A Conflicted Legacy

The emergence of modern civilization from philosophical roots in Europe generated ideas and social ferment that influenced the early American identity profoundly.

The new ethos was grounded in the belief that a rational humanity, freed to recreate the world through the power of reason, must be capable of discovering effectual truth. And, as noted in the previous post, this belief was accompanied by the expectation that human beings would soon master nature.

From these convictions there arose a faith that we would, in the words of philosopher and political scientist Michael Allen Gillespie, ultimately secure “universal freedom, general prosperity, and perpetual peace.”

It was under this dynamic influence that the American identity began to take shape.

The idea of a promising future for humankind was powerful, inspiring confidence in the potential to free ourselves from the shackles of an oppressive past. And, for the thousands of European immigrants disembarking in the New World, a working knowledge of philosophy was not required.

Everyone knew what America represented, and the promise, however primal and unformed it might be, came to root itself deeply in the emerging American identity.

Europeans were fascinated by the self-assured confidence of the American character, and Americans were energized by their freedom from the fetters of European cultures, institutions, and domineering governments.

There were ample crises and controversies, of course, to arouse and vitalize the new nation as it struggled to find its feet. We did not agree on much. The country was saddled with the unfinished business of its European past: the scar of slavery, the tensions between moneyed and working classes, and the prejudices of religion, race, and nationality.

Yet, a potent hopefulness prevailed as wave after wave of new arrivals powered the growth of a seemingly insatiable industrial economy. The ideas continued to generate a confident vision on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the nineteenth century.

But then things started to go terribly wrong.

Professor Gillespie has described the shock of events in the twentieth century:

“The view of history as progress was severely shaken by the cataclysmic events of the first half of the twentieth century, the World Wars, the Great Depression, the rise of totalitarianism, and the Holocaust. What had gone wrong? Modernity, which had seemed on the verge of providing universal security, liberating human beings from all forms of oppression, and producing an unprecedented human thriving, had in fact ended in a barbarism almost unknown in previous human experience.

“The tools that had been universally regarded as the source of human flourishing had been the source of unparalleled human destruction. And finally, the politics of human liberation had proved to be the means to human enslavement and degradation. The horror evoked by these cataclysmic events was so overwhelming that it called into question not merely the idea of progress and enlightenment but also the idea of modernity and the conception of Western civilization itself.”

We have admired the generation of Americans who prevailed during the Great Depression and World War II. We like to call them “The Greatest Generation.” They did not forget. They remained proud and frugal for the rest of their lives, though many of their children failed to understand.

They are mostly gone now. How many of us today know what they knew? …We, who have drowned ourselves in materialism purchased with debt.

What happened?

I believe we have tried to walk away from the past with little understanding of what had happened. Both the fear of debt and the horrifying perversity of the war have been largely repressed and lost to memory.

The practical limits of freedom in a complex world have started to close in on our lives, unforgiving in the absence of rational judgment and moral responsibility.

Are we ready to reflect on where we have come from and to confront the present confluence of crises with our eyes wide open?

Tom

Next week: The Will to Freedom

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