The Truths Americans Used to Hold Part I: Where’s the Yeast?

The Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project recently sponsored a conference on philanthropy and the importance of fundamental ideas. In the keynote address, Michael Novak urged the many philanthropists present to attend urgently to the failure of our cultural institutions to teach the young (for the first time in American history) the basic principles of the American Republic—the ten, twelve, fifteen new propositions without which American Exceptionalism cannot be understood and without whose personal appropriation by each generation in succession this exceptional republic cannot stand. That Dietrich von Hildebrand was held up as a model for this conference seemed appropriate. He was a young man so grounded in “first things” that he was one of the very first—often alone—to stand publicly against the Nazi movement. If ever a demonstration were needed of the importance of rock-bottom ideas in times of ideological confusion, hardly a better model that von Hildebrand can be found. Here, in the first of three installments, Novak reflects on “The Truths Americans Used to Hold”—and why it is crucial now to take emergency steps to teach them to the young. Yeast in dough. That is the image our American ancestors saw when they thought about planting the germs of beauty and nobility in their new culture. One only has to look at L’Enfant's original plan for the buildings and parks of Washington, D.C., to grasp how much attention our nation’s founders paid to splendor and simplicity, to virtue and nobility and beauty. The founders’ dream was to build a republic that would live long, prosper, and inspire a noble spirit in its citizens. The public buildings of the capital city as built solidly lift up this dream.

A republic is not worth dying for just because it is prosperous—not if its self-satisfied citizens live like pigs. Nor is a republic worthy just because its citizens enjoy political freedom—not if those citizens dissipate their freedom in decadence, promiscuousness, and self-centeredness. Indeed, no republic will last long that ceases to strive for nobility of spirit, virtue, and self-sacrifice. Put another way, tyranny begins within the mind and the soul. If in that mind and soul there is no moral difference between the truth and the lie, and no moral difference between deeds good in themselves and deeds evil in themselves, then what is the argument for preferring liberty to tyranny? Opinion soundings show that a great many Americans no longer can express, or even recall, the ideas, specific virtues, and moral strivings on the embodiment of which this republic depends for its continuance.

The republic of the United States of America is not just a large bit of real estate, a sweep of territory. It is an idea lived out in real lives. It is a vision of beauty and virtue. This republic is capable of inspiring great love, great inner discipline, and the sacrifice of life itself. America makes one feel that no matter how noble we try to be, there were greater men and women who preceded us and laid out the way. Yet because it depends—to an extraordinary degree—on certain classical virtues, ours is also a republic exceedingly fragile and easy to lose. A single generation that chooses to turn away from freedom’s internal disciplines can, by doing so, blow out the lights and exit from the republican form of government. The price of our freedom is generation-by-generation vigilance and the renewal of intellectual commitment by each successive American daughter and son.

The culture of this republic was born around unusual understandings of what is noble and worth striving for. Our present age seems to have lost—or almost to have lost—those understandings. If we do not regain them, our culture will prove to be a cracked cistern and may run dry. The problem is that the cause of intellectual and cultural renewal is far less clear than the causes of the wealth of nations and political renewal. Less clear, but more important. How can one identify the sources of the beautiful, the worthy, and the noble—the inner secrets of the admirable human life?

A culture grows organically, one person at a time. A culture is not a mechanical contrivance; it is a life-form. Individuals need to be captivated by it and pledged to it, and they need to accept its hard demands, one person at a time. If that culture is lucky, it will produce a few exemplars who will inspire thousands of others by their words, deeds, or public creations. A culture needs individuals who show a particular promise—the promise of helping to revivify the key ideas, virtues, and visions of nobility that, in the first place, generated Western culture and, in due time (as Hannah Arendt dared to affirm), generated Western culture’s most noble experiment, the republic of the United States of America.

In an age torn by rival ideologies—an age in which passions run high, commitments are made that can reach as far as life and death, and a maelstrom of ideas about the future, visions, symbols, and even secular liturgies in vast public places compete for attention—for those who keep their heads, two questions are paramount: Amid all these visions, what is real? And what is true?

These are what the ancients called “the question of being.” The ancients spoke of the convertibility of the true, the real—and also the beautiful: Find one of these, and you begin to touch the other two. These questions also frame what the ancients called metaphysics—an interest not much honored today. Still, the questions remain as urgent as ever: What is real? What is true? Which is the beauty worth clinging to? There also are other questions—not quite questions of metaphysics in the older sense, but related to it—about what is real for a human life and the criteria for sorting out the true from the false and reality from ideology.

For young people, Dietrich von Hildebrand put the question quite sharply: If, as in 1933 or 1938, you are in danger of dying before you become old, what is worth giving your life to?

That is a metaphysics for living, not simply for knowing. Perhaps more exactly, it is ethics—but not in the modern, post-Kantian sense. Because it is not exactly the more limited modern brand of ethics, perhaps I will be forgiven for also calling it metaphysics, although in a large, extended sense. A trustworthy ethics for human living is, in fact, a fairly good entranceway to metaphysics and its more profound questions about being and truth.

Under the marching passions of Nazism and Communism, the young professor von Hildebrand was one of the few men who kept a cool head from the very first—and an anchor buried deep in reality. With his life in the balance, he edited an anti-Nazi newspaper in Vienna and taught and wrote until the Anschluss drove him out—out of the Third Reich, but not out of his beloved metaphysics. Looking at these searing experiences, one understands why von Hildebrand always engaged in a metaphysics for living. For him, in his time, it was a matter of moral survival.

Michael Novak, a member of the editorial board of First Things, holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. His most recent book is No One Sees God.

Published in First Things Online December 16, 2009