Reflections on America

Reflections on America II

Jacques Maritain

IX. "We Are Bruised Souls"

I would like to put the next three chapters within a single framework. They have to do with things which, under the visible signs that point to them, have a secret, spiritual meaning, and which refer to the presence -- unconscious and undeliberate, and too ordinary, too daily to be noticed as a rule -- of a certain hidden disposition that is Christian in origin, and appears to me as a kind of humble and remote reminiscence of the Gospel in the inner attitude of people. Behind the façade of violence and callousness of modern life, this something of old, subtle Christian flavor lies, I think, deep in the soul of this country.

My first reflections in this regard may be grouped under the heading, "We are bruised souls."

These words were said to me many years ago by a great American for whom I have profound respect and affection. They struck me in an indelible manner. They alluded to the wounds and sorrows of ancestors, and that memory of the sufferings caused by persecution and prejudice which they left to their progeny as a spiritual patrimony; they related to the fact that the ancestors of today's Americans were people hunted because of their religious convictions, rejected by their national community, or offended and humiliated by distress and poverty.

At this point we may grasp the hidden meaning of the basic part played by immigration in the life of this country. Each day, each year brings to the shores of America a flux of men and women who come from every part of the world and every cultural tradition, nearly broken by the moral persecutions, moral distress or physical poverty suffered in the Old World. They come over to commit all their remaining forces to the common task of the land of promise which receives them. Their children will be told of their sufferings and keep them in memory, but they will share in the youthful force, hope, and activity of their new national community. They will embark on the pursuit of happiness.

With respect to this basic sociological datum: the perpetual arrival of a new first generation of immigrants, as well as to the arrival of the first colonists, one might say that the tears and sufferings of many unfortunates have been and ceaselessly are a stream fecundating the soil of the New World and preparing for America's grandeur.

The extraordinary fact is that these tears are not shed in vain, I mean with regard to the earthly destiny of the children of man. Here lies, in my opinion, a distinctive privilege of this country, and a deep human mystery concealed behind its power and prosperity. The tears and sufferings of the persecuted and unfortunate are transmuted into a perpetual effort to improve human destiny and to make life bearable; they are transfigured into optimism and creativity.

But what is the objective meaning of that transmutation of the sufferings of the poor and the wounded into a new strength and a new hope -- if not a Christian meaning projected into the sphere of temporal, social and political existence? Except under the shade of the Gospel such a phenomenon could neither take place nor make sense in human history.


The sentence I am commenting upon here, "We are bruised souls," bears witness to a kind of bruise or wound which is, I would say, of an evangelical nature: because wounds which cause a human soul to be compassionate are evangelical wounds; and such a sentence offers us, I think, the deepest reason for the sense of mercy and pity, and the sense of responsibility toward all those in distress, which are rooted in the collective American psyche, deep beneath the hardness and harshness of the hunt for material interests and advantages which is the object of ordinary activity and ordinary conversation. This spark of the Gospel lying deep in people who more often than not do not think at all of the Gospel, is not a thing that one speaks of. It is hidden in the secret life of souls, and covered by all the ordinary selfish desires and concerns of human nature. It exists, however, and is active in the great mass of the nation. And what is more valuable in this poor world than to find a trace of Gospel fraternal love active among men?

There is, in the most existential sense, a strain of Gospel fraternal love deep in the American blood.


I spoke a moment ago of the spiritual importance of immigration for this country. Probably immigration will pose more difficult problems in proportion as the country becomes more populated. It is to be hoped that that strange source of insuperable strength and energy which comes from the influx of the poor and the humiliated, welcomed here to live a worthy human life, will never cease to vitalize American civilization. Without this humble source, namely the tears and sufferings of the poor pouring into the flux of American life and transmuted into human energy, America would lose an essential ingredient of her spiritual identity.

Finally, in the light of the considerations I have submitted, we may understand why this nation, which is principally a middle-class nation, nevertheless is not a "bourgeois" nation. There is another basic reason for this fact, which is sociological. I shall touch upon it later.[20] The reason of which I am now speaking refers to the spiritual aspect of the question, the old bruise in the soul.

Thus, let me say, you have gangsters, racketeers, crooked lawyers, gamblers, small home-owners who grow conservative and thirsty for security as they grow richer; you have social climbers, cheap politicians, hard-boiled businessmen, metallic women, well-to-do people of fashion -- you have no Bourgeois. That is one of the blessings of this country.

