Leon Kass was born in 1939, on the twelfth of February, when we celebrate the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. A mere coincidence, of course, but an interesting one. In celebrating Lincoln, which we do this year for the sixteenth president’s bicentennial, we pay homage to human dignity; in celebrating Darwin, which we also do this year for it is also his bicentennial, we pay homage to the progress of scientific knowledge. In celebrating Leon Kass, the 2009 Jefferson Lecturer, we honor a philosopher who has sought to understand and defend human dignity while remaining a man of science. From genotypes to the Book of Genesis, Kass has searched for truth in human nature, while heeding both the verities of moral philosophy and the facts of our biology.
The household into which Kass was born was Yiddish-speaking and charged with a fervor for social justice. Home was the South Side of Chicago, where Kass’s father owned and ran a clothing store. High school was a program for advanced students run by the University of Chicago, where he then enrolled as an undergraduate at the age of fifteen and subsequently pursued his medical degree. There he also met his wife and intellectual partner, Amy, to whom he’s been married for forty-eight years and with whom he’s raised two daughters. To this day, Chicago is where the heart is.
After a medical internship at Beth Israel hospital in Boston, Kass returned to academic study, this time at Harvard, where he received a PhD in biochemistry. The young research scientist then moved on to the National Institutes of Health, where he studied problems in molecular biology in a highly collegial atmosphere and seemed primed to pursue a rewarding career in medical research.
Meanwhile his avocational interests were giving shape to another type of career. In medical school Kass had shown an interest in medical ethics, and in studying biochemistry he found a host of moral questions that wanted answering. An urge to think philosophically about science was turning into a full-blown yearning for the examined life. As an anniversary gift in 1966, his friend Harvey Flaumenhaft gave Kass a copy of Rousseau’s Discourse on the Arts and Sciences. Kass credits Flaumenhaft, a longtime faculty member and former dean at St. John’s College in Annapolis, with instigating a number of his life-altering encounters with great books.
But prior to reading Rousseau’s famous argument that progress in the arts and sciences is inversely related to progress in morals, Kass had another kind of life-altering encounter. In the summer of ’65, he and Amy joined the civil rights movement and traveled south to register voters. Working and living in Holmes County, Mississippi, Kass says he found more honor and dignity in the county’s uneducated, churchgoing black community than he’d noticed among his fellow students at Harvard, who professed all the right opinions but whose greatest cause, it seemed to him, was their own personal advancement. If this was true, then perhaps Rousseau’s argument was correct.
While Kass continued working at NIH, his reading became considerably more specific to the direction he was taking, as when he made his way through The Phenomenon of Life by Hans Jonas, the German-born philosopher who taught for many years at the New School for Social Research. As Kass recently told Humanities magazine: “Here was a man who philosophized profoundly about the phenomena of life but in full acceptance of modern scientific findings, and who showed me how to begin to address a disquiet that I had . . . about the insufficiency of the reductionism of molecular biology.”
Soon, Kass addressed this disquiet publicly by entering the fray of early scientific debate over cloning and other hot science topics in the pages of the Washington Post. Amidst news that it was becoming possible for man to assert control over his own biological destiny, Kass began making the argument that the merely possible was not necessarily preferable. In 1970, he took a leave of absence from NIH to become, for two years, executive director of the Committee on the Life Sciences and Social Policy at the National Research Council. In 1973, he won a humanities fellowship from NEH to investigate the concept of organism in philosophical thought. Kass never returned to NIH, but during this period began a series of penetrating essays on important issues such as the Hippocratic Oath and the proper ends of medicine.
Having married well and befriended well, Kass made another fruitful decision by becoming a teacher. In 1972, he began teaching at St. John’s College, home to a well-known Great Books program. Along with Amy, he joined, in 1976, the faculty at the University of Chicago. The texts of the classroom became the next set of life-altering books, above all Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and the Book of Genesis, though the syllabi he taught (often with Amy as his teaching partner) would include classics as far afield as Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
The first of his own three books, published in 1985, Toward a More Natural Science, marshaled Kass’s essays on “Making Babies” and other questions of bioethics to call on science to study life as experienced beyond the laboratory, in everyday circumstances. Such a science, he hoped, could offer better guidance for ethical decisions in medicine. The distinguishing feature of Kass’s investigations was its philosophical spirit to discover what was true and right and then ask how it might be pursued.
The subtitle of his second book, The Hungry Soul, published in 1994, was especially telling: “Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature.” The book’s discussion begins with the biology of consumption and continues on to the meaning of those customs that attend humans when dining. The breadth of his education allows Kass the freedom to go from what is known in science to what is thought, felt, and expressed about our noblest inclinations in history and literature.
In 2001, Kass was appointed chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics. Famously, he asked all the members of the commission to begin their work by reading “The Birth-Mark,” a short story about scientific hubris by Nathaniel Hawthorne. In 2002 and 2003, the council issued two major reports: Human Cloning and Human Dignity and Beyond Therapy. In 2003, Kass also published The Beginning of Wisdom, his meditation on reading the Book of Genesis, a text that he has taught many times.
Over the years, Kass has received many honors and awards and has been affiliated with many well-known institutions. He is a founding fellow of The Hastings Center, a think tank devoted to issues of bioethics. At the American Enterprise Institute, he is currently the Hertog Fellow in Social Thought. And from 1984 to 1991, he served as a member of the National Council on the Humanities, the advisory board of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
By David Skinner
BY YUVAL LEVIN
“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.
Chicago-born Leon Kass, the 2009 Jefferson Lecturer, sat with Humanities magazine to describe how as a young medical doctor he joined the civil rights movement, then changed course to become a research scientist, but, as a result of reading Rousseau, Aldous Huxley, and C. S. Lewis, ended up studying Aristotle, teaching philosophy and literature, and becoming eminent in the field of bioethics.
HUMANITIES: Let’s start at the beginning. Where are you from?
LEON KASS: I was born in Chicago. I grew up on the South Side. My father had a clothing store on the South Side. I went to public school in a lower middle-class neighborhood, then moved on to University High School at the University of Chicago.
After two years I started college there as an early entrant. Robert Hutchins was gone, but I received the benefit of a good part of Hutchins’s “Old College.” And although I was not terribly well-educated there, I picked up certain salutary prejudices and was introduced to books that would later mean a great deal to me.
I went to medical school in Chicago, and met my wife, Amy, there, fifty years ago this fall. Then, after fourteen years in the diaspora, I returned with a desire to teach, which I did in the College and eventually also the Committee on Social Thought. It has been a joyous and satisfying career, primarily because of the students. I found that if you treated them as if they were better than they thought they were, they proved you were right in making the assumption.
HUMANITIES: I’m not sure people who know your work realize you have an M.D. How did you get to where you are from medical school?
KASS: I did a year of internship in Boston, and I did some outpatient work thereafter. But then I went back to graduate school and did a Ph.D. in biochemistry with Konrad Bloch at Harvard. My dream was to go into academic medicine and eventually come back to the University of Chicago in science and medicine. But I had a secret ambition to teach philosophical topics to undergraduates on the side.
In medical school, I was already interested in ethical and social issues, specifically questions of the inequities in the distribution of health care, racial prejudice in medical education, issues of the doctor-patient relationship, and things of that sort. This interest was awakened by some of what I had read in college, but mainly by certain teachings of my home, which emphasized the importance of moral and social questions. Mine was a left-wing, socialist, Yiddish-speaking background.
So, in medical school, I and some others tried to form a student organization to explore such issues. You needed ten students to form a registered student organization. I managed to get nine. Joseph McCarthy had died, but people were signing nothing.
During the Summer of ’64, Amy and I were traveling out west and we heard the radio report of the discovery of the bodies of the three civil rights workers. We made up our mind that the next summer we’d do something. We joined up with the Medical Committee for Human Rights and spent the summer of ’65 in Mississippi, ostensibly pressuring for community medical services, but in fact registering voters and trying to help organize black farmers in Holmes County, which is about an hour and a half north of Jackson.
That experience triggered the transformation of my life. In the fall I came back to Harvard with a nagging question. It was something like, Why did there seem to be more honor and decency in those uneducated black farmers in rural Mississippi than there was, and I mean no offense, among my fellow graduate students at Harvard? Many of my fellow students shared my altruistic left-liberal political opinions, but what struck me was that, in their own lives, they were all out for number one. They all wanted to see their names in lights, and were happy to elbow each other aside in pursuit of professional rewards. They were prototypical limousine liberals. Their compassionate concern for others cost them nothing, while they lived high and fast. The only explanations I could offer were that the black farmers were religious and churchgoing or that their virtues were the product of a simple life of poor but honest farming. Now, if either were true, then it called into question my intuitive belief that education and scientific and technological progress would put an end to superstition, suffering, and poverty, enabling human beings to realize their underlying morally good nature, and that finally all good things would walk hand in hand into the sunset.
