Authors & Thought Leaders

Philosopher Jacob Needleman on The American Soul

Published on July 1, 2017

Article by Jacob Needleman

Jacob Needleman, a religious scholar and the author of more than 30 books, came to Bodhi Tree Bookstore in February 2002 to discuss his book The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders. Weaving together politics, history, religion, philosophy and mythology, Needleman takes a fresh look at the lives and ideals of our nation’s founders and heroes, examining issues of morality and truth, war and peace, and the role of government. In this talk, Needleman urges us to inquire more deeply—without sentimentality or cynicism—into our American origins.


Philosopher Jacob Needleman on The American Soul

Photo: John Oliver

Photo: John Oliver

Jacob Needleman’s Story

Jacob Needleman, a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University, and a former director of the Center for the Study of New Religions at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, was educated in philosophy at Harvard, Yale and the University of Freiburg, Germany. He was general editor of the Penguin Metaphysical Library, a highly acclaimed selection of 16 reprinted texts dealing with the contemporary search for spiritual ideas and practice, and the Element Books’ series The Spirit of Philosophy, which was aimed at repositioning the teachings of the great philosophers of the West to show their relevance to the modern spiritual quest. In addition to his teaching and writing, Needleman serves as a consultant in the fields of business, psychology, education, medical ethics and philanthropy. He has also been featured on Bill Moyers’ acclaimed PBS series A World of Ideas. His latest book, I Am Not I, is a dialogue between a guide and a seeker, bringing age-old questions about awakening into the present day. —Justine Amodeo

“…America is the fact, the symbol and the promise of a new beginning. And in human life, in our lives as they are, this possibility is among the most sacred aspects of existence.… If America loses the meaning of its existence and if, in fact, America is now the dominant cultural influence in the world, then what will become of the world?” —Jacob Needleman

The following is edited from Jacob Needleman’s 2002 Bodhi Tree Bookstore presentation.

Reconnecting to the Ancient Wisdom Tradition

Jacob Needleman: I never dreamed I would ever be writing a book about America. I was brought up in Philadelphia but I was allergic to anything having to do with American history or politics. I felt love for my country but this love seemed to come from something in the air, something in the fields, or something having to do with the flag. I think the events of September 11th have allowed many of us to reconnect with our love for America in one way or another.

At the core of all the great religions and spiritual philosophies there is a single, unitary vision of what a human being is. It is a vision of nature, a vision of the structure of the world, and a vision of both what we are meant to be, and how we are supposed to get to that point. Aldous Huxley spoke of this core as the “perennial philosophy,” while other writers have called it the “primordial tradition.” In my book, I refer to this great vision of humanity and life simply as “the ancient wisdom tradition.” Ever since I began writing books, I have been trying to understand—both academically and personally—how this unitive vision could be applied to the actual problems and questions we face in our culture and everyday life.

The Spiritual Quest of America’s Founders

The American Soul focuses on the questions: What is America? And what does America mean? In my mind, and perhaps in yours as well, there is no doubt that these are burning issues for our time. When I started working on this book some dozen years ago, I had a friend in San Francisco who was constantly talking about the mystical meaning of America and its spiritual destiny in the world. At first I couldn’t connect with his ideas, but what he said intrigued me and drew me to study our history and the life stories of the founders of America. To my amazement—and joy—I found that so many of the leaders of this country had as their central concern an inner question —a question of truth, spirit and conscience. And of course, I also found commercialism, politics and all the rest. But a fundamental current for many of these men and women was what I would call the spiritual quest.

My book is not a history book, but it is an attempt to read history differently: to make a bridge between the great traditions of spiritual teachings and the history of America. In that sense, it’s an attempt to tell the story of America again in a new, deeper way. What I’m trying to do is “re-mythologize” our story and make it a symbol for grownups who themselves are in search of some meaning. So I re-examine a few of the principal figures of American history: the great heroes—Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Franklin—and the great moments, such as the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787, which was an astonishing event. All these men came from their different colonies, their different states, met in the Philadelphia State House to forge a more coherent union. Among them was George Washington, a man of tremendous presence, and Benjamin Franklin, with his crafty, beautiful mind, and his spiritual canniness. Also in the room was James Madison, who was an extraordinary genius. They listened to one another, and eventually they were compelled or attracted or persuaded to reach an agreement. Particularly because they were in the presence of a tremendous need, they allowed a new intelligence to enter into the life of this young nation, and that brought into existence what I consider to be the cathedral of America: the Constitution. We have this art form of government that, in my opinion, is the art form of the future, one that allows people to work together.

