The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders


Looking at the lives of America's founders-including Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin-scholar and bestselling author Jacob Needleman explores their core of inner beliefs; their religious and spiritual sensibilities; and their individual conception of the purpose of life. 

The founders, Needleman argues, conceived of an "inner democracy": a continual pursuit of wisdom and self-improvement that would undergird the outer democracy in which we live today. Any understanding ...

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The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders

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Looking at the lives of America's founders-including Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin-scholar and bestselling author Jacob Needleman explores their core of inner beliefs; their religious and spiritual sensibilities; and their individual conception of the purpose of life. 

The founders, Needleman argues, conceived of an "inner democracy": a continual pursuit of wisdom and self-improvement that would undergird the outer democracy in which we live today. Any understanding of America as a nation of spiritual values will in the years ahead require Needleman's work as a point of reference.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
"America is the fact, the symbol and the promise of a new beginning." So writes philosopher Jacob Needleman in the preamble of this persuasive book. In The American Soul, the author of Money and the Meaning of Life shows that the thought of our Founding Fathers was imbued with this spiritual vision. In mini-biographies of early American leaders and thinkers, he contends that they conceived of an "inner democracy," a continual pursuit of wisdom and self-improvement. Drawing on religious traditions, including those of Native Americans and African slaves, he argues that such spiritual teachings had a powerful, often hidden impact on the shape of young America. Thoughtful, serious, and timely.
From the Publisher
"If ever a work of philosophical ideas arrived at a time when human events make it not only timely but urgently relevant, The American Soul is such a book." -San Francisco Chronicle

"So literate it comes close to poetry...[This] book makes you think and rethink most of the ideas you ever had about the stunning people who give American history both its exceptionalism and its commonalities." -Martin Peretz

Publishers Weekly
San Francisco State philosophy professor and author Needleman (Money and the Meaning of Life) invites readers to contemplate the deeper spiritual meaning of the American legacy of "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." Finding a deep resonance between the founding principles of this country and the ancient spiritual quest for an inner liberation, Needleman proceeds to examine and "remythologize" the founders and some of their great deeds. Subjective rather than academic, at times lyrical, provocative, and profound, Needleman's new work infuses contemplation with a child's sense (a sense that most of us share) of boundless faith in a place "that accepted one's true inner self, one's inner good will, one's real wish to serve..." The reader is asked to consider Franklin's courageous experimentation ("...the man played and worked with lightening!"), Washington's restraint retiring from the army and later from the presidency rather than exploiting his matchless popularity and political power, Jefferson's brilliant articulation of the value of community, and the sheer gravity and awareness in Lincoln's face. Each man is presented as embodying a different facet of the inner freedom and integrity that is achieved only as one learns to live in accord with conscience that is, with a deeper self that is, Needleman says, allowed to develop in this country. While Needleman clearly finds much to love about America, he balances our light with our darkness, our genuine good will and spirituality with our great crimes of slavery and the genocidal abuse of the American Indian. Decidedly not for strict materialists or historical literalists, Needleman's latest work gives open-minded readers a new set of spiritual role models and much valuable food for thought at a crucial moment. (Feb.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
An eclectic mixture of autobiography, U.S. intellectual history, philosophical inquiry, and spiritual wonderment, this extended meditative essay examines "America as an Idea" by uncovering the latent wisdom of many of its shining lights Benjamin Franklin, William Penn, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Walt Whitman. Needleman, a philosophy professor and author of Money and the Meaning of Life, reinterprets the lives of each of these leaders in the context of their strong spiritual beliefs and their contributions to unifying a deeply divided body politic. The author liberally quotes classical philosophers, historians, biographers, and the subjects themselves, and he often interjects his own life experiences and spiritual beliefs into his loosely structured narrative. Needleman also tackles what he considers to be America's two most grievous historical blemishes the murder of Native American culture and slavery and suggests how America should confront these wrongs. Though repetitive and sometimes overly dramatic, this unique look at the spiritual meaning of America should resonate with scholars and lay readers alike, especially during this time of national crisis. For academic and larger public libraries. Jack Forman, San Diego Mesa Coll. Lib., CA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Needleman (Philosophy/San Francisco State Univ.; Money and the Meaning of Life, 1991, etc.) searches out the transcendent ideas that once epitomized the American vision in this spine-stiffening return call to conscience and wisdom.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781585422265
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/28/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 962,492
  • Product dimensions: 6.01 (w) x 9.01 (h) x 1.03 (d)

Meet the Author

The acclaimed author of The American Soul, Why Can’t We Be Good? and Money and the Meaning of Life, Jacob Needleman is Professor of Philosophy at San Francisco State University, and former Director of the Center for the Study of New Religions at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. He lives in Oakland, CA.

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Table of Contents

I The Idea of America 1
1 Our America 3
II In the Beginning 29
2 Remembering America 31
3 The Myth and the Character of George Washington 75
4 Thomas Jefferson: Democracy as the Communal Self 139
5 Individuality: A Meditation on the Face of Lincoln 173
III The Crimes of America 189
6 The American Indian 193
7 Slavery and the Story of America 237
IV The Two Democracies 269
8 The Wound and the Turning 271
9 Ephrata: In Search of the Second Democracy 290
10 Walt Whitman and the Meaning of America 315
Conclusion: The America of Our Hopes 329
11 The Guardian of the Door 331
12 Toward a Community of Conscience 345
Coda 355
For Further Reading 357
Notes 363
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 16, 2012

    Read it!

    Americans love to think of themselves as the light of democracy and freedom in the world......and in the context of the aspirations of a nation.....they would be correct. This doesn't mean you through slavery, genocide against native americans, the asian exclusion act and imperialism under the rug of history. I feel that what Needleman is really saying here might be " if we acted on the impulses of our better angels and soul longings instead of the unChristian impulses for revenge and racism we'd be living up to our principles as a nation". This is a must read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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