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A Renowned Ethicist Reflects On How To Live A Meaningful Life


Amid the deluge of panic, vitriol, and apocalyptic despair flooding bestseller lists and bookstore displays these days, Leon Kass’s Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times offers a life vest. While pundits and academics bewail the end of democracy, freedom, and the world itself, the essays comprising this volume avoid commenting on the particularities of our Trumpist turmoil altogether. Political disorder, as Kass well knows, belies disorders of soul—bewilderment about what man is for and what constitutes a good life—and the best way to find footing in the chaos is to re-examine human nature itself.

As Kass puts it, “young people are now at sea” regarding their purpose, still harboring “desires for a worthy life,” but uncertain about what such a life entails. In this volume (fruits reaped from his years as a biochemist, chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, a humanities professor at St. John’s College and the University of Chicago, and husband to his beloved Amy), Kass provides a remedy for these doubts with reflections on love and dating, education and biotechnology, public life and patriotism.

Each of the 16 essays, many published previously and several co-written with his late wife, contemplates the elements of mankind’s flourishing: What is human dignity and how might biologists’ search for “ageless bodies” threaten this dignity? How does the search for wisdom and truth satisfy man’s deepest longings? How is self-sacrificial love between male and female ennobling, and in what ways do marriage and children grant the individual a kind of immortality?

An Unlicensed Humanist

Sparkling prose marries a measured tone, resulting in a critique of modern life’s vacuities that is refreshingly devoid of scathing condemnations and caustic rhetoric. Instead, Kass nudges his readers back on the path to meaning by explicating classic Aristotelian principles in simplified terms. Online-dating culture is perilous, he contends, because true intimacy requires souls that are embodied: “Face to face or side by side, hand in hand or arm in arm, as much as mind to mind.”

Surnames are crucial in our atomized age because they help us to recall that we are social and political animals, providing “ever-present reminders that we were begotten and that we belong, and, later, that we belong in order to beget.” When extolling the virtues of liberal education, he begins by paraphrasing the oft-quoted opening line of the “Metaphysics”: All human beings by nature desire understanding.

It’s a risky venture. Any mention of “teleology” or “the good life” these days risks sending millennials further out to sea instead of giving them a leg onto dry land. But if certain passages read too much like lecture notes from “Aristotle 101,” this is simply because Aristotle—especially his “Ethics”—was integral to Kass’s own intellectual journey from progressive biochemist to professor of the humanities. Readers should beware of too hastily dismissing the dose of “De Anima.” This is, in part, an autobiographical book, providing a portrait of the author’s personal quest for truth as well as a picture of the abstract human being, and Aristotle looms large in Kass’s journey.

In Kass’s own words, plucked from “Looking For An Honest Man” (the eleventh essay in the volume), it was dissatisfaction with the medical field that first led him to embark on his own road to meaning. The world of medicine, he discovered, “knew the human parts in ever-finer detail, but … concerned itself little with the human whole.” Although he was purportedly studying the art of healing, he realized his chosen science did not actually “inquire into what health is, or how to get and keep it.” “Medicine, then and now,” he writes, “has no concept of the human being, of the peculiar and remarkable concretion of psyche and soma that makes us the strangest and most wonderful among the creatures.”

To borrow a line from Kass’s well-known book The Hungry Soul, he had discovered that contra the creeds of the materialists, man is not merely what he eats. Reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau, C.S. Lewis, and Aldous Huxley left him further discontent with the “soulless science” he was practicing. By 1970, he had “put away scalpel and microscope” altogether, instead taking up the search for knowledge of the whole man—what would soon become a 45-year career of teaching the humanities as an “untrained amateur.”

“Perhaps precisely because I am an unlicensed humanist, I have pursued the humanities for an old-fashioned purpose in an old-fashioned way,” Kass muses. “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 personal testament to the power of the humanities—the threads of which run throughout these essays—is one of the greatest pleasures of this little volume.

The Posture of Hope

Unfortunately, readers may balk at some of Kass’s over-simplified claims, such as his declaration that when it comes to reinstating proper sexual ethics in modern life, “everything depends on whether modern young women … will reassert the powerful virtue of self-restraint.” Much depends upon women, to be sure, but much also depends upon young men being gentlemen again, regulating porn, and reforming sex ed in public schools.

Several of these essays could have been revised in order to better reach the youth Kass hopes to address. Penned before the advent of “swipe-right” culture, his essay on virtual dating features scintillating insight as to the nature of online relationships à la eHarmony, but bears no mention of the pernicious dating-app lifestyle engendered by Tinder and OkCupid. Similarly, his television examples of meaningless hookup culture—“Seinfeld, Sex and the City, and How I Met Your Mother”—require an update for the 2010s.

Quibbles aside, Kass’s principles are timeless. This is one of those books that ought to be placed on a nightstand or coffee table within easy reach, to be savored and digested one piece at a time. And it comes at a fortuitous moment—as the din of outrage regarding our populist moment reaches a fever pitch, Kass reminds us to remain optimistic. The end times are not upon us.

Despite all that seems disjointed in our world, “we should not despair,” for “the desire to know and the passion for truth”—the human longing for a good life—is “hard to eradicate.” Although frank about our culture’s poverties, Leading a Worthy Life leaves us with hope:

Even when—or perhaps especially when—specific future hopes are disappointed, the posture of hope—a strange fusion of trust, belief, and upward orientation of the will—still enables us to live and act trusting that the world is still and always the sort of place that can answer to the highest and deepest human aspirations.