THE SOUL OF A NATION: in brief (with audio)

On March 10th, 2016, I presented The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood to a group of scholars and journalists – mostly the former on this occasion – at the Center for American Studies in Rome.


L-R Dr. Andrea Chiappetta , Prof. Kevin L. Flannery SJ , Prof. Paolo Savarese, Prof. Christopher R. Altieri, Prof. Giorgio Salzano (the lovely lady in the foreground is Avv. Ester Rita, AKA Mrs. A; the young fellow to her right with his eyes fixed on the moderator and his elbows on the table is my son, Joseph)

Unfortunately, the recording I made of the event was corrupted.

Since several friends and colleagues have asked me what the book is about, and what was said at the presentation, I’ve decided to make a recording of the summary of the work I prepared when I was defending it as my PhD dissertation.

I decided to have some fun with this little exercise: I stayed pretty close to the prepared text, but I tried not to make it a “straight read” as we say in the trade, and I added a little music, top and tail, and have a couple of ad libs. I hope you all enjoy it (and if you do enjoy it, please do share it around).

The text of the presentation is below the audio.

This work considers an actual, historical political society as an apt field of study in and for the general science of order.

The work shows how the people that was formed through common experience on the northeastern littoral of the North American continent is particularly apt for this type of study. The aptness of the chosen historical society, however, becomes visible only during the course of the work, itself.

Specifically, that which emerges during the course of the work is that the debate over the kinds of institutions that are best for governing, which took place in the latter half of the 18th century among British colonists in the New World, was in reality a primarily anthropological debate – a debate over the nature of man and the constitution of society.

In the public square, the debate over the nature of man was intermingled with the debate over the right kinds of institutions for the specific mass of humanity that was living on or near the North-Eastern littoral of the North American continent. For those, who were actually conducting the debate, however, the anthropological question was prior to the institutional one – they knew that institutions are for human beings living in society.

Most importantly, the debate in the British colonies during the second half of the 18th century was a real, historical, practical example of the insight with which Plato began the critical scientific reflection on politics: the city is a man writ large, while society is a cosmos in miniature.

Thus, the work takes as its starting point the symbol in and around which that group of humanity, which was present along and relatively close to the aforementioned littoral, began to develop consciousness of itself as a distinct people – namely, “America”. America is the starting point, as I said, and it is also the object of the investigation – the point de depart and the point d’arrivée.

Here it is worthwhile to note that “America”, is a geographical designator and at the same time the name of a peculiar conceptual space. The geographical significance is rightly applicable to a broader territory than that comprehended by either the original littoral or even the present continental expanse of the United States, though the term has acquired its peculiar acception in the physical space occupied and governed by those human beings, who have become the people of the United States.

The point, here, is most emphatically not to deny that there are other conceptual spaces in the geographical area called America – perhaps the most pertinent example of which is Latin America, which extends through several geographical regions and constitutes a peculiar cultural-linguistic and political worldview. The point is rather that these are other conceptual spaces, with peculiarities and structures that qualify them as other than what citizens of the United States call “America”, peculiarities and structures that are independent of the conceptual space of the United States.

The United States is now and has been for some time possessed of enormous power and influence, for good or for ill, and the exertion of that power, the exercise of that influence is now and has been for many decades cause of, and occasion for considerable resentment among other peoples of the Americas and elsewhere. This work is not concerned with providing a criticism of, much less an apology for, the existence and exercise of U.S. power and influence. It is concerned with the generation of the conceptual space in and under which the people who created the United States came to recognize themselves as involved in a common way of life; as a matter of fact, the name they gave to that conceptual space is “America”.

As philosophers, we ought not to be scandalized by the phenomenon, but driven as by an impetus internal to the science we practice, to understand it. This is the spirit in which this work takes “America” as its object. 

Basic Premise and Problematic

The basic premise of this book is threefold:

  1. That the forma mentis of the founders of the political society that is often viewed – by its members and by those external to it – as the non plus ultra of modernity, that is, the United States of America, is really steeped in the more ancient tradition of thinking that began in Athens and continued – continues – through the Christian centuries.
  1. That the essence of human society is simultaneously to represent its’ members’ self-understanding and their understanding of the universal order in which the members participate by virtue of their human nature, is one of the deep and abiding currents of Western thinking.
  1. That the society in form for action in history in and through and under the symbol, “America” – in other words – is an apt field for the study of the general problem of order.

The present circumstances of science and of society, however, are certainly colored, even though they might not be entirely defined by attempts to render that deep and abiding current inaccessible. Whether by ignoring, obstructing redirecting, interrupting or by some other how, such attempts are characteristic of much thinking done since the disintegration of the social-political order that was known as Christendom.

This meant that I wanted a method that would allow me to recover the current within the structure and order of American society. The order of America, in fact, informed and directed the structure of American society, though the availability of that (or any) order would be only and entirely in the history of the society itself.

The procedure upon which I settled, then, sought to discover what Voegelin calls, “the unfolding of the typical in meaningful concreteness,” in America. This procedure, however, is not an innovation; it is rather a recovery.

Insofar as it was concerned with discovering and elaborating the structure of experience, the work might have found itself  placed in the way of phenomenology. The work was also concerned with the development of a language symbol, and this – on its own – would have made the work essentially hermeneutical. Taken together, however, the two moments placed the work in the way of Platonic anamnesis.

