Incomprehensibly, at their very deepest pertinent levels politics and government remain extraneous to what is most important. America’s vast ocean of personal addictions, now much rougher and more threatening than any conceivable national programs for reform, is deep enough to drown entire libraries of uplifting music and sacred poetry.
In an earlier and foundational national history, both liberals and conservatives read Lucretius, Cicero, Grotius, Vattel, Locke, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and, later, Blackstone. Excluding the 18th-century English jurist, whose refined thoughts were to become the indisputable starting point of all American jurisprudence, Thomas Jefferson read them all.
I have been a university professor for more than 42 years. My students are much less interested in high thinking than in high net worth. Given an opportunity to earn impressive incomes without even continuing their formal education, an overwhelming majority would unhesitatingly grab at the offer.
How do I know this? I asked them.
In our later national history, some time shortly after the once-celebrated literary ascendancies of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, a spirit of true accomplishment earned high marks. Then, young people strove to rise “originally,” not by incessantly craving expensive and mostly unnecessary goods, but as confident proprietors of an exemplary American Self. Although Emerson and his fellow New England Transcendentalists taught that the flip side of high thinking must be “plain living,” our citizens typically seek private wealth above any other competing objectives.
With few exceptions, wealth is generally taken as our ultimate form of personal validation, as thoroughly incomparable evidence of “success.” Years ago, economist Adam Smith, now so often cited by “free market” advocates who don’t understand Smith’s 18th-century writings, concluded that wealth is most energetically sought not because of its intrinsic purchasing power but on account of its special capacity to elicit envy. Later, Emerson had expressed a similar idea, when he advised that “foolish reliance upon property” is the result of “a want of self-reliance.”
In the final analysis, the “warmth of the mass” promises each American crowd-citizen a concocted but still convenient defense against unbearable loneliness. Yet this seductive mass also defiles whatever is wondrous, gracious, and generous in this, or in any other society. Already anticipating this development, Charles Dickens observed, in 1842: “I do fear that the heaviest blow ever dealt at liberty will be dealt by this country [the U.S.], in the failure of its example to the earth.”
Dickens, of course, was spot on. We Americans have protected our political freedom from the most visible and insidious kinds of tyranny and oppression. For this, we deserve credit. At the same time, we have wittingly sacrificed our coequal obligation to become fulfilled persons. Openly deploring a life of any greater meaning and purpose than one of ritual accumulation, we shamelessly substitute reality shows for real literature, and, still more obsessively, confuse relentless social networking with happiness.
In our sorely blemished democracy, a system of governance driven by what “elite” political theorists have called the “iron law of oligarchy,” those individual Americans who would choose disciplined thought over “fitting-in” must accept “punishment.” Usually, this ironic sanction is delivered as some form of ostracism (social or professional), and also in some corollary forms of “aloneness.”
“The most radical division,” observed Jose Ortega y Gasset in 1930, “is that which splits humanity…. those who make great demands on themselves…and those who demand nothing special of themselves…”
Our democracy is a masquerade, because its current foundations are built upon sand. Now it is high time for camouflage in the inert American mass to yield to being-challenged-in-the-world. In essence, only those individuals who would still dare to reject an insistently demeaning amusement society can offer America its most enduring hope.