We live in a civilization that tells us that one of our most sacred rights is the right to pursue happiness as we see fit. It doesn’t tell us where to look for happiness, or how to go about finding it, but it does make some strong suggestions. For example, America is famous for its “American Dream,” which is largely about finding a career, making money, making a home and raising a family. Not quite as emphasized is seeking glory, and the big reason for that is that we are not a militaristic society. When the military has a more prominent place in society, and military excellence is more ubiquitously set forth as the standard citizens should hold themselves to, glory starts to become more important than money or family. Glory is about fame, and fame is about being known not just among one’s contemporaries, but known among future generations as far into the future as possible. It is about immortality — not literal immortality, but to live on in memory of one’s nation, tribe, country, etc.
The American Dream obviously doesn’t include fame or glory. It is all about your life, a life that is essentially private and left to its own prerogatives. But there is an angle to the American Dream that I think does relate to glory-seeking in a round-about sort of way. I mentioned a moment ago that glory-seeking is about immortality, and that immortality in this sense isn’t really literal, physical immortality. What I would now add to that is that if immortality could be literal, physical immortality, then that would sort of be the “real deal” to which glory-seeking is only but a distant approximation. In other words, glory-seeking is a thing because it is the closest we can get to beating death, and since the military is where you are in greatest need of beating death, it is only fitting that the military has this incentive and effect of stirring up in its members this sort of symbolic solution to the problem of death — surviving death, not in physical form, but in celebrated memory. Death is confronted most directly by the military, but it is also confronted by all human beings at some point as a matter of biological necessity, thus creating a less pressing but no less real need to find some solution to beating death. The American Dream, I think, is the average American’s tradition way of feeling that they are beating death. The key to this is to understand the American Dream as having a couple of relevant characteristics. First, it is celebrated by society, much like fallen military heroes are celebrated by society. It is thus sanctioned and validated by society as a good way to live your life. Having society’s sanction is obviously not something that stands in direct relation to dealing with death, but it does indicate that one is at least confronting life’s big questions, intentionally or not, in a manner that not only others are doing as well, but in a way that others, whether they are living that way themselves or not, are likely to theoretically and even deeply approve of. Death confronts us with the guilt that if we do not live a good life, if we do not by some standard do the best we can do, then death becomes in a way entitled to actually materialize the most dreadful ideas we think deep down it potentially possesses and holds ready for us. By embracing the American Dream, Americans can provide comfort and solace to each other that they are doing their best, and that they should be happy, and that death won’t have anything worse for them that it does for anybody else.
My closing thought here would be that, from the perspective of desiring immortality, the American Dream some what undercuts the promises of eternal life offered by Christianity and certain other faith traditions (I’ll just refer to Christianity for simplicity’s sake). One needs a strong confrontation with death that demands a direct strategic solution in order for immortality-seeking to be a thing that people do. The military can provide that confrontation, and has a real promise from the government and the civilian population that is protected by the fallen hero that they will honor and remember that hero. Absent that, the confrontation with death is more remote and less vividly felt. Christianity needs to encourage you to feel that confrontation with death in order for you to feel the need for a solution to the problem of death. It needs you to feel essentially doomed, absent Christ. However, pursuing and living the American Dream has the very strong effect of removing the sense of doom. With respect to religion, the American Dream has very minimal expectations, and actually the further you leave the boundaries of the American Dream into Christianity, the more you get a countervailing message that perhaps the American Dream is not protecting you from death at all — it has to convince you, again, that you are doomed without Christ. So, if you are putting your stock in the American Dream, you probably are going to be uncomfortable taking Christianity too seriously. Why trade comfort for doom, even if that comfort is really just the comfort of conformity? Why get anxious about seeking immortality, if death can be thought of as a remote chore that can be so effectively and approvingly ignored?