To sit home, read one's favorite paper, and scoff at the misdeeds of the men who do things is easy, but ineffective. It is what evil men count upon the good men's doing. - Theodore Roosevelt
American culture is amorphous, fluid, and constantly evolving. These attributes tend to make Americans shy away from embracing national pride in fear of being labeled nationalistic, authoritarian, or conservative. It is currently more fashionable for one to claim they are a proponent of American ideals or Western principles in a non committal way. The tendency to be non committal is hard to disagree with it as it is the way most Westerners operate. Why commit to one thing when ample ideas, experiences and opportunities are abound? Isn’t that why we strive to be cosmopolitan?
What is important is that the ideologies, which support the West encompass freedom of speech, equality under the law, and the pursuit of happiness. All of which, until somewhat recently, were nearly universally accepted by all living in Western nations. However, it has become dowdy for Americans to proclaim their admiration for America as a singular nation with its inhabitants sharing commonly held beliefs. This is mainly because the beliefs in which the nation was founded upon are no longer valued by many. Simply, many Americans have chosen safety over freedom. Americans are not alone, this is a trend of modernity, not specific to the West.
“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” - Benjamin Franklin
America is not without its blemishes, but no great nation has ever risen to the heights in which America now stands without the use of violence, exploitation, and propaganda. The dichotomy of views held by many Americans, one seemingly nationalistic and one quasi global are the the abstract ideologies of modern day America. They are what now divides the major political parties on the right and left. Americans seem divided amongst those that see themselves as citizens of the world and those that are more regional if not local.
On the one hand the cosmopolitans, in the Kantian sense, have a connection to all peoples and classes around the world. On the other hand are those that feel a deeper connection to their families and communities. This distinction in views cannot simply be due to lack of education or world travel, no, it stems from a belief in progress vs conservation. At first glance it seems like we have stumbled into both a philosophical and biological conundrum. Is it more rational to care for all people no matter the country or connection or is it more rational to care for those closest to you?
A man does all he can to avoid a violent death according to philosopher Thomas Hobbes of the Lev, who wrote the Leviathan in the 17th century. It now seems as if man is more worried about immediate safety and comfort rather than eminent death. Avoidance of discomfort is now the chief aim of most.
Human excellence is not the chief aim of modern man as it was for the ancients. Human excellence is the manifestation of the ideal man, the man of philosophy, magnanimity, and health. Mens sana in corpore sano, as the Romans said. Man no longer strives to challenge himself on various fronts, to become the craftsman, the statesman, and the teacher.
The modern man lives in stark contrast to the Stoics, whom embraced death and a life of suffering through the principle of amor fati. Stoics and ancient Greeks strove to lead lives that pursued human excellence above all else. The ancients knew death was inevitable and that one should spend their time pursuing arete rather than dwell on the minutia of the moment.
The Stoics were masters of how they internally processed external stimuli. It is the actions and reactions of a man that matter most. One cannot strive for excellence if one is focused on avoiding death. Human excellence pursuit was the highest aim for the ancients, this pursuit however has shifted to pursuit of freedom post Enlightenment, and now rests in the pursuit of safety in modernity.
It is often easier and more widely accepted to cling to the theoretical than the practical to pontificate about the ideal forms of things such as beauty, justice, and the “good” then it is to take action. It seems as if Platonic thought experiments have defeated Aristotelian principles in the modern West. The belief that and implementation thought supersedes action causes pressing matters to go unaddressed, votes not to be cast, and inventions not to be created. In short, stagnation is cementing itself in many aspects of the American way of life. America has now found itself in a confluence of falling birth rates, slowing economic growth rates, and a lack of substantive innovation.
Americans have let mainly European intellectuals tell them what it means to be American. The caveat being that these great minds are simply regurgitating the great works and telling them the meanings through their personal perspective, a perspective that is biased by what they have experienced and what they believe. One needs to read and interpret the great works for oneself. Reading the classics is important. This ranges from the works of Aristotle up the Federalist Papers. The great works are often put down because on a first read they can appear enigmatic and foreign. The great works are something to be read many times as each pass allows one to discover timeless truths and revelations missed upon the first reading.
Authors such as Tocqueville, Weber and Rousseau have influenced the minds of American authors such as Thoreau, and Pierce and to a lesser extent Emerson and James. Emerson and James were mores students of the great works themselves ranging from the Greeks to the Stoics. American Pragmatism is possibly the only great addition to philosophical thought by Americans. It is a blend of Aristotelian, Stoic, and Puritan ideologies. Simply, it is the philosophy of what is practical.
