The Fate of America: An Inquiry into National Character

The Fate of America: An Inquiry into National Character

by Michael Gellert

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ISBN-13: 9781612342214
Publisher: Potomac
Publication date: 07/10/2002
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 2 MB

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Two Souls Within the Human Breast

The same political parties which now agitate the United States, have existed through all time. ... And in fact, the terms of whig and tory belong to natural as well as to civil history. They denote the temper and constitution of mind of different individuals. -- Thomas Jefferson

The Spirits of Youth and Authority

The American national character is one of the most polarized in the world. This condition ultimately stems from the polarization of two principles of human nature, principles that have been present and active since the dawn of man. These principles may be thought of as spirits, by which I do not mean something supernatural. On the contrary, my use here of the term "spirits" refers to natural forces of evolution that drive human beings in specific ways and with specific intents--indeed, as if they were supernatural spirits with a mind and will of their own. Mostly, however, they may be thought of as spirits because they imbue humans with a particular spirit, that is, a particular mood, attitude, and outlook. The two principles or spirits most active in the American national character, and consequently in the unfolding of American history, are the spirits of youth and authority. They are, as Goethe's Faust would say, two souls that dwell within the human breast. They are two distinct, powerful, instinctual forces or tendencies that constitute the human condition. Together these spirits make a dynamic whole, for they are in fact complementary opposites that balance and complete each other. But when polarized and split apart from each other, they can have detrimental effects.

Let us take a look at what these spirits are and how they operate. The spirits of youth and authority are brought into play as a dialectical process that is universal. All people and peoples experience this process as phases of development. The spirit of youth usually propels the early, burgeoning, and most dynamic phase of development. It is concerned with newness, growth, and ambition. It seeks to attain mastery and a sense of achievement, and thus is preoccupied with industry and action, with "doing." It sings the praise of progress and prizes new discoveries and inventions not only for their concrete benefits but for their own sake, simply because they open new possibilities.

A person or nation under the influence of this spirit is in a state of evolution and is future-oriented. As with the person, so with the nation: its identity is in flux and it is in quest of its role in the world. Its pursuits in this regard can be highly idealistic and yet opportunistic. Jung found that the spirit of youth is portrayed in mythology as a child god or hero, or as a puer aeternus--that is, an adolescent or young adult who is eternally young ("puer aeternus" is Latin for "eternal youth"). Jung called this spirit the child archetype. Certainly, it has a childlike energy, innocence, and optimism. A nation that captures this spirit, or as the case may be, is captured by it, is usually in its childhood or adolescence. As a young nation, America is clearly animated by the spirit of youth. Among European nations, Germany too is driven by this spirit. Of course, neither nation is exclusively youth-oriented and without the spirit of authority.

In contrast to the spirit of youth, the spirit of authority usually rules the later, more mature, settled phase of development. It is concerned with tradition, culture, and order. The continuity of social order is highly valued by this spirit precisely because it has taken so long for such order to evolve out of the chaos of youth. The element of change is thus not as attractive to this spirit as it is to the more adventurous, free spirit of youth that has its future wide open before it. Conservation--the principle supposedly behind conservatism--carries more weight than experimentation. Containment is more important than expansion, cultivation more important than distant goals, "being" more important than "doing."

With order and tradition comes a natural appreciation for law, ethics, and religion. A person or nation that lives in the spirit of authority has very probably survived the tests of time, formed a solid sense of identity, and acquired a measure of experience, knowledge, and culture; herein lies the authority. Something of enduring value has been authored or created. One may think of India and Great Britain as nations that project this spirit. They have age on their side. Based on its image in mythology, Jung called this spirit the archetype of the wise old man or woman. (The Latin term for such a figure is "senex," which is also the root of such words as senior, senator, senescence, and senile.) The image of the wise old man or woman is closely allied to that of God, the supreme authority and author of creation.

