The American Soul:
Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders
Author of Money and the Meaning of Life
New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam 2002
Introduction: Why review a book about the Founding Fathers on a website devoted primarily to psychedelics?
For those who know through informed application and direct experience, psychedelic substances are powerful learning tools, opening up vast areas of understanding. Most of us carry with us at an unconsious level what the eminent Psychiatrist Carl Jung has called the Shadow. Here we tuck away the repressed material we choose to hide from -- painful experiences, feelings of guilt, anger, failures, fear -- the list goes on and on. But repressing this material does not eliminate it; it is still there, and unknown to our conscious mind, we project these dynamics onto others. This is the major source of conflict and misunderstanding among persons and even the nations of the world. Psychedelics can uncover this repressed material and allow us to resolve it. No doubt the reason that psychedelics have been so denigrated is that we are much too frightened to face these painful areas. Our psychiatrists have labeled psychedelics psychotomimetic, or psychosis mimicking, not realizing that it is our own psychotic material that we are terribly afraid to face. With proper preparation and support, psychedelics permit a subject to readily face and resolve repressed burdens, resulting in a quantum leap in freedom, self-understanding, clarity of perception, and profound gratitude for the beauty and wonder of creation. For the informed use of psychedelic substances also give us access to the ultimate nature of our own being and the true nature of Reality, a discovery beyond imagination and expression, the height of human achievement. And it is the opening to the awareness of these exalted dimensions which encourages us to readily face whatever is required to realize these profound understandings.
For some time our nation has been drawing away from the principles that brought our Constitution into being. We have become very much preoccupied with materialism -- acquiring material goods and wealth, losing our sense of justice and compassion as demonstrated by our continuing support of the failing War on Drugs, willingness to violate our carefully developed constitution for personal or special interests, sinking into deeper and deeper levels of dishonesty. And HONESTY is a major requirement for a successful psychedelic experience.
The book American Soul brings us back to our true nature through recognizing our spiritual roots. It clarifies the profound wisdom of many of the main personalities who helped design our constitution. It provides in-depth coverage to how we may once again return to become the world-wide symbol of true human capacities and the depth of human nature. The wise men who established our constitution would readily recognize and be grateful for powerful tools like the psychedelics to restore understanding to who we truly are, and thus open the doors to carrying our nation forward to the fulfillment which was originally conceived, and which was greatly admired and aspired to by the rest of the world. The growth of terrorism in the world is one indication of how America has lost the faith and leadership of others. I highly recommend a careful and thoughtful readingof this important book. Below are several reviews of The American Soul which present a variety of perspectives.
Myron Stolaroff, Editor
Publishers Weekly Review
San Francisco State philosophy professor and author Needleman (Money and the Meaning of Life) invites readers to contemplate the deeper spiritual meaning of the American legacy of "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." Finding a deep resonance between the founding principles of this country and the ancient spiritual quest for an inner liberation, Needleman proceeds to examine and "remythologize" the founders and some of their great deeds. Subjective rather than academic, at times lyrical, provocative, and profound, Needleman's new work infuses contemplation with a child's sense (a sense that most of us share) of boundless faith in a place "that accepted one's true inner self, one's inner good will, one's real wish to serve..." The reader is asked to consider Franklin's courageous experimentation ("...the man played and worked with lightening!"), Washington's restraint retiring from the army and later from the presidency rather than exploiting his matchless popularity and political power, Jefferson's brilliant articulation of the value of community, and the sheer gravity and awareness in Lincoln's face. Each man is presented as embodying a different facet of the inner freedom and integrity that is achieved only as one learns to live in accord with conscience that is, with a deeper self that is, Needleman says, allowed to develop in this country. While Needleman clearly finds much to love about America, he balances our light with our darkness, our genuine good will and spirituality with our great crimes of slavery and the genocidal abuse of the American Indian. Decidedly not for strict materialists or historical literalists, Needleman's latest work gives open-minded readers a new set of spiritual role models and much valuable food for thought at a crucial moment.
