In all recorded history, probably the sagest bit of advice ever offered man was the ancient admonition to "know thyself." As with individuals, so with nations. Just as a man who realizes that his life has gone off course can regain his bearings only through the strictest self-scrutiny, so a whole people, become aware that things have somehow gone wrong, can right matters only by a rigidly honest look at its core of collective being, its national purpose.
Thus, while on the one hand the fact that we have felt the urge to debate our national purpose signalizes our arrival at a potential crisis point, on the other hand the fact that we have entered into the debate willingly, indeed with gusto, bodes well for the eventual outcome.
Among our overindulgences of the past decade has been the lavish use of a kind of cloudy rhetoric that only befogs the truth. Yet basically we Americans prefer plain talk and common sense. It is these we must apply if we are to "know ourselves" again.
The facets of this debate on national purpose are many. Other than to agree that the whole subject vitally needs airing, the debaters are split a dozen ways as to which aspect of it demands greatest emphasis.Some prefer to dwell on what has happened to our national purpose-whether irrevocably lost, permanently strayed or temporarily sidetracked; others on why what has happened has happened; others on what can be done by way of remedy or retrieve. Above all, the debate turns on precisely what this "purpose" is that, momentarily or forever, has gone from our midst.
The distinguished contributors to previous instalments of this Life series have offered a variety of definitions of our national purpose, all of them valid. From this it can be seen that no one word or catchphrase will suffice to pinpoint it. Our national purpose is resident, obviously, in the magnificent principles of the Declaration of Independence and of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. It also plainly appears in the writings of Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton, in the words of Jackson and Lincoln, in the works of Emerson and Whitman, in the opinions of Marshall and Holmes, in Wilson's New Freedom and Franklin D. Roosevelt's Four Freedoms. In common, all of these pulse with a sense of idealistic aspiration, of the struggle for a more perfect Union, of the effort to build the good society as well as the good life here and in the rest of the world.
There is, I think, still another way to describe our national purpose. This definition, while almost a literal one, is nevertheless not a narrow one. It is that our national purpose consists of the combined purposefulness of each of us when we are at our moral best: striving, risking, choosing, making decisions, engaging in a pursuit of happiness that is strenuous, heroic, exciting and exalted. When we do so as individuals, we make a nation that, in Jefferson's words, will always be "in the full tide of successful experiment."
Such a definition, because it implies constant, restless, confident questing, neither precludes nor outmodes, but rather complements, the expression of national purpose set forth in our Declaration, our Constitution, and in the words of our great Presidents, jurists and writers. The purpose they envisioned can, indeed, never be outmoded, because it has never been and can never be fully achieved. It will always be somewhere out of reach, a challenge to further aspiring, struggling, striving and searching. Quest has always been the dominant note of our history, whether a quest for national independence; a quest for personal liberty and economic opportunity on a new continent from which the rest of mankind could take heart and hope; a quest for more land, more knowledge, more dignity; a quest for more effective democracy; a quest for a world of free and pacific nations.
It should be said at once that no nation has a corner on striving and aspiring any more than on virtue and compassion. Thus our national purpose finds echo in the minds of men of good intent everywhere. But our purpose may differ from others in the particular background against which it evolved, and by three fundamental facts about us:
First, Americans, more than other peoples, have since independence cherished a strong sense of destiny.
Second, we have always been optimists about our national future. Down through the decades we have had our indentured servants, our slaves and Simon Legrees, our sweated immigrants, our Okies, our depressed and discouraged folk of many stripes. But we have been unfailingly confident of winning through all obstacles to realize our dreams.
Third, Americans have always been willing to experiment. With no feudal inheritences, with little dead weight of caste or tradition, we have ever been in the mood for bold adventure. Our forefathers would not have tossed aside old associations and crossed the seas without it. New frontiers have always seemed unfolding on our horizon.
With these basic considerations, and because of them, the pace of change in this land has been faster than anywhere else on the globe. The change has been less noisy and melodramatic than in Russia or China, among others, for since 1865 it has lacked any real elements of violence. We believe in progress through evolution, not revolution. But for precisely this reason the progress has been deeper, saner and more continuously rapid. In our energy, our resourcefulness and our powers of organization, we can assert that the United States has been and is the most dynamic nation in history.
Since this is so, why then our current widespread sense of staleness, of frustration: why the gnawing feeling that we may have lost our way? In my mind there are two broad answers.
One is that the very abundance which our dynamism has created has weaned and wooed us from the tough condition in which, heretofore, we have approached whatever it is we have had to do. A man with extra fat will look doubtfully on attempting the four-minute mile; a nation replete with goods and services, confident that "there's more where that came from," may feel less ardor for questioning.
The second answer is that we have, of late, lacked the leadership we require-human frailty being what it is-to remind us of our national purpose, to direct its shaping for current ends, to spur us to new efforts, to encourage and, if need be, to exhort.
In his stirring speech at Queen's Hall in London seeking World War I volunteers, David Lloyd George, soon to be Britain's Prime Minister, described a snug valley in his native Wales. Nestled between the mountains and the sea, shielded from the storms and stress of the outside world, that little valley offered its inhabitants a placid and sheltered life. But on occasion, Lloyd George recalled, the young men of the valley refused to stay put. They would climb its highest hill to be inspired by the majestic peaks in the distance to have their energies sharpened by the mountain breezes.
Too many Americans in the 1950's, I believe, have been living too much of the time in such a valley. We have felt contented and complacent and comfortable. Now it is time once again to climb to the hilltop, to be reinvigorated and reinspired by those faraway peaks, the principles that are vital to our national greatness, that underlie our national purpose, that foster our "Americam dream." Whether we see them or not, those peaks never change. Whether we remember it or not, their meaning never diminishes.
