What is known I strip away . . . . I launch all men and women forward with me into the unknown.In a time dominated by discontent rooted in an unease that has yet to be named, we Americans look for answers wherever they might be offered. We turn to the consolations of family and friends, of work and routine. We look out at a world that doesn't work; we hear voices telling us this is the way things have to be, that their choices are restricted. We hear whispers that remind us to continue to fear. The ground shifts under our feet, and we wonder if there is anyplace we can take a stand.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of GrassPhilosophy and politics are not that tightly linked.
Richard Rorty, "Truth Without Correspondence to Reality", in Philosophy and Social Hope, p. 23
We turn to the tender words of those who tell us ours is a polity rooted in nothing less than the Scriptures of the Judeo-Christian tradition. We hear the tale of their faith and trust in the same God in whom those who are speaking believe, and we feel assured there may well be a place upon which we can put our feet, to begin the journey away from fear if not to courage then perhaps, at the very least, comfort from those who remind us we have an eternal Protector and wise Guide who shall steer our ship of state through these rough waters.
These assurances, alas, are a lie.
If there existed no place we could turn to discover the source of our power and potential as a foundling nation, tossed upon the shores of an unknown continent, one might take some kind of solace in the reminders that we are the special children of a specific God. There are places we can turn, however, and we find in the words of those who helped forge from the chaos and violence of our beginnings something that might yet bode well for the coming ages. In The Federalist Papers and the transcripts of the debates of the Constitutional convention, we find those we hail as our Founders not the least concerned about God or the Bible or faith. We do not read a single sentence which consoles us with the presence of the Divine Blessing upon our national work.
Instead, we find practical men wishing, perhaps, to create a structure that ensures the continuation of their own power. We find men who know of the failings of Republics past, wishing to correct the errors that led to those collapses. We find men who argue passionately that the choices we face, as a nation, force upon all concessions of power and prestige for the sake, perhaps, that posterity will build upon the foundation they set. These were men who gave no care to thoughts of depravity or the grace of a just God. Believing, rather, that human beings could overcome their acknowledged fallibilities and, through on-going trial and error, make a land that honored the best of the past, while never resting comfortably, hoping the future would, perhaps, be far better than the present.
The great fear that we Americans are confident enough of our abilities not so much to be great, but that settling for good enough in a world where striving for greatness leaves trails of blood and piles of bodies leaves our current generation at a loss. How is it possible to step in to the future if there is no ground upon which we, in the present, can set our feet? Those who console us with the comforting lies of Blessedness offer no hope, yet they seem to soothe the fears of the moment.
We Americans in our current moment of fear must face the facts that we are who we are, unrooted, founded only upon the hopes of a group of men who saw in their own moment only the promise of what might come, should their fellow citizens not succumb to the fear that could lead to an end to their experiment in liberty. We have not inherited any Divine command; all the same, we are those who live in the shadow of those who held out the hope that we might live up to the vision, not so much of greatness, but perhaps goodness.
This part of our legacy is a source of anxiety, indeed. Many commentators, past and present, looked at America and wondered that we were settling for the mediocre benefits of commerce and the creature comforts that come from worldly security in the face of the threats of the everyday. Yet, it was Whitman who gave voice to the sneaking suspicion that the trade-off for which America's founders settled might yet yield more than just the comforts of monetary success; perhaps even there lay a seed that would yield, in the future, something not yet imagined. First and foremost, however, we must live with the tension that, founded upon nothing but a promise that good enough is the best for which we can find within our grasp, we need to look around us to really see that promise in our fellow Americans, as different as we all may be.
My words are of a questioning, and to indicate reality;
This printed and bound book . . . but the printer and the printing office boy?
The marriage estate and settlement . . . but the body and mind of the bridegroom ? also those of the bride?
The panorama of the sea . . . but the sea itself?
The well-taken photographs . . . but your wife or friend close and solid in your arms?
The fleet of ship of the line and all the modern improvements . . . but the craft and pluck of the admiral?
The dishes and fare and furniture . . . but the host and hostess, and the look out of their eyes?
The sky up there . . . yet here or next door or across the way?
The saints and sages in history . . . but you yourself?
Sermons and creeds and theology . . . but the human brain, and what is called reason, and what is called love, and what is called life?It was enough for those who, rising from the hot room in Philadelphia, said to their fellow Americans then, and to each of us now, "This is how we can live as one people, even as we recognize that one comes from many." It has never been easy, but it is both our legacy and our hope, that we might yet set aside our fears that, resting on nothing more than words on a yellowing piece of paper in a museum, we have only ourselves upon which to rely. Only those around us, as different as all may be, only our own wit and sense and hope and fear, make us who we are. That was enough then, has been enough 223 years. It seems as good a place as any to start, again,