X. The Symbolic Smile

There is a saying of St. Teresa of Avila which seems to me particularly significant. She used to say, "Without poetry life would not be tolerable."

I think that behind all the improvements in the material conditions of existence which are to be seen in this country, there is a great, steady effort to make life tolerable.

Let me note, in passing, that the effort in question does not presuppose a particularly optimistic view of things as they are; since things as they are must be changed.

Well, coming back to my own line of reflection, I would say that the accusation of materialism, technocratic inhumanity, etc., appears especially unfair in this light. Of course, here as elsewhere in the world, industrial civilization entails the temptation of materialist technocratism. But this country, which seems at first glance more threatened by such a temptation because it is more industrialized, has, in reality, a better chance of overcoming it, because from the very start the American effort is directed toward the good of man, the humble dignity of man in each one of us.

It is too easy for certain high-brow Europeans with large bank accounts and delicious wine in their cellars to make fun of all gadgets -- bathtubs, refrigerators, dishwashers, washing machines, kitchen appliances, vacuum cleaners and so on, which everybody, so to speak -- that is, a very great number of people of slender resources, the majority of the nation -- enjoy here. (The same European critics hasten, incidentally, to buy the gadgets in question as soon as they can.) These gadgets serve, in actual fact, to make material life less overwhelming for common humanity, and to emancipate the human being from the servitude of matter in the midst of the chores of everyday life. Further: improvements in housing create better moral conditions for man and family life. And, in general, those improvements which concern the great mass of the people are of a nature to restore within human beings a sense of inner freedom at the most elementary level.

For instance, a woman here can be elegantly dressed in low-priced attire. Now everybody knows how important (not only esthetically but also ethically) it is for a woman not to feel humiliated by her clothes.

The yearning to make life tolerable is best revealed, it seems to me, in the American smile.

You meet on American streets smiling faces, which plunge you into a stream of quite general and anonymous good feeling. Of course, there is an immense part of illusion, of ritually accepted illusion, in the universal benignancy thus displayed. I had a dentist in a small town whose nurses were so well trained that you were dazzled by their radiant smiles and their unshakeable optimism. Finally you came to think, in a kind of daydream, that the fact of dying in the midst of these happy smiles and the angel wings of these white, immaculate uniforms, would be a pure pleasure, a moment of no consequence. Relax, take it easy, it's nothing. Thereafter, you would enjoy the cleanness and happiness of the funeral home, and the chattering of your friends around your embalmed corpse. . . .

I left this dentist, in order to protect within my mind the Christian idea of death.


Yet I have another recollection. I remember I was in Washington on a day in 1940, when the first news arrived of the invasion of France by the Germans. I was in utter loneliness, with personal problems and anxieties that weighed heavily on me. In this frame of mind I went to a small restaurant to have lunch, and was served by a waitress who displayed for me a sweet anonymous American smile. I knew perfectly well that it was mere illusion, as unreal a thing as "the smile of an absent cat." And nevertheless I felt comforted by this mirage, all the more comforted as I knew I had absolutely nothing to expect from these merely symbolic good feelings, and therefore no possibility of being disappointed.

And I suddenly realized the meaning of this symbol, the general, elementary, deep-seated sense of common human pilgrimage and brotherhood which exists in this country and lies behind the smile in question. After all, to feel disheartened and forsaken was only an episode. I am grateful to this waitress for having helped me one day against hopelessness.

Deep beneath the anonymous American smile there is a feeling that is evangelical in origin, compassion for man, a desire to make life tolerable. This symbolic smile is a kind of anonymous reply of the human soul, which refuses to acknowledge itself vanquished by the pressure of the assembly line, or the big anonymous machinery of modern civilization.

XI. The American Pilgrimage

We are confronted in this country with a curious paradoxical contrast. Nobody seems less indifferent to the world and to the goods of this world, more eager to work on it, to transform it (not so much in order to enjoy it, but in order to make it better) than the American people. But at the same time one feels in them a kind of strange, insuperable detachment.

