Courtesy Reuters

Reflections on Our National Purpose

In his last book, published shortly after his death, Maurice Bowra wrote that "by making the Athenians believe in their city, Pericles made them believe in themselves." Americans today, in spite of their accomplishments and privileges, might envy the Athenians' national and personal self- confidence. It would be wrong to say that Americans do not believe in their country. Fundamentally they do. But for the very reasons that their expectations are so high, their distress is very deep. They want terribly to believe in the rightness of America. Yet, even those who are not overcome with a sense of wrongness yearn for the energetic, optimistic self- confidence which made all things seem possible until a few years ago.

It is not only that many goals seem hard to attain. Conventional goals themselves seem inadequate. "Peace and Prosperity" are the traditional words of political promise. But competitive material advantage, and even physical survival, are not by themselves enough to lift the national spirit. A nation, like a person, needs to believe that it has a mission larger than itself. Sometimes we do not seem to have that any more.

At home there is a widespread uneasy feeling that the "open society" is closing. In our relations with other nations and peoples we suffer a national trauma as we reluctantly admit that we can neither escape from, nor control, the rest of the world. We will not regain our self-confident spirit until we believe once more that we do have something special to contribute to the prospect of humanity generally, both because of what we are as a society and because of what we might mean to the hopes of all peoples.

I am optimistic. I think we can put an end to our dither. I am particularly encouraged by the cast of mind of many of the most talented younger Americans. This piece, then, is admittedly an exhortation as well as an analysis.


At the outset we must rid ourselves both

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