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Great Expectations

Studying with Leon Kass

By Yuval Levin | HUMANITIES, May/June 2009 | Volume 30, Number 3

“Are you impressed with Rebecca at the well? Would you bring her home to meet your parents?”
The question hung in the air, and with it the familiar sense of excitement and uncertainty of a class taught by Leon Kass. It almost always began like this: a pointed question, and then silence. We students knew to expect it, yet somehow were always caught off guard. The question would come at the text from what seemed at first an odd angle, but then slowly chart a path to the very core of a large human problem underneath.

Eventually, some brave soul would venture an answer, and somehow Kass, with an approving smile, would find in it exactly the seed of conversation he had sought—as though it were just perfect. Soon we were trekking through the text and on to some essential and powerfully relevant problem: What is marriage for? How do families and communities contend with human failings and encourage human greatness? Do the arts and sciences corrupt our morals? What can man really know about nature?

Such questions advanced our search for the nature of the human being and for ways we might flourish, and Kass would lead us through them by beginning with two exceptionally optimistic assumptions: that we, like him, were in earnest search of the answers; and that the books we were reading were as well. Thus has Kass always set the stage for an intense and searching conversation, at the end of which his students, or his readers, invariably find themselves astonished at how far they have come.

Assuming the best and expecting the best in search of human beings at their best has been the mark of four decades of his teaching and writing. It was a crucial source of his earliest dissatisfactions as an up-and-coming biomedical researcher, finding the reductionism of modern biology—for all of the immense benefits it carries—inadequate to the task of describing and understanding the human animal. There was a yawning gap, Kass would later write, “between all the activities of life as lived and those activities as understood scientifically.”

It was a gap with grave consequences for both knowledge and action. The phenomena of life as experienced every day, outside the lab, offer crucial insights into the nature of living things, and a natural science that ignores them is grossly incomplete. Yet science keeps growing more powerful, even as it grows less and less clear about the proper uses of its power. Distinguishing between better and worse uses for science demands a sense of man’s nature and his proper purposes, in Kass’s words, “a richer understanding and deeper appreciation of our humanity . . . necessary for facing the challenges confronting us in a biotechnological age.” This worry about science as action has driven Kass to concern himself with public bioethics. But the greater concern for him has always been the potential of science’s reductionism to close us off from knowledge of ourselves.

His first inclination was to close the gap by making biology itself better aware of the limits of its methods. By looking at the raw material of life, but looking away from its fullest forms and expressions, modern science denied itself a truly scientific—truly knowledgeable—picture of the human animal. Kass therefore argued for a revitalized natural science, reconnected with its classical philosophical purposes and oriented “to encourage and nurture the disposition of thoughtfulness about who we are and ought to be,” as he put it in his first book, Toward a More Natural Science. He worked both to demonstrate what the modern turn away from the meaningful phenomena of life had wrought, and how the insights left behind might be recovered without abandoning the benefits that modern science had made possible.

But already in those early efforts, Kass seemed clearly aware that recovering the kind of anthropology he sought required more than reminding science of the price it has paid for its Cartesian turn. A more natural science almost certainly could not be recovered directly, and the fuller picture of man and his nature had to be looked for simultaneously in other ways.

In his ambitious sequel, The Hungry Soul, Kass sought to reinforce the effort by examining our cultural practices and traditions, some of which, he argued, showed clear evidence of having been custom-designed for precisely the kind of human being modern science now denies we are: a being with profoundly meaningful attachments and transcendent longings. It is, as he readily tells the reader, a peculiar book—a book about eating and the practices built up around it. But in the context of Kass’s larger trajectory, we see clearly that it is a book that points to the links between nature and culture, between a more natural science and more human humanities.

The Hungry Soul sought wisdom in the cultural and intellectual inheritances of our civilization, on the assumption that these were forged by students of human nature confronted with the same basic questions human beings have always confronted and that their work has survived because it has continued to offer profound and, in important ways, true answers to these questions. It was a turn to the humanities, seeking man at his best by looking to the best of our cultural artifacts and assuming the best about them. When we consider the rituals, practices, stories, and traditions that mean the most to us and shape our lives, Kass argued, we find that we are not just matter in motion. “Our souls still crave the drama of what Tolstoy called ‘real life’: immediately meaningful work, genuine love and intimacy, true ties to place and persons, kinship with nature, family, and community, dignity, understanding, and an openness to the divine. But real life has become nearly impossible as we have ceased to know and honor its forms.”

The emphasis on forms is no coincidence. As in his earlier writings on science, so in his thinking about culture and the humanities, Kass drew meaning from the forms of human being and doing. The ways we do what we do, even when we are not explicitly alert to their sources or meanings, tell us an enormous amount about who and what we human beings are. And the best and highest artifacts of our cultural traditions are those that speak to these deepest questions of meaning, and that offer us some hints of how we may conform to the highest possibilities implicit in our nature.

The search after that nature and its highest possibilities has in this way taken Kass from the study of the human animal to the study of the cultural habitat that animal has constructed for itself. And always he has proceeded with an eye to the true and fullest nature of the human being himself. In describing the structure of the argument of The Hungry Soul—which traces the meaning of eating from its biological character through the limits and constraints human beings have placed upon it, to the ways we have beautified it and turned feeding into dining, through the roles it has played in our highest religious rituals—Kass put things this way: “The argument is thus an ascent—from nature to human nature to human nature culturally clothed by the just, then the noble, then the holy—but an ascent that remains in touch with its beginnings.”

That, in a nutshell, is the arc of Kass’s interests over more than four decades and counting. In search of wisdom about how human beings may flourish, he has studied nature and man’s nature. And in pursuit of man’s nature he has delved deeply and broadly into our cultural wisdom about justice and ethics, nobility and excellence, and then sanctity and holiness. Because he has explored these various terrains in pursuit of large questions, he has tended to avoid the worst inclinations of each, and so pursued the sciences without reductionism, the humanities without esotericism, and the divinities without dogmatism.

In his ongoing study of biology and bioethics, in his teaching of great works of literature and philosophy, and in his inquiry into the depths of the Bible, Kass seeks the nature of man through his ways of being and acting. In the forms of human life—the arc of the individual lifespan and the ever-repeating intergenerational shape of family life, the rituals of birth and love and marriage and mourning, the rules of courtship and worship—is the outline of the human flourishing that our modern natural science leaves out of view, but that we modern human beings desperately desire, even when we do not quite know it.

“Cultural memory still holds gingerly a tattered script” for such flourishing, Kass writes, “but many of its pages are missing and the guidance it provides us is barely audible and, even then, delivered in what appears to us to be a foreign tongue.” He has worked to learn and to teach that foreign tongue, the language of human flourishing in which the great cultural achievements of Western civilization are written.

For his students and readers, Kass has laid out a path of inquiry showing that those questions that bedevil us most today have been with us for countless generations, and have to do not with the latest modern excess, but with man’s unchanging nature, wants, needs, and potential. It is a path he pursues by expecting the best of those who travel it with him and those who have traveled it before, and so drawing the best out of both. And it is a path that opens with a question: How does man thrive?

In his very pursuit of that question, Leon Kass has also offered us an answer by example.

About the Author

Yuval Levin is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He was a graduate student of Leon Kass’s at the University of Chicago from 1999 to 2001, and a staffer at the President’s Council on Bioethics during Kass’s chairmanship from 2002 through 2004.