Americans seem to be in their own land as pilgrims, prodded by a dream. They are always on the move -- available for new tasks, prepared for the possible loss of what they have. They are not settled, installed (I would say in French, "installés" -- a word which carries a strong moral connotation) though a trend toward an ideal of security has been developing since the war. Yet they are still far from being a settled people.

I find a symbol of the spiritual disposition I am mentioning in those small wooden houses with which this country is strewn. They are like cabins, which in a few years will fade away. Looking at them, one is reminded of St. Paul's saying: "As in a land not his own, dwelling in tents."

As you know, Rockefeller Center was built on a plot leased for ninety-nine years. A sky-scraper in New York does not lay claim to brave the centuries any more than does a tent in the desert. Let us think, by way of contrast, of the Pyramids of pagan Egypt, and the pride of the Pharaohs!

And now Americans are demolishing houses and constructing new buildings all over New York. New York is in the moult once again.

This sense of becoming, this sense of the flux of time and the dominion of time over everything here below, can be interpreted, of course, in merely pragmatist terms. It can turn into the worship of becoming and change. It can develop a cast of mind which, in the intellectual field, would mean a horror of any tradition, the denial of any lasting and supra-temporal value. But such a cast of mind is but a degeneration of the inner mood of which I am speaking. In its genuine significance this American mood seems to me to be close to Christian detachment, to the Christian sense of the impermanence of earthly things. Those now with us must fade away if better ones are to appear. In this sense of becoming and impermanence one may discern a feeling of evangelical origin which has been projected into temporal activity.

XII. American Modesty

The popular image of the Yankee boasting that he has the biggest car or runs the biggest business in the world is, in my opinion, utterly misleading. My experience with American students taught me quite another thing. I was struck by their modesty -- even, sometimes, surprised at the slight value they seemed to attach to their own personal opinion as long as they had not examined the various views of all the experts in the matter.

My experience with many of my colleagues led me to the same conclusion. One of my most distinguished students at the Graduate School at Princeton was a Jesuit Father; and the members of the department seemed to be, at the beginning, as intimidated by him as he was by them. That was the first time, I assume, that a Jesuit Father had got his doctorate in philosophy at Princeton with a (quite remarkable) dissertation on Thomas Aquinas. But mutual esteem and appreciation grew rapidly between him and them, and a professor, who is a good friend of mine, said to me one day: "I like your Jesuit Father very much. I enjoy my talks with him. His way of thinking is really American; he doesn't have all the answers; he is able to say, 'I don't know.' . . ."

Finally I came to realize that this distrust of self-assertion and self-reliance was a general feature of the American mind. Of course I know there are still some people in this country who pass judgment on European nations with all the more contempt and severity as they know nothing or almost nothing about them. If my present reflections are true, we should say that in doing so these people (they are fewer and fewer, I hope) show an un-American mental attitude. In actual fact there is an American modesty before life and reality which is a great moral virtue and a dynamic quality of considerable efficacy.

It originates, I think, in a sense of the complexity of things; of the fluidity of life which escapes our concepts; and of the multiple aspects of reality which make our judgments precarious. Hence, a circumspection before taking a stand or reaching a conclusion; a passion for blueprints; a slowness (which is an exasperating surprise for European visitors) in preparatory processes, and an extreme boldness and rapidity in execution; an extraordinary power of unceasing change, renewal, and adaptation to the growth of history.

This modesty is essentially linked with what might be called the experiential approach, in which it is necessary to get all factual data, all points of view and all possible opinions before making a judgment -- itself tentative.

Now, let me say, a single idea, if it is right, saves us the labor of an infinity of experiences. (That is why a Frenchman starts with his own idea.) Yes, but the idea must be right. If it is wrong, it involves us in infinite trouble. Thus it is that a sound distrust of ideology seems quite advisable in practical matters, specially if we remember that the discovery of new true ideas is, as a rule, prodded on by some alluring folly which preys upon them.

In this country the general distrust of ideology proceeds from the modesty before reality to be grasped -- and to be improved -- the eager modesty of which I am speaking, rather than from sheer empiricism.

Yet -- and here is the dark side of the picture -- it is liable to veer toward empiricism, and to a general and systematic fear of ideas. If this cast of mind -- fear of ideas, and of intellectual intuition -- became prevalent, it would involve the danger of impairing intellectual creativity; the risk, for instance, of making, not new applications, but new fundamental discoveries, much more difficult in the field of science.