At this point my closest friend, Harvey Flaumenhaft, who teaches now at St. John’s College and has been the dean there, gave me Rousseau’s Discourse on the Arts and Sciences to read. It was a wedding anniversary present in June of ’66, and this really knocked my socks off. Rousseau argues that not only is there no positive correlation between progress in the arts and sciences and progress in morals and taste, but, in fact, they are inversely related: Progress in the arts and sciences necessarily leads to the debasement of taste, the promotion of inequality, the decline of morality, and finally to a weakening of the populace, eventually leading to the loss of its freedom.
Rousseau’s argument is more subtle than I first saw, but its thesis was inconceivable to me, and yet by experience I was somehow ripe for it, and that was Point One.
Point Two was I discovered that you didn’t have to go to Mississippi to find large moral questions. In fact, there were some rolling around at my feet in the new biology. In Mississippi, the moral right was evident and the only question was how best to make it effective. In biology and medicine, the anticipated evils were the backside of the goods that we very much desired: longer life, cures for disease, freedom from pain and suffering, and so on.
HUMANITIES: What were some of the specific issues at that time?
KASS: Well, the structure of DNA had been discovered in the early fifties. The unraveling of the genetic code came in the early and mid sixties. It was a heady time. I remember a conference in New York in the mid sixties where distinguished scientists talked about the great day, visible on the horizon, when man takes control of his own evolution.
HUMANITIES: Is this because once you unraveled the code, you could manipulate it?
KASS: You could intervene not only to cure diseases, but to engineer improvements in human beings, not only to make them smarter but to deal with their aggressiveness, their vanity, and all the kinds of things that make trouble in the world. Biology could thus do what social science had tried but failed to do, namely, effect changes in human nature to bring about a better world.
Eugenics, which had been in the closet thanks to the Nazi horrors, but which had been a liberal movement here in the United States well into the twenties, was now making a comeback, only quietly.
HUMANITIES: Who do you have in mind?
KASS: In the thirties, there was a geneticist named Hermann Muller who talked about improving the species through voluntary germinal choice.
HUMANITIES: He won the Nobel Prize, right?
KASS: Yes, for showing how radiation produces mutation. He proposed something called germinal choice. Instead of allowing reproduction to proceed by the miserable lottery of romance-driven and undirected matings, it should be made possible for women to inseminate themselves with the donated sperm of geniuses. And, in fact, for about twenty years there was a Repository for Germinal Choice in California where various Nobel laureates and other luminaries made their deposits.
HUMANITIES: What happened to it?
KASS: The women were not as eager as Muller thought they would be, and the place closed, I think, for lack of business in 1999.
HUMANITIES: Were there others who promoted eugenics?
KASS: There was Joshua Lederberg, another Nobel laureate, who died last year. He used to write a weekly column in the Washington Post on science and society.
In the fall of ’67—I’m now at NIH—he writes an article called “Unpredictable Variety Still Rules Human Reproduction.” Scientists had just succeeded in cloning frogs a few years earlier, and Lederberg does a thought experiment on how cloning humans would enable us to perpetuate successful genotypes and find out whether the second Mozart could outdo the first. I was too earnest to see what levity there might have been in it, so I wrote a letter to the Post which was published, complaining about the moral neutrality and breeziness of this kind of talk. Then, with encouragement from my friends at NIH who promised to help, I offered the Post a series of regular responses to Lederberg’s columns, to produce some kind of controversy about the growing number of science-based social issues.
The Post invited me to lunch and offered me the platform. Two months later, the first heart transplant is done and Lederberg is in the Post with a six-column story on how simply wonderful this was. It was time to put up or shut up. So I wrote an article called “A Caveat on Transplants.” My friend Harvey blue-penciled the thing to death. I was a miserable writer. The Post published it, and it came to the attention of the people who were starting the Hastings Center, the nation’s first interdisciplinary research group (now a think tank in Garrison, New York) on ethical issues in the life sciences. I was invited to its first meetings in ’69, and that was a beginning of my work in bioethics. A year later, on behalf of Hastings, I approached the National Research Council to find out what its committee on life sciences and social policy was doing, and was on the spot offered, and soon accepted, a job as its executive director. On April Fool’s Day, 1970, I took a one-year leave of absence from NIH; it has turned into nearly forty years. Returning to the issues of those days, there was organ transplantation, cloning, and, soon afterwards, problems in determining whether a human being has died (the so-called definition of death). End-of-life issues and euthanasia questions were also emerging that—
HUMANITIES: These were all rattling around.
KASS: Or beginning to. There were also issues of prenatal genetic screening and, on the horizon, genetic engineering. The potential powers arising from neuroscience I saw coming, but there was as yet very little technical capacity for intervention, though there were enthusiasts for psychosurgery or electrical brain stimulation as a corrective for criminal behavior, and B. F. Skinner was pioneering operant conditioning as a form of behavioral control, paving the ground for direct technological intervention in child-rearing, soon to be refined by psychopharmacology. New capacities to alter the brain and the mind are the wave of the future, and I think the major area we need to be concerned about.
HUMANITIES: How did your time as an undergrad at Chicago affect this later interest in bioethics?
KASS: Before Chicago, I guess I thought of education as preparation for life, and therefore as a mere means, and life after education is where the action is. It took me a long time to see that education was a lifelong activity and that teachers were not simply instruments but in fact models of the best kind of thoughtfulness, and therefore, perhaps even, the best kind of life. One odd thing about Chicago back then was that we didn’t mainly read whole books.
KASS: We more often read excerpts. The curriculum was organized around themes and problems, not texts. There were fourteen year-long common core courses, one ofwhich was a philosophical integration course called “Organization and Methods of the Sciences and Principles of Knowledge” or OMP.
HUMANITIES: Were there any electives?
KASS: None. That was the old B.A. system. The university abolished it in 1953. The graduate departments wouldn’t admit the university’s own undergraduates without additional training. When I came in 1954, the college offered a joint degree, with requirements drawn both from the old college’s fourteen courses and from a departmental major; I majored in biology.
HUMANITIES: But you got some experience thinking about the big questions.
KASS: Yes. The first year was an appreciation of art, literature, and music, and we had some wonderful teachers. The second year was on the analysis of great works of literature, and the third year was on criticism. So you’d read Aristotle’s Poetics or Santayana’s The Sense of Beauty, and then you’d read various kinds of works and try to see whether these principles could be applicable. So this was three years of humanities.
For the first social science course the college faculty produced volumes called The People Shall Judge, containing primary documents of the American Founding and American history. The second course was about the self, culture, and society, with readings in anthropology, psychology, sociology. For the third year, the theme was freedom and order, which began with Plato’s Republic set in opposition to John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.
HUMANITIES: And you had superb scholars teaching these courses. But the same people weren’t teaching specialized courses?
KASS: No, they weren’t. We had a separate college faculty. The people who taught in the college, in this liberal arts-only college, didn’t have departmental appointments and when the Hutchins College ended, only a few were able to latch on to a department. The rest were not canned, but eventually they died out, and the place has not sufficiently renewed itself to produce in its distinguished faculty the same kind of dedication to general education and liberal learning.
In each course there was at most one lecture a week. The other classes took place around an oval table. We were all addressed as Mister or Miss, as were the professors. No one was Professor or Doctor. There was a kind of equality in the face of the real teachers, who were the books and authors before us. I remember being called Mr. Kass on my first day of class, and now I don’t have a single student who, on first introduction, will tell me his or her last name, but I thought of this as a welcome to adulthood. To be called after the name of my father was an invitation to maturity.
HUMANITIES: It’s amazing how those little things make a huge difference.
KASS: Yes. And I have to confess I was not a great student in the humanities or the social sciences. I did very well in the sciences. Because of that, I was given a biology adviser. In my last year in college, though, I encountered a remarkable teacher named Joseph Schwab, who had started out as a biologist and wound up teaching all the courses in the college except for history and foreign language, including the OMP course, the philosophical integration course. And he was a bit of an intellectual bully, but he showed me for the first time that there were questions where I was previously walking around unthinkingly with inadequate answers. He really woke me up, and I owe him a great debt.
I was interested in ethics. No one was interested in ethics in those days. It was all positivism. We could do away with the need for ethics through scientific psychology, sociology, and political science. But Schwab showed me that one could and should put philosophical questions even to the sciences, and that their foundations could not be scientifically demonstrated. He introduced me to philosophical questions about the nature of the organism and other kinds of larger philosophical matters that eventually became very much a part of my work.
