Transcript for Jacob Needleman — The Inward Work of Democracy

June 28, 2012

Krista Tippett, Host: It's easy to forget, especially as July 4th approaches, 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 this 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 mind-opening conversation I had with Jacob Needleman back in 2003. Young democracies are struggling around the world and they're looking for instruction and models. To rise to this occasion, we may need to remember and pass on this inward work as much as the outer forms of government that were long in the making.

JACOB NEEDLEMAN: It's wonderful to be able to go where I want and do what I want and buy what I want, buy and buy, and get and get, and talk and talk, and I have no constraints. We certainly need external liberty. But without the inner meaning of freedom and liberty, we have to ask, "Well, what is this freedom for?"

MS. TIPPETT: "The Inward Work of Democracy." I'm Krista Tippett. This is On Being, from APM, American Public Media.

Jacob Needleman spent decades pondering things like time, the cosmos, love, and money before he turned his attention to what he calls, "the idea of America." This was true despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that he grew up in Philadelphia, the historic city of American Revolution.

MS. TIPPETT: You know I want to start, you know, sort of where you start. You grew up in Philadelphia, one of these great places in our nation's history, in the history of our democracy, but you really had no interest in that aspect of American history.

MR. NEEDLEMAN: Well I had no interest in any aspect of American history.

MS. TIPPETT: Oh. OK.

MR. NEEDLEMAN: [laughs] The way I was taught when I was a kid and the way things were drilled into us in Philadelphia, everybody was supposed to be so proud of being at the cradle of the birth of America and all that.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.

MR. NEEDLEMAN: But history was made for me so incredibly boring and so irrelevant to anything that I was interested in. You know, all these people in wigs and buckle shoes and powdered wigs.

MS. TIPPETT: Right.

MR. NEEDLEMAN: And my whole work as a philosopher was to try to make a bridge, find the bridge between this great vision — spiritual vision that was at the heart of all religions, and a bridge between that and all the real aching social, political, psychological, cultural problems of our era. And some time ago, years ago, about 10 or 12 years ago, I realized one of the great aching questions of our time was: What is America? What does it mean? Who are we?

And considering the enormous, incredible impact and influence of America on this planet, this question had to be faced. And I gritted my teeth and went back to American history, thinking I'll just get a — I'll just look and see, you know, I won't be able to like any of it, but it's a question that has to be faced. And to my amazement, I found a whole new meaning in life in the founding fathers of the country, in the origins of the United States and the people and also in the history as it went on. Starting with George Washington, who I really gritted my teeth there. I said, "Oh, this is going to be really boring. Oh, my God, the bad teeth, the cherry tree, who cares?" I was stunned when I started reading Washington, his own works and about him, that this really was a great man, and that was a great joy, to find that.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, I think I'd like to just trace that story that you started learning, I mean — and as you — when you write and as you describe what you learned in this project, you know, when you talk about George Washington, you start to identify American ideals and aspects that Americans consider to be part of our national character, that really are given a new meaning by what you saw in the lives of these men.

MR. NEEDLEMAN: Yes. Well, certainly George Washington, what stands out in terms of the myth of the character of Washington, what stands out is, of course, the phenomenal fact that he turned away from power. He could have had more power than practically anyone in the world after the Revolutionary War, and he could have been — as one observer had said, he could have been king of America. But he stepped down as the head of the Army and he stepped away from political life, and simply surrendered his power. Very few leaders can you find throughout history who have voluntarily stepped away from power like that. He represents, to me, the sacrifice of one's own personal egoistic desires for power for the good of the country.

MS. TIPPETT: What about Thomas Jefferson? What did you learn about Thomas Jefferson that you didn't know before, that's not part of our stereotype?

MR. NEEDLEMAN: His ideals about democracy, of what the democratic process is supposed to be, I saw were very sophisticated psychologically. And I think what Jefferson brought, we need to see in the light of very ancient spiritual traditions about what it means — what human beings owe each other in terms of how they relate to each other's ideas, views, and opinions. He was, I think, a master at understanding the process of coming to a consensus, coming to a communal understanding, of listening to the other, of relationship of one human being and one group and one party to another.