There would be a risk, also, of imperiling the deep-rooted intellectual convictions, rationally founded, which man needs for the conduct of his life.

In particular, the moral tenets of a free people -- justice; freedom; equality; human rights -- would risk becoming a matter of feeling and national tradition, or adjustment to the environment, instead of being held as objective values, justifiable in reason.

Then, on the one hand, these moral tenets would lose their inner vigor in each individual. They would become more or less relativized, subjectivized. And on the other hand, they would lose their intelligible universality, and communicability, their impact on the minds of other peoples, that persuasive, illuminating, apostolic power which is peculiar to ideas.

Here I come to a point which is, to my mind, of especial interest, namely the need, with respect to genuine human communication, for a proper ideology -- better to say, a proper intellectual expression or an explicit philosophy and an explicitly formulated ideal.

It is through ideas that we communicate with other minds. It is through ideas that anything we have achieved or discovered in concrete life is made known to others, and even to ourselves.

Now the distrust of ideas, the too great ideological modesty of which I am speaking,[21] involves a serious risk: the risk of intellectual isolation, the risk of making American reality, and the greatest human and social achievements of the American people, non-communicable to other nations, and walled up in themselves, as long as ideology or philosophy remains far behind real and actual behavior.

XIII. Too Much Modesty
The Need for an Explicit Philosophy

I would like to submit an especially significant example of the need for an explicit philosophy, an example drawn from the achievements and discoveries of this country in the social field. I am thinking of a phenomenon of great historical importance -- the striking success of the "unsystematic American system": namely, the transformation of the economic system which has come about in this country during the last half century.

The industrial regime inherited from Europe has now become unrecognizable in this country. It has been superseded by new economic structures which are still in the making, and in a state of fluidity, but which render both capitalism and socialism things of the past.

Free enterprise and private ownership function now in a social context and a general mood entirely different from those of the nineteenth century. Two developments of outstanding significance must be mentioned in this connection: first, the growth of organized labor; second, the evolution of industry and management.


Let us first say a few words on the growth of organized labor. A hundred years ago, and still at the dawn of this century, the situation of workers was no better in America than in Europe in the dark days of the Industrial Revolution. It paralleled the description of the wretched life of the proletariat given by Marx.

Most of the pioneers of unionization, obscure forgotten forerunners destined to be sacrificed, were hopelessly broken, sometimes by their own fellow workers. The bitter fights in which violence of all kinds was used to crush the beginnings of labor organization, and in which victory could be obtained only by dint of dedicated courage -- and ruthlessness -- were still raging in the first decades of the twentieth century (it was in 1903, in the course of a long and finally victorious strike of anthracite coal miners, that George F. Baer wrote his famous "divine right" letter;[22] it was in 1914 that the Ludlow Massacre took place).[23]

The progress in social legislation, which reached its acme with the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, and granted labor rights of fundamental import, played -- as did the unbending effort of labor itself and of its stiff-necked leaders -- an essential part in the process of transformation.

And now -- now the average standard of living of the American worker is the highest in the world, and makes possible for the majority of them a decent human life. Organized labor has become such a formidable power (with huge financial means which enables it to have its own institutions of social welfare, hospitals, media of mass communication), that it confronts big corporations as an equal, and is sure it can oblige them to come to terms. The policy of its high command, moreover, is to try to get the best possible conditions without putting the progress of production in jeopardy; for, as a result of the growing commitments themselves of organized labor, and of the fact that its resources come from portions automatically withheld from the wages of its members, it appears that the very power of labor needs great industry as the very prosperity of great industry needs labor. American labor has of course its own internal tensions and conflicts; it must bring to completion rather difficult cleaning-up operations in a few unions; it is exposed to the ordinary risks of bigness and institutionalization. For all that, we may believe that its ever-growing power, as well as the sense of responsibility, and the interest in the general problems of civilization it is developing, will make it, in a not too distant future, one of the most decisive forces in the history of the nation, and of mankind.


