Probing the American Soul: An Interview with Jacob Needleman

The following is adapted from an interview that appeared in the July 2002 issue of Science of Mind magazine (www.scienceofmind.com).

Mitch Horowitz: Your book "The American Soul" opens with a scene from the Vietnam era, in which you bring a group of students to meet a man of learning. A student is complaining bitterly about what he sees as the nation’s hypocrisy. At one point, the man of learning turns to him and says, “You don’t know what you have here.” How do you understand that statement, and why do you open the book with it?

Jacob Needleman: This person was a man of wisdom but also a man of the world, a businessman, and a great teacher. I had known him for many years and considered him the one who most helped me to understand the nature of the spiritual path. He never talked much about politics but more about the path or way of the spiritual tradition. I wanted these young students to meet him because of his wisdom about philosophical and spiritual ideas. The subject of the Vietnam War came up, as it always did with my students--this was a time when the country was really in agony and young people were outraged. In my own life, I never was able to put together spirituality and political issues. I considered them two entirely separate worlds, and what I thought of as politics was a world mainly full of illusions. This man had come from Scotland and jokingly referred to himself as “the last American.” He really loved this country. The students with me were speaking vehemently against America, and suddenly he said, in a way that commanded complete attention, “You don’t know what you have here.” He stunned everybody. There was a chilling moment of complete silence. Coming from this man of wisdom and depth of spiritual understanding, his words settled in on us like a great question, a deep spiritual shock that made us think and wonder. That was thirty years ago. The statement just sat in me, like a time bomb, over the years. And then about ten or so years ago, I realized that in trying to make a bridge between spiritual ideas and the issues of our contemporary world – to see what light the great wisdom traditions of the world could throw on current problems – I was facing the burning questions of: What is America? What does it mean? What is it for? Who are we, as Americans? What do we have here? These questions, which had simmered in me all those years, drifted to the surface of my mind and propelled me toward writing this book.

MH: In the book you depict America as part of a chain of great civilizations that throughout history have been influenced by the wisdom traditions. Does America have a greater, or a different kind, of claim to those traditions than other prosperous democratic nations in the world today?

JN: Yes, I think so. There’s something special about America, in that this country originated with men and women who were spiritually motivated, in part or in large measure. For many of them the motivation of spirituality was paramount in some respect, and even for our icons, the Washingtons, Madisons, Jeffersons, there was a spirituality in their motivation that existed along with the practical, economic, and political aspects of their motivations. These founders were deeply concerned in one way or another with questions of the heart, of the spiritual search, and this concern entered into the formation of their ideals, influenced in large measure by ideas which have their root in the spiritual traditions of humanity, in the perennial philosophy, in ancient wisdom. Their primary motivations were not just political expediency, economic necessity, and the need for people to have an equal share in the external goods of the society. The ideals of the Enlightenment were much more explicitly or strongly developed in the founding of America. At its root is a spiritual dimension echoing the great wisdom traditions. In that sense, America is the mother of all democracies, even when democracies take different forms. As the mother and father of these democracies, America still has the spiritual dimension as part of its nature, a dimension that isn’t so strong in the other, newer democracies.

MH: Other than material prosperity and political democracy, what conditions were the founders trying to create in this new society?

JN: They were trying to create a condition of human life in which men and women are free to search for their own truth, for the truth of conscience, for a relationship to what is highest and best within themselves and under God. The founders were not connected to any particular sectarian religion, which they felt had degenerated into dogmatism and mental tyranny. They wanted people to be free to search for their own truth and to be able to associate with one another in a way that allowed that search to take place. They wanted conditions in which people were free to interpret God, not in any sectarian way, but in terms that reflect an inner divinity as well as an external God.

MH: The book is populated by many of the icons of American history: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson – but Lincoln seems to stand out. What spiritual influences do you see in his life and work?

