“The Inward Work of Democracy” – On Being with Jacob Needleman

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Recommended Reading, Watching, and Listening

Seek the lofty by reading, hearing and seeing great work at some moment every day.  ― Thornton Wilder 

I read, listen to, and watch a significant number of media that in some way are about how to live well, how to grapple with life challenges, people’s passions, or how amazing the world and universe (universes?) really are.  It’s one way I keep learning and evolving, hold onto hope and remember the good in humanity (despite the day’s headlines), and reignite wonder.  Also, I’m a complete sucker for a great story.  And when I find something great, I want to share it. 

These “recommended media” blog-posts are one way of sharing.  In each, I’ll tell you a little bit about the book, article, radio-show, etc. and what about it struck me.  But of course, my musings can never replace the full production; “key take-aways” can never have the impact of the real thing.  My hope is that the notes will inspire you to take a look at whatever it is and find what is most meaningful, useful, touching, and funny to you. 


Jacob Needleman: The Inward Work of Democracy.  An “On Being” conversation about what Mr. Needleman believes is the real goal and promise of the United States—that we are given the security and freedom to fully develop our conscience, to cultivate our best selves and help others find greater well-being.  For every right we have, we also have duties and responsibilities.

I have listened to this episode several times and highly recommend it.  It seems especially important now, given how many American Congressmen and presidential candidates are acting, and because as a society/culture, we seem lost.  Many of us are miserable but don’t quite know why, even those of us who face no immediate threats to safety, security, or comfort.  I think Mr. Needleman’s ideas help to explain a lot of this, and how we can correct course (why we must!).  Basically, we’ve forgotten why the founding fathers wanted freedom and prosperity—not so everyone can have a ton of stuff and do and say whatever they feel like in any given moment, but so that we can engage in spiritual growth/ personal development of moral ideas in the way that makes sense to each of us.  (It echoes the way we’ve forgotten the original purpose of companies—to provide a social good.  In order to incorporate a company, the corporation had to have a social purpose, such as creating a bridge or providing railroad service.  Profits were the result of doing good, not the reason for creating the company.  Imagine how different our banks and companies would function if, instead of profit maximization, their central purpose was to enhance social well-being,)

The other thing that struck me are the similarities between Mr. Needleman’s ideas about “well-being” and the misery egoism leads to and Buddhist ideas on the same topics.  (I have no expertise in Buddhism, but I’ve read a little bit and recommend The Dalai Lama’s The Art of Happiness.)

A few excerpts from “The Inward Work of Democracy”:

  • [W]hat stands out in terms of the myth of the character of [George] Washington, what stands out is, of course, the phenomenal fact that he turned away from power. He could have had more power than practically anyone in the world after the Revolutionary War, and he could have been — as one observer had said, he could have been king of America. But he stepped down as the head of the Army and he stepped away from political life, and simply surrendered his power. Very few leaders can you find throughout history who have voluntarily stepped away from power like that. He represents, to me, the sacrifice of one’s own personal egoistic desires for power for the good of the country.
  • [Explaining his understanding of what Thomas Jefferson meant by the phrase “the pursuit of . . . happiness” in the Declaration of Independence]:

    He meant there’s no happiness without virtue. . . . [Happiness] didn’t mean having whatever – just whatever you want. It meant well-being in the traditions that they studied. They were very highly educated in classical thought. Happiness – a better translation of the word is “well-being,” and well-being doesn’t mean continual or lots of pleasure. It doesn’t mean egoistic satisfaction. It means being what you are supposed to be as a human being. So happiness implies a relationship to a truer self within yourself, and I think Jefferson meant that. And I think if you look in the nature of the great spiritual traditions, how they look at and understand human nature, it’s part of the essence of a human being to love, to feel care for others.

  • . . . Conscience is an absolute power within the human psyche to intuit real values of good and evil and right and wrong. We are born with that capacity. It’s not just socially conditioned into us. This is what the great traditions teach. This is what I think. But it is covered over by a lot of the egoism and chaos of our unfree inner life.
  • It’s become so trivialized, freedom. It’s wonderful to be able to go where I want and do what I want and buy what I want, buy and buy, and get and get, and talk and talk, and I have no constraints. We certainly need external liberty. God knows, that’s one of the most precious things this country has to offer the masses of humanity who have come here. I don’t mean to put that down in any way. Without that, without that, the rest is just academic.
    But without the inner meaning of freedom and liberty, we have to ask, “Well, what is this freedom for?” It’s not just a freedom to get a big house and a big car and a lot of goods. . . . Inner freedom means inwardly to be free from these egoistic, selfish cravings, which make our life turn around into chaos. It’s an interior freedom, which maybe you can say is mystical or certainly spiritual, but without that dimension to the idea of freedom, the idea of freedom becomes purely external and eventually selfish.
  • A democratic citizen is not a citizen who can do anything he wants; it’s a citizen who has an obligation at the same time. And just to give you an example, if I may, the freedom of speech, what is the duty associated with it? Well, if you ponder that a little bit, you’ll come to the conclusion very clearly that the right of free speech implies the duty of allowing others to speak. If I have the right to speak, I have the duty to let you speak.

    Now, that’s not so simple. It doesn’t mean just to stop my talking and wait till you’re finished and then come in and get you. It means I have an obligation inwardly . . . I have to work at listening to you. That means I don’t have to agree with you, but I have to let your thought into my mind in order to have a real democratic exchange between us.

Photo courtesy of Pexels

Alexandra Marchosky
Alexandra Marchosky
I coach individuals and organizations to do and be better by more fully living their values.
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