Victor Nuovo: The meaning of it all

41st in a series

This essay concludes my current series of essays, and, as is fitting, I finish with a conclusion. To begin with, a reminder that the title of the series is “The Life of the Mind in America,” which is the title of an unfinished book by the historian Perry Miller (1905–63). His book was my inspiration in two respects: its theme, and the fact that it is unfinished.

First, the theme: the life of the mind. Perry believed that to understand a society one must learn what its people think: their hopes and fears, their values and expectations. And because all societies exist over time, understanding is possible only by gathering their thoughts over time as recorded in the writings of reflective persons, for therein lie clues to the meaning of it all. This is what Perry Miller set out to do, but he died before he could complete it; he had barely begun. The fact that he left it unfinished is my reason for writing this series. Not because I dream of finishing what Perry Miller started. I lack his genius and his vast learning. Rather Miller opened a pathway in my mind and, I hope, in yours, to go in search of understanding what it means to be an American.

Miller wrote his book for ordinary people, because he believed that such learning was essential for the health of the nation, and for the intellectual and moral health of its people. He was right, I think. Like Santayana, he was sure that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But this requires not only remembering the past, but also understanding it. And books by historians like Perry Miller facilitate this task. This was the goal that lay before me as I wrote the essays for this series. The pathway that Miller blazed might be called a pathway of faith seeking understanding. All of us, citizens of this nation, have faith in its nobility and greatness; we must enter the path and continue to its end, to understanding what this means.

What we shall discover is that this is a nation from its inception established upon moral principles: in particular, upon liberty, equality and justice above all. Moral principles, however, are not like forces of nature that work by themselves. Their realization depends upon the agency of free persons, who know what they do. And what is striking about the life of the American mind is the long tradition of social ethics. I noticed this first in the writings of Jane Addams and followed it down to the present day, from Addams to Rawls. Earlier signs of it appear in the writing of the Transcendentalists, and the Abolitionists, but it comes fully into view only with the rise of American Pragmatism. All of the persons treated in this series, from William James, through Jane Addams to John Rawls belong to this tradition. Social Ethics is the moral substance of the pragmatic tradition.

Perry Miller imagined that the trail he was blazing led to an idea of America, which he labeled “The American Sublime,” an awesome idea, great beyond measure. It is an idea of sufficient power to possess the mind and soul of a nation, lifting its people up from the cares and concerns of the everyday and causing them to forget their individual preoccupations and selfish motives, their grievances and resentments, and even their sensual passions. He imagined a moral idea endowed with transcendent power, able to inspire a multitude and transform it into one body, a great civil society, a nation. He imagined it as a powerful and ennobling idea capable of leading a people to greatness. I will conclude this series with an account of it so far as I am able.

These seven words say it all: LIBERTY, EQUALITY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL PEOPLE! This is Perry Miller’s sublime idea of America. It is also a joyous idea, and in a high flying fantasy I imagine a poet, spinning out a long poem, like Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” and Beethoven redivivus setting it to music. And it would be performed every Fourth of July along with fireworks.

But it is a moral idea, which means we must write it on our doorposts and on our gates, and it must take root in our hearts and in the hearts of all the people, and become a supreme imperative that not only fills our minds with joy, but unites us in a supreme effort to achieve it. The mere idea is not sublime, only its realization is. It is our destiny as a nation. So be it.

Postscript: This historical series is sadly incomplete. For example, there is no essay on Lucretia Mott (1793–1880), Sojourner Truth (1797–1883), Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902), Frederick Douglass (1817–95), Edna Ferber (1885–1968), and this is a very short list. But, because this series is not just about an idea, but its realization, more must be said about the crises we face: the climate crisis, which is accelerating more rapidly than most of us expected, the persistence of racism, and the need, after Afghanistan, for this nation to discard the fantasy of American exceptionalism and rededicate itself to its founding idea. Thus, I conclude the series, but more will follow, intermittingly, after a break.

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