The Metaphysical Meaning of Democracy

Consider Washington. What does he mean to us? Washington is unique among great leaders who have held this great power. Twice in his life, he stunned the world by yielding his power and giving it up: first by stepping back from the generalship of the Revolutionary Army after the Revolutionary War, when he could easily have become the king of America; the second time he stepped back was at the end of the second term as president when, despite the Constitution, he could have stayed in office until his death. But he wanted the election to take place with his approval so that the presidency would not become an American monarchy. Washington has, for me, the perfume of a Taoist meditation master. By yielding power, he brought great goodness to the community and the nation.

Many of the speeches and letters of our founders have an inner resonance as well as an external meaning. What do liberty, independence and democracy mean in the context of a community? They mean we have a nation of people trying to regard each other as equal, not in some superficial sense, but as equal participants in a higher reality, because each person has the spark of divine conscience within him or herself. For me, that is the spiritual and metaphysical meaning of democracy and liberty. Liberty not meaning just the ability to get what you want, but the freedom to search for conscience and the freedom to try to obey it as well.

America’s Two Great Crimes

But it would be inadequate—or even hypocritical—to tell this story without also including the great crimes of America, since a nation, even more than a human being, has two sides to it. One side strives upward, while the other falls downward. My book looks into two of the major crimes of America upon which a lot of wealth and power were based—slavery and the destruction of the culture and the people of Native America.

I discovered the figure of Frederick Douglass, a man of the 19th century, who freed himself from slavery with a tremendously courageous struggle. He then became unsurpassed as the articulator of the crime of slavery and the need to end it. He appears in the book as the conscience of America who tells us to remember what we are. When you study slavery in depth and try to understand what it was like, you begin to feel an overwhelming sense of remorse. Remorse is not guilt, though, which is an attempt to erase something in one’s mind. One must work for civil rights and equality, and correct all the injustice as much as one can. But, as Frederick Douglass himself said, “You’re never going to bring these lives back, you’re never going to bring these families back. They’re gone.” He tried to get white America to feel what slavery was, so that feeling of remorse can bring about healing.

Turning to the American Indian, what I discovered was the story of the creation of the universe in the Iroquois tradition. This creation story is a vast cosmic myth that centers around two brothers, good and bad, respectively, representing the two forces that created the human race. This story also links to a somewhat better known myth of the Iroquois relating to the creation of their Constitution, which is called the “Great Peace.” It startlingly echoes many things in our Constitution to the extent that some scholars see it as a direct influence. In any case, the echo is there, and it throws light on the greatness of the Iroquois, and on the cosmic dimensions of a democratic system of government. But then, one troubling question remains: How does the destruction of the American Indian fit into the American story in light of the great traditions? My feeling is that the Native Americans were living in a way that corresponded to the needs of the Earth. America cannot really recompense or atone for the Indian unless we, ourselves, develop the same relationship to the natural world. And that, I think, can be done.

Where America Stands Now

Finally, we can ask: What is the meaning of America now? America is unique in our world today because of its tremendous power and influence, and as a result, all the forces of the earth are pouring through it. But being such an enormous entity, there are many people hating it and loving it. Nevertheless, America can justify itself because its governmental structure is one that freely allows the search for conscience to take place. It is the protector of the search for inner truth, leading to spiritual, ethical or moral understanding, and power and action.

