Magazine | April 2, 2018, Issue

Wisdom Literature

Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times, by Leon R. Kass (Encounter, 408 pp., $27.99)

The always trenchant Dr. Johnson once said that people need more to be reminded than to be instructed. This might be true in a time when their hold on civilized standards is as solid as granite, but an age that has lost its bearings might need more than a refresher course in the Important Things. People might need to learn for the first time what they were never taught.

Ours is an age of diagnoses because, like all ages, it’s fraught with maladies. Some of the direst periods are those marked by vast material abundance accompanied by no small helping of overconfidence. But perhaps that confidence, which might be more like a forced buoyancy, is itself a symptom: Look at the oversized Self-Help section at any Barnes & Noble to see just how healthy and at ease we feel with ourselves. We have lots of doctors in the house with ready prescriptions.

Leon R. Kass, a real clinician of the white-coat kind who has also scaled the upper reaches of the higher humanistic, less quantifiable knowledge, now publishes a new collection of reflections on the life well lived. Once a practicing physician and biochemist, he later became a professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, where he taught philosophy; he later served as chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics. He writes pithily, with a talent for the well-turned, precise phrase, and gives readers access to a fund of wisdom gleaned from experience, both personal and vicariously gained through books and deep thinking. Leading a Worthy Life comes as a précis of hard-won convictions, and as such it’s a crowning achievement for a life spent entertaining second and third thoughts.

The title invites the question, Worthy of what? Of an existence we didn’t deserve, Kass replies, one that has been invested by a “superintending deity” with a transcendent dignity that only the spiritually formed can grasp. It is also likely that it is only they, the spiritually formed and informed, and not the secular-minded majority, who can grasp the far-flung implications for human life of often innocent-sounding policy decisions made by experts and academics who have dismissed the accumulated insights of the past as superannuated because of modern science. This is the work of a man who has emerged from that hypersecularized world, seen the Promised Land, and with open eyes — and without rejecting the benefits of modern knowledge and expertise — turned back to the old Wisdom for those normative reminders of how to live well.

When pronouncing on matters medical and bioethical, Kass speaks with complete authority. He does not dance around the grim prospects loosed by new means of adjusting reality. In a time when the feats of technology have outrun a fundamentally untutored human capacity to handle the technology wisely, he reconfirms the rule that what can be done with pill, scalpel, or laboratory monkeying is not necessarily what should be done. Life-altering drugs and treatments, say, to fight depression or boost physical or mental performance might allow us to enhance our hours on the planet, but we should always question whether the self so altered is still the very self that was acted upon. And the stakes rise when we consider the mental Botoxification of a populace eager to conform itself to whatever new traits shifting social mores might favor. “We are right to worry,” writes Kass, that this might “move us toward still greater homogenization of human society, perhaps raising the floor but greatly lowering the ceiling of human possibility, and reducing the likelihood of genuine freedom, individuality, and greatness. . . . An untroubled soul in a troubling world is a shrunken human being.” But on the far side of eugenics, where our very cellular uniqueness would be manipulated, we may already be performing uncontrolled experiments on ourselves to such a degree that someday we may no longer know what it means to be human at all, and may not recognize the essence that looks back at us from the mirror.

Such are the chances we take when, as Kass says, we play at being God without having godlike knowledge, making decisions not only for ourselves but also for the transformed or malformed people who will come after us — a fact not always acknowledged by those equipped with the new tools of human improvement. (The chapters “Ageless Bodies, Happy Souls: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness” and “Human Dignity: What It Is and Why It Matters” could be excerpted to make a handy booklet for any class or seminar that even tangentially approaches these topics.)

Kass begins his book with essays exploring that constellation of concerns we call “family values,” not so much examining the causes of their decline as providing a fresh look at the salutary effects of reviving certain standards of behavior. He uses a deliciously archaic word to describe the proper beginnings of a relationship ideally issuing in marriage: “courtship.” This elaborate ceremonial requires stepwise degrees to greater intimacy until two people make themselves worthy of each other. After he expounds upon some of the well-known reasons for the threat to marriage in our day — among them the drive of many of the young to stay essentially children — Kass engages in an able rehabilitation of the ideal, with even a few kind words for Internet dating services (along with the usual cautions), expressing anew the high adventure involved in binding together two lives whose shared purpose transcends their separate selves. He also expands, in a gust of heretical untimeliness, on the ultimately generative function of sexual desire. (Eros is “a longing for immortality in the face of finitude.”) It’s a bracing wind from the uplands of another time, but his is not a case for a desperate nostalgia. His remarks on marriage provide a vade mecum not only for personal but for cultural survival. “Marriage,” he tells us, “is most definitely the business of adults, . . . people who are serious about life, people who aspire to go outward and forward to embrace and assume responsibility for the future.”

Looking beyond the home, Kass shows us how so much that has corrupted the hard drive of our public and private lives can be blamed on the decay of formal education over the past two or three generations, and more specifically on the deterioration of the liberal-arts ideal in the American university.

Whence the rot? Much of it stems from the lassitude born of a lack of purpose, from a satisfaction with the application of means long after the ends have been forgotten or discarded. Ask 50 academics to define the point of a higher education and get 50 various, and variously thin, answers, almost all equally denuded of age-old aims for the well-formed mind. This has created a void that has inevitably allowed politics, usually of the crass, unreflective, radical type, to fill it. The social sciences and humanities take some deservedly hard hits in Kass’s probe.

Truth once stood as the object of a liberal-arts education, as a gem that would have to be mined assiduously in order to be possessed, but that ideal has not withstood the “triumph of the postmodern idea that truth is but a social creation, each group entitled to live by its own.” Opinions — and, even more destructively, feelings — are all. Shakespeare cannot be “relevant” to anybody who has delusions of equality with him, which perhaps is one reason so many English majors can no longer quote him from memory: Their spiritually flattened approach to reading, however “critical,” has left them disinclined to revere anything greater and more exquisite than themselves. But the soul as much as the mind must do the reading. “Despite the lazy lure of relativism,” Kass writes pungently, “we really do know in our bones that some opinions are truer, some books better, some lives and nations more admirable than others. And anyone who has even once tasted the exhilaration of discovery is a witness to the existence of truth and the value of seeking it.”

Kass has more than a vein of optimism on this score as he recalls a couple of generations of his own students who, against all odds, showed a dauntless candor in the pursuit of truth, of what is, so much so that Socrates, were he to walk among them, would declare them to be students in the truest sense — young minds burning to know. That’s no mean bit of good news.

This collection will strike many readers as a hodgepodge of reflections on an extremely broad array of subjects, but there is nothing trivial in it. The pieces were written over a broad timespan, but they still form a coherent whole; the unity might not be apparent on first reading, but then to read this book only once would be not to read it.

Kass declares in the end a quiet but unconditional war on spiritual poverty. The world shifts itself enough without our help. What we need is not agitation for relentless, mindless change but a reaffirmation of permanence in the midst of flux, a true north by which to guide our lives. This book is, finally, an exercise in hope.

Tracy Lee Simmons — Mr. Simmons is the author of Climbing Parnassus. He teaches humanities in the Westover Honors Program at Lynchburg College in Virginia.

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