So, I would say that Chicago gave me four things: this emphasis on the great books, a sense of maturity, the idea of embracing education as a delight in itself, and this very special teacher who woke me up philosophically and to what was beyond the merely ethical.
HUMANITIES: But then you go into medicine and the study of biochemistry before returning to the great questions.
KASS: I guess the transition from doing science to thinking about its human meaning happened like this. I acquired a real question, which is, What’s the relation between scientific and technological progress and moral and political well-being?
That was the gift of Mississippi and Rousseau. But my friend Harvey also gave me Brave New World to read and C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, and they really made it clear that the humanitarian project for the relief of man’s estate, especially with the help of modern biology, also carried with it a threat of the kind of dehumanization that Huxley shows you and that Lewis argues against, so that man’s conquest of nature might in the end turn out to be nature’s conquest of man.
As a consequence of this turn, certain books were now open to me in my search for the human and how to defend it. I mean, if the Enlightenment teaching on which I was booklessly reared was wrong, what then might be right?
HUMANITIES: What were you working on at NIH?
KASS: Molecular biology, certain problems of cell division and genetic stability in bacteria. It was wonderful. I mean, you know, you putter around in the lab, formulating your own research questions and doing your own experiments to answer them. You have real colleagues of the sort one rarely has in universities, who discuss your work daily and who read and criticize every word you write.
HUMANITIES: It’s a real collaborative situation.
KASS: Oh, NIH was wonderful. There were five of us, crammed together in a small room, and it was exhilarating.
While still at Harvard, I had organized a student-faculty discussion group on ethical issues and new biology. That’s ’66–’67. But now I was also interested in questions of human nature and its relation to ethics, to the human good, and soon additional questions about the relation between the sciences of life and life as actually lived.
At NIH, around ’68, I started meeting with my friend Harvey to read, once a week, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. I was looking for a deductive and indubitable ethics, but it didn’t satisfy my wishes. Ironically, it later became one of my favorite books, which I am now teaching for the twelfth or thirteenth time, in Chicago. I next read Aristotle’s Physics, and this opened up another big area for me.
I saw that there were not only ethical challenges raised by new technologies, but underneath that was the challenge posed by the scientific view of nature, and of human nature, for the traditional understandings of man, society, morals. And I saw that one could raise questions about the adequacy of that scientific view.
The practical and ethical issues of the new technology eventually came to seem the least profound. The greater difficulty comes from adhering to a scientific view or account of human or animal life that is not interested in what life is, that has banished the idea of a “soul,” that understands the human animal, just like any other animal, as a machine actuated by pleasure and the need for survival. In this connection, a very important book for me was Hans Jonas’s The Phenomenon of Life, which I read in 1968. It took every ounce of my intellectual grit to understand its remarkable arguments, but it really took the scales off my eyes.
Here was a man who philosophized profoundly about the phenomena of life but in full acceptance of modern scientific findings, and who showed me how to begin to address a disquiet that I had but did not yet know how to articulate, about the insufficiency of the reductionism of molecular biology, the field in which I was immersed.
Jonas showed me how to philosophize about living nature in a way compatible with modern science but without taking the scientists’ materialist view. I had a wonderful year of philosophical study in 1973–74, thanks to a grant from NEH for a project on the concept of organism, species, and health in ancient and modern thought. I spent the time reading Descartes, reading Aristotle’s On the Soul. By then, I’d gotten hooked up with St. John’s College, where my education got a further boost.
I taught the laboratory course in biology at St. John’s. There they read Aristotle’s The Parts of Animals, which I read—
HUMANITIES: This was a lab course?
KASS: Yes, we did dissections and embryological demonstrations, but these were backed by readings of great books I’d never read before (including Galen, William Harvey, Claude Bernard, and Charles Darwin). I learned more about living nature in that course than I learned in medical school, not more information, but a deeper appreciation of what an organism is, of how to think about aliveness and mortality, about both the gains and losses of a mechanistic understanding of life. So this was terrific. When I went back to Chicago in 1976, I did so with a new preparation and energy.
HUMANITIES: Was this a turning point for you?
KASS: I don’t know if there was a single turning point. From the inside, it seems like a continuous journey. I don’t have the precise words for what animates it, but if you put together what my mother and father were about, my interest in ethics, my thinking about the insufficiencies of modern science, my concern for how our humanitarianism may lead us to the dehumanization of Brave New World, and my devotion to liberal education as a search for wisdom, the continuous thread appears to be a search for the nature of our humanity and for the ways that elevate and perfect its possibilities—intellectually, morally, communally, and spiritually.
HUMANITIES: How did your scholarship and writing develop in the years after you returned to Chicago?
KASS: In the seventies and early eighties, I wrote essays on bioethical topics, from making babies to patenting life; I also wrote on the changing goals of medicine, the doctor-patient relationship, and the intrinsic ethic of the medical profession, as captured in the Hippocratic Oath. And I made my first forays into philosophical anthropology with essays on the meaning of embodiment, natural teleology, mortality and morality, and possible natural pointings toward nobility. My first book, in 1984, used these essays to call for a more natural science, one that would be truer to life as lived and that might give better guidance for how to think about the ethical issues of the new biology.
My next book, The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature, was an attempt to illustrate such a more natural science, using the phenomenon of eating, beginning from the meaning of metabolism and human omnivorousness to customs just, noble, and holy that clothe the human animal in elevating ways. Although I continued to keep my hand in matters bioethical—writing in opposition to euthanasia, cloning, and physician-assisted suicide—I began to be more interested in larger cultural and social issues—the decline of marriage, the breakdown of the family, the overturning of traditional mores—about which I began to write. It was also about this time that I began studying the Hebrew Bible, particularly Genesis, whose stories spoke powerfully to me about the permanent problems of the human condition. To my great astonishment, as a result of teaching Genesis some ten times over fifteen years, I produced a commentary on the entire book, in 2003, called The Beginning of Wisdom. Another collection of my essays in bioethics, Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity, was published the year before.
HUMANITIES: Those books appeared while you were chairing the President’s Council on Bioethics.
KASS: Yes, and also happily a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Although most people thought of the council as the stem cell council, President Bush gave us the privilege of trying to develop a richer way of doing bioethics, charging us with conducting fundamental inquiry into the human and moral significance of advances in biomedical and behavioral science and technology. During less than four years, we produced five book-length reports, a white paper on morally unproblematic ways of getting pluripotent stem cells, and an anthology of ninety-five humanistic readings on neglected topics in bioethical discourse, available for teaching, entitled simply, Being Human.
HUMANITIES: There’s one factor we left out, Amy, your wife.
KASS: Yes. Amy was always interested in the humanities and history. She was a student of the late Karl Weintraub, a legendary teacher of Western civilization and a splendid human being.
HUMANITIES: You met her at Chicago?
KASS: Yes, in 1959. I was starting my second year at medical school. She transferred from Antioch, she said, because she’d learned all the folk dances. And she majored in intellectual history and we were married about a year and a half later, before my last year of medical school and before her last year of college. When I went to intern, she went off to study with Herbert Marcuse at Brandeis.
HUMANITIES: I didn’t know that.
KASS: The History of Ideas program. She couldn’t stand it or him, so she wound up teaching University of Chicago-type courses at a new high school in Sudbury, Massachusetts, while I finished my degree. Then she took a Ph.D. in the history and philosophy of education at Hopkins, writing her dissertation on the efforts of Hutchins, Mortimer Adler, Scott Buchanan, and Stringfellow Barr to revive the liberal arts and the Great Books, leading to the programs at Chicago and St. John’s, places to which we had been attached.
Then we both go back to Chicago in 1976. Amy begins teaching Common Core Humanities, but for the next year she and I and four other colleagues decided we should try to improve those common core offerings, and we designed the “Human Being and Citizen” common-core double course, both social sciences and humanities, taking the theme from Plato’s Apology of Socrates: What is a good human being? What is a good citizen? And the latent question, What if they don’t match, what then?
These were yearlong courses. I attended and participated in all her classes, she attended and participated in all of mine. The readings were terrific. In the fall quarter, the humanities list was the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Meno, the social sciences list was the Oresteia, the Republic, and Thucydides. In the winter, we read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics, Genesis and Exodus, one of the Gospels, and a Shakespeare play. Spring opened with questions of American citizenship, reading Founding documents, the Federalist papers, Tocqueville, and Lincoln, while exploring ethical writings of Rousseau and Kant and critiques of liberal democracy in Marx and Freud. We finished up with War and Peace or some other great novel.
