David McCullough is a national treasure. Here he is being engaged by Librarian of Congress James Billington on writing history, especially on writing about the man who was in my estimation the greatest Founding Father, John Adams.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
On Thursday, March 10th, 2016, I presented The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood at the Center for American Studies in Rome. Proff. Kevin Flannery SJ, Paolo Savarese, and Giorgio Salzano, my teachers, offered critical appraisal and appreciation of my effort, while I responded to their criticism and received their praise, all the while learning about the book I wrote, the country I love, and the way of life I have embraced.
It was an unmerited and unforgettable grace.
The video below (shot by my wife) contains a moment in which I respond to Fr. Flannery, SJ’s careful – even gently placed – criticism of my use of Plato, specifically my discovery of the idea that the city is a man writ large and society the cosmos in miniature, as a motive force and an ordering element in the forma mentis of the founding generation. It takes me a while to get into the issue – there was some work of gratitude to do – and I am confident I owe him more words on the subject, and better chosen ones – but no matter.
I also realize, having listened to my response, the debt I owe to Stanley Cavell – I seem to be channeling – almost parroting – him in a few moments (the audio is shaky – it was a big room and this was shot on a phone – but it sounds fine in a headset):
In 1960, John F. Kennedy ran on a platform of strong anti-Communism, strong national defense, commitment to allies and friendly neighbors, tax rate reduction, open markets – including labor markets – and global free trade, and streamlined, targeted use of government to remove unfair and unwarranted obstacles to personal and social advancement through education and work.
Kennedy ran as the standard bearer for everyone with a strong national commitment to working toward the ever more perfect realization of shared ideals, in the undeluded knowledge that perfect achievement of those ideals is impossible and the practical understanding that making the perfect the enemy of the good is the shortest route to the most hellish kind of failure abroad and collapse into dystopia at home.
In 1960, if you were a conservative, you voted for John F. Kennedy – if, that is, you voted according to your best and most basic principles, and not according to blind party loyalty or fear of the kind of change that sought to make America more like her best self – the kind of change that the late, great, Forrest McDonald described – when he described the work of the Framers at Philadelphia – as, “[S]imultaneously a conservative and a radical act. (Novus Ordo Seclorum, 261)”
The GOP platform in 1960 alternated between hackneyed rhetorical fluff and wonkish attention to detail (the former is always trite if not malodorous, and the latter is somewhere no one wants to go, since the devil lives there – and yet the popular vote in the 1960 Presidential election was a very fine thing, indeed). Neither the platform, nor the Party that drafted it, was ready in 1960 to lead the nation through troubled waters, being insufficiently oriented to the guiding light of the American forma mentis and therefore insufficiently clear of vision for the future – and their candidate was not good at faking it and was also – perhaps for the first time fatally in that year – bad on TV.
So, why is it that, in 2016, everyone seems to assume that the GOP has a lock on “the conservative vote” and why is it that the candidates in the field seem locked in a battle to win the title “MOST CONSERVATIV-EST-EST CANDIDATE EVER” and prove their mettle by showing how mean-spirited and short-sighted they can be?
Seriously: how did we get here?
Well, in part we got here by way of the nationalization of our political parties, which, until perhaps four decades ago (unscientific estimate) were little more than local political clubs that got together once every four years to choose a candidate for President.
N.B. this is not to say that there were not “ideological” divides in America until the late 1970s or early 1980s. It is to say that those divides did not, until relatively recently, follow party lines: you had western Democrats who were far more conservative than New York Republicans, and vice-versa, and no one batted an eyelash, since each one was beholden primarily to his home constituency and national issues emerged and were not manufactured by the glorified money-raising and vote-getting machines called “national committees”.
Indeed, the swiftness and thoroughness with which both Parties have nationalized and combined to organize the national electoral apparatus in favor of the status quo, with each Party having its unofficial allotment of “safe seats”, suggests more strongly with each passing day some sort of collusion – not necessarily of the nefarious sort, though that is the most common sort in political at all times, anywhere – and in any case we need not speculate on the motivation in order to see the effects, lament them, and desire remedy.
