America: An Adventure in Seven Live Ideas
SEPTEMBER 01, 1956 by EDWIN EVANS
When our indomitable Founding Fathers crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the eastern shores of the Western Hemisphere, they brought a cargo of five live ideas:
• The Greek Idea: The Primacy of Reason
• The Hebrew-Christian Idea: The Primacy of Soul
• The Roman Idea: The Primacy of Law
• The Medieval Idea: The Primacy of Moral Responsibility
• The Renaissance Idea: The Primacy of the Individual
Throughout the dark and bitter agony of their titanic struggle with George III and also in their superhuman labors to conquer a vast and virgin continent, their fertile brains evolved two more live ideas:
• The Revolutionary Idea: The Primacy of Unalienable Rights
• The Frontier Idea: The Primacy of Freedom
So this new order of ages, our republic, is a world-shaking adventure in seven live ideas.
I. The Greek Idea: The Primacy of Reason
The Greeks clung tenaciously to the idea that man is a rational animal. Reason is the “lord over will,” not will the “lord over reason” which is the philosophy of Schopenhauer and his disciple Nietzsche. The ethical office of reason is to control and govern the actions of the individual. Consequently, reason is inherently nobler than emotion, appetite, and will.
The Greeks refused to surrender to blind chance and inexorable destiny. They believed in knowledge for the sake of knowledge—the endless search for the true, the beautiful, and the good. Spontaneity of consciousness was the supreme guide of their lives.
II. The Hebrew-Christian Idea: The Primacy of Soul
The central idea of Christianity is the individual soul born to immortality with the faculty of free will, which also includes the possibility of sin and error. Yet at the same time, the individual is enabled to strive toward salvation as his heritage.
Jesus asked the question that revalued all questions: “What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his soul?”
Jesus, the Way Shower, taught us the respect and reverence for personality and that the kingdom of God is within, the value of inner poise. “He that ruleth his own spirit is greater than he that taketh a city.”
III. The Roman Idea:The Primacy of Justice and Law
Edith Hamilton, in her brilliant book, The Roman Way, tells us that “law is a Roman political concept. The Greeks theorized; the Romans translated their theories into action.” The Romans affirmed a moral order in the universe. They called it JUS—an order binding on the members of the community, both human and divine.
Law is the practical application of the concept of justice. Civilization is upheld by law. Law puts moral sanctions above force. Law curbs injustice, the child of force.
The Romans held tenaciously to the civic concept of man as a person, an entity. This idea dominates the Epistles of Paul. When the Apostle to the Gentiles was in danger of personal violence at the hands of the mob, he appealed to Festus, the Roman Governor, for the protection of impersonal justice.
. . . If there be none of these things whereof these accuse me, no man may deliver me unto them. I appeal unto Caesar.
Then Festus . . . answered, Hast thou appealed unto Caesar? unto Caesar shalt thou go.
IV. The Medieval Idea: The Primacy of Moral Responsibility
Two hundred years before Martin Luther nailed his theses on the door of the cathedral of Wittenberg, John Wyclif made three historic decisions: he organized the English middle class into conventicles for prayers and worship, which later became the forerunners of the New England Town Meeting, the germ of free assemblage. Secondly, Wyclif declared that no individual, king, or church dare interfere between an individual and his moral responsibility and that there are some matters that each individual must think for himself. This led to the doctrine of private judgment which set the mind free and made the citizen with his consent to be governed. This, of course, was the foundation stone of modern democracy. As a third vital tenet, Wyclif announced that the sacraments of the church mean nothing unless the individual who accepts them knows what he is doing and what they mean. In short, man is a free sentient individual with a personal moral responsibility in matters of faith.
V. The Renaissance Idea: The Primacy of the Unconquerable Individual
The Renaissance, that educational, literary, and artistic revival that went on in Italy and the Western World during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, was a revolt from feudalism, other worldliness, and the theological man. It swept into being the concept of progress; it held aloft the unquenchable thirst for knowledge, power, and beauty; it laid unmistakable emphasis on the glorification of man and his achievements, material, intellectual, artistic, and spiritual.
The emergence of the individual from his ties, both natural and social, is a process which started in Italy during the Renaissance. (missing text)
lack of individual freedom, for man seemed to stay within the fixed boundary of his role in the social order. If he bore the stamp of peasant, craftsman, or knight, there he remained without being able to explore all possible avenues. He was not a person working at a trade but he was that trade. Gradually, as the Renaissance gave man courage to think and do new things, his awareness of self began to grow.
Jacob Burckhardt has carefully delineated the individual in medieval society in his scholarly book, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. At first, he tells us, man thought of himself “only as a member of a race, people, party, family, corporation . . . . only through some general category.” But the Italian of the Renaissance emerged as “the first-born of the sons of Modern Europe, the first individual.”
VI. The Revolutionary Idea: The Primacy of Unalienable Rights
The essence of the American way of life is distilled to two words—unalienable rights. Let us review them in their proper setting.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
The term unalienable rights means that the human soul is the quality that all men everywhere have in common. Since God created each person as an individual, no man dare enslave him.
“Positive freedom as the realization of self,” Erich Fromm states, “implies the full affirmation of the uniqueness of the individual. Men are born equal but they are also born different.”
