Reflections on America

Editor’s Note: This excerpt from a book with the same title by the man who was probably the most influential Catholic philosopher of the twentieth century shows how a highly perceptive thinker saw two possible paths for America, just a little over fifty years ago: one that led to materialism and despair, the other to hopes for this nation and the whole world. The staff at TCT wishes you all a blessed Thanksgiving today. – RR

Given the contingency of matter and the free will of men, there are, at each moment of history, always two possible different directions open regarding the future.

Thus there is a possibility that in the course of centuries America may become embourgeoisée – a nation interested only in its own materia1 welfare and power. The realization of such a possibility is, to my mind, improbable. The obvious fact is that America is not a nation like others; and she will not become so as long as she remains true to the specific, original impulse and spirit by virtue of which she was born.

Her true future. . .lies in the task of somehow clearing the way for a new Christian civilization. If such an undertaking takes place, it will be a common undertaking. It can be accomplished only in cooperation with all the nations that are stirred by the Christian ferment. (And, no doubt, those Christians who are now the “silent Church” and suffer persecution behind the Iron Curtain will have in this connection particularly great lessons to teach the world, if and when they can speak out freely.)

*

I said in 1943: “here is indeed one thing that Europe knows well, and knows only too well; that is the tragic significance of life. . . .here is one thing that America knows well, and that she teaches as a great and precious lesson to those who come in contact with her astounding adventure: it is the value and dignity of the common man, the value and dignity of the people. . . .America knows that the common man has a right to the ‘pursuit of happiness’ the pursuit of the elementary conditions and possessions which are the prerequisites of a free life, and the denial of which, suffered by such multitudes, is a horrible wound in the flesh of humanity; the pursuit of the higher possessions of culture and the spirit. . . .Here heroism is required, not to overcome tragedy, but to bring to a successful conclusion the formidable adventure begun in this country with the Pilgrim Fathers and the pioneers, and continued in the great days of the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War.”

“No lasting good can be done to the world if the sense of the tragedy of life, and that quality of heroism which Europe must display to overcome its tragedy, and the sense of the great human adventure, and that quality of heroism which America must display to lead her adventure to completion, are not joined with one another in boldness and faith. . .”

“The First Thanksgiving, 1565” (detail) by Hugo Ohlms, 1965 [Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, Florida]
“The First Thanksgiving, 1565” (detail) by Hugo Ohlms, 1965 [Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, Florida]

“It will be necessary for the European spirit and the American spirit to meet and cooperate in common good will. We do not believe that Paradise will be reached tomorrow. But the task to which we are summoned, the work we will have to pursue, with all the more courage and hope as it will be incessantly betrayed by human weakness, must have as its aim, if we want civilization to survive, a world of free men penetrated in its secular substance by a real and vital Christianity, a world in which the inspiration of the Gospel will direct the common life of man toward an heroic humanism.”

*

There is no place in the world where Christian philosophy is more needed and has better opportunities than in this country.

*

The great and admirable strength of America consists in this, that America is truly the American people.

*

We have noted that priests have usually been able to intimidate the policemen, and that philosophers can usually check the politicians. There is fair historical ground to anticipate that moral and intellectual leadership will appear capable of balancing our Frankenstein creations. Men working in that range are measurably steeled to resist normal pressures and often free from normal fears. They frequently have a rough time on the way. It is no accident that some of the greatest saints in the Christian Calendar were non-conformist deviants in their time; but they still grasp the future with their conceptions.

These, I think, are the real builders of any “City of God” Americans would come to accept.

*

“America was Promises” – that is the title of a beautiful poem by Archibald MacLeish.

From the very beginning the European peoples dreamed of America as the Fortunate Isles, the land of promise here below. America can give them goods, food, industrial equipment. They will take them, of course, but they will never be content with them, and never be grateful to America for them.

What they expect from America is: Hope. And please God that this critical fact may never be forgotten here.

It is possible to be more specific, and to say: what the world expects from America is that she keep alive, in human history, a fraternal recognition of the dignity of man – in other words, the terrestrial hope of men in the Gospel.

Jacques Maritain

Jacques Maritain

Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) was a Roman Catholic philosopher, respected both for his interpretation of the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas and for his own Thomist philosophy.

  • Andrew

    You know, if the west needs anything at all, it’s more prayerful appreciation of wheat and water.
    This writer reaches me, and I will research him.

