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The Templeton Ideas Podcast is a show about the most awe-inspiring ideas in our world and the people who investigate them.

Transcripts of our episodes are made available as soon as possible. They are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.

Jeffrey Rosen is the president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, where he hosts We the People, a weekly podcast of constitutional debate. He is also a professor of law at the George Washington University Law School and a contributing editor of The Atlantic. He was previously the legal affairs editor of The New Republic and a staff writer for The New Yorker. Rosen’s new book is The Pursuit of Happiness: How Classical Writers on Virtue Inspired the Lives of the Founders and Defined America.

On this episode of the Templeton Ideas podcast, Jeff joins David Nassar, vice president of Strategic Engagement at the John Templeton Foundation, to delve into the influence of classical writers on the Founding Fathers, why virtue, defined as self-mastery, self-regulation, and the pursuit of the public good, is essential for the survival of a republic, and to reflect on the resurgence of interest in Stoic philosophy, particularly during times of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tom: So, before we get started with the interview, I want to take a moment to welcome my colleague, David Nassar to the studio. He is our Vice President of strategic engagement at the John Templeton Foundation.

And for our listeners, I wonder if you can just tell us a little about yourself, and kind of what led you to this conversation with Jeff Rosen.

David: Sure, Tom. Well, first, really happy to be here. It’s been a pleasure of mine, a great pleasure of mine, getting the podcast started, going back a couple years ago now. Since I came to the foundation and getting to work with you, and the other great members of our team and just seeing this podcast, take off both substantively and in terms of audience growth.

I came to the foundation after spending most of my career in Washington, D.C., I suppose you could say that I worked to strengthen democracy and pluralism in the United States and around the world in one form or another while I was there. I worked on international campaigns and domestic campaigns.

When I was in college at George Washington University international affairs, I remember sitting in a class and thinking to myself, “it would be really fascinating if there was a job out there where you got to figure out what makes people, both individuals and larger groups, more or less democratic.”

Tom: Mm hmm.

David: I thought that would just be the coolest thing in the world, to study that, and to look at it from a work perspective. And then I got a chance to do that, working at a place called the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.

I got to work there, working on the Middle East. And then from that, I came back to the United States and worked on civil rights issues, worked on, domestic politics quite extensively but always with a focus on issues and public engagement, citizen engagement, all of that. And so, when I heard about Jeff’s book and encountered Jeff’s book, I really just found it fascinating because it touches on those issues of, “why are people more or less democratic in their thinking and in their activities?”

Tom: Yeah, and when you first pointed out that book to me, I came to realize, I’m completely ignorant about some aspects of our nation’s founding. I had in my mind the founding fathers of the United States were influenced in two main areas from enlightenment philosophy and from religion and a biblical faith. I took one look at Jeff’s book, even just looking at the cover, and discovered, that these scholars and founders were looking back to the writings of Cicero and Stoic philosophers, whom I had never in my life read. I have a degree in philosophy and never read a work from the Stoics.

And I thought to myself, there’s this incredibly rich third strand that is integral to our Constitution. That I am totally unaware of. So, in diving into Jeff’s book and learning that we need step back sometimes and think what we know about our own history, there are some blind spots. I think Jeff’s book really kind of helps fill this void of a third strand that can help us understand what the pursuit of happiness even means.

David: Absolutely. As you know, our foundation is very interested in enabling people to live lives of purpose and meaning and that question is central to Jeff’s book, how do you live a life of being good?

And how does that lead to a life of purpose and meaning? Seems to me to be an interesting frame, for the work we do here at the Foundation. So, that’s why I thought Jeff would be an excellent guest.

Tom: I’m looking forward to listening to your interview, so let’s get into it.

David: I’m here today with Jeff Rosen, president of the National Constitution Center. For our listeners who might not know what that is, can you share a bit about its origin story, its mission, of the programs that you do currently?

Jeff: Absolutely. I’ll begin with a mission statement, which I always love to recite at the beginning of all of our programs. And here it is. The National Constitution Center is the only institution in America chartered by Congress to increase awareness and understanding of the U. S. Constitution among the American people on a nonpartisan basis.

And that inspiring language came from the Bicentennial Heritage Act that Congress passed during the bicentennial of the constitution in 1987. And the NCC is now America’s leading education center for constitutional education and debate. We have this incredible platform that I would love listeners to check out called the interactive constitution at https://constitutioncenter.org/

It was actually founded with great visionary support from the John Templeton Foundation. And it brings together the leading liberal and conservative thinkers, scholars, thought leaders, and citizens in America for discussion and debate about every aspect of the Constitution. So, you can click on any clause and find Justice Amy Coney Barrett and Neal Katyal debating the meaning of the habeas corpus clause.