The uniqueness of self in no way contradicts the principles of equality. The thesis that all men are born equal implies that they share the same fundamental human qualities; they all have the same unalienable claim of freedom and happiness. The cultivation of the uniqueness of self is the essence of individuality, the essence of the American way of life.
These doctrines became the three pillars of our freedom. If a man is a sacred and inviolable person, he has the right to choose his rulers. Hence, the first pillar is representative constitutional democracy. Since a man is an inviolable person, he has the right to think, speak, assemble, and worship as he sees fit. The second pillar, therefore, is civil and religious liberty. Since man has an inviolable personality, he has the right to earn and possess for himself such portions of the God-given resources of the earth as he can win by honest toil and effort the right of private property. Thus the third pillar of our democracy is free private enterprise.
What is the relation of private property to free enterprise? The three indispensable ingredients of free enterprise are a capital stock of raw materials and tools, an ample supply of genius, labor, and ingenuity, and above all, the insatiable incentive impulse to own and control property and to create wealth. !
The American standard of living is the direct result of American right of private property and free private enterprise. A planned socialistic society and economy tends to stifle initiative, incentive, ingenuity, inventiveness, and individuality. The Welfare State tends to undermine self-reliance, self-respect, self-control, freedom, and genius. Free enterprise offers freedom but does not guarantee security. Collectivism guarantees security, but at the price of freedom. Which course will the wise man choose?
We must continually refresh our vision of the doctrine of unalienable rights:
• All men are created equal before the law and before God.
• The State is the servant of man and not the master.
• The field of personal responsibility is greater than the field of impersonal governmental responsibility.
• Social conscience is never a substitute for individual conscience.
• Group morality is a mockery without personal morality.
The evils of society spring from the vices of the individual. The government cannot make men good by law. Neither can it make them wealthy and happy. The government should not be called upon to do for individuals what they can and should do for themselves.
Personal security is more logical than social security because personal security is what the individual does for himself. Social security is what the State does for him. Today there is a dangerous trend in the excessive preoccupation with the idea of security, not the security of opportunity, but the security of avoiding risks. Literature, philosophy, and religion abound in praise of courage and daring but have no praise for security. Shakespeare phrased it, “Security is mortal’s chiefest enemy.”
Of individuals who desert ideals, ambition, and vision for comfort and ease, Emerson speaks prophetic words of wisdom:
Then dies the man in you. Then once more perish the buds of art and poetry and science. Explore and explore. Be neither chided or flattered out of your position of perpetual inquiry. Why should you renounce your right to traverse the starlit deserts of truth for premature comfort.
Some measure of security is imperative, but if carried too far it may undermine self-reliance.
VII. The Frontier Idea: The Buoyance and Exuberance of Freedom
Frederick J. Turner, the historian, has caught the pervading influence of the frontier on the colonist in his dynamic book, The Frontier in American History. He says the American mind is indebted to the frontier for its vital characteristics—“that coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things; that restless, nervous energy, that dominant individualism; and withal that buoyancy and exuberance that comes with freedom.” No more striking sketch of the American has ever been drawn, the reason for his buoyancy and exuberance that so characterizes us as a nation.
The pioneers were giants, not pigmies. One could read and reread that thrilling, wonderful saga of pioneer adventure in South Dakota, Giants in the Earth, which took its theme from the sixth chapter of Genesis.
There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.
The lives of these stalwart men and devoted women are the cornerstone of the spirit of liberty. They prove the wisdom which permeates John Stuart Mill’s famous essay, On Liberty. For a State that makes pigmies of its men so that they become willing tools even for productive purposes will find that, from these small men, no worthy accomplishment is possible. It can never be said that our republic has dwarfed its founders and defenders.
Jefferson and his contemporaries gave the meanest man a place in the Divine Purpose, the dignity and will to shape his destiny. He was no longer an animal but the child of God. This new morality made him a human being, an end in himself.
There is a spiritual law in the universe which centers in the soul of the individual and gives his life inviolable value. From this endowment comes a divine law to guide man. Try to write the Declaration of Independence and omit the Divine source of human rights. It cannot be done. A philosophy of materialism admits no rights whatever, human or divine.
Man is not a machine, a thing, or a chunk of dirt. “People are people and not the keys of a piano,” writes Dostoevsky. This is man’s distinction and his dignity.
Democracy insists that man is a moral and spiritual being, living in a moral and spiritual world, governed by moral and spiritual law. Democracy is a state of mind and its ruling principle is the unalienable, God-given soul of the free individual human being.
If the day ever dawns that Americans deny the historic thesis that man is a child of God, gifted with the dignity of free will and an immortal soul, if Americans ever surrender to scientific materialism, then all the guarded gold buried at Fort Knox, the mightiest navy that sails the seven seas, and all the magnificent super-products of thousands of super-efficient mills will not save us from being engulfed in the black night of totalitarian slavery.
The Founding Fathers confronted a natural wilderness, conquered, and harnessed it. Today we confront a moral wilderness, largely the product of our blindness and folly. This new wilderness can be conquered by spiritual pioneers armed with these seven live ideas.