It was 1974 when philosopher and best-selling author Jacob Needleman gathered a group of college students to meet a friend from Great Britain who liked to call himself “the last American.” The students spoke over dinner of how the Vietnam War showed that America was less virtuous than it claimed to be, when at length the British aristocrat interrupted the student speaking and simply said, “You don’t know what you have here.”
That one phrase, Needleman told an audience of more than 130 Monday night at Samford University, began his journey into reclaiming the nation’s great ideals by “rediscovering the wisdom of America’s founding fathers,” ultimately leading to his book, The American Soul. “I needed to explore what it was that made America great,” said Needleman. “I also needed to explore the ideas of the human mind and spirit and the need for American men and women to find a relationship to the inner consciousness that really makes America great.”
A professor emeritus at San Francisco State University, he was at Samford to give two programs in the A. Gerow Hodges Lectures in Ethics and Leadership, sponsored by the Frances Marlin Mann Center for Ethics and Leadership.
Needleman explained how he went back to American history to “remythologize” founding fathers as models of the country’s unique strengths and values. George Washington, for example, had a great presence and energy, and his very presence during the framing of the American Constitution gave weight and possibility to the very ideals of America. Recalling how the students at the dinner table were tearing down America, Needleman is concerned that “our founding fathers were moral figures in our history, and if you tear them down, then you must have something just as good to put in their place.” American democracy, he said, was never conceived by the founders primarily as an external form of government, but was rooted in human nature and the need for a place where people may serve others and develop themselves in freedom.
Needleman then turned the discussion of time, another topic on which he has written extensively. “The new poverty in our country is time poverty,” he said. “ We need to recognize what’s missing from our lives and then make time for them. We need to live in the present, and try to experience a freedom from time.”
A question from the audience led to the discussion of his book Lost Christianity. Needleman, who is Jewish, said he began examining Christianity as the influence of Eastern religious practices began coming into America in the 1970s. He found that many American Christians have an inner desire and need for a deeper spiritual life, and that this has been lost by most contemporary churches. He argued that believers have much to learn from the monastic orders and other sects that still practice older forms of prayer, contemplation and meditation.
Needleman concluded his discussion by acknowledging the regrettable episodes in America’s past and expressing concern about the dark side of politics that devalues “the art of listening” and demeans the service of holding public office. “The founders defined the soul of democracy as people working together, listening and thinking together. And we as a nation need to get back to that philosophical ideal that they had in mind.”