You can find a constitution 101 class for adults and learners of all ages starting in middle school and high school. There are incredible primary source documents from a founder’s library assembled by liberal and conservative historians. And there’s also this beautiful museum on Independence Mall in Philadelphia, the most constitutionally significant spot in America, where you can see live theater and exhibits and, interactives and be inspired to learn more about the Constitution. So that’s what the NCC is. It’s an honor to be part of it, and it’s so wonderful to talk about it with your listeners.

David: Fantastic. Well, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out to our listeners that the John Templeton Foundation is located in West Conshohocken Pennsylvania, which is about 20 minutes down the Schuylkill Expressway from Center City, Philadelphia. So, we are quite familiar with the National Constitution Center as it is both physically close as well as philosophically close to the work of the John Templeton Foundation. So thank you again for joining us, Jeff.

Jeff: So great to be with you.

David: Can you tell me, tell our listeners a little bit about your own personal background and what motivated you to take on the role leading this exciting organization, one that I would say you’re obviously very passionate about?

Jeff: I am very passionate about it. And I felt as early as college that I had a mission to bring together literature and history and government and explore nonpartisan debate. And learning about the American idea. I was an English and government major in college. I went to law school because I couldn’t think of what else to do.

And in law school, I became very passionate about the Constitution and decided then to become a law teacher and a legal journalist. I spent about 20 years writing about the Supreme Court and the law in magazines like the New Republic, the New Yorker, and now the Atlantic, and then, I taught law for most of that time at George Washington Law School.

And, 10 years ago, in 2013, an opportunity came out of the blue to lead the NCC. And it was not anything I’d thought about. I knew the NCC, from its early days. I’d been a sort of distant consultant to some of the early exhibits, but the board decided to take a flyer on me and I got the greatest break of my life when this extraordinary national treasure, decided to, invite me to join. So, I’ve been, there ever since. And it’s just a daily joy and an honor to be part of this galvanizing mission that, that I care so much about and I am very enthusiastic about sharing as you can tell.

David: Thank you, Jeff. Well, let’s get to your new project. So, you’ve written a book called The Pursuit of Happiness, and the title clearly is ripped from the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. Tell us why this book and why now.

Jeff: Well, this was a project that was given to me rather than one I chose. I was impressed to write it, by a series of synchronicities that began during COVID. It was at the beginning of COVID and I was reading about Ben Franklin’s project to achieve moral perfection. And when he was in his 20s, he decided to become morally perfect.

And he made a list of 12 virtues, which he later expanded to 13. And he’d make a checklist of the virtues. And every night he’d put an X next to the virtue where he fell short. And these are virtues like temperance, prudence, industry, cleanliness, tranquility, and so forth. All of which he assembled from classical literature. And he tried this for a while and found it was very daunting because there were all these X marks and he gave it up, but he said he felt he was a better person for having tried. And I knew about this project because I tried it with a friend a couple years ago at a local synagogue. Our Rabbi knew about the Hebrew version of the Franklin Virtues.

It’s called the Musar System of Character Improvement. It was an 18th century Rabbi who admired Ben Franklin, and translated the virtues into Hebrew, and it’s still practiced by Jews who are seeking character improvement. So, we tried this system. We like Franklin found it very depressing because there were all these X marks every night, but we thought it was a useful project for self-examination.

What I noticed during COVID is that it had a legend or an epitaph from a book I’d never heard of by Cicero. It was called the Tusculine Disputations. And it said without virtue, happiness cannot be. This struck me because soon after I noticed that epigram, I was reading another list of virtues, and it happens that there were 12 virtues that Thomas Jefferson drafted for his granddaughters.

And what struck me is that Jefferson’s virtues are almost identical to Franklin’s. And Jefferson also uses as his motto, this book I’d never heard of called Cicero’s Tusculine Disputations. And when people wrote to Jefferson when he was old and said, “what’s the secret of happiness?” He would send a passage from Cicero essentially saying that happiness is tranquility of mind.

He who has used his powers of reason to master his unreasonable passions and emotions so that he can achieve calm, tranquility, and self-mastery is the happy man of whom we’re in quest. Okay, so basically, I’m thinking I’ve got to read this book by Cicero because it was obviously very important Franklin and Jefferson. What else should I read?

Well, then I came across this reading list that Jefferson would send to kids who were going to law school, who are the sons of his friends, or people would write to him when they were older saying, you know, what should I read to be an educated person? There’s a section called natural religion.