MS. TIPPETT: Where do you see that at work in …

MR. NEEDLEMAN: Well, in his writings. You see it very often in his letters, about the problems of the democratic process and the difficulties that are going on between one sect and one party and another. No doubt in his life he was also very ambitious, not always a sweet, virtuous guy. He didn't get to be president just by sitting around and preaching good tidings. All these guys were great political — very clever political people at the same time.

But you see it in his writings, in his speeches, in the profession of his ideals, and, of course, we all know, with some help, he is the great articulator of the Declaration of Independence and the one who insisted — when the Constitutional Convention was being concluded, who insisted to Madison and to others that we have a Bill of Rights put in. He was the representative of human rights and we need to say something at some point about human duties that go with the rights.

READER: The unanimous declaration of the 13 United States of America:

"When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the powers of the Earth, the separate and equal station, to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the Opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their safety and happiness."

MS. TIPPETT: I have the Declaration of Independence in front of me. I mean, you know, this phrase, "the laws of nature and nature's God," which is the only time the word "God" appears …

MR. NEEDLEMAN: The word "God," yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: … as such, it's "nature's God." Open that up for us.

MR. NEEDLEMAN: This is an Enlightenment concept, the Age of Enlightenment, which is very profound in a way. It's been trivialized by many people, but the idea that by looking at nature, looking at the universe, looking at the laws of nature, just observing it, just understanding that we're part of nature independent of any religious teaching, we can conclude by looking at nature that there must be a Creator. Nature has laws and principles and forces in it that are moral as well as physical. Nature operates by laws that point to the good as well as to what is true.

And Enlightenment thinkers — most of them, the best ones — wanted to be free of the tyranny of religious dogma, and so they tore away from their forms of religious dogma, and church, and ritual, and imposition of faith on the human mind, and said, "Just by the independent activity of the human mind, looking at nature, we can conclude there is a God and we can draw conclusions about our moral life from that."

MS. TIPPETT: And I think this is an important point, too, because the way the Enlightenment has come down a couple centuries later is as something diametrically opposed to religion, right?

MR. NEEDLEMAN: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, to any kind of spiritual observation like that.

MR. NEEDLEMAN: That's a complete distortion of what many of the greatest Enlightenment thinkers believe, starting with — well, if you take the great German philosopher Kant, a deeply religious, spiritual man, in his very profound writings showed through the existence of God. It just wasn't the God of any particular biblical dogmatic teaching, that's all.

Today people associate religion with some of the most surface, superficial, and some of the most degraded aspects of religion, and that's a terrible mistake. And part of what I want to show in this book is that a deeper understanding of religion shows the spiritual dimension of America in a way that is not at all what people think of when they think of religious America.

MS. TIPPETT: I'm Krista Tippett, and this is On Being, conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, "The Inward Work of Democracy" with philosopher Jacob Needleman.

MS. TIPPETT: I think you also say that all of the founders had their own sort of spiritual sensibility, deep sensibility. And they had a tremendous concern to inject the life of the mind, to apply that together with what is religious, and that that flowed into the way they were creating American democracy. Is that …

MR. NEEDLEMAN: That's an interesting way of putting it. I think that's a very, very interesting way of putting it: that the life of the mind is rooted and leads to the life of the spirit. The mind is not the heartless, bloodless intellectual power that we sometimes think of it these days — a kind of a big computer on the top of a human body.

So the Enlightenment mind is not a mind without a heart. It's a heart with a mind, if you like. It's both together. So there's a faith that the human mind really works deeply at its — at its best, will come to spiritual truths and be able to apply them to human life as the basis of morality. It's true of many of the early — even before the Founders, of course, many of the communities that came and settled in America were deeply spiritual communities — very, very religious, some of them — and also were very thoughtful and very intelligent. Even our modern science was rooted in a kind of spiritual vision of God's ordering of the universe.

MS. TIPPETT: Something else that's very interesting that you point out is the importance of Quakerism, even among people who weren't necessarily practicing Quakers. But you say that there was a kind of communal mysticism that infused the founding of our democracy.

