Just a mile from where I live in Manhattan is the New York Historical Society. Within its walls are displayed five stunning paintings by the great 19th-century artist Thomas Cole. They collectively bear the title, “The Course of Empire,” painted when the American empire was just stretching its legs. The collection, showing the birth, growth, and collapse of a civilization, serves as a warning of what will surely happen to us if we don’t change our own course.
The first of the five paintings by Cole, called “The Savage State,” depicts an uncivilized, primitive area. The second, called “The Arcadian or Pastoral State,” pictures an idealized agrarian community. The third, named “The Consummation of Empire,” shows a gleaming city at its zenith; and the fourth, “Destruction,” depicts the collapse of the city as enemy warriors invade. The final painting, “Desolation,” shows the area where the proud city once stood, now an utter ruin. It’s sobering, particularly in light of current events.
As you may know, I host Socrates in the City, a monthly gathering in New York in which people can begin a dialogue on “Life, God, and other small topics” by hearing a notable thinker and writer. And at this month’s meeting, I couldn’t help but think of Cole’s “The Course of Empire” paintings.
That’s because our speaker was none other than Os Guinness, author of the important, and indeed indispensable new book, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future. As I said in my endorsement of A Free People’s Suicide, sometimes a book is so important and so timely that not to have read it is to embarrass oneself. Let me say this is such a book.
Right now I’d rather talk about this book three times than anything else once—so, with your indulgence, I will! For this and the next two BreakPoints, I’ll whet your appetite for A Free People’s Suicide, by Os Guinness. But there is absolutely no substitute for getting your own copy and reading it yourself. We have it for you online at the BreakPoint bookstore.
And as the presidential election draws nearer by the day, this is the time to discuss the course of the American empire. Clearly, polls show that most Americans believe the nation is on the wrong course, and many of us see signs of decay—with crushing debt and deficits, anti-American mob action in the Middle East and North Africa, rampant and enduring unemployment, and a cultural milieu that seems to grow coarser by the day. So what are we to do about all this?
Well, Guinness says the problem is ultimately not going to be solved by politicians, or even solely by a return to our founding charter, the Constitution. We need an old-fashioned “reformation of customs.”
Guinness writes, “What the framers believed should complement and reinforce the Constitution and its separation of powers is the distinctive moral ecology that is at the heart of ordered liberty.” These are the “habits of the heart” that Alexis de Tocqueville identified, and which too many of us have lost.
As the cartoon character Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” It’s entirely our choice, Guinness says, whether we will face national desolation or not. As Lincoln noted, “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
We’ll explore how we can escape this suicidal fate in the next two BreakPoints. Needless to say, please join us. It’s that important!