I come now to the evolution of industry and management, which is, in one sense, more surprising than the rapid and successful ascension of American labor, for it has to do with a transformation in the capitalist structure itself. It is, too, a typically American phenomenon. The striking fact in this regard is that the corporations,[24] while growing, have, at the same time, undergone deep inner changes; so that a journalist could write apropos of a conference organized in 1951 by the Corning Glass Works: "When I was growing up, 'soulless corporation' was a very common term . . . Well, in my lifetime I have seen a remarkable change in this. I don't know whether it could be said that corporations have obtained a soul, but at least they have obtained intelligence."[25] These big organisms, collectively-structured and managed, are still fondly thinking, to be sure, of the dividends of their stockholders[26] -- but not as the unique, even as the first thing; because they have understood that, in order simply to exist, and to keep producing, they must become more and more socially minded and concerned with the general welfare. Thus, not by reason of any Christian love, but rather of intelligent self-interest, and of the ontological generosity, so to speak, of the stream of life, the idea of the advantage of the human being -- all those who cooperate on the job,[27] and the general public as well -- is gradually taking the upper hand. I do not assume that corporations have reached a stage where they would prefer the common good to their own particular good. But they are reaching a stage where for the sake of their own particular good they realize that the superior rights of the common good must be taken into account.

"The Tycoon is dead" -- or dying -- as the editors of Fortune magazine put it in an advertisement for their book, U.S.A. -- The Permanent Revolution. And as a result, corporations tend to become kinds of autonomous communities, in which one-man management is supplanted by team management, and which involve such inner complexity and differentiation that a new function is now developing in them -- the function of instructors in human relations, who teach applied psychology to the various branches of a given industry, and who foster human understanding between them.[28]

There is a great deal of planning, both spontaneous (thanks to the staff of economists employed by each big corporation) and connected and intermingled with State and Federal legislation, and government regulations and proddings.

The old merciless struggles between management and labor, during the heroic period of labor organization, have given way to a new relationship in which the antagonisms are still basically serious, but in the last analysis are reduced to a kind of cooperative tension, with enormous social advances such as the annual wage guaranteed to workers by some big industries, and contracts tying wages to productivity. A number of companies have introduced profit-sharing. And it would not be surprising, I think, if one day, contrary to now prevailing opinions, the American creative imagination were to find an unforeseen way of having labor share in the management as well. In any case it may be said that one of the changes the next generation will witness here will be a change in the very role and function of the union: this role and function becoming more deeply and organically basic in the whole economic process, and the union evolving from a merely antagonistic force (in accordance with the pattern employment-versus-labor which was peculiar to the capitalistic economy of old) into a necessary and responsible counter-balancing power, "a less emotionally divisive though equally effective part of the organizational machinery of American business."[29]

Finally, one of the most striking characteristics of the picture is the infinite swarming, on the American scene, of private groups, study clubs, associations, committees, which are designed "to look out for one aspect or another of the common good," and whose activity is interlocked in an inextricable manner with that of government agencies, other private groups, universities, business and industry. The effect is a spontaneous and steady collective regulation and prodding of the tremendous effort of the whole country, which is of invaluable importance.

All this is only a beginning in an immense and difficult task -- the humanization of the industrial regime. The social advances I have mentioned entail in the case of large corporations the usual drawbacks of gigantism, not to speak of the "promotion neurosis" which threatens executives.[30] The power of big money is still big itself, very big indeed. And the tremendous power of corporations and corporate management, in proportion as it grows, must, as a matter of public interest, be lawfully counterbalanced and regulated by various other powers. Serious problems are posed by the deeper and deeper alliance of great corporations with government, and by the fact that their gradual awakening to their obligations toward the general welfare -- and, in the last analysis, toward the political common good of the nation -- means that in actual existence they willy-nilly play a specifically political role[31] in democratic society. Though I trust that these problems will be satisfactorily solved -- as well as those which relate to the political role which organized labor is, inevitably, also called to play in the future -- this will nevertheless require much time, much human energy and dedicated effort. The struggle between the spirit of the people and the logic of the industrial system will go on in new forms and in new phases, while the industrial system itself will be led by scientific progress to new technical revolutions. The gradual realization of the American ideal of equal opportunity for all, and progress in social justice, will be the work of generations. But the road is open, the guiding spirit on which the whole ritual of economy finally depends has changed; a rupture with the old forms of the industrial regime has taken place.