MR. NEEDLEMAN: Well, there were many spiritual communities, not just — the Quaker was one which we know about and that was, of course, surrounding everything in Philadelphia, but there was also many that we don't talk about or know about so much. There were some German mystical communities that came to America before the Revolution, and they were in different parts of America but a lot of them were in the Pennsylvania area, and they had a very powerful influence on many people and brought something — a kind of a mystical — "mystical" is one of those bad words.

They brought a spiritual vision of community that I think we need to rediscover what that was all about because our own Constitution and our own laws of government in some ways can be seen to echo a deeper meaning of human equality. It's not that everybody so much is entitled to the same vote or something, that's one aspect of it. But it's that everyone is equal under God, and that means, deep down in the human essence, we all are part of some common greatness that we need to respect in each other and rediscover in ourselves, and that the human problem is that we have fallen away from contact with that greatness in ourselves.

This may sound mystical, but it's very pragmatic, and communities were set up throughout America, particularly the East Coast and particularly in Pennsylvania, which tried to pursue that with some diligence in a very well-structured communal setting.

MS. TIPPETT: All right. So the way you describe that, that sense of — that equality is something that happens before God and that in each of us, also presents a kind of contrast to, let's say, the value of individuality that we cherish in modern America.

MR. NEEDLEMAN: Very good point. 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.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. Was that sense of holding freedom and obligation together a central aspect of the Founders' way of thinking?

MR. NEEDLEMAN: I think so. 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 you ponder that a little bit, you'll come to the conclusion very clearly that the right of free speech implies the duty of allowing others to speak. 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?

MS. TIPPETT: I do. And I think that that theme, this idea of democracy being something that is an inward process and act as well as a set of outward structures and laws and rules is something that resonates all the way through your work.

MR. NEEDLEMAN: I hope so, because it's the only thing that's going to really revitalize our vision of what we are. When I talk to students in university these days about what I'm trying to say in this book, they're all angry about America, of course, many of them are. And when you go into the depths of their ideals of America, like we're trying now in this conversation, their anger — it's not that they lose their judgment against things that America may or may not be doing, but their anger is replaced by a deep interest in the meaning of America.

Reader: From George Washington's farewell address delivered September 19th, 1796:

"In looking forward to the moment which is intended to terminate the career of my public life, my feelings do not permit me to suspend the deep acknowledgement of that debt of gratitude which I owe to my beloved country. Let it always be remembered, to your praise, that in situations in which want of success has countenanced the spirit of criticism, the constancy of your support was the essential prop of the efforts, and a guarantee of the plans by which they were effected.

"I shall carry it with me to my grave, as a strong incitement to unceasing vows that heaven may continue to you the choicest tokens of its beneficence; that your union and brotherly affection may be perpetual; that the free Constitution, which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained; that its administration in every department may be stamped with wisdom and virtue; that the happiness of the people of these States may be made complete by so careful a preservation and so prudent a use of this blessing as will acquire to them the glory of recommending it to the applause, the affection, and adoption of every nation which is yet a stranger to it."

MS. TIPPETT: Listen to my conversation with Jacob Needleman again and download it at onbeing.org. You'll also find text of all the readings in this show. And the best way to stay on top of everything we do is to subscribe to our email newsletter and podcast. Look for the updates link on our home page. Again, onbeing.org.

Coming up, Jacob Needleman on how American democracy continued to evolve with the leadership of what he calls later generations of founders, like Frederick Douglass. Also, how to make sense of the fact that the Founders often failed themselves to live up to the deep virtues they were turning into institutions.

I'm Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.

[Announcements]

MS. TIPPETT: I'm Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, "The Inward Work of Democracy," with philosopher Jacob Needleman. As young democracies struggle around the world, we're taking a long view of the ingredients that formed American democracy well beyond July 4, 1776. Jacob Needleman is describing the virtues and conscience that made American democratic institutions and political values possible. He explored this in his book The American Soul, in which he looked at the Founders in this light.

Ms. Tippett: Here's a passage from Thomas Paine's famous pamphlet Common Sense, written in 1776:

READER: "Some writers have so confounded society with government as to leave little or no distinction between them, whereas they are not only different but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants and government by our wickedness. The former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections; the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse; the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron; the last, a punisher. Society is a blessing. At best, government is a necessary evil."