Speaking of them also as archetypes of the collective unconscious, the psychologist James Hillman revealed that the spirits of youth and authority are related to each other in a bipolar yet interdependent way. The order of their relationship is thus only circumstantially sequential or developmental, that is, arranged so that one spirit comes before or gives rise to the other. Theirs is as much a spiritual or psychological dialectic as a historical one. The spirits of youth and authority are two halves of a single whole. They are defined by contrast to each other, just as young and old are meaningful categories only relative to each other. Furthermore, we are speaking here of spirits-- spiritual or psychological states--and not physical, temporal conditions. To be young at heart means that regardless of your age you have the spirit of youth. Thus, "youth" and "young" are not exactly the same thing. This is true for authority and old age as well.

What this means is that in the same way youth gives rise to authority--an obvious fact given our commonsense experience--authority can give rise to youth. If we think of authority as the father principle and youth as the son principle, it becomes apparent how authority gives rise to youth, or the old to the new. For example, Christianity maintains that the Father God of the Old Testament gave birth to the Son God of the New Testament, and it was only upon completion of his life mission that the Son returned to the Father, to the original source and ultimate author. It was also no accident that the Son did away with the heavy emphasis placed upon the practice of the Mosaic Law: the Law belonged to the old order. The son principle or spirit of youth often comes as a reformer or revolutionary. Fifteen hundred years later, after centuries of rebel and reform movements against Catholic orthodoxy, it would triumph again in the form of Martin Luther. His decree was against a Church that had acquired a monopolized role as the chief authority in the Western Christian world.

In the same way that the spirit of youth moves toward the spirit of authority for guidance and completion, the spirit of authority moves toward the spirit of youth for rejuvenation and rebirth. Youth without authority stays forever young and becomes stagnant; authority without youth dries up and dies. This interplay of spirits makes it possible for a nation like China, whose character has been predominantly defined by the spirit of authority for at least the last three thousand years, to again and again reinvent itself. So strong is its youthful capacity for regeneration that it almost wiped out its entire tradition of authority with two single strokes, the Communist ascendancy to power in 1949 and the Cultural Revolution in 1966. A nation's ability to access the spirit that is not the one most intrinsic to its character is what may enable it to survive in the long run. It is the opposite spirit that complements the nation's temperament and orientation with a fresh viewpoint. Toynbee's challenge-and-response premise is that for a nation to survive a critical and overwhelming challenge--and history sooner or later serves every great nation with at least one--it must respond creatively and nonhabitually. In Toynbee's view, the human spirit is on the whole more important in this matter than particular strategies, be they military, economic, or other.

One Plus One Equals Three

The movement between the spirits of youth and authority is cyclic and not strictly linear or unidirectional. As the German philosopher Hegel postulated, this is what constitutes a dialectic: the thesis generates its opposite, the antithesis, optimally leading to a reconciliation of opposites, the synthesis. Taking it a step further, the process then repeats, hopefully at a more evolved level. The process is not only cyclic--going back and forth--but spiraling, moving somewhere.

The moment of synthesis is very important because it is out of the synthesis that something new emerges. History demonstrates that a synthesis of youth and authority is almost always a critical ingredient in the birth of great visions, movements, and epochs. For example, the theologian Arthur Webster suggests that the idea of Jesus Christ as the Redeemer and Son of God became conceivable during the Greco-Roman period as a result of the fusion of ideas from two great traditions: the Greek, Platonic idea of the metaxy was fused with the Jewish idea of the Messiah. The metaxy was believed to be a "middle region" between the human and the divine, a crossover dimension or meeting place somewhere in-between that which is mortal and that which is beyond mortality. This idea, integrated into the notion of the human Messiah that the Jews expected, made possible the conceptual appreciation of Jesus Christ, a redeeming figure who was not merely human, nor exclusively divine, but in-between the two.