The present election cycle may offer us a remedy, or a way toward a remedy, in that we may see both major Parties in the United States for the first time in a very long time (and perhaps for the first time in history – but do not quote me on that) each run a candidate who is not the favorite of each Party’s primary electorate.
If this happens, it will either break the stranglehold of national committees on the Parties – for people will not tolerate their voices being ignored – and arrest the process of nationalization of the major Parties, or it will end in their triumph and sound the death knell for the old organization, which is one of the last structural brakes on the baleful “spirit of faction”, which the Founders and Framers decried as the eternal and ever-living enemy of ordered liberty, and arguably foresaw as the destroyer of our republic.
Dear friends, this week we celebrated the life and legacy of a man who was, arguably, the greatest American of the 20th century, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I have always loved and admired Dr. King, for as long as I can remember. For his refusal to disengage from the conversation of justice that constitutes us a people, even and especially in the face of hateful attempts to exclude him from it, he was and he remains a hero of America.
To say he was no stranger to violence would be gross understatement, and yet he constantly refused to give in to the temptation to violent revenge or even the use of physical force to vindicate his and his fellows’ rights. He was well aware of the danger to America, should we not choose to address the grievous wrongs done and the hideous injustice regularly perpetrated against black citizens:
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
Still, he understood that even momentary surrender to the temptation to violence would be ruinous to the souls of citizens and to the soul of the nation he loved:
In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.
In this day: when we see the vaults of justice strained by woeful wrongs unremedied, and when we ourselves are tempted – in many areas of life and for causes trivial by comparison with those for which Dr. King struggled so mightily and so well – by the blandishments of facile delight in insult and cajoling, and compound the sin of our indulgence by painting it in the color of high polemic; when we substitute dispassionate discourse with vitriolic dismissal, eschew the reasonable probing of our interlocutors’ positions with an improbable rhetoric of cheap and easy pseudo-remonstration; when we reject decent expressions of legitimate concern over matters of formulation, implication, or direction, in favor of deliriously absolute denunciations; when, in short, we prefer the base pleasure of browbeating to the rare joy of argument; we would do well to remember Dr. King’s advice and example:
WHILE confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling our present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom, if ever, do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all of the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would be engaged in little else in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I would like to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.
If prudent consideration of who and what is worth our moral and spiritual energies ever seems too costly; if the temptation to sentiments of outrage and moral superiority ever seem too powerful; if discipline and restraint in response to provocation ever seem too much to ask; remember that Dr. King wrote those words, and the words that followed, from a jail cell in which he had been confined because he believed that “all men are created equal” was not mere rhetorical fancy written in revolutionary fever, but the genuine expression of the moral and spiritual commitment in which we discover ourselves a nation – the ordering principle in the soul of our nation, the manifestation of the truth of which in our national life is the highest aspiration of our people.
Below, please find an extended (and slightly modified) excerpt from my book, The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood, in which I discuss some of the reasons for King’s greatness as a representative of the best of us as a people.
King was an American representative, precisely because he sought with his mind and his body to show, not how the elements of power erected for the preservation of American society were in need of fundamental change, but how they were being employed in a manner systematically and diametrically repugnant to the truth they were designed to realize. King was arrested several times during the course of his work. Most famously, he was arrested on 12 april, 1963, on the charge of parading without a permit. King, with Ralph Abernathy and other leaders of the nationwide agitation for civil rights, had come to Birmingham, in Alabama. King had called on Birmingham in order to lead a non-violent citizens’ manifestation, the purpose of which was to protest the injustice of laws that segregated white persons from black persons in Birmingham, the capital, and Alabama, and the whole south of the country and the whole country, generally. King set out his reasons for pursuing non-violent action in a letter dated april 16th, 1963, in which he responded to a series of concerns expressed by fellow clergymen regarding the conduct of civil rights agitation in alabama. Three points of the letter interest us at present. The first of these is King’s close analysis of the nature of law:
You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust.
