- Historic Sites
February 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 2
Are we, with all of this, losing the drive and the sense of adventure that once (as we believe, anyway) characterized America? We are still a dynamic society, but we are becoming very security-conscious. Are we torn by a clash between these two emotional states, with the old urge to make new beginnings conflicting with the urge to reach a safe spot where risks need not be taken? Possibly; for along with everything else Mr. Lerner concludes that “America is a happiness society even more than it is a freedom society or a power society.” In our Declaration of Independence we asserted that one of man’s inalienable rights is his right to pursue happiness, and we have been hard at the pursuit ever since, with varying degrees of success. Yet what else could come, in a land where the infinite promise of life is one of the traditional concepts? The pursuit of happiness is not a bad thing, once we understand just what happiness is and how it may best be attained.
We are no longer an isolated country, cut off from the rest of the world by broad oceans. Whether we like it or not, we are now one of the world’s two great powers, and what we are and do—whether we are at our best or our worst—touches the imagination of the rest of mankind in a way (as Mr. Lerner suggests) that only one other society, the Roman Empire, ever touched it. The parallel is disquieting, perhaps; for the Romans themselves lost their own imagination, they came to value things more than they valued ideas, and the end was darkness. Will that be our destiny as a civilization? This grim question lies at the end of all our introspection.
To this question Mr. Lerner does not pretend to have a final answer. Any thoughtful student of American life can see many reasons for bleak pessimism, and as a highly perceptive man Mr. Lerner sees them as clearly as anyone needs to. But he retains his optimism—largely, it would seem, because our society is still in this process of becoming. The great enemy of any civilization, he suggests, is “the enemy within,” which is simply rigidity. That has not yet come to us. We are still developing; our sources of creativeness have not gone dry. At the end of his long survey, Mr. Lerner is able to say, with Emerson: “We think our civilization is near its meridian, but we are yet only at the cock crowing and the morning star.”