Book Description Review
The distinguished philosopher and best-selling author offers a compelling new understanding of the meaning of America, from the spiritual vision of its founding fathers to the hope it can offer to our increasingly threatened world.
At the heart of Jacob Needleman's The American Soul is a call to rediscover the timeless truths hidden within the founding vision of the American nation. Embedded in the ideals of democracy, individual liberty, and freedom of conscience is a view of human nature that echoes essential aspects of the wisdom that has guided every great civilization of the world. Free of all religious and philosophical dogma, and liberated from historical and political clichés, this uniquely American vision contains the power to speak again to the modern world's need for meaning and community.
Throughout the book, Needleman takes a new sounding of the inner beliefs and spiritual sensibilities of the great iconic figures of American history. His powerfully conceived portraits show us Washington as the great symbol of selfless impartiality; Jefferson as the embodiment of the communal search for truth; Franklin as the seeker of knowledge in two worlds. Lincoln emerges as the incarnation of the ideal of the individual; Frederick Douglass as the voice of America's conscience; and the story of the Iroquois constitution reveals the cosmic dimensions of our own ideal of democracy.
Needleman shows how the crimes and defeats of America -- slavery, the destruction of the culture of the American Indian, the Vietnam war -- cry out for a vision of a nation asleep to its own spiritual essence, while bringing home the depth of what America owes to its own people and to the earth itself.
After an illuminating discussion of what we must learn from America's all-but-forgotten early mystical communities, Needleman concludes with a resounding call, echoing Walt Whitman's quest for a new American mythology, to understand what is truly eternal and indestructible in the American vision.
June 8, 2002
Reviewer: ROBIN FRIEDMAN from Washington, D.C.
This timely, provocative book combines and shows the relationship between two large themes: a)the nature and importance of spiritual and religious values and b) the nature and spiritual character of American democracy, with all its flaws. I was struck to find this book and the manner in which Needleman developed his themes. In broad outline, Needleman's preoccupations are my own. Without agreeing with everything he said, I came away from his book with my own ideas clarified and strengthened -- and a bit envious of Needleman's eloquence and ability to put his ideas into print.
Needleman draws a double picture of American freedom and its use. One picture is that freedom means everyone does simply as he or she pleases. This is, for Needleman, an America which has been criticized by many for its materialism, its emphasis on growth, its sole focus on the profit motive, its greed, racism, and, sometimes, bellicosity.
The other America is a spiritual American whose ideas of freedom and democracy was founded upon religious and metaphysical ideas of the nature of man, human commonality, the uniqueness of each person, and the search inward of each person for what is valuable and important. The ideal of democracy on this view is not simple pursuit of material wealth but rather a turning inward so that each person may pursue life and truth in his or her own way.
And what is the relationship between these two concepts of America? How do we help transform the one into the other? Needleman's answer is in part a study of the wisdom literature common to all religions and great philosophy of life. (Needleman evidences a great deal of impatience with standard church or synagogue-going. He argues that he himself has found such conventional forms of religion sterile and routine.) He finds such wisdom, in various of its phases, in the writings of the American founders.
Thus the larger part of the book is a discussion and creative discussion of the American founders and a reading of certain of American texts. Thus Needleman gives us a paragraph-by-paragraph discussion of Washington's Farewell Address, The Tenth Federalist Paper, Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, an Oration of Frederick Douglass, and Iroquois Indian creation myth, and Walt Whitman's late essay, Democratic Vistas. He tries to show how these texts show an America of spiritual values rather than money-making. His aim is, avowedly, to remythologize America and its past.
In a broad sense his project is carried through well. Some of his readings of the texts, particularly of Washington's Farewell Address and of the Iroquois myth, seem to me forced. Needleman would have done better to let Washington speak for himself rather than create a Washington with, perhaps, Needleman's own spiritual preoccupations. The readings of Whitman, Douglass, and Lincoln work much better, even on Needleman's own terms.