  • Michael Dowd

    Where is the hope today? We are a country in the process of becoming one that no longer believes in itself. We elect politicians who give us welfare schemes that turn helpless into the hopeless. We are losing our will to leadership ability, rather choosing to lead from behind, whatever that means. We are no longer the shinning beacon on the hill. Why? Once we put our trust in God to help us. Once the Catholic Church stood for a strict morality but for years now has failed to preach it. Now, we put our trust in Man to lead us to the promised land. And just where is that promised land? How about the terrorized streets of Paris, the devastated streets of Detroit, the bombed out shell of the Middle East? It is time to get back on our knees and ask God for forgiveness and His help to once again believe in His message of Faith, Hope and Love. Maybe we will get a second chance. Let us pray that we will at least ask for it. Let us be thankful today that this is still an option.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Anyone who has not should read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s impeccably researched account of Abraham Lincoln in Team of Rivals. We in America should all thank God that He give him to us.

    • grump

      “Impeccably researched”? Goodwin and other pop historians who worship at the Church of Lincoln, choose to ignore Dishonest Abe’s monumental hypocrisy and shameless political posturing to “save the union.”

      Where to start? Let us begin with his true attitude toward blacks, as he expressed in the famous debates with Stephen Douglas:

      Lincoln said “Free them [black slaves] and make them politically and
      socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this . . . .
      We can not then make them equals…. There is a natural disgust in the minds of nearly all white
      people, to the idea of an indiscriminate amalgamation of the white and
      black races. …What I would most desire would be the separation of the white and black races… I am not nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way
      the social and political equality of the white and black races. I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or
      jurors of negroes, nor qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry
      with white people.”

      Just a small sample, father. Imagine Lincoln as a Republican candidate today and where he would be in the polls. Imagine these lines in a televised debate. David Duke would have a better chance at becoming President.

      As Senator Moynihan once said, “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.”

      Happy Thanksgiving, to you and all TCT contributors and readers.

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        I put the bait out and was hoping you would take it grump. Maybe I caught a fish. Let’s begin. You I’m sure know that views can change particularly among the intelligent and conscientious. They admit to views that are wanting and need for improvement. Politicians must be expedient about projecting their true beliefs in order to succeed. At the time of his early debates slavery was dividing the country as well as his party. He was an insightful politician. He was a man that clearly loved people even his opponents. That is shown with documentation by his former opponents not by locked in opinion. Lincoln early in life was more atheist than agnostic. As time went on he appealed to America for prayer and began speaking of God. If we are intellectually paralyzed in fixed positions that prevent us from fair assessment of the facts as impeccably laid out by Ms. Goodwin-if there is a better researched biography highlighting primary and secondary sources show me-it is time to reassess those positions. If you have not read the book I recommend you do. It may change your life for the better. A happy and blessed Thanksgiving to you grump.

        • grump

          Well, I must say, Fr./Dr. Morello, that was the best piece of casuistry I’ve read in quite awhile. Old Abe sure did a 180 but that is the case for most politicians on a quest for absolute power. They will do or say anything to tickle the ears rather than stand for their truth beliefs.

          I would highly recommend “The Real Lincoln” by Thomas Di Lorenzo as a antidote to Ms. Goodwin’s paean to America’s most overrated U.S. President. If the whole truth be known, the blacks will be demanding demolition of the Lincoln Memorial along with those of Woodrow Wilson.

          “What is history but a fable agreed upon.” — Napoleon.

      • Veritas

        Did you and Harry Jaffa ever square off? Happy Thanksgiving to you.

    • Dave Fladlien

      I think there’s another question here: slavery of the kind practiced in the Confederacy is one question, and clearly is a horrendous evil. But there are other kinds of slavery as well. Just as it was terribly wrong to “own” people as property, it was also wrong to force people to stay in a Union whose very Declaration of Independence espouses the right of people to “…alter or abolish it” and replace their current government with another — which the founding fathers had themselves interpreted as the right to secede from their current government. Instead, Mr. Lincoln expended 620,000 human lives trying to force the people of the South to stay in the Union. That’s more people than were killed in all of the USA’s other wars prior to Viet Nam, put together.

      There was no justice at all in that war: the South fought to enslave black people, and the North fought to enslave Southern people. Both were terribly wrong, terribly evil. It was right to fight to free black slaves, but wrong to fight to enslave Southerners. How that could have been resolved, I don’t know, but I think we need to recognize that there was no “right” side in that war, only wrong sides. I think it is often true that there are only wrong sides in a given war.

