America is such an extroverted culture, endlessly fascinated by celebrity, showmanship, and scandal, that the possibility we might have been founded with the goal of achieving a more thoughtful and profound consciousness may sound remote.
Yet, this is precisely the idea that philosopher Jacob Needleman has put forth in his teaching and writings, particularly in his book The American Soul.
In the following conversation, I talked with Dr. Needleman about the secret “inner life” of America, and what qualities of attention we may need to pursue to make it a more effective part of our national conversations.
In your book, you argue that the Founding Fathers intentionally created a constitutional framework that would allow the inner life of the citizenry to flourish. How do you know whether they really meant for Americans to develop their inner lives?
JN: I can’t say what actually went on in their minds, but when I look at their writings, I do see signs of the spiritual quest. The spirituality of this country does not necessarily have to do with sectarian religion. Spirituality simply means inwardness of the unselfish variety. It’s very clear that the Founders’ ideas of individuality had nothing to do with the adolescent concept of individuality that we have today—that is, doing or saying anything one wants in order to appear clever and original. To many of the Founders, individuality meant the effort to acknowledge and obey the higher law within.
For a government even to suggest that part of its function is to guarantee its citizens’ right to “the pursuit of happiness” strikes me as an essentially mystical undertaking. Has any other nation put forth happiness as part of its vision?
JN: If you view happiness in terms of self-realization and spiritual fulfillment, then the great theocracies of ancient times, such as in India and Tibet, were essentially devoted to the happiness of their people. For Plato, and many others after him, the whole purpose of governance was to enable people to relate to “the Good”—his word for God, or “the highest reality.” But of course it may be that no actual government has ever fulfilled that ideal.
We also have to recognize a distinction made by Thomas Paine, concerning the difference between government and society. He argued that government is necessarily tough and punitive, and often operates by the sanction of physical force. Society, on the other hand, is softer, more aesthetic and ethical; it’s the way humans relate to each other.
Nations are not people; they are a lower, not higher, organism that cannot be judged the way we judge individual human beings. Nations must have honorable values and not be fundamentally criminal, but a nation exists primarily to protect its society.
If you confuse these two concepts, you may believe that a government should behave like the society it defends. That’s a serious mistake and can lead to misplaced criticism of the way government operates. In my book, I suggest that the deepest purpose of the United States government is to provide conditions under which our society can flourish spiritually as well as materially. That doesn’t mean that we should expect our government or its functionaries to be spiritual or to have a highly developed consciousness.
What exactly did the Founding Fathers mean by “happiness”?
JN: Obviously the happiness they were talking about has nothing to do with wish fulfillment or getting everything you want. In fact, every spiritual teaching will tell you that wish fulfillment definitely isn’t happiness.
What does make you happy is to establish contact with a principle within yourself that orders your life and opens you up to loving others, and to loving something higher than yourself. So happiness is discovering truth within yourself, and then trying to live according to that truth. The Founders understood that this kind of happiness can be pursued only by a society with a certain type of government—one that would allow us the political liberty to search for conscience, while also allowing us the material support that this search requires.
As a society, we do need material well-being, but our ultimate purpose is the search for conscience. I think that is what the Founding Fathers meant by “the pursuit of happiness.” I’m calling for a new mythology, a new story of America. I believe that many of the Founders had an impulse and an intent to look within.
You’ve said that “self-improvement” was at the heart of early American individualism. Is that the same as what we think of today as “self-help”?
JN: Self-help is certainly not the same thing as the self-improvement pursued by people like Washington and Franklin. For early Americans, self-improvement meant “movement toward virtue.” It meant developing your character by your deliberate intention; it meant developing both will and good will. It meant having the ability to see the truth, not to indulge in slander or vengeance, and to care for others: in other words, being what my Yiddish-speaking grandmother used to call a mensch—a person of authentic virtue.
Self-improvement is not therapeutic; it does not mean feeling better about yourself. The two goals may not be opposed, but their overlap is slight. Self-respect is involved in self-improvement, as long as you understand that the self you respect is not the ego.
We seem to have no popular concept of a person who may be troubled, or living a difficult life, because he or she is “moving toward virtue.”
JN: I don’t think we even know about such people. Who are they? Where do you find them? They’re still out there somewhere, I think.
Rather, we are steeped in “psychic determinism”—that is, the idea that our childhood traumas or our genes have essentially determined our lives.
JN: We have left out the notion of individual will. When I talk to my classes about what an ideal or highly developed human being might be like, they bring up virtues like compassion, wisdom, kindness and so on. But nobody ever mentions will; it’s almost as if the word has fallen out of our vocabulary.
If I write the word will on the blackboard, my students have a hard time recognizing what I mean, but once they do, they become very interested in it. Will is the means by which we overcome the problems that life or genes have handed us. Without it, there is no true character. Ironically, will may be what’s missing in many people’s attempts to feel better about themselves.
This conversation is excerpted from NECESSARY WISDOM: Jacob Needleman Talks About God, Time, Money, Love, and the Need for Philosophy in Conversations with D. Patrick Miller.