Soul of the nation is prominent in the news. “Soul” is used as though it were a well understood reality when, in fact, it has many connotations depending upon context and intent. People agree in using the word, but their reasons differ. Generally, soul refers to essential characteristics that define any human entity — an individual, a nation, a party, a religious or civic organization.
Sophocles’ chorus in Antigone praises the distinction between humans and other created things: “Wonders are many on earth, and the greatest of these is man … The use of language, the wind-swift motion of brain they learnt; found out the laws of living together in cities, building a shelter against the rain and winter weather…. For every ill they hath found its remedy, save only death.”
Lest that lead to false pride, unhealthy ego, and claims of divinity, Sophocles has the sentry in Antigone observe wryly, “To think that thinking men should think so wrongly!”
Many religious people believe that God created humans and provided soul or spirit in the breath of life. Humans are “in the image of God” because they have superior ability to reason and make decisions (volition). Nevertheless, humans are created beings limited by time and space. Inspired by reason and volition they are able to transcend themselves in thought and action, which defines humans as the greatest wonder on earth. Equating specialized ability or instinct of non-human entities to general human intelligence is wrongheaded. Two concepts of human distinctiveness — secular in Sophocles and religious in Scripture — are compatible, not contraries.
Attribution of ‘soul of the nation’ to the United States has roots in the Declaration of In-dependence reference to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”, a union of secular and religious. Both support two self-evident truths, “that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The Founders believed that education was essential in order for intelligent and wise citizens to rule themselves (personal morality) and to establish laws (social order).
Our Constitution is based on faith and trust that humans free to exercise reason and volition will develop laws for living together peacefully in cities and nations. Our schools and colleges, and eventually free public education, result from that affirmation. It remains to be seen if sufficient agreement can be reached in our current context regarding what constitutes an appropriate education for self-governance and civic life.
The Founders debated the role of religion in civic life. The position enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution is that religion could under gird good conduct that promotes morality beyond what law requires. Indeed, a democratic government could not thrive if citizens follow only minimum legal requirements and disregard them whenever possible. Free exercise of religion, free speech, press and assembly are essential for free people to govern themselves.
The Founders established a democracy with authority and power arising from those governed because they feared concentration of power exerted from above. Power is like a drug; it can be helpful in small doses, but can be deadly when applied in large doses. Therefore, Founders established a republic and relied on a clear separation of powers to avoid the common temptation of finite beings.
Public leaders agree that the ‘soul of the nation’ is threatened, even if they disagree about who or what is responsible. This column describes elements that constitute the “soul of the nation” for the American democratic republic. Our future depends upon we, the people, re-newing our faith in and allegiance to positive aspects from the history of our democratic republic.
Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.
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