Sometimes Jefferson called it a religion or ethics or natural religion. And it began with Cicero’s Tusculine Disputations and then included other classical works of moral philosophy. Stoic philosophers like Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Enlightenment philosophers like John Locke, Francis Hutcheson, Lord Keynes, and others.

What struck me during COVID is that I hadn’t read any of the books on this list, and I’ve had a wonderful liberal arts education, and have had the privilege of studying with such great teachers at great universities. I’ve studied, as I’ve mentioned, literature and history and politics and political philosophy, but I just missed these books of moral philosophy because they’d fallen out of the core curriculum by the time I was in college in the 80s.

So, I set out to read these books and others on Jefferson’s reading list, and what I learned came as a revelation. First, I discovered that for all these classical moral philosophers, happiness didn’t mean feeling good, it meant being good, not the pursuit of pleasure, but the pursuit of virtue. And also, they had a particular way of pursuing virtue.

And it had to do with self-mastery, self-regulation, self-improvement, character improvement. The classical definition of happiness comes from Aristotle, eudaimonia, it means, or human flourishing, we translate it today. And Aristotle defined it as an activity of the soul in conformity with excellence or virtue.

Those terms aren’t self-defining, so it’s confusing to us, but when Aristotle meant virtue he had in mind. Temperance of mind, moderation, sobriety, using your reason to temper or moderate your unreasonable passions like anger and jealousy and fear. So, you can achieve the virtues that Franklin enumerated, tranquility, prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice, and more.

And what’s so exciting for me was what was exciting for the framers, which was to discover the connections among the traditions.

I was very struck, in addition to reading the books, on Jefferson’s reading list. I reread the Old and New Testaments, the Hebrew Bible, the, the, the Christian Bible, as well as the Bhagavad Gita and the Dhammapada. And I was just overwhelmingly struck by the similarities among these traditions in insisting that self-accounting is the key to virtue, that virtue is the key to self-command, that self-command is the key to tranquility of mind, and that tranquility of mind is the key to self-control, happiness. The similarities are much more striking than the differences.

David: The setup you just gave right there seems like something we should probably include in our show notes, because people are going to want to refer to that when they listen to this episode. I want to turn it back to the personal for a second. Your book, by its existence, seems to suggest that you believe in the value of this process. Is that appreciation? Purely because of this passion that you have for the Founding Father’s commitment to it? Or are you also drawing on your own personal history and this history of religious beliefs and philosophical traditions that you were just referring to?

Jeff: I’m absolutely drawing on my personal experience and writing this book changed my life, as they say.

And I find that it changes the way that I live. You can’t read the wisdom without feeling the urge to cultivate or practice. Those habits of mind that lead to tranquility and self-command and recognizing that that’s the goal always and it’s always a pursuit and it’s an hourly or daily or minute by minute, challenge, but to try to avoid unproductive emotions like anger, jealousy, and fear, partisanship, and all of those, natural temptations so that we can achieve the calm tranquility that allows us to be productive, to be our best self and to be industrious.

And if this work did nothing else, it kind of made me try to less and read more. You know, you feel whenever I start looking at silly websites, I think of Ben Franklin or John Adams or Pythagoras, trying to use every moment of the day productively and you, you try to get back to work. And of course, it doesn’t always happen because it’s a, it’s a daily struggle, but it, just changes your framework. I’ve been doing reading in the spiritual traditions for a long time but seeing the connections among them at with this granularity and also seeing how all of them gave us practical guides for how to actually live and how to practice a purpose driven life was tremendously exciting, tremendously empowering, and has very much changed the way that I live.

David: All right. Well, let’s take it now back to the larger world. So, the question is, did the Founders want to know if reason and reflection alone can lead to spiritual and moral truth? And if so, how much of this question is, purely a personal pursuit for you, me, any of us, and how much of it is about our work, our lives in the larger society in which we live.

Jeff: Well, it’s, intensely both personal and professional. As you quoted, I still remember the moment in college, and I graduated in 1986, when I was reading Puritan theology. I was an English major and had the most wonderful teachers about the Puritan idea and was unconvinced by the rigors of Puritan theology and the promise of predestination.

And the idea that good works could be a sign of salvation, but not its cause. And it would just, I found it to be legalistic hair-splitting. And I craved an answer to that question: How could we lead a good life? By reason and reflection, not by blind faith or by the acceptance of the doctrine of any particular dogma or faith.

And I felt a need for a project that at the time I thought of as good and evil and update what, what are the moral fundamental principles in an age of materialism, hedonism, and relativism. And what I didn’t realize is because the books had dropped out of the core curriculum is that this was the question the classical moral philosopher set out to answer.