This synthesis, incidentally, did not occur as the result of a direct influence of Greece upon Israel, even though Plato predated Jesus by about 350 years and Jesus lived in a Hellenic milieu (as his Greek title of "Christ" or christos implies). As the philosopher and historian Eric Voegelin explains, the discovery of the "In-Between reality" occurred independently in Israel. In the Bible, the process of this discovery began with the unique personal encounter of the Prophets with God, and finally culminated in the event of Jesus Christ and its insight that man is the active partner of God. The Jewish version of this insight was developed in the rabbinic tradition of the Talmud, which profiles the human-divine partnership in its own distinct ways. In any case, the dynamic idea of the metaxy or in-between reality was an impetus of youth that, when applied to the authoritative or established ideas of Jewish messianism, gave birth to Christianity. In this instance, the movement between the spirits of youth and authority was not exactly dialectical in the Hegelian sense because it was not between a thesis and its antithesis, but between one thesis and another; yet the result was still a synergistic synthesis.

A similar kind of phenomenon occurred some 1700 years earlier, when the patriarch Abraham emerged from Babylonia and migrated to Canaan, an event that marked the beginning of the Hebrew people and eventually gave rise to the Mosaic religion. Here the synthesis was the result of a direct influence of one culture upon another. Modern historical scholarship shows that Abraham probably brought with him a host of ideas from Babylonia--most notably, ideas about creation and primordial history, the idea of a personal god, and ethics and morals. The Mosaic Law in particular has striking similarities in content, terminology, and even arrangement to the prior-established law code of the Babylonian King Hammurabi, who lived around the time of Abraham. Thus, when Abraham incorporated these older elements of the Babylonian order into his experience of Yahweh--an experience that was radical in its exclusive monotheism and fierce devotion--the Hebrew religion was born. And then, much later, when this new synthesis would become the old established order, the introduction of the above-mentioned Platonic idea would give birth to the new Christian religion, which would in turn again become the old established order against which Martin Luther would rebel. In this way, on this large canvas, we may see history as a cyclic but evolving movement between authority and youth, thesis and antithesis (or other thesis). It is the synthesis between these two that catapults this movement to a new level or in a new direction.

And yet, nothing new is ultimately created. This is the paradox. The very idea of newness or novelty, of history as something moving somewhere new, is itself a kind of fantasy of the spirit of youth. By contrast, the spirit of authority sees history as changelessness in change, as eternity in time. From its viewpoint, human nature is like a well that doesn't change. Water may be drawn from it--always a different serving, and this is what gives us our sense of history, of storytelling--but the well itself doesn't change. As David Hume wrote, "It is universally acknowledged that there is a great uniformity among the actions of men, in all nations and ages, and that human nature remains still the same, in its principles and operations. The same motives always produce the same actions; the same events follow from the same causes. Ambition, avarice, self- love, vanity, friendship, generosity, public spirit--these passions, mixed in various degrees and distributed through society, have been, from the beginning of the world, and still are, the source of all the actions and enterprises which have ever been observed among mankind."

Of course, from a historical perspective, the synthesis of the spirits of youth and authority is a distinct event of monumental significance, an event that signals a newfound sense of wholeness or completeness. On a national level this often occurs as an experience of national purpose, but a purpose grounded in both spirits. The birth of America was such an experience. (This shall become clear in following chapters as we discuss how the contributions of the Founding Fathers consisted of a unique synthesis of youth and authority.) When the spirits of youth and authority meet in an integrated way, a new, third factor is created. It is not quite youth, not quite authority, but something of the two and yet different. In Christianity, the synthesis of youth and authority is represented by the Holy Spirit, a free, agile spirit with divine authority. In Jungian or mythological terms, the image that symbolizes this synthesis is a child or childlike being with a wise old soul. Examples include the Etruscan god Tages, a boy with gray hair; Islam's Khidr, a handsome youth with a white beard; and Taoism's Lao-tzu, whose name means "old master-child." An American version of this image is the child George Washington, who cut down his father's cherry tree but whose integrity would not permit him to lie about it. The symbolic significance of this tree belonging to his father should not escape us.

Of course, historical high points during which the two spirits are united in an experience of strong national purpose do not last indefinitely. Given human nature--indeed all of nature--it is difficult to sustain any particular state or equilibrium indefinitely. Things change. That one spirit will be set more in motion than another and come to predominate is a natural by-product of the course of events. The synthesis of spirits is like the full moon, which is but a brief interlude in the cycle of the moon's waxing and waning. Indeed, it is curious that the Latin root of the words "authority" and "author" is augere, which means to increase or to wax. The inevitable tendency after any synthesis is for the newly created, third factor to increase its mass until it develops inertia and becomes the established authority which youth must come to revivify.