MS. TIPPETT: Let's talk about some more of these American ideas. I mean the very idea of freedom itself, I think you believe we have a sort of superficial understanding of that.

MR. NEEDLEMAN: Absolutely. It's become so trivialized, freedom. It's wonderful to be able to go where I want and do what I want and buy what I want, buy and buy, and get and get, and talk and talk, and I have no constraints. We certainly need external liberty. God knows, that's one of the most precious things this country has to offer the masses of humanity who have come here. I don't mean to put that down in any way. Without that, without that, the rest is just academic.

But without the inner meaning of freedom and liberty, we have to ask, "Well, what is this freedom for?" It's not just a freedom to get a big house and a big car and a lot of goods. So inner freedom is an idea that has gone out of our conversation. Inner freedom means inwardly to be free from these egoistic, selfish cravings, which make our life turn around into chaos. It's an interior freedom, which maybe you can say is mystical or certainly spiritual, but without that dimension to the idea of freedom, the idea of freedom becomes purely external and eventually selfish.

MS. TIPPETT: But is there a place within our democratic structures or elsewhere in our common life to cultivate that kind of inner freedom?

MR. NEEDLEMAN: There is. And the point is really that we are free to search. We have the liberty to gather together in communities, to study, to work, to find our own relationship to the spirit of conscience, which is what makes a human being really a moral and free human being.

Thomas Paine and others have made a very important distinction between government and society. Government protects society. Society is the realm where people relate to each other in subtle, aesthetic, ethical, sensitive, spiritual ways. It can't be legislated. It's where the real inner moral life of human beings takes place. Government is an external armor, an external structure which allows that and protects society.

So the great purpose of America is to provide a place where people can search to become fully human in themselves. Now, we have a strong military, we have a strong Constitution. We have all — with all the warts and all the things wrong with us, it's still possible to say that America is the guardian of the possibility of human beings to search for conscience.

MS. TIPPETT: What did the Founders mean when they used the word "conscience"?

MR. NEEDLEMAN: For the Founders and for all spiritual teachings — 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 unfree inner life.

MS. TIPPETT: The words in the Declaration of Independence, giving — you know, this right, unalienable right that Americans have claimed since then to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, you know, in some ways that's such an extraordinary phrase. And also I wonder if it's a phrase that stands in contrast to spiritual values and spiritual impulses. Has it gotten us into trouble?

MR. NEEDLEMAN: Well, it may have gotten us into trouble. You mean that phrase, has it gotten …

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, the pursuit …

MR. NEEDLEMAN: Well, it may have gotten …

MS. TIPPETT: … of happiness at the center of our national life.

MR. NEEDLEMAN: Yeah, that may have gotten us into trouble because we have an adolescent view of happiness. What is happiness to us? People say, "Oh, well, I don't know. I just — I don't know, it makes me feel good." Well, feeling good, having nice things, it ain't happiness.

MS. TIPPETT: What do you think Thomas Jefferson understood in that phrase?

MR. NEEDLEMAN: He meant there's no happiness without virtue. You can't have happiness unless there's virtue. And so for Jefferson, it didn't mean having whatever — just whatever you want. It meant well-being in the traditions that they studied. They were very highly educated in classical thought. Happiness — a better translation of the word is "well-being," and well-being doesn't mean continual or lots of pleasure. It doesn't mean egoistic satisfaction. It means being what you are supposed to be as a human being. So happiness implies a relationship to a truer self within yourself, and I think Jefferson meant that. And I think if you look in the nature of the great spiritual traditions, how they look at and understand human nature, it's part of the essence of a human being to love, to feel care for others. And we have a very impoverished set of ideas about the human self being just a complicated animal with a complicated brain who evolved out of the slime. That is not a vision that is very profound of what a human being is, nor is it very logical.

MS. TIPPETT: And again, I want you to come back to the connection you've made between that struggle to understand what it means to be human, to be fully human, and the structures and functioning of American democracy.