So, when I found this Literature that had been hiding in plain sight because it was at the center of the core curriculum of college and law school and high school until about the 1950s, I felt like it was the answer to personal quest that I’d been yearning for and searching for, for so many years. Decades. So, in that sense, it was deeply personal.

David: So, is it on this foundation of self-mastery, of discovery of virtue? Is it on this premise on which the entire operation of American government rests that, the Founders believed that people needed to become masters of themselves? And does American government depend on our ability to do that as individuals?

Jeff: Yes, it does. It does indeed. For the founders, personal self government is necessary for political self-government. It’s not an intuitive connection, but it is central to their moral philosophy and to their constitutional philosophy. What does it mean? The Federalist Papers read through this lens becomes a document for public happiness, a how-to manual for achieving public happiness.

And Madison and Hamilton, in defending the Constitution, say that, the republic will fall without virtue in citizens because citizens have to achieve the same balance, harmony, and tranquility in their constitution. That they achieve in the constitution of their minds. And unless citizens can avoid their turbulent emotions and passions, avoid extreme partisanship, not descend into factions, to angry, mobilized mobs motivated by passion rather than reason, then they’ll be susceptible to being seduced by demagogues who will put their own self-interest above the public interest and will subvert the Constitution and the rule of law. So, you need thoughtful citizens to deliberate with each other, to listen to different points of view, to consider that, arguments they disagree with might be correct, and be thoughtful enough, and take the time enough to engage in that civic disposition, so that reason rather than passion can emerge.

And if citizens don’t do that, they’ll vote for demagogic representatives who will subvert liberty, and they’ll also refuse to engage with their fellow citizens. As a result will descend into their own selfish factions in ways that will subvert the rule of law. I’d heard many times the idea that we need virtue to survive as a republic.

George Washington famously said it in his farewell address. But I needed to understand that with a level of granularity. What does it mean to be virtuous? It’s not just being a good person in general. It’s controlling your emotions. It’s achieving self-control.

It’s putting the public interest in front of your selfish partisan impulses. It’s tweeting less and listening more. It’s not just voting for the guy who, because you think it’ll piss off the other side, but the person who actually will serve the public good. It is an exercise in political psychology, it is just so fascinating to see that the classical moral philosophers are political psychologists. And for them, the American Constitution is premised on a particular view of political psychology that applies the insights of what they called faculty psychology from the individual to the constitution of the state.

David: It sounds like a lot of what you’re talking about is freedom to in addition to or rather than freedom from. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you about the debate that occurred over the Bill of Rights and whether or not we needed one before they were written. And it’s always seemed to me that one of the outcomes of having them is that we have focused on the freedom from rather than the freedom to. And it strikes me that what you gave us earlier is the definition of happiness. Being good rather than feeling good is much more about that, than freedom to. Why do you think, where, when, how did that definition of happiness come about? Did we come to focus so much of our emphasis on our freedom on the freedom from rather than the freedom to?

Jeff: Yes. That’s a very important distinction you’ve drawn, and as you said, the Bill of Rights is about limiting government power but the moral philosophy focuses on freedom to, align ourselves with the Harmony of the universe and the divine to freedom to engage in active participation with our fellow citizens so that we can achieve a more perfect union freedom to cultivate harmony in our own constitutions and in that of the state. And that is the Classical definition of happiness as eudaimonia, self-flourishing, freedom to be our best self, to pursue virtue and temperance as individuals and as a society.

David: Would you go so far as to call that or describe that as a responsibility? We talk a lot about rights. But is it also, there’s also responsibilities.

Jeff: It’s a responsibility. The classical word would be “duty”. It is our duty. Cicero is, he had two bestsellers. One is the Tusculine Disputations, and the second is called On Duties. And it lays out not our rights, but our responsibilities as citizens and as individuals.

David: So, Jeff, to go back to the discussion earlier in the quote that I took from your book, where did the founders land on the question of divine intervention and whether it’s necessary to obtain?

Jeff: So, there’s no single answer to that. Every founder exercises his or her freedom of conscience came up with different answers to that question. And of course, people often don’t talk, openly or in public about their, their deepest spiritual understanding. So, we can’t at all in any way generalize or be confident.

But Jefferson is, is deeply spiritual. I guess, you know, he called himself a Unitarian. He may not have believed in an interventionist providential God, although who knows?

David: It seems to me that in some ways, this question about the necessity or lack thereof of divine intervention on a path toward moral and spiritual truth was the enlightenment question and I don’t know if you would agree or not, but I wonder if you think, is American government, the particularly American answer to that Enlightenment question.