If one has read the works of Nicholas Machiavelli, then one knows he is the master of stripping away the theoretical and getting down to brass tacks. This is the man that stated that “any means justifies the ends”, with beautiful prose that espoused the use of deception, persuasion, and cunning. The Machiavellian way of life, or political life, for that matter, is antithetical to the edifice of what it means to be an American civilian in the classical sense. America was founded on inclusive ideals such as the Christian beliefs of equality, hard work, education, and long term prosperity. In short, America is cunning on the surface, but fair at its core.
Machiavelli writes more for those in power or aspiring for power (classical liberals), which by definition is the elite. Yet, Machiavelli’s writings should be appealing to many Americans because of Machiavelli’s ability to address two separate audiences at once. One can read The Prince and learn how to manipulate those around them, while another can read the same text and think that there are no longer people that act and think the way in which Machiavelli wrote about, thus being open to the manipulation and deception the other reader is learning.
Quiet leads to leisure, leisure leads to chaos. - Machiavelli
Some read Machiavelli with the thought that they can employ many of the strategies in modern America to achieve more success and obtain unmatched notoriety. This is not a false belief, many prominent Americans use Machiavellian tactics whether they realize it or not. One must remember that Machiavelli wrote about what actually occurs, not the ideal, that is why his writings do so well in an open, free, and capitalistic society. When one does not have an issue with using any means necessary they can reach great heights in the modern West.
But is the use of Machiavellian tactics the right thing to do, do these tactics steward humanity along the path of human excellence? No. This is why the writings of Machiavelli are so useful for the modern West, as excellence and now freedom, are subordinate to pleasure and safety. Cunning and deceit take precedence over prudence and courage. Pleasure and safety under the guise of progressive advancement by those in Western cultures has led many astray from the aspirations of the excellent and the high.
Most of us have learned through formal education what Western culture is/was/supposed to be. American culture is hard to grasp when one is immersed in it, however, it is rather apparent to foreigners.
Akin to a fish in water, many Americans do not realize that they exude a certain confidence and charisma that is unrivaled across the globe. This is why when you ask an American what it means to be an American you either get a blank look or responses ranging from the ability to speak freely to a blend of the greatest cultures in the world. Not all Americans see their culture this way, it is often times characterized as oppressive, capitalistic, and stratified.
Often failing to realize how heavily influenced that interpretation is by the likes of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Marx, Freud, Weber, Tocqueville, and Rousseau. We have not had a great American mind capture what it is to be American since the noble attempts of Thoreau and Emerson. One can argue that what it is to be an American, the bravado, the courage, and the character have been lost since the days of the founding fathers.
Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood. - Ralph Waldo Emerson
America was founded on unbounded liberty. Freedom to do what one so chooses as long as it does not infringe on a fellow citizens right to the same freedoms. This is why Thomas Jefferson so cleverly chose the phrase Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness to be included in the Declaration of Independence. He aptly left off the Lockean ideal of property as a foresight to the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage.
The American founding was established to allow the many to leverage the few to make the best decisions for the common good of society. The Federalist Paper outline the beauty of how the constitution should be carried out in practice with a checks on power across myriad domains. America has swerved from these prudent beginnings to a society in which most Americans feel unequal, unheard, and unmotivated. When everyone views themselves as equal who will step up and be exceptional?
This is due to the somewhat false hopes that were created after WWII, the dream that working hard and doing the right thing will supply you with whatever is the manifestation of your unique American dream. If one remembers that in the 1950’s the dream was one salary, two cars, and a home with a white picket fence. This dream has morphed over the years to something more akin to freedom to choose ones path no matter the vision. Is it really progress if many are progressing away from what is better to something that is less defined and unattainable? This includes lush experiences and travel, dining out, and access to the best education and health care. While all of these are solutions to short term wants they are not the right answers to building a path towards long term human flourishing.
What is lost in modernity is personal sovereignty which then extends to the family and the community. A freedom and bravery to make decisions for ones own long term well being that will radiate out to those closest to them. Where to live, where to work, what to eat, what to read, who to marry, and how to envision the future have all in large part been delegated to a third party to make the decision for you. An appeal to science and authority have led many to abandon common sense and the ability to become self reliant no matter the situation.
