"The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization," Franklin Roosevelt declared in 1933, in the language and metaphors of the Bible, which was perhaps rivaled only by the Constitution as the common cultural heritage of the Americans of the day. "We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths," he said.
"The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit," Roosevelt went on. "Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and the moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days, my friends, will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men."
Roosevelt was speaking to the people who would become known as "the Greatest Generation." They were the Americans who grew up and endured the hard times of the 1930s and then the mortal challenge of World War II and the long struggle of the Cold War and its backdrop of nuclear dread. Their value system was distinctive. They believed in thrift, in collective action, in their own responsibility to work for themselves and their families and their future. But they also believed that there was a collective as well as an individual responsibility, and that your own fate was bound up in the fate of your neighbors and fellow Americans, with the fate of the soldier alongside in the foxhole and the colleague alongside in the workplace.
And they believed in the ability and duty of their government to do the right thing and in the need for solidarity and self-sacrifice. They, or at least most of them, believed in fair dealing, and so Roosevelt spoke in stern and moralistic tones of the origins of the financial disaster that had engulfed the country.
"There must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing," he said. "Small wonder that confidence languishes, for it thrives only on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection, and on unselfish performance; without them it cannot live."
But beyond banking and finance, Roosevelt spoke to the spirit of community that bound people together and that made them more than just an assemblage of individuals but made them Americans.
"If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we cannot merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress can be made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and our property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at the larger good. This I propose to offer, pledging that the larger purposes will bind upon us, bind upon us all as a sacred obligation with a unity of duty hitherto evoked only in times of armed strife."
Roosevelt's words at the launch of the New Deal have an obvious relevance today beyond his description of "the mad chase of evanescent profits." He evoked the traditional civic virtues that go back to ancient Greece and Rome and to the Israel of the Ten Commandments. He was convinced the American people would respond to his call because he believed that their history and their culture and their experience persuaded them to believe in duty, in courage, in fidelity, in the conviction that there was something greater and grander than their own individual lives.
The Greatest Generation didn't just believe this; they lived it, and very soon they had to fight for it. The Obama presidency and all of us may have to learn their lessons all over again. So long as we are spared the war that finally ended their Great Depression, confronting the challenges of our own time and the need to recall the age-old virtues, it might even do us good.
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