The Truths Americans Used to Hold Part III: ‘Confirm Thy Soul in Self-Control’

By Michael Novak on December 18, 2009 in Published Articles

The Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project recently sponsored an extraordinary 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 grievous 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 third 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.

Several of the founders, most notably Benjamin Rush, were fond of displaying the interdependence of liberty and virtue and the interdependence of virtue (at least in most people) and religion (or at least such a religion as Judaism and Christianity) that nourished America’s new conception of liberty. Here, in essence, is the way the maxim went: There can be no liberty without virtue, and no virtue (at least for most people, most of the time) without God. George Washington picked up this familiar theme in his Farewell Address:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?

The underlying idea here is that to act as a free woman or man, a person must have several antecedent capacities. He or she must have some governance over the passions of desire, on the one side, and fear, on the other, so as to be able to reflect calmly and make good practical judgments with clear-eyed deliberation. Thus the need for such classical virtues as temperance and courage, practical wisdom and judiciousness. To be free as a human being ought to be is to be able to discern, not only what one desires to do or is impelled by passion to do, but also, and even more clearly, what one ought to do. To be free in this way is to have the honor guard of virtues that are necessary to bring such a choice into clear focus and give one the courage to act on such discernment. In short, in the American ideal—which is modeled, to some degree, on the ancient and medieval ideal—liberty is not the capacity to do what one wishes but the capacity to do what one ought. It is, in short, to be capable of self-government, self-mastery, and self-control.

A very good image of this liberty was fashioned by the small band of French liberals who designed the Statue of Liberty that was put up in New York Harbor in 1886. This image was intended as a rebuke to the image of liberty put forward in the French Revolution of 1789: a prostitute atop the altar of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. This new symbol of liberty is far from that of the prostitute. It is a statue of a woman of stern features, gazing ahead purposefully as if she knows where she is going (and maybe where you are going; the face is that of a second-grade teacher). In her right hand is a torch, held aloft against the darkness of passion and ignorance. In her left arm, clutched to her breast, is the book of the law. And there she stands today: Liberty under the light of reason and under law, just as in the memorable lines from “America the Beautiful”:

America! America! God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

Or, as James Madison asked, many decades earlier, How can a people who do not practice self-government in private life possibly practice it in their public life? The particular kind of liberty required for republican self-government requires a fairly high degree of virtue in at least a critical mass of a nation’s citizens. A democratic republic is moral, or it is not at all. The citizens of a vital republic do not have to be saints. In fact, any practical design of government ought to anticipate many moral failures and weaknesses and against them provide such safeguards as divided government, checks and balances, and many other auxiliary precautions. A democracy that relies on “a new type of man,” wholly virtuous and unlike the men of the past, will sink into tyranny.

Thus, it is not so difficult to see how liberty in a republic requires moral self-government. But why does virtue require God? As George Washington pointed out, it may be true that an educated mind “of a peculiar structure” does not need religion (editorialists at the time suggested that he meant Jefferson), but “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” Washington even suggested that a person who tries to subvert these necessary props of government ought to be regarded as treasonous. The question becomes, then, Why did virtually all of the founders hold that God is necessary for morality—not strictly necessary, but necessary for most people, most of the time?

First, it is through the stories of the Bible and the history of reflection on them that most Americans learned—and still learn—ethics. Besides, mere philosophers always disagree. Very few citizens, if any, learn ethics from philosophy. Second, religions such as Judaism and Christianity teach people that sin is not simply a matter of not following rules, nor of erroneously calculating utilitarian costs and benefits. To sin is to disappoint the creator and to wound the father to whom one owes everything. He has proffered his friendship freely; he has not imposed it, and he knows that some large number may reject it. As leaders such as William Penn often observed, without liberty there can be no friendship. Our creator did not want the subservience of coercion, but the friendship of free women and free men, freely responding to his invitation.

This sort of background vision provides the strongest motive for moral conduct—the conduct becoming one who is made in the image of God. General Washington often challenged his army: How could they have confidence in a good Providence if they did not live in a manner worthy of the protection of that Providence?

God affects moral behavior further by supplying an additional motive. Why should one paint the bottom of a chair? No one else may ever see it, and perhaps the paint provides no utilitarian benefit. But God sees it. Many people will want to do the job as perfectly as they can just for that reason. Because a republic depends on its citizens’ many acts of fidelity in even the smallest things, having this motive available to large numbers of citizens strengthens the moral coherence and cohesion of the republic.

One example: One night in 1972 a guard at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., alertly detected a bit of tape that had been placed over the latch of a door that ought to have been locked. It would have been easy for the weary guard to shrug, forget about it, and not trouble himself to report it. But he didn’t take this easy route. Instead, he did his duty, with momentous consequences for the United States, its government, and its laws.

Another example of fidelity in small things—and immense bravery—occurred in 1942 at the Battle of Midway, a decisive naval engagement of the Second World War. The clouds parted around some American bombers just as their fuel tanks reached the point at which the aviators knew they had to turn back or else almost certainly run out of fuel on the return to their carriers. There below, aircraft carriers and other vessels of the Japanese fleet sat serenely in the water, their protective airplanes out on bombing missions of their own. To attack meant highly probable death for the Americans. But not to attack would be to let down their nation terribly, to fail to give the last full measure of devotion, and—at least for some—to refuse to lay down their lives for others. Without exception, each of the aviators made his decision, dived down, and bombed the carriers—and with devastating effect. The attack altered the balance of naval power in the Pacific and changed the outcome of the war. The men had made their fateful decisions in a few short moments of extraordinary fidelity.

A problem for all democracies is the passage of time from generation to generation, as personal ardor for the nation inevitably cools and the zest for heroic virtue flees. Moral relativism slowly seeps into private conduct and then into the wider drift of things. The only known force for countering this predictable path of decadence is a perennial conversion of heart among the nation’s citizens—an awakening of conscience and moral striving.

Against the tide of moral relativism, the one God—he who has total insight into all the details of all that he has created—stands like a mighty fortress, a mountain, a rock. A name for that rock is the regulative principle of truth. No one human being anywhere can grasp the exact contours of truth even in little things—and certainly cannot in the totality of things. But issuing forth from the creator there is truth, howsoever unknown today, to be eagerly sought. Each human being can have confidence that matters obscure to him or her may be clearer to others. Thus, there is much to be gained in conversation with others. Much is also to be gained by conceiving of the political city as a continuous public conversation about what is actually happening now and what citizens ought to do.

For reasons such as this, Thomas Aquinas wrote that civilization is constituted by conversation. That is to say, civilized peoples persuade one another, and argue about what is true, in the conviction that there is truth in every little event and detail, even though the whole truth is not yet known by any one human being. This belief is the root of intellectual and scientific inquiry and provides the strong motive for enduring many hardships to encounter as much of the truth as one possibly can.

To summarize, religious convictions and metaphysical principles radiate all the way through the founding of our republic, and they will never cease to be the crucial sources for sustaining it. America’s founders (and others, including Alexis de Tocqueville) advanced many other reasons for honoring religion (at least, religion of certain kinds) as the armor and internal dynamism of a free society. Perhaps these four powerful motives, observed by the Founders, that religion adds to mere philosophy are sufficient. For those who seek still other reasons, I have recorded some of them in On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding (2002), and in the book I wrote with my daughter Jana, Washington’s God (2006).

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 18, 2009

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