In order to confirm the too hasty and imperfect outline I just made, permit me to quote some passages from the last chapter of Frederick Lewis Allen's book, The Big Change, which I have already mentioned. This chapter appeared first in Harper's Magazine, June, 1952. "For the March 4, 1951 issue of This Week, the editor, William I. Nichols, wrote an article called: 'Wanted: A New Name for Capitalism.' Arguing that the word is no longer the right one to fit our present American system, because in too many people's minds, especially in other parts of the world, 'it stands for the primitive economic system of the nineteenth century,' Mr. Nichols asked: 'How shall we describe this system -- imperfect, but always improving, and always capable of further improvement -- where men move forward together, working together, building together, producing always more and more, and sharing together the rewards of their increased production?' He said he had heard various suggestions, such as 'the new capitalism,' 'democratic capitalism,' 'economic democracy,' 'industrial democracy,' 'distributism,' 'mutualism,' and 'productivism,' but wondered if there might not be a better term. And he invited readers to write in their own suggestions in a coupon printed in the magazine.

"Fifteen thousand coupons came back with suggestions. 'Never in my whole editorial experience,' said Mr. Nichols afterward, 'have I touched so live a nerve.' "[32]

Mr. Allen himself seems to prefer the word "managementism." I would suggest that the expression "economic humanism" would probably be more pleasing to the ear, and more accurate. Well, by virtue of the mechanics of the capitalist system, as it was received from Europe, the author observes that "at the turn of the century America seemed in danger of becoming a land in which the millionaires had more and more and the rest had less and less, and where a few financiers had a strangle hold, not only on the country's economic apparatus, but on its political apparatus too." "This," he goes on to say, and I attach particular importance to the remark, "this outraged the democratic spirit of the country, the national sense of fair play. So we went to work to change things -- not by revolution but by a series of experimental revisions of the system. The reform movement in the early years of this century -- that revolt of the American conscience which was kindled by Theodore Roosevelt, the elder La Follette, and Woodrow Wilson," resulted in the fact that "through a combination of patchwork revisions of the system -- tax laws, minimum wage laws, subsidies and guarantees and regulations of various sorts, plus labor union pressures and new management attitudes -- we had repealed the iron Law of Wages. We had brought about an automatic redistribution of income from the well-to-do to the less well-to-do. We had discovered a new frontier to open up: the purchasing power of the poor.

"That, it seems to me, is the essence of the Great American Discovery. And it has its corollary: that if you thus bring advantages to a great lot of previously underprivileged people, they will rise to their opportunities and, by and large, will become responsible citizens."[33] Thus it is that a new social and economic regime is, in actual fact, developing in this country -- a phenomenon which gives the lie to the forecasts of Karl Marx, and which came about not by virtue of some kind of inner necessity in the evolution of capitalism which Marx had overlooked, but by virtue of the freedom and spirit of man, namely by virtue of the American mind and conscience, and of the American collective effort of imagination and creation.

Philosophically speaking, I would say that individual profit still remains, as it ever will, an indispensable human incentive, but that it is now definitely losing absolute primacy; and that the principle of the fecundity of money is definitely superseded now by the principle of profit-sharing in a contractual association.

This new social and economic regime is still in a state of full becoming, but it has already brought human history beyond both capitalism and socialism. As the same author puts it, "The United States is not evolving toward socialism, but past socialism . . . It is time we realized that when we battle against communism, we are battling against the past, not against the future."[34]

Here we have a decisive fact in modern history; and this fact is a considerable success of the experiential approach dear to the American mind.


Yes. But now I return to my point, namely to the need for an adequate ideology, or philosophy. And I ask: who in the world is aware of this decisive fact which we have just discussed?

Even in this country, as a result of a lack of explicit conceptualization and ideological formulation keeping pace with events, the average and official vocabulary conveys the idea that America has accepted the challenge of communism in the very terms of communist propaganda itself: Communism versus Capitalism, America being the stronghold of Capitalism.

That is a great misfortune, it seems to me, with respect to the rest of the world's peoples, for whom capitalism has kept its classical meaning, who loathe the very word, and who are not ready to die for it -- nobody is ready to die for capitalism in Asia, Africa, or Europe.