Now, let me go back one step further to the origins of my book. A great spiritual friend and mentor of mine was an immigrant from Scotland. He used to call himself the “last American.” He loved America in a way that I didn’t quite understand until I worked on this book. Late one afternoon in 1974, some students and colleagues were sitting outside at a summer cottage on San Francisco Bay, having informal conversation. This was toward the end of the Vietnam War, and some of the students were speaking against America in very vigorous ways, as they sometimes of course do now: America was raping the world; American corporations were greedy; America was intervening and destroying the cultures of other civilizations; America was all about money and power; injustice was built into the system, and et cetera. At one point my friend became very quiet and, slowly, put his down his drink on the table. He did it so slowly that it seemed like some kind of ritual. Suddenly, everybody became very silent. And after a few moments of quiet, he simply said, “You don’t know what you have here.” He repeated it: “You simply don’t know what you have here.” Soon afterward, almost without speaking, we all got up and left. Certainly he was speaking about America, but what did he mean? And in a sense, this very long, heavy book, is all a commentary on those few words: “You don’t know what you have here.”

Excerpts From The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founder

I’ like to read to you from the book to give you a little of its flavor or perfume. This is from our visit (my wife and I) to the Lincoln Memorial followed by our visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. First the Lincoln Memorial (starting at page 272, cloth edition).

One feels, here, the Civil War as America’s great wound, even though in fact it resulted in a stronger union, due to Lincoln’s unwavering vision throughout. Of course, there is also something about the wound of the Civil War that has not yet healed; it still aches and oozes its poisons. At the same time, there exists ever-increasing hope that the wound of slavery will be healed in the passage of time. Hope in America. But there is another aspect of this wound that will not and should not ever heal. It has nothing to do, directly, with the suffering of the war, the 600,000 deaths; nothing directly to do with the horrors of slavery. It has to do almost entirely with the death of Lincoln himself. No other death has such power to bring tears to us. Lincoln never saw, never lived to see the results of his struggle and never lived to govern an America at peace. And yet, at this memorial, one feels—without any sentimentality—that we are being watched. One feels here the unfathomable powerlessness of the dead—together with their even more incomprehensible power to watch us, to see what we are and what we are becoming. Here, Lincoln comes to represent the deeply mysterious power of the look, of seeing. The force of this look has everything to do with the man and the way he disappeared. It teaches us, this monument, not so much that the dead hero sees us, but that there is a seeing that is like death itself—invisible, all-pervasive, without any capacity or even wish to act or do, yet with an irresistible power to penetrate and influence that which is seen. The monument completes the image of the living Lincoln. The living Lincoln is the mystery of presence; the dead Lincoln is the manner of seeing that emanates from pure presence. All without words, without conceptualization, without manipulation.

The next reading is about our visit to the Vietnam Veteran Memorial (starting at page 276, cloth edition).

It was actually an accident, more or less. We intended to visit the Jefferson Memorial next, but on the way back to our car, we passed groups of people and individuals that attracted my attention in a strange way. They seemed to have a certain look, a certain feeling about them—men and women, younger and older, people of all kinds and backgrounds. Thinking back on it, perhaps what drew me most was the sameness of feeling in all these dozens and dozens of people. When you pass people on the street, some are happy, some are sad, some are bored, some are distracted, some are tense, some smile, some frown, some seem lost in dreams, some are scowling,… But here, everyone seemed the same—quiet, sober, yet with eyes glistening and bodies moving with full, vibrant strides. Semi-consciously, not really aware of what was drawing us, we simply walked past the car and onto a broad lawn. The sober, vibrant people kept coming and coming. We soon found ourselves in front of Frederick Hart’s statue of the Three Soldiers and we realized we were at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It was a cloudy, windy spring day and the astonishingly realistic soldiers seemed suddenly to materialize out of the moist wind and the thin, warm mist. As though out of another dimension of time. For a startling instant, I actually thought they were real soldiers and was momentarily alarmed by their automatic weapons. I realized it was a statue the same moment I was struck by the young vulnerability of their faces. They seemed eternally lost and frightened, listening and looking for danger—simultaneously ready to kill and to cry.