We should strain every nerve to avoid wickedness and should endeavor to be good; for so one may be both friendly to oneself and a friend to another. -Aristotle
Americans have delegated not only their vote, but much of their sovereignty to an elite that is not entirely aligned with their well being. This misalignment, however, is not necessarily between the lower class and the elite, rather it is between the middle class - the modern day ‘bourgeois’ and the American elite. The middle class encompasses the majority of the nation, it is where people have done enough to live in the suburbs or the nice apartments, but these are also the people who are caught on the hedonic treadmill set to 12.0 speed.
The American middle class is the class squeezed with anxiety and depression. It is the class that wants to do what it takes to provide their progeny with a better life than they had. They are the class that no longer finds a home amongst the democratic or republican parties. Unfortunately this is also the class that is most easily swept away by current narratives and fashions by the mania on the fringes. How does one make rational decisions about their well being, the well being of their children, and the well being of their society when they cannot look past the overwhelming immediacy of the present? Many struggle to keep up, keep up with finances, keep up with health, keep up with education, keep up with family, and keep up with economics.
Americans have delegated so many choices that they have let intellectuals tell them how to live and what to revere. From the mouthpieces of some of the great minds we have been instructed to pursue our own rational self interests in order to create the good life. A relativistic view of what it means to be man in society. There is no real regard for family, religion, and politics.
The American founding fathers were children of Aristotle and Plato, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Montesquieu. While modern Americans are children of Marvel and Disney. The former looked for universal truths to establish the best regime, the latter looks for ways to conform to the current environment. America was founded by brave men of brilliance, but is now led by those afraid to take risks and die for what is in the best interest for the common good.
Its a known fact that the elite and the down trodden have much in common and often share many behavioral characteristics and social behaviors. Both groups fall out of the purview of much of mainstream scrutiny. They dont worry as much about taxes and fashions. One group is trying to leave a legacy while the other is simply trying to survive. Both circumstances allows one to really feel what its like to be alive. There aren’t the melancholic days that seem to drag on and repeat like groundhog day experienced by many in the middle class.
Rather than buying the latest iPhone or mindlessly scrolling social media, these groups on the tails are either focus on the present or have an eye to the future. One group realizes it must overcome its current situation by hard work, luck, or activism, while the other group wants to transcend the current zeitgeist through a feeling of helping those being oppressed often spurred by a guilt that is perpetuated by a noblesse oblige.
The erosion of the extended family has been one of the fundamental errors in the West. It spurs doubt, anxiety, and eventual nihilistic thinking. We have even developed our own brand of nihilism. American nihilism lead by scientism and individuality. The illusory nature of leisure and time. We have less time and leisure. We think we can live like ancient aristocracy, but we don’t have the time to master first principles. We have domesticated ourselves. We no longer act and then ask for forgiveness but rather wait for someone to give you the ok to act. Stop waiting for someone else to tell you what to do. Take action now to strengthen yourself, your family, and your society.
The inability to replenish the population with domestic inhabitants worries some while others see it as an opportunity for immigration to fill the gap. Slowing economic growth rates are something many feel can be elevated with more oil pipelines while others see Green energy as the path to growth. Lack of innovation is seen by some as a sign of decadence while others see it as an opportunity to take risky bets that others are unwilling to take. The moon shot ideas and eventual inventions Americans can rally behind to inspire the present and shape the future are what is unlocked if this pursuit is taken. Fertility, growth, and innovation are going to be inexorably tied to a careful weaving of successful research, measured immigration, and calculated risk taking.
America now lacks ties to religion and aspirational myth. Religion and myth are needed to transcend the current time period. One needs something almost divine to aim for in order to continue the path towards human excellence.
When looking at society through first principles there is matter, form, efficiency, and finality. All causes in a chain that span from what something is made up of to what the final purpose is. This extends to nearly everything in existence if one takes the time to analyze and think.
Getting back to how this ties into modern societies, societies are comprised of people (matter), people which unite to make families, communities, cities and nations (form), this unity is then bonded together through shared belief, whether that be culture, religion, ideology (efficiency), to finally lead to an end state (finality). Societies chief aim is to perpetuate the culture by repeating the steps that ensure success by passing down information through children, writing, music, theatre, art, and various digital mediums.
The true sign of a successful culture is how many vital threads can be traced back to a common link, a shared belief by the majority of society. That common belief may be American Exceptionalism, Religion, Global Equality, or Individualism Exemplified, but what is important is that it is shared by enough of society to underpin a future filled with opportunities for all to flourish and pursue a life of health, happiness and fulfillment.