MR. NEEDLEMAN: You know, I think we need to look at our structure of our Constitution and look at the spiritual principles that are embedded in it without — not calling attention to themselves as spiritual. The whole idea that you have to listen to each other, you have to come to a harmonious reconciliation, that you have a structure where parties can come together and hear each other, and perhaps a third principle, a third reconciling force can appear that brings together both of the parties. You have this brilliant compromise of the structure of the House and the structure of the Senate. You have this ancient vision that was modern, adapted by Madison and all the others of the Constitution, of the three parts of the government — the executive, the legislative, and the judicial — that they are independent of each other. That is fantastic, how those three work together. But in principle, it's a highly ancient spiritual principle that these three — this echoes an ancient law of the threefold nature of reality, that all processes have three forces working together. You can see a lot of metaphysics in the Constitution if you study the metaphysics of the spiritual traditions, which our Founders studied.

READER: From The Federalist Papers, by James Madison:

"What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed and, in the next place, oblige it to control itself."

MS. TIPPETT: Is there something in the way we understand and practice democracy in our time that makes it hard to hear or see what you call spiritual strains in our very Constitution?

MR. NEEDLEMAN: I think so. I think we're way, way off the base now and — we're still correctable, but I mean — I may sound arrogant, but we need to think about our country. We need to think about our ideals. People don't think. They don't on the whole — now, I may sound very stuffy, like an old philosophy professor, but …

MS. TIPPETT: Which you are.

MR. NEEDLEMAN: … it — which I am. We need to be able to think together about what these things mean. People don't think. They use words — freedom, liberty, representational government, etc., etc. — but if you stopped and asked them what they meant by these things, they're tongue-tied or they just shout. On television, people think shouting is thinking. Shouting is not thinking. "Come let us reason together," the prophet says, God says to Isaiah. What this country — I don't want to sound like I'm on a soapbox but what this country needs is thought, and I think it's — I really think it's possible. There are no …

MS. TIPPETT: You do think it's possible.

MR. NEEDLEMAN: Oh, yes. I think the moment you start thinking together with someone, immediately their eyes light up. They say, "My God, I'm thinking. I haven't done that for a while." 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.

MS. TIPPETT: So as a philosopher and as someone who has immersed himself in this, what's the question you would pose for people to think about?

MR. NEEDLEMAN: Well, what are the duties — that was one of the great questions that takes us all back, and if we can separate it out from all the right- or left-wing rhetoric, just step back into our independent mind for a moment and don't worry about whose side you're on or who's good or — what are the duties that are implied by our rights? We know the rights we have. We know their words. What duties do we have? That is a question I would invite people to think about without any political agenda in their mind. And when you think about that together — and I think that's the thing I would say we really need is — from each other is philosophical friendship, we need that people come together to think. Not action groups, those are there, waiting, but thinking groups, because out of good thought will come right action.

MS. TIPPETT: I'm Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, "The Inward Work of Democracy."

Ms. Tippett: Here's a reading from the book The American Soul, by my guest Jacob Needleman.

READER: "When we speak of the idea of America, we are speaking of many interconnected ethical ideas, both metaphysical ideas that deal with ultimate reality, and ethical and social ideas, which all together offered hope to the world. The idea of America, with all that it contained within it about the moral law, nature, God and the human soul, once reflected to some extent the timeless ancient wisdom that has guided human life since the dawn of history. America was a new and original expression, in the form of a social and political experiment, of ideas that have always been part of what may be called the great web of Truth. Explicitly and implicitly, the idea of America has resonated with this ancient, timeless wisdom and has allowed something of its power to touch the heart and mind of humanity. It is necessary to recover this resonance, this relationship, however tenuous and partial, between the teachings of wisdom and the idea of America."

MS. TIPPETT: I want to go back a little bit into these models that we have of trying to practice these virtues that are at the founding of our democracy. So, you know, make this come a little bit more alive and also talk about the real struggle that there is even in our iconic figures, that there was, to practice these virtues, you know? Where you saw what it took to come out in this place of virtue.

MR. NEEDLEMAN: We don't know the inner struggles that these people went through from time to time. We don't know inwardly what Washington went through when there were so many defeats, when it looked like the war was hopeless, when there was even mutiny sometimes in the troops, when they were all starving and hungry and ragtag, when they were facing this overwhelming force of the greatest army in the world, the British army. We don't know inwardly what he had to go — there was some stamina there. It wasn't just bullying through in order to win.

