Our hopes are a measure of our greatness. When they shrink, we ourselves are diminished. The story of American hope over the past two centuries is one of increasing narrowing—or so argues Andrew Delbanco in The Real American Dream. The book’s three chapters are titled “God,” “Nation” and “Self.” The Puritans set their hopes on God and God’s redemption of humanity from its incurvature upon itself: our tendency, in whatever we do, to be interested only in ourselves. In the 19th century, the American nation replaced God as both our hope’s highest object and its surest source. Finally, the two “revolutions” toward the end of the past century—the one in the ’60s and the one in the ’80s— conspired to “install instant gratification as the hallmark of the good life.” By this time the horizon of hope had shrunk to “the scale of self-pampering.”


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