In search of a selfless ideal for ourselves

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THE REAL AMERICAN DREAM: A MEDITATION ON HOPE By Andrew Delbanco Harvard University Press 160 pp., $19.95

What are the conditions that lay the groundwork for despotism? This was one of the questions Alexis de Tocqueville pondered after visiting America more than 150 years ago. The prescient Frenchman felt there was reason to fear that Americans' possessive individualism could run amok, dissolving the bonds of loyalty to their nation and the rest of humankind.

"The first thing that strikes the observation," he wrote, "is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens ... he touches them, but he does not feel them."

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Historian Andrew Delbanco quotes this passage toward the conclusion of his own meditation on what he sees as the alarming shrinkage of the American dream. Delbanco is concerned with the kind of history that is "interior." The three sections of his book focus on three major phases in American culture, each with its own dominant ideal.

For the Puritans, it was God. Not all the colonists were Puritans, of course, but Delbanco deftly demonstrates how this set of beliefs had a pervasive influence on everything from American pragmatism to the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous.

"The Puritans," writes Delbanco, "were in the business of training people to become connoisseurs of their own feelings." Yet they also distrusted those feelings, for they realized that "in the end, the intensity of one's feelings said nothing about one's spiritual condition."

Preachers like Jonathan Edwards taught that "the only way to know if one has been saved is to see if one lives in a new kind of reciprocal relation with other people." Or as John Winthrop preached to his fellow Puritans on the ship that brought them to America: "To love and live beloved is the soul's paradise."

In the 19th century, as religious certainties gave way to doubts (in some quarters), the spiritual gap was filled by the idea of the Nation. Delbanco quotes Walt Whitman: "The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem." The nation's commitment to the ideals of freedom and democracy, however imperfectly realized, made it the new repository of hope. Visitors like Tocqueville noted that the ordinary American, unlike the European peasant or laborer, did not fear his government but regarded it as serving the cause of justice. In his final chapter, Delbanco surveys the current state of the American dream and finds cause for concern. "Something," he declares, "died, or at least fell dormant, between the later 1960s ... and the 1980s - two phases ... that may seem far apart in political tone and personal style, but that finally cooperated in installing instant gratification as the hallmark of the good life and in repudiating the interventionist state as a source of good."

Self-realization, self-gratification, and unadulterated selfishness in the pursuit of profits are not merely tolerated, Delbanco notes, but actually valued. Those who still believe in social responsibility and service to others are seen as soft-headed fools. Hope, which once attached itself to the vastness of God, then to a great national ideal, has today "narrowed to the vanishing point of the self alone."

Self, Delbanco points out, will surely prove an empty, unsatisfying, and ultimately self-defeating object of worship. Unless we recover some sense of a common good, he suspects, we may be headed for moral collapse - or, worse yet, the rise of some nefarious ideology or movement. Delbanco does not believe that the apocalyptic "rough beast" of despotism is right around the corner - or inevitable. But he offers his jeremiad as a timely warning and a reminder of things that matter.

*Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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