Teaching with Amy was exhilarating. She also taught elective courses on Homer—the Iliad, the Odyssey—and I also got hooked on these. Three times we taught an elective course devoted solely to War and Peace, my favorite novel. We also put together an anthology on courting and marrying and taught that a few times. And it’s really from her that I’ve learned how to read and teach literature. She’s really a magician at making the text come alive.
I have over the years begun to get the education that the Hutchins College aspired to. And I have learned that if you teach these books as if they offer a royal road to understanding the deep and enduring questions of our humanity, read not as part of a canon that you have to assimilate, but because they might just show you the truth you most desire, it’s amazing how quickly students catch on and become willing to try out their half-baked ideas with you, even if it’s very much against their cultural prejudices.
Let me give you an example. We’re teaching the course on courting and marrying, using our anthology, Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar. In one of the early readings, an excerpt on relationships from Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, the discussion produces remarks like, ’To be married to the same person for twenty-five years is preposterous,’ or a young woman says, ‘You know, we’re not supposed to get married until we’re at least twenty-eight, so all our relationships with men are supposed to be impermanent.’ Another young woman says, ‘Casual sex with men is terrific. It gets the sex thing out of the way so we can now be friends with men in the way women could never be before.’
I’m thinking to myself, God, Where did they get these goofy ideas, and What in the world are we going to do with these people?
Late in the quarter, we come to a colloquy, “On Courtship,” by Erasmus, an eight-page dialog between a young man and a young woman. He is both in lust and in love, whereas she is interested in marriage. This dialog is not about how things are, but how they might be if you wanted to liberate young people from arranged marriage: Courtship could take the spark of love and discipline it in the direction of marriage. In the colloquy, the young woman puts the young man through his paces, gets him to approve everything she wants, then sends him to her parents for their blessing. He says something like, ‘Wouldn’t you, as a little token of your affection, give me a kiss at least?’ And she says something like, ‘Would you like me to bestow my kisses on others?’ He says, ‘No, I’d like you to save them all for me.’ She says, ‘Then I’ll save them for you. Let’s shake hands.’
While I am dreading what students are going to make of this, Amy, inspired, says to the class, “What’s a kiss?” and the same students in rapid succession say, ‘A kiss is the most erotic thing imaginable.’ ‘A kiss is the sharing of the breath, which is the spirit.’ ‘A kiss is a promise.’ ‘A kiss is a small consummation.’
What you realize is that their earlier comments about casual sex and whatnot were just superficial talk, and maybe a defense against taking risks or being betrayed or disappointed in love or in other things that life promises. In truth, the’re all looking for a meaningful life. They all hope to find lasting love and friendship in life. The great works of the humanities open them more fully to these possibilities. They legitimate and reflect back to them their true hopes and longings. They give them the words to describe their deeper selves and loves. And they furnish their imaginations with vivid examples—good, bad, and mixed—of how to negotiate the wonderful but challenging task of being human.
HUMANITIES: So with just a little prompting, students will look to the humanities for pathways to answering great questions, about self-understanding, about love and friendship, the duties of citizenship, and the meaning of life.
KASS: Empower would not be too strong a word for what effect such an education can have on students. The reigning humanistic scholarship, meanwhile, is interested primarily in the contextualization of these works, in issues of authorship, and questions of power and social circumstances, inequities and difficulties, race, class, and gender. Many humanists are just too sophisticated to recognize that their students are actually interested in the truth.
HUMANITIES: So the scholars are seeking to be scholarly and the students, with some prompting, seek truth.
KASS: Exactly. To address this problem, with help from the Endowment, we started in 1983 a degree-granting undergraduate major called “Fundamentals: Issues and Texts.” Allan Bloom was the principal visionary of it, joined first by James Redfield and myself, and then some other people from the Committee on Social Thought. I chaired the program for its first eighteen years. This major allows serious students to formulate their studies around questions of personal intellectual concern: Can war be just? What is the meaning of marriage? What’s the point of travel? These questions are pursued primarily by means of the intensive study of a small number of individually selected classic texts, taught in single-text classes, books that can and should be reread and reread again and that can actually change your life, enable you to think differently, books that may be your friends for life.
This program has flourished. Many of the students who come are interested in literature but they can’t find in English departments people who will read books in relation to questions that interest them. We have between thirty and forty students majoring in “Fundamentals,” but we also offer some thirty to forty courses on individual texts, which are open to the campus as a whole, and we recruit fellow travelers from other departments, who have the nerve to teach something other than their specialty, because they feel like it.
HUMANITIES: When you hear the phrase “research in the humanities,” what does it mean to you?
KASS: Well, look, there was a time when I didn’t appreciate the caricatured humanistic scholar, the gray-bearded guy locked in a windowless room in the bowels of Harvard library, learning more and more about less and less. But, over the years, having seen something of the politicization of the humanities, the deconstruction of texts that allows people to feel superior to great books without knowing anything at all about them, and the noxious idea that a text means whatever you say it means, I’ve come to have a new admiration for the people who really care for and are interested in studying the humanities because they love them. They find, even in small things, ways that someone has chosen to either express or to give an account of how other human beings have negotiated the human condition.
So, really careful, rigorous scholarship, the desire to get things right, that’s gone way up in my estimation compared with today’s politicized or “relevant” scholarship.
Still, it would be very nice if we could get more and more people to do real research, serious, careful, truth-seeking, evidence-based research, into the larger questions as well. And one of the great things, it seems to me, about the Endowment in the last eight years, and also the Endowment when I had the honor of serving on the Council under Chairmans William Bennett, John Agresto, and Lynne Cheney, is that a lot more of that scholarship is now going on, is being funded, it is being honored. The We the People initiative is a fine example.
The teaching of today’s scholars is not necessarily the sort that students need, nor is the research necessarily the sort that illuminates what one would want to have illuminated. Scholars with a real passion for real questions that leads them to careful, meticulous thought can really help people, especially young people, get into and appreciate more deeply the books and questions that, if not already on their minds, ought to be on their minds.
HUMANITIES: I would say that characterizes your work.
KASS: I have been led to books that I never thought I would study.
HUMANITIES: And to questions that you never thought you’d tackle?
KASS: Yes. But, as you don’t have to be told, the humanities first took their name in contradistinction not, as we now think, to the sciences, but to the “divinities,” to theology and religious thought.
Science, natural philosophy, was once a branch of what we now call the humanities, and for most of my life, it never occurred to me that attention to what the humanities long ago left behind might be sorely needed for a well-founded liberal education.
So having made Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics the centerpiece of my teaching for fifteen years, certain parts of the Bible—Genesis and Exodus—have become the centerpiece of my teaching over the last fifteen years.
HUMANITIES: You returned to the old definition.
KASS: At a certain point, it began to dawn on me that we couldn’t presuppose today the same kind of rearing or the same kind of habits and manners that my parents and the cultural ethos of my youth insisted on. I began to wonder whether the humanities without the “divinities” could, despite their grandeur, lay the foundations of a flourishing and decent life. I began to wonder what talking about character and happiness in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics could really mean to people whose character was still in formation but whose sensibilities have been shaped by television, rock music, and the popular culture.
So, I began to be interested in the question of the broader culture, and especially the place of religious thought in liberal education and the pursuit of wisdom. I have pondered the difference it might make if people are taught to look up to righteousness and holiness, rather than to the emancipation of their mind, which is, of course, the central goal of a classical liberal education. So, nearing the end of my career, the tension between the competing claims and goods of Athens and Jerusalem is alive and well with me, and I walk both sides of the street in my teaching—last year it was Exodus, this year it is Aristotle.
Although the suspicion that Rousseau had of popular enlightenment remains with me, I am devoted to the study of both the Great Books and the Good Book, after the fashion of St. John’s College. The pursuit of wisdom remains, in my view, the highest vocation of a teacher—and a student. But a liberal education and enlightenment that is at least mindful of the great works of the world’s great religions is surely wiser than the sorts of education and enlightenment that have tried to prosper by kicking them out.
In this day and age, we should seek and hold dear whatever wisdom we can find, wherever we can find it.
Looking for an Honest Man: Reflections of an Unlicensed Humanist
Thank you very much, Prof. McClay, for your most kind and generous introduction.
Chairman Watson, members of the National Council on the Humanities and staff of the National Endowment for the Humanities, ladies and gentlemen. I am profoundly grateful to the Endowment for the great honor you have bestowed upon me. And I thank you all for your honoring presence here this evening.
