THE AMERICAN SOUL: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders.

By Jacob Needleman.
Tarcher/Putnam. 371 pp. $25.95.

Who would have thought that at a moment when McCullough, Brookhiser, Ellis and others are writing on various Adamses and other Founders that one of the most provocative meditations would come from Jacob Needleman, one of the country’s leading metaphysicians?

His latest book, The American Soul, does for the Founders what an earlier book of his, The Way of the Physician, did for the medical profession. Namely, in a plausible way–even for agnostics like myself–he brings a metaphysical, in this case a spiritual, dimension to bear on our understanding of science, politics, economics and history.

In these abbreviated remarks, I’m not going to attempt to do justice to the new perspective he brings to the table, not to mention my night-table. But to give you an inkling, let me but cite some of the quirky yet profound questions he begins to raise when considering, say, our Founding Father. After acknowledging that Washington, like every hero of the American pantheon, is a representative of the idea of freedom, Needleman asks:

“Are we limited to conceiving that freedom only in external political terms? Or are we not obliged to return as well to the inner meaning of freedom as a relationship between parts of oneself? What, after all, could be the ultimate value of outer freedom of liberty in the external sense of the term, if inwardly we are and must remain enslaved and tyrannized? For, let us emphasize again, the deepest spiritual source of the early colonists’ rejection of political and religious tyranny was that such tyranny prevented them from searching for inner freedom.”

That is the framework within which Needleman analyzes not merely the most influential man in our history, whom he calls “our nation’s chief symbol of will and mastery,” but the rest of the founders as well. And yes, Needleman’s “Founders” include Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton et al., but also Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and Walt Whitman.

In places, The American Soul is too abstract and airy–and sometimes Needleman sounds a little too religious (albeit in an unconventional sense) for my taste, although he would undoubtedly deny it. But then, who else has tried to capture, penetrate, surround, describe and understand America’s soul?