      And speaking of slavery in war, that includes yet another kind of slavery which was also found in that war, and in many others: the military draft.

      • Veritas

        Will you be willing to fight another civil war if by altering or abolishing the constitution (which is already dying a slow death) promised Sharia Law?
        Happy Thanksgiving to you.

        • Dave Fladlien

          I don’t think I understand the question. As a general observation, though, the Constitution nowhere states that a State cannot leave the Union, and since the founders of the country did believe in the right to leave and form a new government, the proper interpretation should have been clear: yes, a state can leave the Union, just as it can join it. That’s what the original colonists did. And Happy Thanksgiving to you and all TCT commentators!

          • Veritas

            Hi Dave. The Constitution does allow us to alter or abolish it. Would you want to see that happen if those who are leading the charge someday are Muslims? If you would not wish their form of government replacing our own, then you would certainly be willing to fight against it.

            We learned that the Civil War was not about slavery but was about the issue of states’ rights and secession, right? We were taught that Lincoln saved the Union and that supposedly was a good thing. If the Civil War was fought to abolish slavery, then the war was a failure because while slavery was legally outlawed, racial discrimination, continues to this day.

            You raise an interesting thesis, one that I never gave much thought to in the past. I have felt like cursing Lincoln for other reasons, namely for how power has shifted away from the states toward Washington, and it has not been reversed to this day. These comments are based on an elementary understanding of American history. I do fear talk of altering or abolishing our system of government, even though I don’t believe we can still be classified as a constitutional republic. Perhaps what you suggest is inevitable.

          • Dave Fladlien

            Hi Veritas. Actually, I think I may have not clearly stated where I was going with the “alter or abolish” comment: what I meant is that, to my mind, the constitution already contains the right of a State to secede, even though it doesn’t say something like “Article 21: Secession of a State from the Union”. I was just trying to say that, given the way the founders applied that concept, namely *their* secession from the British Commonwealth, I really think the right of secession is in the constitution.

            I agree with you completely that the constitution is dying the death of being ignored, most especially the Bill of Rights, and while there are amendments I would like to see, I don’t favor any radical alteration of the document, just mostly getting back to conforming to its dictates. Sorry for any wrong impression I gave on that.

            BTW, I don’t favor any religious domination in our government, but I also vehemently oppose the secularist idea that religion has no place in government. I don’t think the Church should run the government (or that any other church should for that matter), but if our religious convictions don’t influence, even strongly influence at times, our political actions, then we don’t have a living religion at all. I hope that statement makes sense.

          • Veritas

            Amen.

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        Okay. I’ll reply Dave despite some misgivings. you are anti war anti draft and I lived through all that. I served because I believe that a nation can stand for values including human rights and dignity and be so bold as to defend those rights for itself and other nations as we did in WW II. Poland had every right to defend itself against Nazi Germany. We had every right to liberate France from Nazi insanity. Lincoln had every right to defend a Union dedicated to civil liberties and end the cruel enslavement of a race because of their race. You have no right to refuse, deny, and place yourself as just in opposition to justice itself.

    • Eleanor Marie

      Freedom, by William Safire, is also good (historical novel).

      • Martha Rice Martini

        But the BEST book on Lincoln is an OLD book (1916) written by a BRIT: “Abraham Lincoln” by Lord Charnwood.

  • Michael DeLorme

    I’ve come to this article post-holiday, and late. Regarding the discussion, below, concerning the right to secede, it is the Declaration of Independence that affirms:

    “…whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends”—Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness—“it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…

    However “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable…”

    The question then becomes, who determines when the state of things has become intolerable? It seems that to the extent the South was truly motivated by the desire to preserve “states’ rights,” theirs was a just cause. To the extent that the North was truly motivated by the desire to abolish slavery, theirs was a just cause.

    Yet the two issues were interwoven; and while I too lament the transfer of power to the federal government, it seems that regarding the issue of slavery, at least, the right of states to preserve that institution was not a sufficient or just reason to secede.

    Regarding Jacques Maritain, above:

    “…they will
    come not again The
    the old men with beautiful
    manners…”

    -Ezra Pound, on the death of Henry James



RECENT COLUMNS

Archives