Once Upon a Time, In America
By William Devine
Reprinted from California Lawyer, March 2003
Book Review of The American Soul, by Jacob Needleman (Tarcher 2003)
Does the future of civilization hinge on America? Yes, says San Francisco State Philosophy Professor Jacob Needleman, but not because we export the quickest microchips, own the most capital, or build the smartest bombs. Not even because we avow the most affection for life and liberty. America’s capacity to heal divisions of nation, class and race, and to cultivate a world of greatness and goodness, rests on our willingness to learn from a cast of talented and oft-overlooked teachers.
To comprehend power and its exercise, asserts Needleman, study George Washington, a man of such passion, ambition, will, and physical ferocity that some labeled him an assassin, and yet a man who willingly surrendered control of the Continental Army, and later the presidency, because he saw that such surrender was necessary for his country to survive.
To grasp governance, study the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which codified the wisdom in the Constitution. Scrutinize the Constitution as part of the study, the Professor instructs. Note how each delegate, despite his self-interests, succeeded in the struggle to listen to fellow delegates for thoughts finer than his own.
To find a means to life’s richness, consider Benjamin Franklin, whose accomplishments in science, self-improvement, business, diplomacy, and civics flowed from the courage to explore both the spiritual and material bounds of his world.
To understand human nature, especially encounters with its dark facets, study slavery in America, the clear-cutting of Native American cultures, and our delusion that America stands above the possibility of human barbarity just because of the ideals we profess.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” The American Soul paints the nation’s founders as neither saints nor sinners. Instead it reframes each man, portraying his attempt to act at a pivotal point in history in full awareness of the paradoxes of power, money, governance, and human nature.
Wielding power through its surrender, achieving material aims through spiritual search, accomplishing self-interest through service to others—Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln el al. forged a nation of unprecedented possibility and gained a measure of greatness in their lives thanks to their struggle to embrace these paradoxes while creating their country.
The American Soul is valuable because it reminds us that only by exhibiting a comparable intelligence as we create our own world—and by inspiring others to do the same—can we bring greatness into our lives, enable America to fulfill its potential, and give civilization a future worth having.