And it is also a great misfortune with respect to the accuracy of language; for the truth is that America is taking leave of capitalism, not through any sudden, violent and destructive revolution, but through steady, constructive -- and unsystematic -- transmutation.[35]

There are, of course, a number of books, and very enlightening books, which were written by American authors to stress the truth in question. Here is a list of four of them: Frederick Lewis Allen's The Big Change, which I have quoted several times; Adolf Berle's The 20th Century Capitalist Revolution; Peter Drucker's The New Society; and David Lillenthal's Big Business: A New Era.[36]

But all these books were written after the event. They offer us reflective analyses of what happened. They were not theoretical elucidations guiding what happened. They did not formulate ideas stirring men's minds and summoning them to action. And they remain so enmeshed in the description of the American experiential process and American particularities that they have a rather limited appeal for those who do not know this country.

In short, they analyze the very first steps in a process which will require at least a century for its full development; whereas that which might arouse the hopes of people all over the world is an idea of the final goal toward which such a process tends.

In actual reality, European scholars who keep themselves well informed on American affairs are aware of the historic fact on which I laid stress; the European masses are completely unaware of it.

You are advancing in the night, bearing torches toward which mankind would be glad to turn; but you leave them enveloped in the fog of a merely experiential approach and mere practical conceptualization, with no universal ideas to communicate. For lack of adequate ideology, your lights cannot be seen.

I think it is too much modesty.


This long digression was only an example. It shows us, I think, that this country should never, and will never, give up the experiential approach, which is a blessing for it; but that it would be quite beneficial for it to develop, at the same time, an adequate ideological formulation, an explicit philosophy, expressing its own ideal in communicable terms. This does not mean, of course, that it would be advisable to manufacture an ideology for the sake of propaganda, God forbid! It means that the development of a greater general interest in ideas and universal verities is a presupposed condition without which no genuine possibilities of intellectual communication can emerge.

For such a function in the community there is need for intellectuals. Here we see how necessary eggheads are -- those who try to shed the light of an adequate philosophy and a proper rational formulation, the apostolic power of ideas -- if not ahead of the movement of life, at least focussed directly upon it, as was the case at the time of the Declaration of Independence and the writing of the Constitution.

Let me insist that at that time America actively shared in the ideological movement which stirred the Western world. She even took the lead in those matters of political philosophy which relate to the Constitution of a free people. It is enough to read The Federalist to be certain of the intellectual amplitude of the discussions involved. And such was the role of the American mind in the ideological movement of the day that it had a considerable impact on the French Revolution[37] and the less questionable parts of its philosophy.

Even if under contemporary circumstances the philosophical formulation of a universal ideal seems to be inevitably forestalled by the rush of events, at least it should be possible to bring out from what happened some comprehensive interpretation in terms of social philosophy, and some adequately elaborated systematic program.

XIV. The Grand Slander

In a certain detestation and slander of America, there is a sort of mystical ardor and mysterious meaning which is worth examining. No better expression of this Grand Slander can be found than in the following passages from The Plumed Serpent. Speaking of Kate Leslie, the protagonist of the novel, D. H. Lawrence wrote:

"And sometimes she wondered whether America really was the great death-continent, the great No! to the European and Asiatic and even African Yes! Was it really the great melting pot, where men from the creative continents were smelted back again, not to a new creation, but down into the homogeneity of death? Was it the great continent of the undoing, and all its peoples the agents of the mystic destruction! Plucking, plucking at the created soul until at last it plucked out the growing germ, and man, it left him a creature of mechanism and automatic reaction, with only one inspiration, the desire to pluck the quick out of every living spontaneous creature.

"Was that the clue to America, she sometimes wondered. Was it the great death-continent, the continent that destroyed again what the other continents had built up. The continent whose spirit of place fought purely to pick the eyes out of the face of God. Was that America?

"And all the people who went there, Europeans, Negroes, Japanese, Chinese, all the colours and the races, were they the spent people, in whom the God impulse had collapsed, so they crossed to the great continent of negation, where the human will declares itself 'free' to pull down the soul of the world? Was it so? And did this account for the great drift to the New World, the drift of spent souls passing over to the side of Godless democracy, energetic negation? The negation which is the life-breath of materialism. And would the great negative pull of the Americans at last break the heart of the world?