Now that this hour has arrived, I must finally accept the fact that tonight’s lecture is really mine to deliver. When Chairman Bruce Cole called last autumn to invite me to give the next Jefferson Lecture, my stunned silence covered a barely stifled “Who, me?” I knew well the roster of humanist giants who had gone before. Whilst a member of the NEH Council, I had helped to select six or seven of them, and I even had the honor of introducing Gertrude Himmelfarb and Leszek Kolakowski for their Jefferson Lectures. What in the world could the Endowment be thinking? The fields for which I have trained, medicine and biochemistry, I neither practice nor teach. For the fields in which I teach and practice, I have no formal training. I am but an amateur humanist, not only without great scholarly distinction but also without a license.
It is true that I have long been devoted to liberal education, and along with my wife, Amy Kass, and a few other colleagues at the University of Chicago, I helped found a successful common core humanities course, “Human Being and Citizen,” as well as an unusual B.A. program, “Fundamentals: Issues and Texts,” that emphasizes basic human questions pursued through the intensive study of classic texts. I have also raised high the oft-abandoned banner of humanistic inquiry, and have tried in my teaching and writing to show its indispensable value for living thoughtfully and choosing wisely in our hyper-technological age. Finally, perhaps because I am an unlicensed humanist, I have pursued the humanities for an old-fashioned purpose in an old-fashioned way: I have sought wisdom about the meaning of our humanity, largely through teaching and studying the great works of wiser and nobler human beings, who have bequeathed to us their profound accounts of the human condition.
This lecture is, in part, an attempt to make sense of my adopted career as unlicensed humanist. I offer it not as an apologia pro vita mea, but rather in the belief that my own intellectual journey is of more than idiosyncratic interest. Although the path I have followed is surely peculiar, the quest for my humanity is a search for what we all have in common. The point is not what I have learned, but rather what I have learned and, therefore, what anyone can learn with and through the humanities—and why it matters. This lecture is, most of all, my expression of gratitude to the National Endowment for the Humanities and, especially, to the Republic of Letters for which it stands.
Everyone has heard the story of Diogenes the Cynic who went around the sunlit streets of Athens, lantern in hand, looking for an honest man. This same Diogenes, when he heard Plato being praised for defining man as “an animal, biped and featherless,” threw a plucked chicken into the Academy, saying, “Here is Platonic man!” These tales display Diogenes’ cynicism as both ethical and philosophical: he is remembered for mocking the possibility of finding human virtue and for mocking the possibility of knowing human nature. In these respects, the legendary Diogenes would feel right at home today in many an American university, where a professed interest in human nature and human excellence—or, more generally, in truth and goodness—invites reactions ranging from mild ridicule for one’s naiveté to outright denunciation for one’s attraction to such discredited and dangerous notions.
Tracing the stories about Diogenes the Cynic to their source, in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers, one discovers that the apocryphal story is somewhat embroidered if not incorrect. Yes, Diogenes lit a lantern in broad daylight, but he did not say he was looking for an honest man. What he said was, “I am looking for [or ‘seeking’] human being”—anthrôpon zeto—either a human being or the human being, either an exemplar of humanity or the idea of humanity, or both. To be sure, purporting to seek the answer by means of candlepower affirms Diogenes’ badge as cynic. But the picture also suggests a man who refuses to be taken in by complacent popular beliefs that we already know human goodness from our daily experience or by confident professorial claims that we can capture the mystery of our humanity in definitions. But mocking or not, and perhaps speaking better than he knew, Diogenes gave elegantly simple expression to the humanist quest for self-knowledge: I seek the human being—my human being, your human being, our humanity. In fact, the embellished version of Diogenes’ question comes to the same thing: to seek an honest man is, at once, to seek a human being worthy of the name, an honest-to-goodness exemplar of the idea of humanity, a truthful and truth-speaking embodiment of the animal having the power of articulate speech.
Boasting only of having undertaken his search without a grain of cynicism, I confess myself an inheritor of Diogenes’ quest. In place of a lantern, I have lit my journey with the light of books great and good, and, equally important, with the company of teachers and students, friends and loved ones, who were on a similar quest.
I began my travels not with this question, but rather with its answer. I was reared in a Yiddish speaking, secular Jewish home, a first-generation American whose parents, of blessed memory—a saintly father and a moralist mother—had immigrated via Canada from the Ukraine and from Poland. God having been left behind, along with the Czar and the Russian Revolution, “humanity” was the focus of all that my parents tried to teach. The Yiddish translation of “anthrôpos” or “human being” is mentsch, a wonderfully capacious notion at once prosaically descriptive and inspiringly normative. To be mentschlich is to be humane, behaving decently and considerately toward others; but it is also to be human, displaying in one’s own character and conduct the species-specific dignity advertised in our uniquely upright posture. Mentschlichkeit, “humanity,” the disposition and practice of both “humaneness” and “human-ness,” was thus the quasi-religious teaching of my home, and its content—wholly moral and wholly appealing—went unquestioned: personal integrity and honesty, self-respect and personal responsibility, consideration and respect for every human person (equally a mentsch), compassion for the less fortunate, and a concern for fairness, justice, and righteousness. To become and to be a mentsch: that was the conscious and articulated goal toward which all of my early rearing was directed.
Two things I did not understand until much later. First, I did not know that the Yiddishkeit of my youth—with its universalism and quasi-socialism—represented a deliberate cultural alternative to traditional Judaism, on whose teachings it was in fact parasitic: the prophets, one might say, without the Law. Second, I did not appreciate that the content of mentschlichkeit was in fact a disputable question, and that there were—and are—large differences of opinion, and even irresolvable tensions, regarding its meaning. The latter error was the first to be corrected. Indeed, my foray into the humanities would begin in earnest only when I discovered that the injunction to “be a mentsch” required serious reflection, both philosophical and ethical, on the meaning of our humanity.
The seeds of such reflection, bearing fruit only years later, were planted at the University of Chicago. There, in the still living remains of the college created by Robert Hutchins, I first encountered philosophical questions beyond the domain of ethics, as well as some of the competing answers to questions about human nature and human good. I was introduced to the idea of learning as an end in itself, fulfilling our human capacity for understanding. I acquired an educational prejudice in favor of discussing the great questions and reading the Great Books, though it would take several years before I learned why these prejudices were justified. I witnessed up close the dignity of the life of teaching, for we were taught by an exemplary faculty, tenured not for their record of publications but for their devotion to devising and teaching an integrated course of study that could place young ignoramuses on the path of becoming liberally educated men and women. In Socratic spirit, they insisted that we examine all our intellectual assumptions and starting points, and they encouraged us to put fundamental philosophical questions even to the natural sciences: What is the relation between matter and form? What makes an organism a unified and living whole? What is the nature of the psyche or soul?
These sorts of questions lay dormant as I entered upon a brief career in medicine, in retrospect another important station on the path to the human. Preclinical studies left me in awe of the marvel that is the human body and the stunning events beneath the surface that sustain our existence and enable our remarkable interactions with the world. Clinical experience left me in awe of the privilege—and the peril—of offering a helping hand to fellow human beings in times of crisis. Although I could not then articulate it, I was also mindful of the rare privilege, given solely to physicians, to be admitted to the inner sanctum of the patient’s world. There we are allowed to bear witness as human beings, stripped of pretence and sustained only by hope, trust, and the love of kith and kin, attempt to negotiate sicknesses, suffering, and the anxiety of coming face-to-face with their own mortality. Not for nothing were medieval textbooks of medicine entitled, De Homine—“On Man,” or “On the Human Being.” Not for nothing was medicine once an honored branch on the humanistic tree.
Yet precisely around the subject of our humanity, I found something missing. The science was indeed powerful, but its self-understanding left much to be desired. It knew the human parts in ever-finer detail, but it concerned itself little with the human whole. Medicine, then and now, has no concept of the human being, of the peculiar and remarkable concretion of psyche and soma that makes us that most strange and wonderful among the creatures. Psychiatry, then and even more now, is so little chagrined by its failure to say what the psyche or soul is that it denies its existence altogether. The art of healing does not inquire into what health is, or how to get and keep it: the word “health” does not occur in the index of the leading textbooks of medicine. To judge from the way we measure medical progress, largely in terms of mortality statistics and defeats of deadly diseases, one gets the unsettling impression that the tacit goal of medicine is not health but rather bodily immortality, with every death today regarded as a tragedy that future medical research will prevent. And, coming down from theory to practice, I found that I loved my patients and their stories more than I loved solving the puzzle of their diseases; where my colleagues found disease fascinating, I was fascinated more by the patients— how they lived, how they struggled with their suffering. Above all, I hated the autopsy room, not out of fear of death, but because the post-mortem exam could never answer my question: What happened to my patient? The clot in his coronary artery, his ruptured bowel, or whatever diseased body part that the pathologist displayed as the putative explanation of his death was utterly incommensurable with the awesome massive fact, the extinction of this never-to-be repeated human being, for whom I had cared and for whom his survivors now grieve.