America's Alternating Current

Not only is synthesis brief, but it is rare. Synthesis only occurs if there is a union of spirits. The mood of a nation can change back and forth from one spirit to another indefinitely without going through the full moon of a synthesis. Or, both spirits can also coexist simultaneously without there being a synthesis, though this is less frequent. In the American experience, the first scenario has been the most common.


Excerpted from "The Fate of America"
by .
Copyright © 2001 Michael Gellert.
Excerpted by permission of Potomac Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Part IAmerica's Heroic Ideal
Prelude: The Aspiration Toward Greatness2
1.Two Souls Within the Human Breast9
The Spirits of Youth and Authority9
One Plus One Equals Three12
America's Alternating Current15
America's Bias17
The Fallout from Falling Out of Balance21
A Big Bang25
The American Heroic Ideal, Yesterday and Today27
2.The Revolutionary29
A Distant Galaxy29
The Recognition of Necessity32
The Cultivation of Character35
3.The Frontiersman39
The Backwoods Boasters39
The Quintessential American Hero43
The Mysterious Indianization of the American People46
4.Contemporary Heroic Idealism50
The Continuing Saga of the Cowboy50
A Simple Problem52
The Heroism of Sports53
The Divided Hero56
The Divided Society59
The Diffusion of the Heroic Ideal62
Part IIThe High Life
Prelude: The Metaphor of Height66
5.The Commercialism of America's Heroic Ideal71
The Cult of Prosperity71
The Fantasy of Unlimited Possibilities76
The Culture and Economics of Excess78
A Healthy Ability to Say "No": A Gift of Depression84
6.Heroic Mania87
The Cult of Motion and Speed87
The Dangers of Motion and Speed93
7.The Imitation of Heroism100
The Cult of Celebrity100
8.Heroic Tunnel Vision107
The Cults of Fundamentalism107
The Trappings of Fundamentalism114
Religious Mediocrity119
9.The Escape from Heroism122
Getting High: The Cult of Passion122
The Meaning of the Drug Epidemic127
10.The Metaphor of Depth133
The Heart of the Matter133
Part IIIThe Underside of Innocence
Prelude: The Style of Innocence144
11.The Historical Roots of American Innocence149
The American Vision149
The American Vision as a Paradigm of Innocence154
The Innocence of Humanism162
12.Jefferson's Bastards166
The Diffusion of the American Vision166
The Cult of Novelty168
The Cult of Freedom172
The Cult of Happiness180
The Idolization of an Ephemeral Self183
13.The Land of the Overrated Child187
The Cult of Childhood187
The Madness of Child Abuse192
Divorce and the Long Reach of Childhood197
The Pro-Life Movement and the Cult of Childhood200
The Cry for Initiation201
The Puerile Society204
14.The Metaphor of the Eternally Young Hero209
The Language of Images and the Imagination209
The Myth of JFK and the Conspiracy Theory210
Why Elvis Presley Won't Die215
Rock 'n' Roll and the Dionysian Death217
Death-Heroes and the Wish for Transformation219
15.The Explosion of Innocence221
War and Imperialism, American Style221
America's Messianic Complex226
Violence as the Fist of Innocence232
16.The Metaphor of America's Darkness238
The Roots of American Racism238
The Infantilization of the African-American244
The Rage of the Disesteemed249
The Infatuation with the African-American254
The Meaning of Integration258
17.The Implosion of Innocence264
The Ossification of Authority264
The Cult of Cynicism270
18.The Sacrifice of Innocence276
The Journey of the Hero and Beyond276
Part IVThe Fate of America
Prelude: The Unpredictable Nature of History284
19.America in the Third Millennium287
Opportunity Repeats, History Knocks287
The American Vision as a Paradigm of Integrity290
The Canvas of History296
About the Author368

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