JN: Just looking at Abraham Lincoln’s face when I was a child gave me a sense of the greatness that human beings are capable of achieving. I knew he was a great man. There was something about his presence or individuality, his being, a quality of being fully human, that revealed his greatness. This was my first contact with a person of another level of being, another level of presence. Lincoln represents individuality in its grownup form: what being an individual means, not an adolescent idea of somebody who simply does clever things or original things, or who doesn’t concern himself with anybody else’s opinion--none of that. This was a man who represented in his face and his look, in his body and his presence, the right to say, “I am.” That’s what touched me, and I think that touches many Americans.

MH: You describe Benjamin Franklin as a man who believed in the continual pursuit of self-development. How did he contribute to the American soul?

JN: Franklin is a wonderful puzzle. The more you study him, the more complex he becomes. Sometimes you wonder if he is just a cunning, worldly, political moneymaker. Or is he a scientific explorer who loves knowledge and to experiment, or an extremely clever diplomat and ambassador? Is he a kind of a Merlin figure, or a deeply spiritual man, searching and wanting to connect with the God of nature and the God within the human being? I think he’s all of those things, and a deeply spiritual man who is also an extraordinarily accomplished man of the world. I like to remythologize him as the American symbol of the search for the spiritual truth in the midst of an active, engaged, and effective life in the world. He’s a magician in a sense, a trickster, a man who is connected to God in a very close, deeply unconventional but deeply authentic way. He is in the world but not of the world. That principle, found in all spiritual traditions, applies to Franklin in a hugely dynamic way.

MH: Does an American soul exist today?

JN: Using the term “American soul” to indicate the spiritual meaning of the country, I would say, yes, the country has a spiritual meaning. The country represents an idea of the human self that has been around for thousands of years, an idea of the self defined in a new language, an American language with an American experience around it--one we find articulated well in some of Lincoln’s speeches and also by people like Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman. The American soul exists as part of our bones and our tissues – it’s in our nature as Americans – but it’s been suppressed, covered over, and obscured by the consumerism, the materialism, the militarism, and all the things that are wrong with America and will continue to be wrong. But the exaggerated materialism and consumerism of the culture have made us embarrassed at times to be American and unable to see the American soul lurking under the surface in our own psyche. Now this soul is coming to the surface more. It certainly exists, but in one sense of the term, it is in process and maybe it always has been in the process of being reborn, rediscovered.

MH: What do you believe is a just use of America’s might in the world today?

JN: America is a nation and nations operate in the world of nations. The world of nations is a jungle. It obeys a very tough law. You can’t judge a nation in the way you judge a person. Some people imagine that America is supposed to be a kind of saintly person, but that’s not what a nation can be. A nation has to protect its citizens, it has to protect itself, it has to fight sometimes, it has to have teeth and armor, and any nation that doesn’t have those immediately gets gobbled up or defeated by other nations. A government is forceful; it’s there to defend, punish, and protect. Society is very different, much softer, much more human, much more ethical, and I would add to that, spiritual. So I would extrapolate from Thomas Paine and say that the purpose of American government, the American nation, is to protect the American spirit, the American soul, to allow it to grow and flourish. What America can do for us, and therefore for the world, since it’s the most powerful nation in the world and culturally the most influential, is to continue to protect and even to encourage the spread of conditions that allow the search for truth to take place, not only in our own country but also abroad. America can foster the search to become authentic human beings, for conditions that make human beings happy. The pursuit of happiness does not mean the pursuit of pleasure. It means the pursuit of a life in which one is in touch with that aspect of oneself which alone can bring happiness. America can protect that search and allow it to exist in the world as well as in its own borders, but not by any clumsy interventions. Another thing America can do is to become more generous to the poor of the world. The quality that distinguishes Americans is their goodwill. Americans, for all that’s wrong with them, really do want to help, and they’re pretty good at fixing things. So there are many ways in which our might can be used and should, because if we’re not expressing our spiritual nature, our external power will disappear.

MH: You point out that the American Indian had a mythology and a metaphysics as rich and as complex as that of any nation in history. What have we lost in the destruction of American Indian culture?