Despite these inchoate reservations, however, I continued to follow the path of science, indeed to an even more molecular level. I entered the PhD program in biochemistry at Harvard, and was privileged to share in the great excitement of the golden age of molecular biology. Working happily on my own project, I tasted the great pleasures of independent discovery. But my biggest discovery came outside of the laboratory.
In summer 1965, interrupting my research, my wife and I went to Mississippi to do civil rights work. We lived with a farmer couple in rural Holmes County, in a house with no telephone, hot water, or indoor toilet. We visited many families in the community, participated in their activities, and helped with voter registration and other efforts to encourage the people to organize themselves in defense of their rights. This deeply moving experience changed my life, but not in any way I would have expected.
On returning to Cambridge, I was nagged by a disparity I could not explain between the uneducated, poor black farmers in Mississippi and many of my privileged, highly educated graduate student friends at Harvard. A man of the left, I had unthinkingly held the Enlightenment view of the close connection between intellectual and moral virtue: education and progress in science and technology would overcome superstition, poverty, and misery, allowing human beings to become at last the morally superior creatures that only nature’s stinginess, religion, and social oppression had kept them from being. Yet in Mississippi I saw people living honorably and with dignity in perilous and meager circumstances, many of them illiterate, but sustained by religion, extended family, and community attachment, and by the pride of honest farming and homemaking. They even seemed to display more integrity, decency, and strength of character, and less self-absorption, vanity, and self-indulgence, than did many of my high-minded Harvard friends who shared my progressive opinions. How could this be?
In summer 1966, my closest friend, Harvey Flaumenhaft, had me read Rousseau’s explosive Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, for which my Mississippi and Harvard experiences had prepared me. Rousseau argues that, pace the Enlightenment, progress in the arts and sciences does not lead to greater virtue. On the contrary, it necessarily produces luxury, augments inequality, debases tastes, softens character, corrupts morals, and weakens patriotism, leading ultimately not to human emancipation but to human servitude.
Rousseau complains that writers and “idle men of letters”—the equivalent of our public intellectuals, not to say professors—subvert decent opinion and corrupt the citizens: “These vain and futile declaimers go everywhere armed with their deadly paradoxes, undermining the foundations of faith and annihilating virtue. They smile disdainfully at the old-fashioned words of fatherland and religion, and devote their talents and philosophy to destroying and debasing all that is sacred among men.”
Rousseau also complains that formal education corrupts the young: “I see everywhere immense institutions where young people are brought up at great expense, learning everything except their duties. . . . Without knowing how to distinguish error from truth, [your children] will possess the art of making them both unrecognizable to others by specious arguments. But they will not know what the words magnanimity, equity, temperance, humanity, courage are; that sweet name fatherland will never strike their ear; and if they hear of God, it will be less to be awed by him than to be afraid of him.” Nowadays, a resurrected Rousseau might say instead, “if they hear of God, it is less to be awed by him than to mock him.”
Could Rousseau be right? Is it really true that the natural home of intellectual progress is not the natural home of moral and civic virtue? Is it really true that, as the arts and sciences climb upward, so morals, taste, and citizenship slide downward, and, what’s worse, that the rise of the former causes the fall of the latter? If so, all that I had believed about the simple harmony between intellectual and moral progress was called into question. And if the Enlightenment view was not correct, what should I think instead? For the first time in my life, I acquired some real questions, pressing questions, more challenging than those one can answer in the laboratory. A crevice had opened in my understanding of mentschlichkeit, between the humane commitments of compassion and equality and the human aspiration to excellence and upright dignity.
This crevice would widen with the two books I read right after Rousseau, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and C. S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man. The first depicts a future society that—through genetic engineering, psychoactive drugs, and applied psychology—has succeeded in ridding the world of all the evils against which compassionate humanitarianism today does battle. Eliminated are war, poverty, and disease; anxiety, suffering, and guilt; hatred, envy, and grief; but the world thus “perfected” is peopled by creatures of human shape but of stunted humanity. They consume, fornicate, take “soma,” enjoy the “feelies” and “centrifugal bumble-puppy,” and operate the machinery that makes it all possible. They do not read, write, think, love, or govern themselves. Art and science, virtue and religion, family and friendship are all passé. No one aspires to anything higher than bodily health and immediate gratification. Worst of all, the denizens of the Brave New World are so dehumanized that they have no idea of what they are missing.
According to C. S. Lewis, the dehumanization threatened by the mastery of nature has, at its deepest cause, less the emerging biotechnologies that might directly denature bodies and flatten souls, more the underlying value-neutral, soulless and heartless accounts that science proffers of living nature and of man. By expunging from its account of life any notion of soul, aspiration, and purpose, and by setting itself against the evidence of our lived experience, modern biology ultimately undermines our self-understanding as creatures of freedom and dignity, as well as our inherited teachings regarding how to live, teachings linked to philosophical anthropologies that science has now seemingly dethroned.
For me, the search for anthrôpos suddenly acquired genuine urgency and poignancy, as these threats to our humanity came not from bigots and tyrants but from the rightly celebrated well-wishers and benefactors of humankind. Could we continue to reap the benefits of our new biology and our emerging biotechnologies without eroding our freedom and dignity? What features of our humanity most needed defending, both in practice and in thought? What solid ideas of human nature and human good could be summoned to the cause?
Pursuit of these questions would require a change of direction and a different approach to human affairs. In 1970, I put away scalpel and microscope to take up directly Diogenes’ search for anthrôpos, hoping by studying not the hidden parts of the human being but the manifest activities of the whole, visible in broad daylight, the better to understand his honest-to-goodness humanity and to help promote his true flourishing. Without realizing it, I became a humanist.
At that time, some scientists and humanists, not a few of them enthusiasts of a “post-human” future, were addressing the gap between our science and our ethics by proposing a new, “science-based ethic” and by calling upon us to “keep up” with, and to adapt ourselves to, the massive changes in human life caused by galloping scientific and technological advance. But my intuitions led me in the opposite direction: to try to correct the deficiencies of our scientific understanding of human nature, and to reinforce, where possible, the best of what we have learned about human goodness and human flourishing. In these pursuits, I have sought out the best that has been said and thought by those who have gone before—not because they are old and not because they are ours, but because they might help us discover vital truths that we would otherwise not see on our own. No friend of humanity should trade the accumulated wisdom about human nature and human flourishing for some half-cocked promise to produce a superior human being or human society, never mind a post-human future, before he has taken the trouble to look deeply, with all the help he can get, into the matter of our humanity—what it is, why it matters, and how we can be all that we can be.
As I look back over the nearly forty years since I left the world of science to reflect on its human meaning, three distinct but related pursuits stand out: First, addressing the conceptual danger, stressed by Lewis, of a soul-less science of life, I have worked toward a more natural science, truer to life as lived. Second, addressing the practical danger, stressed by Huxley, of dehumanization resulting from the relief of man’s estate, I have worked toward a richer picture of human dignity and human flourishing. And third, addressing the social and political dangers, stressed by Rousseau, of cultural decay and enfeeblement, I have looked for cultural teachings that could keep us strong in heart and soul, no less than in body and bank account. Let me, in the time remaining, share with you a few high points from these three inquiries.
Finding a “more natural science” would serve two important goals. First, by doing justice to life as lived, it would correct the slander perpetrated upon all of living nature, and upon human nature in particular, in treating the glorious activities of life as mere epiphenomena of changes in the underlying matter or as mere devices for the replication of DNA. Second, and more positively, by offering a richer account of human nature faithful both to our animality and to the human difference, it might provide pointers toward how we might best live and flourish. Toward both goals, a “more natural science” examines directly the primary activities of life as we creatures experience them; and it revisits certain neglected notions, once thought indispensable for understanding the being and doing of all higher animals.