It is not only necessary, but right and good to obey the law. This means that the edicts of constituted authorities must enjoy habitual obedience, and so precisely insofar as they come from the constituted authorities. The order of society would disintegrate without obedience to constituted authority. The need for a constituted authority is clear, and the nervous tension in the minds of the nine religious leaders who wrote to King is perfectly understandable and even laudable, as King himself is at pains to recognize in the letter. King’s argument appeals to what we might call the idem sentire, the “common sense” of American society. having thus presented his problematic in terms as favorable to his interlocutors as possible, King enlarges:
How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? a just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. an unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas aquinas: an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. any law that uplifts human personality is just. any law that degrades human personality is unjust. all segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-Thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound; it is morally wrong and awful. Paul Tillich said that sin is separation. is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.
The second and third principle points of interest emerge from this paragraph. The second point is that the law, in order to be just, i.e., to conform to the good of the people and the constitution of society, must edify human personality. This is to say that the law presupposes an idea of man, of which it is a reflection. Basically, we may say that the structure of any given society reflects the way its members conceive human nature, so that a society with a warped vision of human nature will have bad laws and will suffer under the effect of them. It would be, then, the duty of those within society who recognize the evil effects of a warped understanding of human nature, to correct the mistaken understanding; one of the ways in which to effect the correction, indeed the best way, is to secure habitual acceptance of edicts that are in conformity with the proper understanding of human nature. The third point of note is that King, in citing Socrates, Martin Buber and St. Thomas aquinas, is not involving himself in an isolated, ivory tower meditation, abstracted from social reality. He is making explicit the historical instances of thought in which truths active in the formation of an idea of man that we may call, “American”, received theoretical articulation; King accomplishes his explication, precisely by recalling certain thinkers who articulated the ideas constitutive of that history. Simply put, “America” is an expression of certain ideas that inform and illuminate society in the united States. Thus, the States are united “of America”. America unifies the States. America also, and indeed in the first, unites Americans, for it is Americans who make the union of States. for this reason, and to the extent that this is true, could King write in reply to the clergy’s objection to his presence as an ‘outside agitator’, “Anyone who lives inside the united States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” King gives several persons in example of his understanding of the when and how of civil disobedience’s justification:
Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. it was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience.
The Jewish faithful disobey Nebuchadnezzar because they participate in the direct experience of Divine transcendent order. The three take part in that order by virtue of their having been born into the race of men that is representative of humanity under the direction of the Divine. The three are directly under the Divine and are his representatives in history; no human being has authority over them. The importance of Hebrew history for the American forma mentis is recognized virtually universally.
Noteworthy then, is that our discussion of Dr. King’s rhetoric to this point at the very least suggests the following: that King is not citing the faithful three simply because certain rabbis were cosignatories of the open letter that occasioned his response. Instead, we may say with a degree of plausibility that King is responding to his interlocutors as an American addressing Americans. It is in this context that we must understand King’s invocation of the story from the Hebrew Scriptures. Thus, the American expression of order is traceable to the emergence of hebrew order in its explosion of one-to-one cosmic analogy in social structure beginning with Pharaoh-Ra, and proceeding to israel’s encounter with the Babylonian order of empire epitomized by Nebuchadnezzar). Socrates discovered the human-divine orientation by giving attention to the voice of a god. The inscription above the entrance to the Delphic oracle, “Know thyself!”, was generally understood to mean, “Know that you are not a god,” which is to say, “Think human thoughts.” Socrates recognized that, if the inscription meant what Athenians took it to mean, then every human attempt to obey the dictum would be in contravention of it, for the human person who heeds the command is heeding the words of a god, which is precisely the activity proscribed by the construction, which Athenian society had put on the command. In so doing, Socrates is challenging the Athenian understanding of what a human being is; by issuing such a challenge, which is a new claim regarding human nature, Socrates is setting himself up against the authority of athens as interpreted by Socrates’ athenian contemporaries. That King is able to call on Socrates to witness the justice of King’s own act of civil disobedience in America, i.e., King’s claim to the effect that America in some way requires his act of civil disobedience, or that King’s own act of civil disobedience is American and that the American is steeped in the tradition to which Socrates’ act in some wise belongs (which is to say that America has benefited from Socrates’ act—and this is King’s almost explicit claim—thereby incurring a debt that America must pay and pay in kind), suggests that America is (has paid its debt by becoming?) a conceptual space in which the apparently intractable enmity of athens for Socrates has been overcome. Would this not mean, in its turn, that America, i.e., the conceptual space in which that union of persons is formed and nurtured, which forges the union of States and gives sense to the name, “United States of America”, is essentially the conception of a philosophical mission? Is this not the answer to the political problem proposed by Plato in another famous letter? Would it not explain the strange, even uncanny fact that, while the athenian crisis of order produced Socrates and Plato, and the Roman crisis of the late fourth and early fifth centuries issued forth in St. augustine, and the internecine wars of europe in the aftermath of Christendom’s disintegration gave Hegel to the warring German principates; the United States, through all its many crises, has never had a philosopher, but never failed to have a statesman?
