This is a lovely book, rich in history and ideas. I knew immediately, when I read it, that I wanted to interview Jacob Needleman. What makes this work sing is the passion Needleman brings to his loftiest thoughts — such as his unique exploration of the "mystical" bent in American history, via the Quakers and early Utopians.

I read with a sense of discovery, heightened by the way in which Needleman's own sense of surprise never flags. "I was astonished and strangely joyous," he writes in the book's opening chapter, "when I finally turned directly to studying the history of America and found almost everywhere that the men and women who carved out the ideals of America were driven by the same transcendent questions that had always been my own as well. I began to see that for many of these men and women America meant the struggle for conditions of life under which these ultimate questions could be freely pursued."

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