JN: We certainly lost a spiritual influence. The Iroquois form of government may have influenced our Constitution, as it has many amazing echoes of our Constitution, or our Constitution has many amazing echoes of it. This culture was formed from a spiritual vision of the nature of the universe and of the divine forces at work in the universe--the cosmic forces that human beings have to understand in themselves and articulate in how they structure their way of living and their way of working and associating together as government, as a society. So I would say that one thing we lost was the cosmic meaning of government, law, ethics, and human relationships. There is a moral law written into the nature of the universe and into the nature of the human being, and our way of living together has to reflect that. That was certainly one thing that the American Indian culture taught me as I studied it. As to the American Indian’s relationship to nature, everybody knows they had in many ways an extraordinary civilization that was in the midst of nature. Their knowledge of nature was as great as many of our scientific insights into nature; however, they understood nature not only through the rational, logical, analytic mind, which we have emphasized so much and which has brought us the kind of power we have, but also through an activation of a quality of the mind we don’t know much about. They speak of “visions” and we think of this as some kind of New Age fantasy; however, it’s a quality of mind that sees into the nature of things and involves a qualitatively different state of consciousness than we tend to live in. Premodern cultures had a vision, a power, a knowledge, an understanding that is sometimes superior to what we have. They didn’t use the logical, analytic way of approach we emphasize so much. But the Indian is in our blood, in our bones. We have to realize that the Indian culture is not really gone, even though it was destroyed.

MH: American attitudes toward our history are like a pendulum that swings from one extreme to the other, so either we praise George Washington as the boy who chopped down the cherry tree or we denounce Thomas Jefferson as a slaveholder. Which of the icons of American history would you say most typify our misunderstanding?

JN: Clearly it’s Jefferson now. He has been knocked off his pedestal, and I think this maligning of him suggests a misunderstanding not only of Jefferson but also of what a symbol is supposed to be. It’s clear that the great reformers of mankind, as far as I’ve been able to see, uniformly are part of the problem that they are trying to redress. They understand the sorrow and the horror of whatever the problem is because they’re in it, and maybe even guilty of it themselves, and seeing that somehow fuels their energy to reform. I don’t say this is true of all of them, but Jefferson was enmeshed in slavery, just as were all the founding fathers in one way or the other, and I think that because he was enmeshed in it, he was one of the great formulators of the very ideals and values and the language by which, ironically, people are now judging him. They wouldn’t have the instruments to judge him if he hadn’t articulated the ideals. They don’t realize that their standards of equality and fairness are due in large measure to Jefferson’s thought and mind.

Yes, he was involved in slavery, and he must have suffered from it himself, because one well-known thing that he said was that if God is just, when he, Jefferson, considers slavery he fears for the future of his country. He knew that with slavery we had the wolf by the ears. The history of America starts with a compromise, because America could never have started if it hadn’t compromised around that question at the formation of the Constitution. So Jefferson had this greatness about him, this vision, his ideals, and at the same time he was enmeshed in the problem himself and probably even profited from it. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t feel its wrongness; in fact, it might mean he felt the wrongness even more intensely than the rest of us who never saw ourselves as being in the position of the oppressor. Yet we are the oppressor.

So I think Jefferson needs to be refurbished, just for the reasons he’s now being condemned: he was both a visionary and a perpetrator of the problem he was trying to correct. St. Augustine and St. Francis became saints after they were sinners; they had an attitude towards their sinfulness that transformed it. So saintliness or virtue isn’t a question of not sinning, it’s a question of consciousness and remorse. That’s the energy that will heal us.

MH: What question do you feel that we as Americans should be holding in our hearts today?

JN: We ought to be asking ourselves the question mentioned at the start of this interview: “Do we know what we have here?” If we look at history, if we look around the world, we see that it is very rare to have a place where we are free to inquire, to associate, and to search for the truth. America, for all its flaws, is still the place where we can do that. Despite all of the things wrong with it, it’s still a place where we can work together and search for truth. We need to value this country for that much more than we do. America is the place where we can find our proper duty to ourselves, to God, and to the earth. That’s what I would like to do myself, in my heart.