The Soul of the Nation

Do Americans' day-to-day actions speak of unity?



Are we about to vote for the soul of the nation? Well, maybe. The political figures who say so are keener than ever to get out the vote, as are the “thought leaders” now popping up everywhere.

The first order of business for those who insist that political figures really figure out who they are serving (and insist that “thought leaders” think clearly) is to stop and reflect about what the soul of the nation is. As it happens, Plato, in trying to portray the just man, decided to shift gears for a time and explore what a just state would be. I’d like, after a fashion, to reverse that strategy. Since it is people who vote, let’s ask ourselves just what the soul of the human person is. Then we can return to the soul of the nation.

About this time last year, when the going was not so rough as it is now, the pundit David Brooks did some thinking in public about our souls (New York Times, Oct. 11, 2019). On his view all humans have souls, and our souls (1) have no empirical properties, (2) make us radically equal, (3) give us dignity, and (4) become, in the end, pieces of a larger unity.

For Brooks, the soul is the foundation of natural rights and civic friendship. It follows that if people “lose the concept of the soul,” then “they’ve lost everything.” That conclusion, while sobering, seems overly dramatic. A lost concept can be recovered, and losing the concept of the soul need not mean losing our souls.

Even so, we should think as clearly as we can about what the soul is. Clarification of thought is always in order. Here we would do well to turn to St. Thomas Aquinas as the Common Doctor of the Church.

For Thomas, all human beings have souls and, indeed, it is our souls that make us human beings. The soul, as the form of the human being, is not empirically visible; rather it so structures the body to have all the empirical properties it does. We are radically equal because we are fashioned as body-soul composites that reflect God’s image and likeness. It is our unique ordering to God that gives us dignity. But God is God, and in the end we are not pieces of God but rather his creatures “made a little less than the angels” and “crowned…with glory and honor” (Psalm 8: 5).

Let’s return now to the soul of the nation. In doing so we find a provocative metaphor. But in the most fundamental sense, a nation does not have a soul. To speak as if it literally does is to “reify” the nation, to turn it into an organic unity. To suppose it has such a unity is to open the way to a totalitarianism that is only too ready to sacrifice one of its parts for the advance of the whole.

Still, we do well to be concerned with the unity of a nation. Its unity lies in the shared goals of its people. Here an examination of conscience is in order. If the splintering goal of a nation’s denizens proves to be individual prosperity, sense satisfaction, and maybe a moment of fame as well, then the nation has no unity. It’s fit only for the dustbin of history.

If this be so, gentle reader, let’s turn to another phrase of the day. “That’s not,” says one public figure after another, “that’s not who we are.” Or are we? Actions speak louder than words, don’t they?


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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