Against the materialists who believe that all vital activities can be fully understood by describing the electrochemical changes in the underlying matter, I saw the necessity of appreciating the activities of life in their own terms, and as known from the inside: what it means to hunger, feel, see, imagine, think, desire, seek, suffer, enjoy. At the same time, against those humanists, who, conceding prematurely to mechanistic science all truths about our bodies, locate our humanity solely in consciousness or will or reason, I saw the necessity of appreciating the profound meaning of our distinctive embodiment. So, for example, I learned from Erwin Straus the humanizing significance of the upright posture: how our standing-in-the-world, gained only through conscious effort against the pull of gravity, prefigures all our artful efforts to overcome nature’s indifference to human aspiration; how our arms, supremely mobile in our personalized action space, fit us for the socializing activities of embracing, cradling, pointing, caressing, and holding hands, no less than for the selfish activities of grasping, fighting, and getting food to mouth; how our eyes, no longer looking down a snout to find what is edible, are lifted instead to the horizon, enabling us to take in an entire vista and to conceive an enduring world beyond the ephemeral here and now; how our refashioned mammalian mouth (and respiratory system) equips us for the possibility of speech—and kissing; and how our expressive face is fit to meet, greet, and sometimes love the faces that we meet, face-to-face, side-by-side, and arm-in-arm. From Adolf Portmann, I discovered the deeper meaning of the looks of animals, whose intricate surface beauty, not fully explained by its contributions to protective coloration or sexual selection, serves also to communicate inward states to fellow creatures and to announce, in the language of visibility, each animal’s unique species dignity and individual identity. I even found evidence for natural teleology in, of all places, The Origin of Species, in which Darwin makes clear that evolution by natural selection requires, and takes as biologically given, the purposive drives of all organisms for self-preservation and for reproduction—drives the existence of which is a mystery unexplainable by natural selection.
But the greatest help came, most unexpectedly, from studying pre-modern philosophers of nature, in particular Aristotle. I turned to his De Anima (On Soul), expecting to get help with understanding the difference between a living human being and its corpse, relevant for the difficult task of determining whether some persons on a respirator are alive or dead. I discovered to my amazement that Aristotle has almost no interest in the difference between the living and the dead. Instead, one learns most about life and soul not, as we moderns might suspect, from the boundary conditions when an organism comes into being or passes away, but rather when the organism is at its peak, its capacious body actively at work in energetic relation to—that is, in “souling”—the world: in the activities of sensing, imagining, desiring, moving, and thinking. Even more surprising, in place of our dualistic ideas of soul as either a “ghost in the machine,” invoked by some in order to save the notion of free will, or as a separate immortal entity that departs the body at the time of death, invoked by others to address the disturbing fact of apparent personal extinction, Aristotle offers a powerful and still defensible holistic idea of soul as the empowered and empowering “form of a naturally organic body.” “Soul” names the unified powers of aliveness, awareness, action, and appetite that living beings all manifest.
This is not mysticism or superstition, but biological fact, albeit one that, against current prejudice, recognizes the difference between mere material and its empowering form. Consider, for example, the eye. The eye’s power of sight, though it “resides in” and is inseparable from material, is not itself material. Its light-absorbing chemicals do not see the light they absorb. Like any organ, the eye has extension, takes up space, can be touched and grasped by the hand. But neither the power of the eye—sight—nor sight’s activity—seeing—is extended, touchable, corporeal. Sight and seeing are powers and activities of soul, relying on the underlying materials but not reducible to them. Moreover, sight and seeing are not knowable through our objectified science, but only through lived experience. A blind neuroscientist could give precise quantitative details regarding electrical discharges in the eye produced by the stimulus of light, and a blind craftsman could with instruction construct a good material model of the eye; but sight and seeing can be known only by one who sees.
Even the passions of the soul are not reducible to the materials of the body. True, anger, as ancient naturalists used to say, is a heating of the blood around the heart or an increase in the bilious humor, or, as we now might say, a rising concentration of a certain polypeptide in the brain. But these partial accounts, stressing only the material conditions, cannot reveal the larger truth about anger: anger, humanly understood, is a painful feeling that seeks revenge for perceived slight or insult. To understand the human truth about anger and its serious consequences, we must instead listen to the poets, beginning with Homer’s Iliad: “Wrath, sing, o goddess, of Peleus’ son Achilles, and the woes thousand-fold it brought upon the Achaians, sending to Hades strong souls of heroes but leaving themselves to be the delicate feastings of dogs and birds.” And to understand how we come to know this or any other truth, we can never stop wondering how—marvel of marvels—Homer’s winged words carry their intelligible and soul-shaping meanings, hitched to meaningless waves of sound, from the soul of genius to the hearts and minds of endless generations of attentive and sympathetic readers.
If my first major pursuit was a richer view of human nature, looking afresh at the unadorned powers of the human animal, my second major pursuit was a richer account of the human good and the good human, one that would reflect the richer anthropology just discussed and one that could counter Brave New Worldly and other shrunken views of human happiness and goodness. Not surprisingly, the disagreements of the great authors regarding the human good are even greater than those regarding human nature. Yet once again, ancient philosophers offer modern readers a soul-expanding teaching, and none more so than Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, a book that I have taught a dozen times and that transformed how I look at ethics and human flourishing.
For most Americans, ethical matters are usually discussed either in utilitarian terms of weighing competing goods or balancing benefits and harms, looking to the greatest good for the greatest number, or in moralist terms of rules, rights and duties, “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots.” Our public ethical discourse is largely negative and “other-directed”: we focus on condemning and avoiding misconduct by, or on correcting and preventing injustice to, other people, not on elevating or improving ourselves. How liberating and encouraging, then, to encounter an ethics focused on the question, “How to live?” and that situates what we call the moral life in the larger context of human flourishing. How eye-opening are arguments that suggest that happiness is not a state of passive feeling but a life of fulfilling activity, and especially of the unimpeded and excellent activity of our specifically human powers—of acting and making, of thinking and learning, of loving and befriending. How illuminating it is to see the ethical life discussed not in terms of benefits and harms or rules of right and wrong, but in terms of character, and to understand that good character, formed through habituation, is more than holding right opinions or having “good values,” but is a binding up of heart and mind that both frees us from enslaving passions and frees us for fine and beautiful deeds. How encouraging it is to read an account of human life—the only such account in our philosophical tradition—that speaks at length and profoundly about friendship, culminating in the claim that the most fulfilling form of friendship is the sharing of speeches and thoughts. And how exhilarating to verify that claim when Aristotle utters it because of the delight we have already experienced by participating in the illuminating speeches and thoughts of its author, Aristotle, our philosophical friend.
But perhaps the most remarkable feature of Aristotle’s teaching concerns the goals of ethical conduct. Unlike the moralists, Aristotle does not say that morality is a thing of absolute worth or that the virtuous person acts in order to adhere to a moral rule or universalizable maxim. And unlike the utilitarians, he does not say morality is good because it contributes to civic peace or to private gain and reputation. Instead, Aristotle says over and over again that the ethically excellent human being acts for the sake of the noble, for the sake of the beautiful. The human being of fine character seeks to display his own fineness in word and in deed, to show the harmony of his soul in action and the rightness of his choice in the doing of graceful and gracious deeds. The beauty of his action has less to do with the cause that his action will serve or the additional benefits that will accrue to himself or another—though there usually will be such benefits. It has, rather, everything to do with showing forth in action the beautiful soul at work, exactly as a fine dancer dances for the sake of dancing finely. As the ballerina both exploits and resists the downward pull of gravity to rise freely and gracefully above it, so the person of ethical virtue exploits and elevates the necessities of our embodied existence to act freely and gracefully above them. Fine conduct is the beautiful and intrinsically fulfilling being-at-work of the harmonious or excellent soul.
With his attractive picture of human flourishing, Aristotle offers lasting refuge against the seas of moral relativism. Taking us on a tour of the museum of the virtues—from courage and moderation, through liberality, magnificence, greatness of soul, ambition, and gentleness, to the social virtues of friendliness, truthfulness, and wit—and displaying each of their portraits as a mean between two corresponding vices, Aristotle gives us direct and immediate experience in seeing the humanly beautiful. Anyone who cannot see that courage is more beautiful than cowardice or rashness, or that liberality is more beautiful than miserliness or prodigality, suffers, one might say, from the moral equivalent of color-blindness.
Yet despite its power and beauty, the picture of human excellence and human flourishing presented in the Nicomachean Ethics leaves something to be desired, especially given the needs of modern readers in modern times. What help in thinking about their own possible flourishing are my democratic students really getting from learning to appreciate Aristotle’s great-souled-man? The virtues of civic life in the polis, beautiful though they still are, seem rather remote from everyday life in urban America, where sympathy, decency, consideration, integrity, and personal responsibility—mentschlichkeit—are more relevant and needed than battlefield courage, magnificence, or magnanimity. Yet, sad to report, many of today’s students have had little rearing in foundational mentschlichkeit, so that efforts to lift their gaze to the ceiling of human greatness sometimes seem chimerical, given that the ethical floorboards on which they culturally stand are rather wobbly. Moreover, preoccupations with personal nobility often ignore matters of social justice and the larger public good. And looking only toward the beautiful best shortchanges the loveliness—and even more the obligations—of ordinary human lives, lived in families, friendships, neighborhoods, schools, and houses of worship—all of which, and especially the houses of worship, are, as Aristotle himself points out, surely more efficacious in forming our character than is studying the writings of great philosophers.