We don't know what Lincoln inwardly felt. We know he was an ambitious politician. We know when he was elected, he came out of the presidency by the time the Civil War was well into its — where it was going. He became humbled by power, which is one of the most interesting things about Lincoln, not just his face, which I write about, as being …

MS. TIPPETT: Yes, you do.

MR. NEEDLEMAN: … a face which emanates a human presence, humanness, but when he comes out at the end, it's not — people get very cynical sometimes, think, "Oh, it's just political speech." But if you read the second inaugural, the famous lines about "With malice toward none," how do you come out of a war like that and are able to say to the enemy, "We are all part of one nation, with malice toward none"? What does it take inside one's self to be able to actually say that and, I believe, to mean it, which I think he did mean it.

READER: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

MR. NEEDLEMAN: It's hard to talk about the inner struggle that people went through, what a Jefferson went through.

MS. TIPPETT: Right, and you know, so Jefferson — now we have all this information, which has become — which has come to light. We have a very strong sense of the contradictions, let's say, in Jefferson and — well, let's just say his full humanity.

MR. NEEDLEMAN: Well, yeah. Maybe he did have an affair with Sally Hemings. But, you know — and maybe he did have slaves …

MS. TIPPETT: Maybe he did have slaves, yes.

MR. NEEDLEMAN: … which he didn't sell. Of course, he did, as did Washington, although he released them after his — they were released after his death, largely. But many — and it's not to whitewash anything, it's just to retain our heroes, our symbols. Most of the great reformers of mankind were sensitive to the problems they were reforming, precisely because they were living in the midst of a social situation in which they themselves were guilty of the crimes that they were trying to reform people from. They were immersed in it. They saw it. It's when you experience it in yourself, as St. Augustine did when he saw his own particular sins and crimes. It's when you experience the forces in yourself that you then become more sensitive, and a great man is not someone who hasn't committed the sin, it's one who understands it and is speaking out against it and is trying to articulate it for others.

Jefferson, we don't know what he was — he understood what slavery was. He wrote about it, he understood the crime that it was. And he forged the language and, to a large part, the concepts by which we are judging him. If it weren't for Jefferson, we might not have quite the language which we so easily use to say he was wrong. So it's too easy — for example, if somebody were to say to a person today, 'Do you believe in destroying the environment?' they would say, "No, of course not." "Do you drive a car?" "Of course, I do. I can't help it." We don't know what the forces were on him. It's easy to say — we don't have any slaves now so it's easy to say he was bad. The point is not to whitewash him or to condemn him, but to try to retain the symbol that the man represents, the symbol of the freedom of the mind and the freedom of every human being.

Of course, the Constitution couldn't omit slavery. Had they tried to do that, the 13 Colonies would never have come together. Of course, they were blind to the position of women and they couldn't carry that through. But all those things have been corrected. The fundamental thing about the Constitution is that it allows the United States to correct itself. It's always been a mess. America's always been a mess. It's always been full of contradictions. There's always been graft and greed and injustices throughout this huge country, but it's always been correctable. It still is correctable.

MS. TIPPETT: One of your most pressing points is that you say we must re-mythologize America, and I think the answer you just gave me gets at something that's happening in our time. It seems like we set up heroes simply in order to topple them.

MR. NEEDLEMAN: Yeah, absolutely.

MS. TIPPETT: Why does the word "mythology" have — not only have legitimacy for you, but why is this something that you think can be part of the salvation of American democracy, if I can put it so?

MR. NEEDLEMAN: Well, myth is a way of speaking about great ideas that touches the heart as well as the mind. In all the world's great spiritual communications, traditions, almost always it's been through symbol and art, music and image and story. Myth is one meaning nowadays that means a lie, a fable, something wrong, something you shouldn't believe. That's a cheapened meaning of the word and certainly it's the way it's used now. "Oh, it's only a myth." But real myth is a way of speaking in symbol in a way that touches — it opens the feelings as well as the thought.

So we need — we have these people in our psyche. We have Lincoln, he's there in our mind; we have Washington, we grew up with Washington and Jefferson, and people are growing up with Adams, and people should be growing up with Frederick Douglass, who was an immensely important figure. Gosh, what discovery it was to read who Frederick Douglass is and what he meant to the country. Why he's not …

MS. TIPPETT: Say a little bit more about that.