 Of course, I had heard a great deal about the Vietnam Memorial: how in 1981 a design chosen from over a thousand entries turned out to be the work of Maya Ying Lin, a 21-year-old design student at Yale. I had mentally appreciated the idea of her design from the pictures of it: a polished black granite wall, V-shaped and half-buried in the ground, inscribed with the 58,000 or so names of the dead, and reflecting the faces of the viewers as they passed by. Well before one begins down the path that runs alongside the black granite wall, one is struck by the impression of a monument that does not soar. It is the only such monument in Washington, and perhaps in all of America. It does not soar or rise upward; it is not positive. It recedes, it opens downward, it is an absence, like a permanent wound. Off to one side is the towering obelisk of the Washington Monument and to the other the Lincoln Memorial. Compared to the Vietnam Memorial, even the statue of Lincoln in all its somber majesty represents a positive statement, a hope, an affirmation rooted in the experience of remorse and sorrow. Not so the Vietnam Memorial. One begins walking past the black stone with the engraved names at ankle height. There at one’s feet are death and grief and error, while at the same time one’s eyes and ears and breathing take in the wide green lawn, the air, the trees and milling people, the traffic passing back and forth.

As one walks, one descends. Gradually. Something is entering into the psyche. But from below. Nearly unnoticed. One’s head is still in the living and doing world, the world of action and decision. But something is entering more and more from below. In one’s consciousness, one is aware of the names of the dead. One has thoughts of sorrow and sympathy, or perhaps anger or fear. One sees the flowers placed at the foot of the wall by loving relatives. One sees people taking rubbings of a name here and there. The names themselves begin to take on lives of their own—suddenly they all seem to be the names of one being, one person—like the million names of God. These are the million names of mortal man.

Having such thoughts, one walks and is moved by this profoundly conceived memorial. Yet the most important thing is happening under the surface of one’s consciousness, from below. The black wall rises and rises. One hardly notices the wall rising, the names growing—until, suddenly, I see myself in the wall, my face and body on the other side, as it were, of the names of the dead; myself in the land of the dead. Yet I am alive, and from the land of the dead I am seeing myself, here and now, walking. I am being watched by some presence in the land of the dead; and the presence watching myself is: myself!

The wall is now higher than my head. The world is now only this black granite mirror, the thousands of names like thousands of eyes. What has been entering from below has now filled me completely and has softly displaced my thoughts and images of death and war. I am only darkness and the seeing of these names that are eyes; I am only a black, stone mirror. Although I continue walking, I no longer feel myself as moving; time has stopped. I see my image and the image of my wife with me, in the black wall, through the names that are eyes. In that black mirror is the world where all color is true and black at the same time.

And suddenly, something brilliant enters my eyes, painfully brilliant. The living and breathing world! Real, green grass; beams of sunlight; real people moving around; trees; air, light, buildings! I am in the world again, alive. I had started walking up the incline, without noticing it. The wall had been growing lower again, without my noticing it. And now, at eye level, the three-dimensional, affirming world returns to me; my head is above the wall, then my shoulders, then my waist. And in that progression, the black anti-world of the Vietnam War retreats from my awareness. But not entirely: this absence, this negation, this reality remains perhaps stronger than ever, but inside me, like a pillar of emptiness and darkness within the center of my body, like a counter-spine. And it is very clear: this nation, this people, America, has not “recovered” from this war. And may it never recover. If America ever fully “recovers” from this war, it is doomed. Spiritually doomed—which means materially doomed as well. The earth cannot support a dominant civilization that has no empty center, no negative movement, no soft breathing and renunciation at its heart. There must be an inner as well as an outer, a stepping back as well as a thrust forward, a prayer as well as an affirmation. Such were my thoughts, the beginning of my thought, as I walked away from the Vietnam Memorial. This horrific, degrading war broke everything in our nation that had become breakable and mortal; and things become breakable only when they are first separated from their roots in the depth of reality. 

The Civil War did not break America’s heart, but Vietnam did. It is said, “When the heart weeps for what it has lost, the spirit laughs for what it has found.” Another old saying has it that, “The body is the temple of God but the throne of God is built in the ruins of the heart.” Could it be that a healing drop of deep psychological “ruin” has entered the bloodstream of America? After 200 years of its accelerating outward motion, is America again ready to make room for the dark mirror of conscience with its attendant sorrow and its all-embracing light?