The Examples of King: Athens and Jerusalem in America
As we have begun to see, another question that King’s “letter” presses upon us is that of athens and Jerusalem. a certain author, whose works and whose teaching have achieved national prominence of late in both the universities and the public discourse of the American nation, has argued that athens, the representative of philosophy, is locked in eternal and irreducible opposition to Jerusalem, the city founded by faith.
Assuming for the sake of argument that there is or can be such an opposition, and admitting the possibility of that opposition’s being eternal and irreducible, is not America as King presents it to us in his use of it an overcoming of the opposition of athens and Jerusalem? Does America overcome the enmity of Athens and Jerusalem? Is it rather true that America is possible because the opposition of athens and Jerusalem has been overcome?
King says that the first Christians deliberately disobey “certain unjust laws of the Roman empire.” What laws were they, and on what grounds does King presume to call them unjust? Generally, Christians would face execution because they committed treason by refusing to swear by the god augustus or by the reigning emperor. in the Roman order of empire as it existed in pagan antiquity, the State was the supreme religious authority, originally in the Senate and, from the time of augustus, the emperor, who assumed the presidency of the college of augurs and the high priesthood of Rome.
The reason for this was that the State was still understood to be the direct and unique mediator between the earth-bound human and the divine transcendent. The advent of Christianity is a direct political challenge to the power of the Caesars: when Christ says to Caesar (through Caesar’s representative), “Yes [I am a king], though my kingdom is not of this earth,” Christ is claiming two things: His kingdom could never be conquered by Caesar, even though Caesar should conquer and rule over every square inch of the planet; He, as the earthly representative of an other-worldly realm, is mediator between God and man.
When Christianity is accepted by a sufficient number of citizens, the imperial order itself will be threatened; the State will no longer be divine mediator for the Roman people. a Roman who accepts Christianity, however, does not thereby cease to be a Roman, just as a Platonist does not cease to use his reason in his embrace of Christianity. it is for precisely this reason that the Roman order of empire required a rethinking; for precisely this reason, St. Augustine responds to the Roman crisis of order in the 5th century by arguing that Christianity is not the bane of Roman imperial order, but its completion and perfection, or rather that Christianity represents the chance for Rome to keep faith with its best angels.
Fides (faith), after all, is a technical term of Roman jurisprudence. It is in precisely Augustine’s understanding of the Roman sense that America is founded on faith, for the American decision to have a people emerges from the debate over what kind of foedus to make among persons whose depravity requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, but whose other qualities justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. The American choice for a republic is an expression of assent to an understanding of human being as naturally capable of faith, for republican government presupposes the presence in human nature of precisely those qualities, which justify esteem and confidence in a higher degree than any other form. Is this not reasonable?
The founding fathers believed that it is; believing its reasonability, they acted. our claim for America is that America is the expression of an experience that makes a difference. The American tradition, in which King lives and for fellows in which he writes, is itself steeped in the tradition we have just discussed. in order to understand the expression of America, i.e., in order to grasp that of which America is an expression, we must turn to the human experience of order on the continent called North America. A way toward that task, as it were, may be found in King’s own public and representative use of America.