Now, anamnesis is not simply an epistemological and psychological doctrine among others; it is the word Plato used to describe the soul’s experience of openness to the transcendent ground of the order of being.

Conscious and critical exploration of the experience is achieved in and through a particular way of living in the world, one he called philosophia – though the conditions for philosophia are given only in human society, itself at once a man writ large and the cosmos writ small.

This work attempted (I should say with some degree of success) to render possible the search for the general principle of order within a given political society in historical existence – namely, within America.

The essay engages three 20th century philosophers, Eric Voegelin, Alasdair MacIntyre and Stanley Cavell.

In critical conversation with them and with the founding fathers, I basically show how a broad conversation regarding the constitution of society is constitutively present in the public discourse of the peoples that began to recognize themselves as such – I mean to say, as peoples, and eventually as one American people – during the imperial crisis of the late 18th century in what was then called British America; that the participants in that conversation have at least an inchoate awareness of society as at once cosmic and anthropological; that this makes the political society founded on the northeastern littoral of the North American continent particularly apt for a recovery of the kind of thinking that recognizes an actual, historical political society as an apt field of study in and for the general science of order.

Said shortly, the five chapters of the book recover the forma mentis of the U.S. founders and trace the development of their way of thinking, at least so far as to allow me to locate the founders’ forma mentis in the broader tradition of philosophical inquiry – broader, I mean to say, than the tradition of 17th and 18th century political liberalism in which it is usually located – and therefore to see it as a distinct, though not a separate moment in the history of the general science of order that has been called episteme politike and also “political philosophy”.

Overview of the Body

The work was accomplished in five chapters, with an interlude between the third and the fourth chapters, conceived as a break between and a passage from the first phase of the work to the second.

The first phase saw with Eric Voegelin that the basic problem of political science is the problem of representation, and that America, insofar as it emerges in history as a contest over representation, is an especially apt field for study of the basic problem.

After establishing the aptness of America as a field for studying the basic problem – now recognized as representation, though in a sense at once broader and more layered than the merely elemental or institutional – the next step was to observe the ordering forces at work in America, and in observing those forces, it became apparent that they originated in social and theoretical contexts that pre-dated the historical emergence of America.

This meant – this means – that the way of interpreting existence through the generation of America – the symbols that represent the truth and existence of America, including but not limited to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, were constitutive of a tradition of inquiry, and at the same time, possibly, of nationhood.

The next step was to observe that, and to a certain extent, how the search for order at the founding moment of American political independence was conducted as something I called with Stanley Cavell, a quest for the ordinary.

This was, broadly and roughly, the work of the first three chapters – and this work established that it would be at least arguable to claim the American tradition as one at once of inquiry and nationhood.

The final two chapters – the fourth and the fifth – constitute the second phase of the work and contain the conceptual nucleus of the project.

The order of society in America that had begun to emerge through the earlier chapters in a manner amenable to theorization, actually began to be theorized in the fourth chapter, which, you will recall, dealt with the presence of Gnostic threads in the fabric of America.

I would not dwell overmuch, at the present juncture, on the question of Gnosticism – at least not on its own merits. Ideally, this would be the time to turn to the theme of marriage in America – though I really cannot do more than mention that it is at this point in the work that marriage emerges as an explicit thematic concern.

The final two chapters also engaged the larger discussion of the project of philosophy as the science of order, though the engagement was with a view to establishing or recovering the beginnings of America’s theoretical articulation.

I have more to say in this regard, but I will say it in connection with my discussion of the nature and scope of the conclusions I reached – a discussion to which I now turn.

Nature and Scope of Conclusions

The concluding review did not seek to put a bow on definitions of problems exhaustively treated during the course of the work; rather, the basic task was to offer a sort of status quaestionis and articulate a series of further questions that were only, or at least much more readily amenable to formulation in light of and as a result of the work accomplished.

This is not to say that the conclusions are somehow hedged. The point is that to take the measure of a work in progress is delicate, and often difficult work; to conclude a stage of progress in a given task with a series of questions, the asking of which was either impossible, or only dimly possible, at the outset, is the sign of progress in the task of philosophy.

Most importantly, the work shows how the problem of America is intrinsically philosophical: it shows that, and how, questions belonging to philosophy arise in and under America, and it also shows that the human experience of awe at the order of creation, and of the intelligibility – is also the experience the founders discovered at the beginning of America. Specifically, the founders experienced this as a conversation of which they were neither the initiators, nor the concluders – an endless conversation.

The institutions erected by Americans emerged in these pages as an exercise in managing existential tensions that, while inevitably arising in and under elements of government, nevertheless bear principally on the constitution of the society for which those institutions are given.

America is, in short, a conceptual framework in which anthropological and social-constitutional questions inform and direct the search for answers to questions regarding the right structure of the elements of representation – that is to say, the former order of questions informs the institutions of government, so that America provides a reply to, and possibly a way to overcome the basic political problems of Modernity.

At the same time, the history of order in and under America shows how there is no ultimately or perfectly effective institutional guarantee against the decay of a society’s spiritual health. In other words, the general idea of freedom to pursue the good together in society, which America represents, can degenerate into post-modernity, and this possibility cannot be institutionally arrested or curtailed – at least not without violating the human freedom on which the experiment is based.

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