Needleman (Philosophy/San Francisco State Univ.; Money and the Meaning of Life, 1991, etc.) searches out the transcendent ideas that once epitomized the American vision in this spine-stiffening return call to conscience and wisdom.
Why does America, despite all its moral waywardness—from the great crimes of slavery and the destruction of native peoples to its infatuation with glitter—continue to radiate the promise of humanity, the vision of its possibilities, of self-knowledge and living according to conscience? The answer, Needleman says, is the nation founded in the late-18th century, the men who founded it, and then later men such as Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman understood and sought reconciliation between the two human natures, truth and goodness vying with physical and social comfort. They trafficked in ideas, seeking standards by which to act, differentiating between impulses meant to lead—respect for selfhood, liberty of thought—and others meant to serve: fear, pride. Needleman finds these great ideas nestled within an ancient yet subtle system of ideas—ethical, metaphysical, and societal—found scattered throughout time and place, wherein the inner spiritual world balances the outer material world and humans serve as actors of divine law, or conversely as opportunists appropriating these ideas and symbols, extracting them from the matrix for their own unregenerate ends. In Washington, Needleman sees a furious balance between passion and judgment, ambition and self-sacrifice; in Jefferson, the multiple senses of “human nature and the role of community”; in Lincoln, the individual’s obligation to society. While there will always be good and bad, there need not be evil, which entails resisting “the reconciliation of the struggle between good and its antagonist,” as well as not learning from recognized mistakes.
The nation’s founders, Needleman appealingly suggests, were a group of tricksters, operating at once in the immediate and spiritual worlds, not to be wholly trusted—and not to be denied because they touch the bone-bred commonality in all of us.