David Brooks has identified the true American religion: the pursuit of wealth. I like Brooks because he is one of the more historically informed columnists writing today. In yesterday’s column alone, Brooks referenced Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Horatio Alger, Norman Vincent Peale, Andrew Carnegie, Russell Conwell, Dale Carnegie, and Walt Whitman. This is a virtual pantheon of those who have defined their “way of improvement” in terms of the accumulation of wealth and success. Brooks writes:
Walt Whitman got America right in his essay, “Democratic Vistas.” He acknowledged the vulgarity of the American success drive. He toted up its moral failings. But in the end, he accepted his country’s “extreme business energy,” its “almost maniacal appetite for wealth.” He knew that the country’s dreams were all built upon that energy and drive, and eventually the spirit of commercial optimism would always prevail.
Whitman and Brooks, of course, are right. America has always been, and always will be, the great Enlightenment nation. Americans will always understand their “pursuits of happiness” in terms of economic progress and the accumulation of wealth. That is just who we are.
The belief that the “way of improvement” might lead “home” is a left-over relic of the eighteenth century. The idea that the pursuit of American ambition could be balanced with more local affections and attachments, or that we might be held in check by limits we or others or God place on our lives, is a notion that was part of a world that is long gone–the world of people like Philip Vickers Fithian. This world has been crushed by the forces of American modernity– the triumph of individualism, industrialization, consumerism, Protestantism, and nationalism. It is a world left to the historians.
As I wrote The Way of Improvement Leads Home I often wondered if it has to be this way. Maybe so.