"This thought would come to her, time and again."[38]

It is obvious enough that, through Kate, Lawrence was expressing his own thoughts and anxieties.[39] In the creative dream, author and character were ambiguously identified. And if they used the interrogative form, and if they ambiguously started from Mexican hopelessness ("which would pull her down, pull her down, to the dark depths of nothingness")[40] to leap at "America" and question "America" -- that is, the great melting pot of industrial America, the United States -- it was because the thought which haunted them was possessed of the tragic pungency and equivocity of a daydream. Well, the kind of testimony that D. H. Lawrence thus bore against America had all the more remarkable a significance since the America he loathed was the America, not only of his own imagination, but also of the imagination of many a man like him, except for the poetic genius. The very falsity of this furious image is of special interest to me.

In D. H. Lawrence himself the telling thing, it seems to me, is the fact that he was devoured by a profound mystical need, and that he frustrated this need, turning it toward the experience of the void, and the maddening negativity of an erotic frenzy which "declared itself 'free.'" About the ways and means through which he communed with the mystical realm, Lady Chatterley had surely better information than any of us. In the people for whom he spoke, however, mystical frustration can take an infinity of other forms. The new, fresh, lifegiving paganism of a renovated Quetzalcoatl was only one of the simulacra which can provide such souls with a moment of rapture.

Because they are enraged at themselves they are enraged at man and his daily hopes, sufferings and toil. They are split personalities; they cannot endure what is not torn asunder. It is only normal that they hate everything for which America stands. They are bored to death by such lukewarm, they think, and vulgar ideals as human freedom and human brotherhood. They hate the common people. ("Certainly Kate, who seems most nearly to share Lawrence's attitudes, regards ordinary people with disgust.")[41] They hate those daily tasks and crowded schedules, that struggle and competition, that restless motion of innumerable hands, that pressure of human work -- too human for them -- toward human, too human ends, and finally toward a life worthy of man for all, which they call energetic negation -- and that effort to turn matter to the service of man which they call materialism -- and that swarming of all colors and races, that great drift of souls coming over to leave oppression and humiliation behind and to work together in hope and liberty, which they call the great drift of spent souls crossing to the world of the undoing.

They hate the spark of Gospel love humbly glimmering in a desire to help man against despair. Then, in order to take revenge upon all those things, and upon their own torment as well, they imagine, in a portentous dream of their own, a purely mechanical inferno which they call America, an America populated only with machines and walking corpses, a great death continent where all that they abominate, all that which plucks the quick out of them reigns supreme, which breathes only negation, and whose denatured will is only intent on sucking all the vitality and the creative instinct of the world, in order to foster with them the levelling power of dead matter and a swarm of automatic ghouls. No wonder that they curse this monstrous America of their evil dream as the land of mystic destruction, busy pulling down the soul of the world and picking the eyes out of the face of God -- of their Plumed God.


The fright and horror which haunted D. H. Lawrence's Kate when she thought of America point to a fact which seems to me to be worthy of serious consideration. Obviously, all over the world businessmen interested in making profits may happen to like America, to learn a great deal from her, and to admire her material activity -- they envy her and will never really love her. Obviously, many persons endowed with genuine spirituality may happen to detest and slander America because they don't know her. But the significant thing for me is that I have never met any real contemplative, any true soul of grace, any man genuinely aware of the ways of the spirit, who, knowing America in actual fact and through personal experience, did not have for her a love in which his very love for mankind and a sort of reverence for the workings of divine Providence were involved. Despite all human defects, such as those mentioned in this book, genuine spirituals love America. Her worst enemies are pseudo-spirituals.

America can be slandered and unjustly hated in many various ways. She has political enemies, who foster in her regard a hatred which is violently vociferous but which is a matter of expediency, and can shift to as noisy a fondness and flattery the day it seems tactically advantageous. The natural enemies of America are the pseudo-spirituals, the false witnesses of the spirit. Theirs is the absolute and irreducible, the mystic hatred of America.

This hatred is peculiar to people who look for the divine and are captives of the flesh, and of the void, who thirst for spiritual experience and turn to spurious substitutes for it. It is only in anger and indignation, it is only against someone or something that they can recoup, and bear testimony to the sublimity of the very things they failed to attain. To compensate for their frustration and resentment they need a world-wide scapegoat, a symbolic continent great and powerful enough to arouse mankind's hopes, and perverse enough to betray them -- the nightmare[42] of their America.

©1996 by The Jacques Maritain Center. All rights reserved.

Reflections on America III