Jeff: So, this is a complicated question. Let me answer it as directly as I can. I do not think that the question of whether self-governance can be handled without divine intervention was the Enlightenment question because the central, theological question that the Enlightenment, defenders of reasonable Christianity were trying to achieve is whether faith is compatible with reason.

And they, their answer was compatible with reason. In fact, the two are synonymous because reason is divine and to experience and be aligned with the divine is to. Lead a virtuous life. So, this compatibility of reason and faith was central to the whole Enlightenment project. The Enlightenment question was the one that Hamilton posed in the Federalist Papers. Can we create governments based on reason and reflection rather than force or violence? And that’s the question.

It’s force or violence, or I suppose religious dogma of any kind on the one hand. And then the American idea, which is based on the idea that reason and reflection can shape our governments. And that’s the question about which the founders are uncertain at the end of their lives.

They don’t know whether citizens will be able to muster enough reason, virtue, self-control to actually take up their divine duty of living personal and political lives in accordance with divine reason. But that question can be answered. wherever you come out on the question of divine intervention or providence, that’s a theological question that for Jefferson anyway is each individual has to decide according to the dictates of their own conscience.

Regardless of where you come out, this common wisdom we’re talking about, which is the wisdom of all the wisdom traditions of Christianity and Judaism and the Gita and the Dhammapada and the Greeks and Romans is all based on the centrality of reason, and that was the Enlightenment project.

David: That’s great. You’ve mentioned Stoics a few times. There’s been a resurgence in the interest in Stoic philosophy in the last decade, two decades, let’s say, um, at least in the United States. I can’t speak to around the world. And there does seem to be also a resurgence in this idea of duty. Is there anything you want to comment on about that resurgence?

Why you think it’s happening? How might it relate to your book? How your book might contribute to whatever that’s tapping into.

Jeff: It was striking that there was a resurgence of interest in Stoicism during COVID. And it’s not surprising when people were really disconnected from others and forced to find tranquility and meaning in their own minds and in their own homes. They turned to philosophies that helped us, improve what we could control and not, not try to control what we couldn’t.

There’s also, dissatisfaction with a purely autonomy-based philosophy of happiness that celebrates hedonism and materialism that says that short-term pleasure is the key to happiness, that’s not a satisfying way of life as the Stoics recognized. If you put all your value in wealth, you can lose all your wealth in a single ship accident.

Or if you really like fame on Facebook, you can lose your tweets or your likes with a single, you know, bad post. You are focusing instead on what you can control, which is productive, creativity being the best person you can be, regardless of the reaction of others is incredibly empowering. And at a time when people have lost faith in traditional institutions, including traditional religions to some degree, many are yearning for answers. And many of the answers, haven’t given the structure that Stoicism does.

So, I think people are rediscovering it because it, it works. It’s meaningful. It’s, I’ll also say if listeners are want an easy way and I’d suggest Marcus Aurelius, that was, I think I’d read the meditations even before I started on the Jefferson’s reading list. And it’s just so accessible and so true. And such a kind of practical guide to life that many have found. It’s a great way in.

David: So, let’s end on a positive note. You referred, a couple of times, or we’ve referred in different ways to a focus that people have currently on some of these more meaningful questions. When you think back on your own career over the last few decades, what are you optimistic about for the future?

Jeff: The main thing I’m optimistic about is the extraordinary opportunity that all of us have to learn and grow. It just blows my mind that I was able to do all this meaningful reading on my couch, I could either read free copies of the greatest wisdom of the ages or the actual books that the founders read with their notes, John Adams’s notes in his copy of Joseph Priestly.

When I was a kid, I went to the Library of Congress, the Thomas Jefferson building, which I think is for me, the most inspiring building in DC. I was really young, and I was with my mom, and I was just filled with wonder at the thought that all of the books in the world were in that one glorious building.

Well, today those books are in Right here on my iPhone, I carry them around in my pocket every moment of the day. And all I need is the self discipline to actually read them. So every day, there are many occasions to be, alarmed, upset, depressed, perturbations of the mind that result from our politics or our culture or whatever.

But whenever that happens and I start browsing or unproductively I, pull out the Kindle and start reading and feel immediately better. And I just feel that there’s such an opportunity to inspire people to read and learn and grow. The resources are all at our fingertips to expand, to follow the path of divine reason in ways that the founders could only have. imagined. All we need is the self-discipline to do it. And I’m confident that with enough inspiration, that’s exactly what we’ll do.