A Q&A with Jacob Needleman

I’ll stop now. I’d like to take questions and discussion now about the book or anything you wish.

Audience: My sense is that you’re grappling with the idea that America has a spiritual mission that is pervasive from the founding of America. Is that correct?

Jacob Needleman: I think that’s true. America has a mission as a protector of the social conditions where people are free to pursue the quest for truth. It’s not that it’s the only place where it’s ever been done, nor that America is the greatest country that ever existed. It just means, right now, that the conditions exist for people, if they wish, to find together something deeper and higher in themselves.

Audience: Do you think the war that we’re in now (with terrorism and Afghanistan) will be as tragic as the Vietnam War?

Needleman: The first and last answer is, I don’t know. But September 11th has enabled most of us to rediscover a feeling for America that had been lost. Now, it’s questionable whether this nation of 300 million people, with all its incredible power and all its corruption, is going to act differently or not. But if a certain number of people begin to see the possibility of America acting more generously in the world toward other cultures and other nations in a real way, that might influence the course of events.

Audience: Could nonviolence be a part of that?

Needleman: Well, that is a question that would require some time to discuss, because a nation is not a person. I sometimes think we expect a nation like America to behave in a way that no one of us would do as individuals. What is a nation supposed to do? Can a nation be nonviolent and still be a nation in the world as it is? I’m not sure, but I think that’s a question we have to face with all the realism we’re capable of. Let’s face it, this is a rough world, and individuals can be nonviolent and exert great power as Martin Luther King or Gandhi did, but as for a nation, I’m not sure. What is a nation? It’s not a human being; it’s not an individual. Let me put it this way: Could it be true that good people sometimes have to do bad things in order to be effective as leaders? Or do good people always do good things? I think Lincoln was a great leader. But he made many painful decisions and caused many deaths in order to keep the union together. Can a big business leader be a good man and do bad things in order to keep things going in his business? Isn’t this an interesting question? It’s hard to know where to draw the line between a realistic view of the world we’re living in, the kind of action it calls for, and where real goodness can appear in that situation. Every nation has corruption. The only question is how much it can bear, not whether it should have it or not. And if it gets past a certain point, then it destroys the nation.

Audience: There are struggles between what may seem to be right and wrong, or between people of goodwill and people who are not of goodwill. And, in the long run, you often don’t know the consequences of your actions. I’d like to work for some cause, like Amnesty International, but how do you know if outer action like that fits together with one’s own inner quest?

Needleman: On one level, one has to be a normal human being with normal ethics and devote oneself to normal good causes. But also, we should avoid having illusions about it, such as that you are right and you understand, and everyone else is wrong. We should avoid fanaticism, either gross or subtle. That’s part of what Jefferson meant by democracy. One can, in the limits of our ordinary states of spiritual presence, really care for something deeply without being a fanatic about it. It’s usually fanaticism that draws evil out of good. So I think it is wrong to abandon doing relative good, or to feel indifferent to doing anything because it may be part of a bad game. I think that’s a tendency we have to watch carefully. Walt Whitman made that point, too. I discovered a wonderful book by Walt Whitman called Democratic Vistas, which is a kind of ode, a paean to the spiritual meaning of democracy. He finally says, “But you know something, you’d still better vote.” 

The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders by Jacob Needleman (2002)
Jacob Needleman does not deny that American history has a dark side. Indeed, he devotes entire chapters to the destruction of Native American life, slavery, and the Vietnam War. He is also no fan of what he calls the “disease” of materialism, which, in his view, is a symptom of inner poverty. However, he writes, if we look back to the lives of the founding fathers, we will discover an unquestionable link between their intentions and the universal wisdom principles that appear in the world’s great religions, philosophies and works of art. The founders were inspired by a vision of humanity’s highest potential—namely, reason. And reason, says Needleman, is a faculty that encompasses more than mere logic, but even embraces the spark of inner divinity. In their own lives, however flawed, our founding fathers demonstrated qualities such as courage, renunciation, freedom from malice, and a thirst for knowledge and self-improvement.

Published on: July 1, 2017

Tags: , , , , , , , ,