Athens, Jerusalem, Gettysburg: Leon Kass on Politics as Moral Endeavor

Detail of Aristotle with a Bust of Homer by Rembrandt, 1653 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
A review of his searching new collection of essays, Leading a Worthy Life

Our present age has been marked by various forms of collectivism. People follow trends. They rarely think or ask questions. The idea of examining one’s life has become foreign, even old-fashioned, and yet the question of what it means to live a worthy and virtuous life persists, despite social pressures to live this or that “lifestyle,” as opposed to an authentic life. That question, seemingly simple, is what drives Leon Kass in his new book, Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times.

Kass, a philosopher and bioethicist, has devoted his life to asking what it means to be human. In this collection of essays, he explores that question in detail. Most of the essays in the book were previously published in a similar form in various magazines, although they have been updated here.

These are not just simple musings by a philosopher. Kass lives what he philosophizes. I saw that when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago and attended a seminar that he taught on the Book of Exodus. U of C, as we call it, is all about the “life of the mind.” The approach to learning and arguing there is incredibly rigorous. It was there that I learned how to think critically, how to construct an argument, and especially how to take responsibility for that argument.

That was certainly true of Kass’s seminar. But it wasn’t just that. He is a superb teacher who treats every one of his students with the utmost dignity and respect. He challenged us and yet also encouraged us to be independent thinkers, skeptical of superficial and final pronouncements, and, more than anything else, to free ourselves from the shackles of ideology. In the chapter titled “The Aims of Liberal Education,” he writes that “thinking — all thinking — seeks to liberate us from slavish adherence to an unexamined opinion and an unreasonable trust in our own perceptions and experiences.”

Being the true philosopher and teacher that he is, Kass offers no final answers, which are impossible anyway. To be sure, he makes value judgments, and he challenges groupthink. But the book reveals a man with an open mind that lives in concert with an open heart, always learning, seeking wisdom, and striving to be a good human being in every sphere of his life. What binds the essays together is the author’s rightful insistence to remind us of the dignity inherent in every human being. Knowing and recognizing that dignity — in other words, refusing to engage in the dehumanization of another — should always be a starting point for both contemplation and action.

Kass makes a helpful distinction between public spheres of life and those that are private or intimate, and the essays are divided accordingly. His topics range widely: from love, marriage, and sex (this category includes an essay written with his late wife, Amy) to the promises of science to intrusions into how we live and die. Kass warns against man’s attempts at making the “perfect” human and explains why we need to embrace the inevitability of death. Reflecting on end-of-the-life issues, he explores why every doctor should live by the principle of “Do no harm.” He also reflects on education and wisdom.

The value of his reminders about the difference between the private and the public spheres would be hard to exaggerate. The Internet in particular has blurred and in some cases erased the lines between them. We are not sure how to relate to each other or whether our online relationships have meaning at all. Any good that information technology provides us is quickly cancelled by the negativity it enables.

Lincoln’s transformation of American politics was at its core not political at all. It was ethical, grounded in a recognition of inherent human dignity.

Kass considers this problem in a chapter titled “Virtually Intimate: Is the Internet Good for Love and Friendship?” Losing ourselves in the midst of Internet noises, we rarely stop to explore what is love and friendship. We measure our worth by how many Facebook “friends” we have and how many “likes” we’ve received on a given day. Kass makes a simple statement that contains profound wisdom and depth: “Lovers, we know, are face to face,” he writes. “Friends are side by side. What kind of ‘being together’ are we fashioning in cyberspace and on our screens?”

Kass points to the notion of human embodiment. He doesn’t claim that it is impossible to find meaning in a relationship that exists in cyberspace. Rather, he asks us to consider what happens when we take the sacredness of marriage, love, and sex — a sacredness that exists most fully in embodied reality —  and place it solely in the virtual realm.

Throughout, Kass is concerned with what constitutes a good life, a life well lived. He challenges not only moral relativism but his very readers. We may agree with him about the inherent dignity of the human being, the supremely ethical importance of marriage, and the importance of authenticity and integrity in our intellectual life, but in the end we are still left with the question whether we enact the thoughts and beliefs we assent to.

To answer at least partially the question about the good life, he turns to Aristotle. In the chapter “Looking For an Honest Man,” Kass brings the Good and the Beautiful  into dialogue and examines the ways in which we live our lives through the relationship between them. Not interested in the tediousness of moralists, he agrees with Aristotle that “the ethically excellent human being acts for the sake of the noble, for the sake of the beautiful.” The author is not moralistic, but he does call us to become people of moral excellence.

The most challenging chapter in the book is perhaps the last, an excursion into the familiar divide, or complementarity, between Jerusalem and Athens. He adds a third city, Gettysburg, as in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Here Kass offers some thoughts on human equality.

In working out the philosophical-religious triad Athens-Jerusalem-Gettysburg, he illuminates who we are as individual beings in relation to our communities. He hasn’t written a religious book, and he affirms as much in the introduction. But of course the essays are informed by the Ten Commandments and the larger Judeo-Christian tradition. The flourishment of the individual always works in concert with the flourishment of the community. For Kass, we begin with philosophy or ethics (Athens). Next comes our significant relation to our Creator (Jerusalem). The dialogue between Athens and Jerusalem is then enacted in Gettysburg.

Kass’s reverence for Abraham Lincoln shines through, making the book radically different from other public discussions about liberty and equality. In the Gettysburg Address, as Kass sees it, Lincoln affirms the Declaration of Independence but calls for a different kind of freedom, which is directly to his overarching mission “to create for future generations an interpretation of war” that affirms the dignity of life and the principle that “all men are created equal.”

This will be difficult reading material for historians who, for example, might be skeptical of Lincoln’s political moves, but Kass is looking at Athens-Jerusalem-Gettysburg as a philosophical problem that has to be a reality that is lived, not only talked about. He argues that “Lincoln has transformed a merely intellectual truth, held as self-evident and accessible to universal human reason (the Declaration’s formulation), into a truth requiring practical demonstration by particular people — our fathers — who dedicated themselves to doing so.”

That is, Lincoln’s transformation of American politics was at its core not political at all. It was ethical, grounded in a recognition of inherent human dignity. The words of the Declaration are only the beginning, a reminder that our moral work is never finished.

Emina Melonic — Emina Melonic is completing a Ph.D. in comparative literature. She lives near Buffalo, N.Y.

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