King and America
Later in 1963, from the steps of the lincoln Memorial, King gave a speech to the quarter part of one million Americans, gathered on the National Mall. That speech, known the world over as the “I have a Dream” speech, illustrates the presence of a particular American idiom, the origins of which we saw in the writing of the critical period [the British imperial crisis that led to the separation of the colonies from the British Empire and the founding of the United States – CRA], so that the presence of the idiom as a part of or a sign of the ordering power of the conceptual space called america was assured as lately as 1963.
In that speech, King employs the words, “America” and “American” a total of nine times. The oblique references to America, such as “the nation”, and “our republic” are myriad. More important than “the nation”, and prior both chronologically and conceptually in the speech, is King’s use of the first person plural possessive article, “our”, in describing the “nation.”
King opens his speech by claiming, “I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” From the very beginning, then, King presents his case as a full member of the American nation, and the importance of this cannot be overstated, for it was precisely this that was at stake. in speaking as an American, King is making himself a representative of America. The logic of King’s speech, further, is such that America is an idea that is, that must be, embodied—its existence outside the American nation is a sort of half-life, and its flourishing depends on the right ordering of the body politic that knows itself as America. Those who embody America are responsible to America, and so to each and every one of their fellows. We see this logic at work when King says:
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
In the first place, King assumes the inclusion of “black men as well as white men” in the promises of the Declaration. The second thing to emerge is the affinity, to the point of interchangeability and, in this particular idiom, synonymy of the terms, America and Justice, American and Just. The riches of freedom and the security of justice are stored, says King, in the vaults of America.
As the economic language suggests, however, King, was not inventing an idiom; however deft his use; he was only using the language of public discourse in the united States, as he had inherited it. Through all the turmoil of the second half of the last century, the citizenry of the united States constantly asked themselves, in deliberating any question important to the common good, what the “American” thing to do might be. Racial segregation was decried as un-American. Communism was un-American. This last, interestingly, produced a backlash of fear and suspicion that led to the formation of the House un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC), which eventually became the object of most vitriolic condemnation as being itself essentially un-American. In the minds of U.S. citizens, America was synonymous with goodness, American with the good, and un-American with evil. If to ask, “What is the American thing to do?” was to ask, “what is the right thing to do?” then to ask, “What is America?” was to ask, “What is the good?” The U.S. citizenry was concerned with discovering the good, and convinced that it must be directed by the object of that search in its national life.
At the same time—and this is the genius of King’s employment of the American idiom—the citizens of the united States recognize themselves as Americans. In its turn, this claim to be Americans, is to recognize that there is good in the order of society in the united States.
There is a grave danger in this: properly ordered, America will be informed by the right apprehension of the good; there is, however, no guarantee that some, and so perhaps even a majority, or at least a number sufficient to subvert the order of society, would pervert the order of understanding, whether by inversion, or replacement. This is the unavoidable risk involved in founding a nation in view of the good.
In other words, America is not an empty concept. it is not that, in the words of one historian, “The Jeffersonian [i.e., American rhetoric as guided and established by the Declaration] magic works because we permit it to function in a rarefied rhetorical region where real-world choices do not have to be made.” Quite the contrary, American rhetoric “works” precisely to the extent that citizens of the United States can and do inform and perfect their citizenship by sharing in common experiences of the good, to which they give the name, America, and from which they receive the name, Americans.
This is what King saw, and this is the reason for which he was able to say:
[M]any of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. . .their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.
Many thousands of the participants in the manifestation at which King delivered his remarks had, quite literally, marched on Washington, walking to the capital from hundreds of miles away, as in a pilgrimage. King’s language is symbolic, to be sure; it is a symbolic extension of U.S. citizens’ concrete act of coming to the head of the united States, by which act Americans came together in the living heart of America.
Concluding his speech, King says, “[I]f America is to be a great nation, this [dream of mine] must become true.” Far from operating at a rarefied level, King’s dream is, “deeply rooted in the ‘American Dream,’” so that the American Dream is fertile soil, and not rare atmosphere. Fertile soil, however, is made of the detritus of years past, which nurture the new growth, the roots of which keep both the organism and the soil that nurtures it, in place. This is another way of saying that the American people is constituted.
The question is: “how?”
