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The established roots of human meaning and the cornerstones of democracy – freedom, honesty, caring relationships, a belief in the next generation – derive their power from the mutual respect of individuals and from an investment in community at home and abroad. The ancient truth remains. It is through the empathic intimacy of human relationships, not in the accumulation of material goods, that true prosperity is secured. Have then the goals of America's original social experiment been hijacked by its commercial success, threatening the delicate balance between individual desire and social responsibility, or will the nation in its migrant wisdom effectively apply its market and military dominance to enhance the wellbeing of the world's peoples?

John Whybrow, American Mania (1)



We now turn, penultimately so to speak, that is before we reach for our global centre, to the "West", but not to such a West as we conventionally know it. For the "Western" grounding we now seek is one that builds upon the "rest", rather than dominating over it. So we no longer consider America to be a "super power", but rather consider the Americas, South America and North, West coast and East to be a newly integral beginning.

The United States of America, for leading U.S. social philosopher Jacob Needleman (2) based at San Francisco State University, is in fact, the symbol and the promise of a new beginning. And in human life, in our lives as they are, he says, this possibility is amongst the most sacred aspects of existence. All that is old and already formed can continue to live only if it allows within itself the conditions of a new beginning.

In that context, on the cover page of his recent book on The American Soul, Needleman accordingly has four pictures, one in each of the four corners of the page, of, respectively, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and two American Indians. Indeed they embody, as we shall see, an "integral West", rather than the domineering America that conventionally prevails over us.

Life itself is the mysterious, incomprehensive blending of the new and the old, of what already is and what is coming into being. The question of America is therein: if America loses the meaning of its existence, according to Needleman, and if, in fact, America is now the dominant cultural influence on the world, then what will become of the world? The question of America leads all of us directly to the question of the purpose and destiny of human life itself in this era.


Our world currently, as we see and hear on all sides, is, for Needleman, drowning in materialism, commercialism, consumerism. But the problem is not really there. What we ordinarily speak of as materialism is a symptom, not a cause. The root of materialism is a poverty of ideas about the inner and outer world. Less and less does our contemporary culture have, or even seek, commerce with great ideas, and it is that lack, for Needleman, which is weakening the human spirit. Therefore materialism is a disease of the mind starved of ideas.

No such ideas, moreover, exist alone. Great ideas are always part of a living system of ideas, all of which are necessary for the full understanding of any one of them. 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, originally at least, 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 the timeless, ancient wisdom that had guided human life since the dawn of human history. It is necessary today to recover this resonance, this relationship, however tenuous and partial, between the teachings of wisdom and the idea of America.


One of the most central of the tenets of ancient wisdom is the idea of man as a being who exists between two worlds – an inner world of great spiritual vision and power, and an outer world of material realities and constraint. Both worlds call to us, and as long as we live, we are obliged to give each its due. The idea of man's two natures, along with some of its ethical implications, was dramatically expressed in the teaching known as Stoicism, which flourished in the early Roman Empire and which served as inspiration to Washington, Adams, Jefferson and many others of the Founding Fathers of America. The most politically powerful man of his time, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and one of the least powerful, the freed slave Epictetus, who was a mentor to the Emperor, both adhered to the Stoic philosophy. Our task, as such, is simultaneously inner freedom and full outer engagement.

As for the idea of democracy, the Founding Fathers – Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and others – never conceived of it solely as an external form of government. The meaning of democracy was always rooted in a vision of human nature as both fallen and perfectible – inwardly fallen and inwardly perfectible. To a significant extent, democracy in its specifically American form was created to allow men and women to seek their own higher principle within themselves. The higher reality within the self was called many things – reason, conscience, Nature's God. When this idea is left out, or treated as though its meaning was obvious, then the ideals of independence and liberty lose their power and truth. The idea of America once had this power of unification.

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