Accordingly, in my third pursuit, spurred also by a concern for the state of our mores, I shifted my anthropological quest from the side of nature to the side of culture, seeking to know the human being not directly, in his nakedness, but indirectly, through an examination of the clothes that fit him best—the clothes of custom, law, song, and story, the works of culture and the materials of tradition, that work to bring out the best of which we are capable. My goal was still the same, but my focus was now the civil and civilizing habits, mores, and opinions that regulate everyday life and that make for human self-command and human flourishing in the domains of work, family, and the plethora of human affairs comprising civil society today. One result was a book, The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature, that began with philosophical reflections on human nature and its moral ambiguity, but moved quickly to discussions of the perfecting customs governing human appetite and eating, from the taboo against cannibalism and the duties of hospitality, to table manners and the virtue of moderation, to festive dining elevated by refinements of taste and wit, to the sanctification of the meal, begun with grace and experienced in gratitude. These explorations of mine were greatly assisted by the writings of Homer and Herodotus, Plato and Erasmus, Tolstoy and Isak Dinesen, and by the Bible. In addition, as part of a larger group project on the ethics of everyday life, my wife and I published Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar, an anthology on courting and marrying, in the service of helping people become more thoughtful about—and more successful in—finding a soul-mate with whom to make a life. Humanistic works from across the ages—from the Bible's Jacob and Rachel, through Plato’s Symposium and Erasmus’ On Courtship, to Shakespeare’s Rosalind and Orlando, Jane Austen’s Elizabeth and Darcy, and Tolstoy’s Pierre and Natasha, to Robert Frost’s “The Master Speed”—challenge our unexamined prejudices, expand our horizons, sharpen our vision, and elevate our taste by illuminating the nature of human longings and the more promising pathways to their fulfillment.
Any humanist seriously interested in the norms and customs governing everyday life cannot help noticing, later if not sooner, the prominent—not to say preeminent—role that our scriptural traditions have played and still play, often invisibly, in the opinions and teachings that guide us, as well as in the humanistic writings of our remote and recent past. And anyone devoted to teaching the great books of our tradition would surely want to see for himself just what the Good Book has to say for itself, not relying on hearsay. So it was that my search for the well-clothed human being eventually led me to study—at first, because I had to teach them—the books of the Hebrew Bible. Suspending disbelief, approaching the Bible with open mind and trying to allow the text to teach me how it wishes to be read, I have been astonished to discover an account of human life that can more than hold its own with the anthropological and ethical teachings offered by the great poets and philosophers.
I have discovered in the Hebrew Bible teachings of righteousness, humaneness, and human dignity—at the source of my parents’ teachings of mentschlichkeit—undreamt of in my prior philosophizing. In the idea that human beings are equally god-like, equally created in the image of the divine, I have seen the core principle of a humanistic and democratic politics, respectful of each and every human being. In the Sabbath injunction to desist regularly from work and the flux of getting and spending, I have discovered an invitation to each human being, no matter how lowly, to step outside of time, in imitatio dei, to contemplate the beauty of the world and to feel gratitude for its—and our—existence. In the injunction to honor your Father and your Mother, I have seen the foundation of a dignified family life, for each of us the nursery of our humanization and the first vehicle of cultural transmission. I have satisfied myself that there is no conflict between the Bible, rightly read, and modern science, and that the account of creation in Genesis 1 offers “not words of information but words of appreciation,” as Abraham Joshua Heschel put it: “not a description of how the world came into being but a song about the glory of the world’s having come into being”—the recognition of which glory, I would add, is ample proof of the text’s claim that we human beings stand highest among the creatures. And thanks to my biblical studies, I have been moved to new attitudes of gratitude, awe, and attention. For just as the world as created is a world summoned into existence under command, so to be a human being in that world—to be a mentsch—is to live in search of our summons. It is to recognize that we are here not by choice or on account of merit, but as an undeserved gift from powers not at our disposal. It is to feel the need to justify that gift, to make something out of our indebtedness for the opportunity of existence. It is to stand in the world not only in awe of its and our existence but under an obligation to answer a call to a worthy life, a life that does honor to the special powers and possibilities—the divine-likeness—with which our otherwise animal existence has been, no thanks to us, endowed.
Just as today’s natural sciences profit but also suffer from their having broken away from their once honored place within humanistic learning—gaining precise, objectified knowledge of nature’s workings, but at the price of neglecting the works of nature’s beings—so the humanities today profit but mainly suffer from having forgotten that the humanities took their origin and point of departure in contradistinction to the “divinities”—the inquiry into matters metaphysical and ultimately theological. This separation at first liberated humanists from dogma and censorship, allowing for several centuries of profound thought and beautiful writing about the human condition and its possible flourishing. But the direction of humanistic learning in my lifetime—culminating in a cynical tendency to disparage the great ideas and to deconstruct the great works that we have inherited from ages past—invites this question: Can the humanities preserve their true dignity and answer their true calling if they close off or ignore questions of ultimate concern: the character and source of the cosmic whole and the place and work of the human being within it? Can we humanists complete our search for the human being without lifting our gaze, without looking beyond what human beings alone have wrought, to consider the powers not of our making that are the condition of the possibility of both the world and our special place within it?
What, then, summing up, can this unlicensed humanist say about his search for the human being? As with Diogenes, the quest continues, though the progress I have made makes cynicism even more unjustified. True, the hunt has not captured the quarry, in the sense that I have not found an answer, neatly formulated, sprawling on a pin, an improved substitute for “animal, biped and featherless.” Instead, I have acquired a deeper understanding of the question itself and of the hidden depths of its object. I am much more mindful of what a full account of our humanity would entail, including attention to the larger whole--communal, natural, and beyond—in which we human beings are embedded and only in relation to which can we gain any fully flourishing humanity. I have had the privilege of living with the humanizing gifts of the great books—and the Good Book—open free of charge to every one of us, regardless of race, class, or gender. In the company of poets and playwrights, philosophers and prophets, novelists and naturalists—deeper human beings all—I have enlarged my vision, furnished my imagination, and deepened my awareness, well beyond what I had reason to expect from books. Grappling with real life concerns—from cloning to courtship, from living authentically to dying with dignity—has made me a better reader. Reciprocally, reading in a wisdom-seeking spirit has helped me greatly in my worldly grapplings. Not being held to the usual dues expected of a licensed humanist—professing specialized knowledge or publishing learned papers—I have been able to wander freely and most profitably in all the humanistic fields. I have come to believe that looking honestly for the human being, following the path wherever it leads, may itself be an integral part of finding it. A real question, graced by a long life to pursue it among the great books, has been an unadulterated blessing.
But the real key to my flourishing has been the living human company I have enjoyed on my journey. For unlike Diogenes, I have neither needed nor wanted to travel alone. I have been blessed with wonderful teachers and colleagues, especially at the University of Chicago, St. John’s College, and the American Enterprise Institute, from whose speeches and thoughts in friendly conversation I have learned enormous amounts. I have been blessed with generous support from numerous benefactors, including the National Endowment for the Humanities and Roger and Susan Hertog. I have been blessed with practical opportunities to put my learning in the service of confronting the profound ethical dilemmas of our biotechnological age, and, many thanks to President Bush, I have enjoyed the privilege of leading wonderful colleagues on the President’s Council on Bioethics in exploring and defending what is humanly at stake in our emerging brave new world. I have been supremely blessed in my wife Amy, beloved soul mate and life-long partner, co-author and co-teacher—a real humanist, she—from whose literary studies, teaching collaborations, support, criticism, and encouragement I have benefited more than words can say.
Finally, I have been blessed in my students these past 37 years, first at St. John’s College, mainly at Chicago, in the College and the Committee on Social Thought. Serious, thoughtful, smart, eager, engaged, and generous young people have been my most reliable companions in all phases of my journey of inquiry. Most young people in my experience still want to be taken seriously. Despite their facile sophistications and easy-going cynicisms—more often than not, largely a defense against disappointment—most of them are in fact looking for a meaningful life or listening for a summons. Many of them are self-consciously looking for their own humanity and for a personal answer to Diogenes’ question. If we treat them uncynically and respectfully, as people interested in the good, the true, and the beautiful, and if we read books with them in search of the true, the good, and the beautiful, they invariably rise to the occasion, vindicating our trust in their possibilities. And they more than repay our efforts by contributing to our quest their own remarkable insights and discoveries.
The search for our humanity, always necessary yet never more urgent, is best illuminated by the treasured works of the humanities, read in the company of open minds and youthful hearts, together seeking wisdom about how to live a worthy human life. To keep this lantern lit, to keep alive this quest: Is there a more important calling for those of us who would practice the humanities, with or without a license?