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REMEMBERING AMERICA/REMEMBERING WASHINGTON

THE ART FORM OF AMERICA IS GOVERNMENT

To love America, Needleman goes on to say then, is not merely to love your roots, or your grounds – it is to love the flower, coming out of the ground, that has not yet blossomed, the fruit not yet ripened. To love America is to love the future, and perhaps it is this that sets the love of America apart from what other men and women of other nations feel about their home land. You are born Greek or German or Japanese. But to be born American does not mean the same thing. You become American. There is something in yourself that can develop and evolve. So to be grounded in the "West" is to be filled with potential.

The great art form of America, then, serving to harness that potential, is government and especially the Constitution. Other nations and cultures have produced cathedrals, epics, poems, music, systems of philosophy that far surpass what America has brought forth. In this art form, it seems to Needleman, America is pointing toward the most essential art of the future – the art of human association, the art of working together as individuals and groups and communities. This is the essential art form of the coming humanity. Without it nothing else can help us.

It is through the group, the community, that moral power and a higher level of intelligence can be sought, if only we can discover the way of constructing association with others in communities, groups and combinations of men and women. America was to be the first nation created intentionally by thought and moral choice. What force then lies at the origin of the Constitution of the United States, beyond what may be labelled economic, political, legal, military or religious? What enabled the Constitution as we know it to come into existence? For Needleman, and as we shall see for one of us, Louis Herman in the following chapter, the answer is to be found in the superhuman struggle of individuals to listen to each other.

The fact is, for Needleman, something remarkable did take place at this meeting of ordinary men in the summer of 1787. And the fact is that something this extraordinary lies at the very foundation of America and even, to a significant extent, at the roots of modernity itself. Something redolent of the miraculous is at work here, some collective human action is at work that can serve as a symbol of the power of the authentic community. This is the power of listening from a deep source which opens people to the thoughts and views of their neighbour, to something wiser and finer. The Constitutional Convention is a specifically American symbol of the art and power of community.

WASHINGTON AND THE RENUNCIATION OF ACTION THE AMERICAN IDEAL OF SELF-IMPROVEMENT

A nation and a culture like America's, which thrives today on ever-accelerating outward motion and "doing" – this nation began with a man, one of those able to listen profoundly to others, whose action was in its way a renunciation of action. The "note" sounded by Washington, at the end of the Civil War, Needleman maintains, was one of letting go, as he retired to his farm at a tender age. Simultaneously, in him therefore, existed extraordinary selflessness and immense ambition, "non-action" and boldness, heart-rendering gentleness and terrifying ferocity, great striving and a capacity to see faults in himself, and to free himself from them.

The ideal of self-examination and self-empowerment, of working intentionally and methodically on one's faults, has always been – in one form or another – characteristic of the American psyche. It should be noted that it is when the ideal of self-improvement, Needleman maintains, is torn away from the ultimate context of service to others, when it is pursued primarily for one's own individual benefit, that it becomes the also typically American – today more than ever – but hardly admirable, obsession with personal material gain and success. Again and again with Franklin, with Washington and Jefferson, they were all, for Needleman, gods of the community, of moral care.

The Great Renunciation

The actual words of the Founding Fathers show how they considered the importance for the world of the American experiment. To them, and none more than Washington, the birth of America represented the first attempt of its kind in human history to bring moral and spiritual values into the day-to-day life of mankind, and to them the very future of the world depended on this effort.

What they saw, for Needleman, was great, and we must try to honour them for seeing it. However, as is so often the case in human life, what they failed to see was equally great. They were not of the stature of Moses, Jesus or Buddha; we must both re-mythologize what was great in them and also confront what they failed to see. Thus Washington could not really see the whole of America, and – sincere as his moral struggle, his battle of the will, was – he did not and perhaps could not see the nature of the American Indian. The full reality of the American Indian spiritual tradition was surely invisible to many of the U.S.' greatest forebears, just as was the human essence of the black slaves. This would live on to haunt America, to the present day. It should not altogether negate, though, the greatness that lay in the American soul, especially to the extent that such a soul force embraced the whole of the America(s), north and south, east and west.

The Forge of Experience

We are familiar with the revolution in the sciences brought about by the emphasis on experiment and experience that was brought into Western thought in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. We are less familiar with the emphasis on experiment and personal experience – this vision of the need to be free from blind belief – which is central to the sphere of moral life as well. Washington, Jefferson, Franklin were all telling us that in our lives and our science we should try things for ourselves, to work together in the forge of experience and thereby to sense and feel with body, mind and heart what we are and what we need.

America, then, was the creation of a collection of men in whom traces of ancient interior spiritual truths were honoured alongside the need to organize an immense new world of phenomenal potential wealth and power. This simultaneity of the spiritual and the material was of quite new coloration and energy. This simultaneity, for Needleman, was America. What does this specifically mean then, for the "Western" grounding of our integral polity?

THOMAS JEFFERSON: DEMOCRACY AS THE COMMUNAL SELF

Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence

There can be no politics, for Needleman, without psychology. And there can be no psychology without metaphysics, without a vision of the real world: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The Jeffersonian view of human nature is diametrically opposed to the Calvinistic doctrine of man's essential corruption and incapacity, and accords great powers and capacities to the human soul. Since every right implies a power, to grant man so many rights can only be based on an exalted vision of human powers. What may have seemed questions of only external, political relevance – questions that one can safely think about without reference to metaphysical or psycho-spiritual issues – now draw irrevocably into the heart of spiritual philosophy. In fact we are so troubled by the striving to get what we want, especially in comparison to what others may have or not have, that our thought rarely moves in a metaphysical direction – in the sense of asking ourselves what these rights are telling us about the structure of our being.

Two Americas; Two Democracies

Needleman then, drawing on Jefferson, comes to the conclusion that there are two Americas, and two democracies. There is the democracy of external order and action: the government of men and women in the material world. Yet even this external democracy could not exist without a process of self-development in men and women. Individuals within America's democracy cannot conduct their government without the development of their essential nature as human beings. Jefferson and many others identified this process of self-development with the education of the mind. But for Jefferson the education of the mind is only part of the necessary process of self-development without which external democracy would inevitably fail.

The second democracy, the second America, is not the democracy of personal preference; not the democracy of desire, but the democracy of conscience. Jeffersonian democracy symbolizes the possibility of both democracies existing one within the other, one allowing the other to flourish, each in its own way and at its own level. Hamiltonian or pragmatic, political democracy is one-dimensional. Jeffersonian democracy's ultimate aim is to protect the interior democracy. External democracy without spiritual democracy will otherwise inevitably destroy itself and the people within it.

 
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