INSIDE Chico State
0 December 4, 2003
Volume 34 Number 6
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Philosopher Jacob Needleman Delivers Message of Hope for America

Guest lecturer Jacob Needleman talks about philosophy, in Harlen Adams Theatre, Thursday, Nov. 13.

Guest lecturer Jacob Needleman talks about philosophy, in Harlen Adams Theatre, Thursday, Nov. 13.

Photo by Bill Husa, Chico Enterprise-Record

Speaking quietly and intimately to a packed Laxson Auditorium on Nov. 13, renowned philosopher Jacob Needleman declared that America is "still a symbol of the good."

It doesn't matter that there are things that are wrong, Needleman said, because "it's still correctable. There is great hope as long as we understand the reasons for America."

CSU, Chico students have been exploring those reasons with Needleman's book, The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, the 2003-2004 Book in Common.

Needleman maintained that the founding of America was inspired by a "deep goodness" that is an essential part of human nature, which resulted in a longing for free expression of a moral purpose. Even though that initial purpose has become covered over with self-serving attitudes, consumerism, and materialism, he said, there is still the possibility of "searching together for what we stand for."

He invited all Americans to "recognize the deeper meanings of America" and to "forget the usual clichés." It is all too easy, Needleman asserted, to come up with shallow answers when pondering such important words as freedom, independence, equality, and democracy.

"What do we love when we love freedom?" he posed. The answer, he said, has to be more than "I can do what I want or have what I want." It is the freedom to "really think and come to our own conclusions, our own sense of values."

Needleman acknowledged that many people today, especially students, are angry about America and its actions. He proposed philosophical inquiry as the legitimate solution to that anger. Anger can be displaced, he said, by looking for deeper meaning in the American experience. "If we educate people to hate America, we kill hope," he stated. "You have not the right to take away people's faith -- even if it seems naïve -- without putting something in its place."

Explaining how he came to be a philosopher, Needleman said that it was his need to find answers to the great unanswerable questions: Who am I? What does it mean to be human? Why is there suffering? Is death the end? How should we live? These "questions of the heart" cannot be answered by science or logical knowledge, he said, nor answered with ordinary thinking. It is part of human nature is to ask these questions, he said, and philosophy is born out of that yearning to understand life's mysteries.

Also essential to human nature, Needleman said, is a yearning to participate in something greater than self. He called it a "search for the truer self within us" and a "search for conscience." He said America was founded on such a search and proclaimed America as the "protector of the search for conscience."

America is a unique place, Needleman asserted. It is not an ethnic identity; people become American citizens by adopting the values of America, and they can do that superficially or deeply. Many people today are interested in searching for the deeper meaning of America, he declared. They hunger to determine whether America is still necessary in the world and can still be the hope of the world.

He encouraged his listeners to get some friends together to explore these vital questions and to join in the quest to recover the soul of America, concluding: "We can-not expect the government to do the search for us, but the government will not prevent us, so let's roll!"

Professor Greg Tropea, who assigned The American Soul as required reading for his Logic and Critical Thinking class, believes Needleman is one of the most important thinkers in America today. "In a time when destructive impulses strive to make great things small," Tropea said, "Needleman calls us to the thoughtfulness that opens our eyes to the great truths of the heart."

Needleman is a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University and author of several books. His visit was sponsored by Chico Performances and the Office of the Provost.

Francine Gair

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