- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 23, 2004

From workout videos to TV makeovers to self-help books on the best-seller charts, evidence abounds of the American mania for self-improvement. This distinctly American obsession has deep roots, going back at least as far as the Founding Fathers.

From the Sage of Monticello to the Victor of Yorktown, the founding generation was focused almost as much on building its character and morals through intellectual pursuits as it did on the fight for liberty.

However, the Founders’ notion of self-improvement was inherently different from contemporary America’s, says Joseph Ellis, author of “His Excellency George Washington.”

“In the rubric of self-improvement, there are a lot of different meanings,” says Mr. Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. “Our modern self-improvement tends to be more given to exteriors while the old one is given to interiors.”

The Founders, he says, were devoted to “fundamental shaping of their personalities, rather than just the exterior [appearance].”

In Colonial America, a person’s reputation was based on character, historians say. Small towns and limited population meant people knew each other, a contrast to the nation of today, says historian John Phillips, who has published “George Washington’s Rules of Civility.”

“There was a certain amount of accountability in Colonial life,” Mr. Phillips says. “It wasn’t that times were simpler, it was that people knew each other.”

This, he says, was the direct result of towns where the church was the social caretaker, managing both social and spiritual welfare.

Modern America, however, focuses on outward appearances. Makeover “reality” shows on everything from “Trading Spaces” home improvement to “Extreme Makeover” appearance improvement are huge hits.

The contemporary idea of personal betterment is different from the Colonial version for another reason — worldview — says James Sire, author of “The Universe Next Door.”

“I think the biggest difference [in worldview] is between what you see as what a human being is,” Mr. Sire says. “In the old days, you got your value from being created in the image of God. As you move into the enlightenment of naturalism, you remove the God dimension and get what you are ‘naturally.’”

Today, he says, there are two approaches to how Americans perceive themselves.

“You can consider yourself valuable no matter what people think of you, but that’s very difficult because we are social creatures and care what others think of us — so we improve our outward appearance because that’s really all we have. We get our own self-image from the way in which other people view us.”

Americans now have a different idea of happiness than did their 18th-century predecessors, says Nancy Pearcey, author of “Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity.”

“When the Founders talked about ‘the pursuit of happiness,’ they were using that term in the classical definition, in which it was thought to be the result of virtue. Happiness was something attained late in life, if at all, because it takes an entire lifetime to develop virtuous character,” Mrs. Pearcey says. The Founders believed “that we may not be virtuous by nature, but by practice, virtue can become ‘second nature’ to us.”

Today, she says, our definitions of happiness are based on products, career and being liked by peers. “As a result, the focus of our lives tends to be on acquiring these external things instead of on becoming fuller, wiser human beings.”

Yet the shift from a morality-focused society to an appearance-focused society already was under way when America was founded. Thomas Jefferson, says Mr. Ellis, was interested in improving himself by bringing out his inherent goodness — a notion that came out of the Enlightenment.

“It’s like the Army’s saying, ‘Be all that you can be,’” said Mr. Ellis. “It presumes that there is this natural well of goodness inside you that just needs to come out and express itself.”

Despite the underlying differences, says Mr. Ellis, the end result of self-improvement is ultimately the same. Americans like self-improvement, whether physical or spiritual, because it makes them look better in the eyes of their peers or history.

The goal for the Founders was “posterity’s judgment, that history will remember you,” Mr. Ellis says, but for today’s citizen, the goal is more immediate recognition by peers.

The Founders focused on character and reputation, he says, because they knew that is what would have an effect in achieving practical rewards.

“Take Franklin: He enters Philadelphia as a kid and 10 years later he’s the leading citizen,” Mr. Ellis says. “You do good in order to better yourself, and the world will recognize that better self and reward it.”

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