After a week filled with much banter about Sen. Ted Cruz’s eligibility for the office of President of the United States – banter that ranged in tone and content from the conspicuously erudite to the hifalutin’ and nonsensical – I decided to offer my $0.02 on the matter. I’ve also linked to a SoundCloud audio file here, in which I have a little fun playing the professor and hamming it up a little with my delivery.
Alright, folks, I’m only going to say this once: Sen. Cruz meets the Constitutional requirement of natural citizenship for the same reason President Obama meets the same requirement: both have their US citizenship from birth, through their respective mothers.
It does not matter where they came out of their mothers’ bodies (though I do believe the State of Hawaii when it tells me the President was born there).
Here is where you’re going wrong: while it is true that everyone born on US soil is a natural-born citizen, it is not true that no one not born on US soil is a natural-born citizen. Savvy?
Here is what the Constitution says on the matter: “No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President[.] (Article II, Section 1)”
Here is the pertinent part of the US Code governing how natural birth is to be understood:
8 U.S. Code § 1401 – Nationals and citizens of United States at birth
The following shall be nationals and citizens of the United States at birth:
(g) a person born outside the geographical limits of the United States and its outlying possessions of parents one of whom is an alien, and the other a citizen of the United States who, prior to the birth of such person, was physically present in the United States or its outlying possessions for a period or periods totaling not less than five years, at least two of which were after attaining the age of fourteen years[.]”
“Why did you happen to have all this to hand?” you ask.
I am the proud father of two natural-born US citizens, both of whom were born abroad. Each of my children has a certificate from the US Consulate certifying that they acquired citizenship at birth.
This is important: the certificate is just that – a CERTIFICATE. It doesn’t do anything (we don’t think a birth certificate is required in order for someone to be born, do we?), but only CERTIFIES that something happened.
I never voted for the incumbent POTUS, and I wouldn’t vote Sen. Cruz for dog-catcher, alright? That’s neither here nor there.
Now stop, please.
There are plenty of banana republics in the word for me to report on, without my own country trying to act like one.
THERE HAS BEEN a lot of wondering out loud about why news outlets are describing the folks holed up in the federal building in Oregon as “militia” rather than “terrorists”. Well, this time I’m with the journalists: apparently the occupiers have a legal name, organizational command structure, and even uniforms (or at least distinguishing markers); they have seized a government building and are only threatening force against government forces that attempt forcibly to remove them from their ensconcement. They are, on this reading, in the strict sense of the term, rebel militia.
We’re in a very bad, dark place right now: when we stop talking with one another, really, really terrible things happen; when we stop talking with one another, we almost immediately start doing terrible things to one another. So, let’s tone down the rhetoric, which, at its present level of fervor is already hastening the hour in which we shall abandon all pretense of recourse to words: everyone has a legitimate gripe, and no one is without some share of responsibility for the present precarious state of our national discourse.
If we look deep in our history and our doctrine, we will find this admonition, offered by our greatest president on the eve of our greatest crisis – a crisis precipitated in no small measure by another seizure of another federal building by another militia:
My countrymen, one and all, think calmly and well upon this whole subject. Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time. If there be an object to hurry any of you in hot haste to a step which you would never take deliberately, that object will be frustrated by taking time; but no good object can be frustrated by it. Such of you as are now dissatisfied still have the old Constitution unimpaired, and, on the sensitive point, the laws of your own framing under it; while the new Administration will have no immediate power, if it would, to change either. If it were admitted that you who are dissatisfied hold the right side in the dispute, there still is no single good reason for precipitate action. Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land are still competent to adjust in the best way all our present difficulty.
In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect, and defend it.”
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
The alternative? That, too, is in our history: remember how we treated that other rebel militia; federal troops under the command of Col. Robert E. Lee stormed the Harper’s Ferry arsenal in 1859.
Remember what happened after that?
Remember what happened after that.
The next time you are angry, and ready to demand justice untempered by mercy: the next time you are tempted to let another’s wickedness be proof of your own virtue; the next time you feel that enough is enough; that the time for words is passed; that the time for deeds is come; remember what comes after that.