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 second 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. There’s a joke going around among American ninth graders: Want to scare your parents? Tell them the teacher put up a map of the Western Hemisphere and called on you to point to Mexico, and you couldn’t find it. Among young Americans, ignorance of basic facts about our nation’s geography, history, and principles has become legendary. Many cannot locate New York on a map of the United States or place the Civil War within a hundred years of its actual dates.
Yet it is young Americans’ ignorance of the founding ideas of our republic that is most disturbing. The vast majority of college students have never read The Federalist, the Constitution, or the Declaration of Independence. No one has taught them the basic convictions about the real world without which the American republic cannot be understood. No one has taught them—to borrow that ancient, but newly serviceable word—the metaphysics behind the truths Americans used to hold. Our generation is the first in history to leave its children ignorant of their intellectual patrimony. How long can a nation based on unique ideas survive not only its citizens’ ignorance of these ideas, but also their neglect and disparagement?
To speak of the “metaphysics” of American ideas is already to be more concrete and limited than in the traditional uses of the term. Metaphysics proper requires the study of being in all its generality, encompassing necessary beings and contingent beings, timeless beings and historical beings, possible beings and existing beings. But to enter the world of American principles is to enter the world of actual history, contingency, experiment, and advances (and possible setbacks) in political, economic, and moral consciousness.
Thus, a metaphysics of American ideas is a departure from traditional metaphysics, but it is also a needed one. This is because a merely pragmatic or utilitarian account of American historical consciousness tends to overlook its profound, usually unspoken presuppositions. It is precisely these presuppositions that we need to bring out if we wish to understand American exceptionalism, which itself is no merely superficial matter. The historical nature and causes of American exceptionalism run deep in philosophical turns of thought.
To begin with, we must point out that the fundamental philosophical principles of the American founding spring from a particular “biblical metaphysics.” The operating presupposition is, first, that there is a creator who, at a point in time, brought into being everything that is. This creator understands his creation in all its detail, down to the condition of each lily in every field. This creator also is, in the main, beneficent to humans, although not without expecting them to be sorely tried by adversities, defeats, irrational happenings, and temptations to despair. A great symbol of this is the absurdity of the cross and the cruel irrationality of what was done to God’s son: If this is the way the creator allows his own son to be treated, as the way to our healing and fulfillment, how can we expect to be made to bear less? Trial and suffering are the fire though which a loving creator wishes his people to pass.
The grace the creator offers does not come cheap. Similarly, American independence was not won without a great many humiliating defeats, rampaging illnesses, sufferings in the cold of Valley Forge, and woundings, maimings, and poolings of blood on American snow and grass. From such background convictions came the trust of General Washington and his troops, despite the long years of suffering they manfully bore, in an ultimately benign and beneficent Providence.
Our founders shared in other background convictions as well, including the belief that history is not meaningless: It issued forth from its creator in a conscious and loving act during which God endowed every human being with certain natural rights, and it moves events forward like an arrow of time toward a new world of justice, independence, self-government, liberty, brotherhood, and equality.
Our forebears were convinced that this world’s foundations are so structured that a “New World” might take shape—a world where great progress could occur and in which many new things could emerge from honest suffering and toil. Among these new things were a Novus Ordo Seclorum (a new order for the ages), a “new science of politics,” and a “new model of government never seen before on the face of the globe.” Lest this ontological principle of originality and emergent new creations be overlooked, James Madison wrote of it eloquently in Federalist #14:
Is it not the glory of the people of America, that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience? To this manly spirit, posterity will be indebted for the possession, and the world for the example, of the numerous innovations displayed on the American theatre, in favor of private rights and public happiness. Had no important step been taken by the leaders of the Revolution for which a precedent could not be discovered, no government established of which an exact model did not present itself, the people of the United States might, at this moment have been numbered among the melancholy victims of misguided councils, must at best have been laboring under the weight of some of those forms which have crushed the liberties of the rest of mankind. Happily for America, happily, we trust, for the whole human race, they pursued a new and more noble course. They accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society. They reared the fabrics of governments which have no model on the face of the globe. They formed the design of a great Confederacy, which it is incumbent on their successors to improve and perpetuate. If their works betray imperfections, we wonder at the fewness of them. If they erred most in the structure of the Union, this was the work most difficult to be executed; this is the work which has been new modelled by the act of your convention, and it is that act on which you are now to deliberate and to decide.
The world-structure required for an era of progress, originality, and invention differs enormously from that of the recurrent cycles of fate and changelessness that the ancient Greeks and Romans felt controlled by just as it differs from the imprisoning dialectic of materialism, which separates “being on the side of history” from reaction, deviance, and pointless resistance. Such a world-structure differs, as well, from the mere pragmatism of “muddling through.” It gives a much stronger role to the initiative, inventiveness, creativity, and responsibility of individuals acting in history to change the world. Americans, in fact, do come to believe that women and men can become different from what they were in the past and, within commonsense limits, be all they can be—if they work hard enough at it. Every person can do new things, and people should not merely accept things as they are; they should take responsibility for changing things for the better wherever and whenever they can.
Thus, the principles of biblical metaphysics that are the fundamental philosophical principles of the American founding presuppose a particular structure of being—a structure of progress; of the ultimate beneficence of the Lord of history; and of human responsibility for initiative, stick-to-it-iveness (such a perfectly American word!), and creativity. This newly conceived structure is characterized by contingency, openness, and the emergence of the new, but it also ushers in a new conception of liberty. It is a biblical conception, as opposed to a Greek and Roman one, and it places new responsibilities on Americans to make creative use of human liberty to help God’s creation flower into its intended growth of justice and truth, liberty and brotherhood.
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 17, 2009