In trying to get people to think about America -- and to reassess its values in spiritual terms --
Needleman has critical things to say about America's treatment of the Indians and about the long legacy of slavery. These themes are valuable and important and Needleman is right to dwell upon them. I have some question about whether the treatment of the Indians is itself free from a degree of modern stereotyping. Be that as it may, Needleman's point is that we may see America with its flaws and crimes and love it and try to recognize and bring about the ideal in the sometimes shabby nature of the real.
There is a great deal of erudition in this book, both on spiritual texts and on American history. In addition to his treatment of certain standard figures in American history, Needleman has a fascinating discussion of the Ephrata community in Pennsylvania and its founder Conrad Beissel. This Protestant spiritual community flourished briefly during the period just before the Revolutionary War.
Walt Whitman has the last word in this book, as he properly should, with his vision of America and of the American person. There is a great deal of interest, as best as I can tell, in American history, as evidenced by the many new books on the Founders and the unending interest in Lincoln and the Civil War, and in spirituality, which I myself have found in a study of Buddhism. This book combines these two broad themes in an attempt to help the reader rethink and reunderstand America. It is a worthy goal and the book carries it out well.
Reconciling Spiritual Seeker and Patriot
February 10, 2002
Reviewer: Charles T. Tart from Berkeley, CA USA
No matter how much I dislike the oversimplifications of broad, emotionally loaded categories, I have always had to admit that I fall into two common ones. The first is "spiritual." The second is "patriot." How odd, at first glance! Aren't they rather contradictory? Am I a redneck if I put (as I have done since September 11th) an American flag on my car? It's puzzled me, as well as others.
Needleman's American Soul clarifies (I almost said "dispels," but it doesn't really make the mystery go "away," it deepens and enriches it) the mystery for me: without being in any way blind to human shortcomings, he reminds us of the spiritual ideals that this country was founded on and which can still be effective agents in life if we seek and create the America inside our souls. Our founders, like Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin were not naïve idealists who ignored the abundant greed, folly and hatred that existed then, exists now, and has always existed. The external form they created in the Constitution recognized these and created a system that could keep them in check, while promoting a unique societal climate that allowed for the spiritual growth (they called it "Reason," but meant far more than contemporary logic chopping) in both individuals and the community. Exploring the details of this is fascinating! For instance:
"... Scholarly controversies aside, the fact is that many of the ideals that Americans now consider definitive of our nation were introduced and developed by these mystical communities, and the original and deeper meaning of these ideals may be astonishingly different than what we now understand of them. For example, the ideas of human equality and independence in these communities are rooted in the notion that God, or "the inner light," exists within every human being, and that the aim of life revolves around the endeavor and the necessity for every man or woman to make conscious contact with this inner divine force. This interior divinity, in William Penn's language, "the inner Christ," is the source of true happiness, intelligence and moral capacity, and is meant to be the guide and ultimate authority in the conduct and assessment of our lives and obligations."
"Seen from this perspective, no human being can have ultimate authority over another, not because the individual has the right to satisfy the desires of the body or the ego; not because every individual has the right to plot the scheme of his or her own actions with respect to the social, economic or sexual aspects of life; not because every individual has the right to say whatever he wants to say. No, a human being is his own authority only because he has within him the inner Christ, the inner divinity."
These kind of thoughtful and stimulating insights abound in American Soul. This is one of Needleman's most profound books, and I recommend it enthusiastically!
About the Author
The author of books including Money and Meaning of Life; The Heart of Philosophy; The New Religions; Time and the Soul; and Lost Christianity, 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 was educated at Harvard, Yale, and the University of Freiburg, Germany, and has been a research associate at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research and was a Research Fellow at Union Theological Seminary. In addition to his teaching and writing he serves as a consultant in the fields of psychology, education, medical ethics, philanthropy and business. Needleman has also been featured on Bill Moyers's PBS television series, A World of Ideas.
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