Thus the task that lies ahead is not to create a new national purpose, but to try to recapture the old one. This is no call to retrogression, for this purpose, born 184 years ago, will be as noble and as fresh 184 years hence-and beyond.
It is those same old slogans and same old solutions, surrounding the national purpose, that we must guard against. The old ways will not do. They cannot do. The Census Bureau predicts that, if the present curve of growth continues, our population will reach 260 million in only 20 years. When we think of how this increase alone will clothe all our problems in growing urgency, we know that when we once again seize hold of our purpose, we will have to do so with new ideas and new vigor.
Where and how do we apply our national purpose to the challenges of 1960?
Survival is often listed as the major challenge today, and certainly other issues are overshadowed by the one issue that could render the rest moot. But although our physical safety as a nation is more imperiled than ever before in our history, survival alone is insufficient as an expression of national purpose. Mere physical survival, at the cost of our way of life, would be worth little; more importantly, survival alone is hardly an aspiration of a great nation. The nobleman who, when asked what he did in the French revolution, replied, "I survived," may have been hailed for his wit but for little else.
We remember too seldom that survival is threatened not only by ever more awesome weapons of death and destruction but also by a lack of aim and aspiration. Outside the walls of every nation that has grown fat and overly fond of itself has always lurked a lean and hungry enemy.
Competition with that enemy is today deemed to be our major challenge: but it, too, reflects our national purpose inadequately. We are, indeed, in competition with the Soviets, and to a large extent our hopes for the future rest on our comparative efforts in economic growth, in the arms race, in scientific achievement, in aid to other nations, in propaganda, in prestige and in a host of other fields.
But we err tragically if we make competition with the Communists an end in itself. Whatever we do in the name of the competition-improving our race relations, expanding our economy, helping new nations, exploring outer space and all the rest-we ought to be doing anyway, for its own sake, whether competition exists or not.
Peace is humanity's deepest longing, and with the failure to achieve it all other aspirations fail too. In acclaiming it as the major expression of our national purpose, however, we must know what sort of peace we mean. Certainly, the unjust peace of subjugation, the uneasy peace of cold war or the fruitless peace of an interval between hot wars is far from the goal that will satisfy.
Prosperity like peace, is desired by all, and our political orators have traditionally held out the goal of personal and national well-being as a primary American aim. But the good life falls short as an indicator of national purpose unless it goes hand in hand with the good society. Even in material terms, prosperity is not enough when there is no equal opportunity to share it in; when economic progress means overcrowded cities, abandoned farms, technological unemployment, polluted air and water, and littered parks and countrysides; when those too young to earn are denied their chance to learn; when those no longer earning live their lives in lonely degradation.
No single one of these four challenges-survival, competition, peace, prosperity-sums up our national purpose today. The creation of a more perfect Union requires the pursuit of a whole series of ideals, ideals which can never be fully attained, but the eternal quest for which embodies that American National Purpose:
A dream? Of course-the American dream. No candidate for office, unless he were foolish or deceitful, would promise its fulfillment. But we are in urgent need of public men who will work toward its fulfillment, guiding, directing and encouraging the popular impetus toward that end.
That this impetus exists is beyond question. We are not a people in panic or despair. We have not "gone over the hill" of history. We have simply, and fortuitously, begun to recognize that somehow we have gotten off track, and that to get back on we will need stern effort, spirited leadership and common sacrifice.
If we are to recharge the sense of national purpose, we should accept no invitations to relax on a patent mattress stuffed with wolly illusions labelled peace, prosperity and normalcy. We should congratulate ourselves not for our country's past glories and present accumulations but for our opportunities for further toil and risk. Rather than take satisfaction in goals already reached, we should be contrite about the goals unreached. We ought not to look for excuses in the budget, but for justifications in the dizzying rush of events and in the harsh realities of our time.
For these are harsh times. The future will not be easier. Our responsibilities will not lessen. Our enemies will not weaken. We must demonstrate that we can meet our responsibility as a free society-that we can by voluntary means match their ruthless exploitation of human, natural and material resources-that freedom can not only compete and survive but prevail and flourish..
It is not enough to debate "What is the meaning of America?" Each of us must also decide "What does it mean to be an American?" Upon us destiny has lavished special favors of liberty and opportunity-and it therefore has demanded of us special efforts, particularly in times such as these.
It requires each of us to be a little more decent, alert, intelligent, compassionate and resolute in our daily lives-that we exercise our civic duties, whether paying taxes or electing presidents, with extra pride and care-that we use our freedom of choice to pursue our own destiny in a manner that advances the national destiny, in the work we produce, the subjects we study, the positions we seek, the languages we learn, the complaints we voice, the leaders we follow, the inconveniences we endure.
If a dark corner in Africa needs technicians-if a troubled spot in Asia needs language specialists- if a Soviet threat in Berlin requires patience and determination-if the space race requires better schools-we must and can demonstrate that the dedicated efforts of free men can meet these needs better than the efforts of totalitarian compulsion.
Every American must take far more seriously than he has in the past decade his responsibility for achieving and maintaining a democratic society of a truly model kind, worthy to be the champion of freedom throughout the world.
We Americans must again commit ourselves to great ends. We must resume our searching, surging, questing. Then, assuredly, we will come nearer the vision of John Adams of Massachusetts, who, in 1813, assured his friend Thomas Jefferson that our republic would some day "introduce the perfection of man."
Next: Meaning of life is very clear
in minds of genuine people.
Next: Meaning of life is very clear in minds of genuine people.