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The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders Paperback – June 2, 2003
"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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"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
About 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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I have enormous respect for the author, Jacob Needleman. He's a deep-thinker, a philosopher, and a nice guy. I have another of his books (Time and the Soul) which I rated higher than this book. He doesn't hit the reader over the head (in a preachy or sermonizing way), nor use negativity, to support his material. It's presented in a kind and grandfatherly way.
The book is laid out in a no-nonsensical and uncluttered way. There are no pictures or graphics, so it's a very text-heavy book (something I generally prefer and appreciate). But it is also sort of a rambling flow of talk without any pause and consideration. The book would have benefitted from some stop and reflection device (a picture, a side note, a side bar, some modern parallel to bring the material into the present, etc.) It's almost a bit 'stream-of-consciousness' in approach.
There are quotes from prominent American figures, and they are often the most interesting sources of material in the book. One wonders how much better the book would be if it mostly just focused on quotes, rather than Needleman explaining what the quotes mean. There's a bit too much of hand-holding by him, telling us what the passages meant and what we are to think of them. This got on my nerves after awhile; I'm capable of thinking on my own, and drawing my own conclusions. There is also a building up of concepts, and the author walking us through the themes. It seemed that more time was spent sculpting his ideas than just presenting material, and letting that prove the point.
This would be a much greater book if it were more concise and to the point. Each chapter covered good points, but continued on unnecessarily after the points were made. He could have covered more topics and themes too, even while slimming down and refining the content.
At times while reading this book, there were 'deja vu' moments of reading Robert Bly's "Iron John" book. Undoubtedly, the author must have read Bly's material and jump onboard the "mythology" bandwagon. Just as Bly stated that we need to "re-mythologize" masculinity and manhood, Needleman argues that we need to "re-mythologize" American themes. When Americans are to grasp deep and strong ways of thought that truly existed in the developing years of our country, it doesn't help any to encourage people to then resort to mythology and fantasy. That was the strangest element I came across in the book. It almost trivialized the stronger material in the book.
Good themes and a great idea for a book. This aimed high, and deserves merit for its attempt. It's a shame thought that the delivery wasn't as grand as the concepts. Books should be put together in a manner complimentary to their focus and theme. Then we would have a 5-star book.
"The hope of America lies and has consisted in the fact that its political ideals and forms of government, its iconic actions and archetypal heroes, reflect in two directions at once--toward the external good of a life of liberty and equality and the reasonable search for a normal life of community and creative aspiration; and at the same time inwardly toward the search for inner development, the life of conscience and reason that defines the true nature of humanity and gives life its ultimate meaning. … America needs to recover its mythic dimension. If not, if it begins to live only in its first history, only int he outer dimension, it will have lost all that really nourishes the life of a nation or an individual."
The author talks of "The American Virtues and Their Shadows" and of so much more that the scope often leaves me breathless!
Dr. Needleman doesn't redefine history, he starts at the Declaration of Independence and Constitution and reworks history in the light of what earlier generations understood words to mean. Our biggest contemporary problem lies with the fact that the definitions of words changes but we don't realize that they have changed, thus we interpret history wrongly. Dr N shows us how our political system has gone wrong because we don't understand what the Founding Fathers meant.
Take the concept of individualism and freedom. The ability to be an "I" was important to earlier generations. In the old countries, your "I" was often determined by family, location, trade, religion social class, etc. What you were born into defined who you would become irrespective of gifts, talents and opportunities. "Freedom" meant the ability to become your best "I" without any cultural constraints. You could try, do and become anything; you were free. It was a religious duty as well.
HOWEVER, your duty to become your best "I" was for the benefit of the entire community. the "I" was for all of "Us."
Note that freedom did not become the ability to become independent of existential restraints, did not mean to be free-floating. It was for a purpose.
This book redefined history for me in such a way as to give me finer tools for analysing culture. I almost wore out the ink reading it.
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