MR. NEEDLEMAN: Well, Douglass — the story of Douglass, at most, there were dozens and maybe hundreds of self-freed slaves who escaped, so Douglass is one of many. But his struggle to just overcome his own — to escape, to run away, to overcome his slave masters, to run away through the wonderful Underground Railroad — which we also need to understand more — and to become the most stunning articulator and orator and the conscience of America in the 19th century. If you read even those little snippets that I put in the book, they blow you away with their power.

MS. TIPPETT: Here's an excerpt from a speech that Frederick Douglass delivered on July 5th, 1852, a decade before the civil war, at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York.

READER: "Americans, you boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization and your pure Christianity while the whole political power of the nation is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three million of your countrymen. You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, but the fugitives from your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot and kill. You're all on fire at the mention of liberty for France or for Ireland but are as cold as an iceberg at the thought of liberty for the enslaved of America. You can bare your bosom to the storm of British artillery to throw off a 3-penny tax on tea, yet wring the last hard-earned farthing from the grasp of the black laborers of your country.

"You profess to believe that of one blood God made all nations of men to dwell on the face of the Earth and have commanded all men everywhere to love one another. Yet you notoriously hate all men whose skins are not colored like your own."

MR. NEEDLEMAN: What's interesting about Douglass, why he should be an icon for all Americans, is that he saw, more clearly than any of us could, the evils of slavery since he was a slave, and he didn't hate America. He loved America and he hated what America was doing with the slavery. Nowadays people who see what's wrong with America wind up hating America, and people who are loving America, don't want to see what's wrong with America. In my book, I'm trying to say that America is — the ideals of America can be re-mythologized, can be expanded and deepened to such a way to include both our great triumphs and the hope we brought the world, and also the terrible crimes we've done. So let's all have Douglass in our educational system as well as Jefferson.

MS. TIPPETT: You pose a question near the end of your book, I believe, your book The American Soul: Is America necessary?

MR. NEEDLEMAN: Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: What's your answer to that question?

MR. NEEDLEMAN: It's very necessary. America now in the world is very necessary, if it only stays what it's meant to be, which is the guardian of the search for conscience, the search for goodness in people. As long as it has that going on as what it's protecting, even if the presidents and the congresspeople don't know about it, then it's needed in the world because the world needs people to develop into men and women of conscience.

MS. TIPPETT: And you really — you know, just to underscore this, you really feel like conscience is at the heart of our democracy.

MR. NEEDLEMAN: Yes, I do. Without — yeah, it has to be. Otherwise, we'll — America may last and be strong, but it'll perish very, very soon, because no nation, no community can exist for very long unless it really finds a place for conscience. This is the message handed down for thousands of years, through all the prophets and teachers of the world.

MS. TIPPETT: Jacob Needleman is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at San Francisco State University. His many books include What Is God? and The American Soul. Jacob Needleman even includes Walt Whitman in his extended list of founders of American democracy. He quotes at length from Whitman's essay Democratic Vistas. This was written following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. And it holds resonance for citizens of democracies young and old today. Here's a passage.

READER: "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."

MS. TIPPETT: Find this passage from Walt Whitman and all the other readings in this show at onbeing.org — the words of Thomas Paine, Frederick Douglass, George Washington, James Madison, and Abraham Lincoln. You can also listen again to this show, download it, or pass it on to others. And, if you haven't done so already, we'd love for you to "like" us on Facebook at facebook.com/onbeing. Or follow us on Twitter; our handle: @Beingtweets. Find links on our website. Again, onbeing.org.

On Being, on air and online is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, Susan Leem, and Stefni Bell. This week we wish a fond farewell and thank you to Anne Breckbill.

Our senior producer is David McGuire. Trent Gilliss is our senior editor. And I'm Krista Tippett.

[Announcements]

MS. TIPPETT: Next time, "Driven by Flavor," with celebrated young chef, thinker, and social visionary Dan Barber. Pleasure is his way in to what he calls the greatest social movement of our time. Please join us.

This is APM, American Public Media.

Share Episode

Shortened URL

Voices on the Radio

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