The Plain Truth: Leon Kass on just about everything

Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times reveals that we have arrived at a point where what is actually anti-human is politically defined and often legally established as the goal of human life.

“The plain truth of the matter is that real life, even for those critics of America who preach liberal universalism, cannot do without the nurturing benefits of strong particularistic attachment. For the vast majority of human beings, life as it actually lived is lived parochially and locally, embedded in a net of relations, institutions, culture, and mores that define us and—whether we know it or not—give character, shape, and meaning to our lives.” — Leon R. Kass, Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times (New York: Encounter Books 2017), 32.

“Materialistic explanations of vital events, even psychic events, leave no room for soul, understood as life’s animating principle. Remarkably, our science of life has no interest in the question of what life is or what is responsible for it. Likewise, our science of the psyche has no interest in its proper subject: Does any psychologist ask, ‘What is soul, that we are mindful of it?’ Deterministic and mechanistic accounts of brain functions seem to do away with the need to speak of human freedom and purposiveness.” — Leon Kass, Leading a Worthy Life, 304-305.

I.

A sure way to acquire a thoroughly liberal education today—perhaps, for many, the only way—is to read carefully the works of Leon Kass. Then read them again. Then read what he reads. Most of the seventy or eighty thousand dollars-a-year college programs won’t even come close to Kass all by himself. In addition, one will end up with foundational truths that do not result in mindless relativism.

Begin with Toward a More Natural Science, Kass’ book on a more human biology; go to The Hungry Soul; then proceed to his book on wisdom in the Hebrew Bible; continue with Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar, his book on wooing and courtship; check out his studies on bioethics,; and finish with this new book on leading a worthy life. It would be difficult to find a more wide-ranging—indeed profound—book than this intellectual autobiography.

The book is a living record of Kass’ own education, of his thinking his way through the issues of our time in the light of our heritages from Greece, Jerusalem, and Europe. We have almost forgotten our debt to them. Kass is as much at home recounting the first chapters of Genesis as he is talking about the direction of bioethical research, the meaning of sports, what Aristotle meant by prudence, or Lincoln by a “new birth of freedom”. And in Kass’ steady gaze, these topics are not simply disparate subjects; each has a proper place in the order of things, a place that Kass identifies and explains why it belongs where it does.

Leon Kass is a man of many parts. He is a medical doctor, a researcher in biology, a son, a husband, and a father, a former member of the National Endowment for the Humanities, sometime director of the President’s Bioethics Commission; he is affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute and a beloved teacher at the University of Chicago. He is, in short, a wise man both in the biblical and Greek sense of the word—a man who not only knows things, but knows why and how they fit together. For example, in his book The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfection of Our Nature (itself a minor, if not a major, classic), I vividly recall reading his description of the human anatomy, a description repeated in this present book. The human eyes are where they are on our face for a purpose. We are upright. We hear, smell, touch, and taste through our senses. We are not disembodied spirits, though we do have a soul. We are not a pile of accidental organs but a unified order of interdependent parts that belong together. And all of this corporeal life is designed to enable us, while remaining ourselves, to know what is not ourselves, to know the world as it is, and to know the truth of things.

Since he knows what they are, Kass explains the nature of classical and modern science. Not unlike Benedict XVI in his Regensburg Lecture, Kass understands both science’s relation to Plato and its relation to quantity and the methods by which it is articulated. He is aware that not all reality is quantifiable. He knows the difference between science—what it can know and how it knows this—and “scientism”, which is a reductionist ideology so widespread in our culture as to pass as a pseudo-religion. “Scientism” wants to explain everything by the methods of sciences based on quantity. The implication is that if it cannot be explained by such methods, what is not so explained does not exist at all. But some things are not reducible to quantity. They cannot be detected by methods that are based on mathematics alone.

II.

Leading a Worthy Life is divided into four parts. The first part is a penetrating critique of modern relativism and culture. The second part is about human excellence and human dignity with much emphasis on the family. The third part is devoted to the search for wisdom, and the fourth part concerns Athens, Jerusalem, and Gettysburg. If one wants to find a truly “counter-cultural” book, this is it. The irony is that its essential counter-cultural nature is based on the fact that the classical/religious culture systematically rejected in the public order is in fact the only culture worth saving. We have arrived at a point where what is actually anti-human is politically defined and often legally established as the goal of human life.

The book’s title is more than significant. Its emphasis is not on how a worthy human life is defined, but on actually living such a life, while knowing what it is. It is quite possible to know what is true or what is good but choose not to follow it. It is also true that leading a worthy life does include knowing what such a life entails. While keeping the distinction between theoretical and practical intellect in mind, knowing and doing belong together as functions of practical intellect. They put something into existence—acts of courage, tools—that could not exist without human agency. Thus, what we have here is not exactly a “handbook” in practical ethics, though it is that too. It is above all a book that explains the “why” of things. It does not disdain teleology, without which nothing can be fully explained. The word “worthy” is key. Kass has much to say about the attractiveness of the good and of the noble in our lives.

Yet we are all most interested, even if only for the sake of vanity, in whether the actual lives we lead are “worth” something and to whom—to ourselves, our friends, our town, our country, our time, our God, or all of the above? The fact that many of us can and do live unworthy lives is ultimately our own responsibility, a hint of our need of redemption. We are not “determined”, without freedom or knowledge of our own, to live the lives we do live. There is absolutely no moral interest in what cannot freely be otherwise. Worthiness includes making ourselves worthy, something we need not do but something we ought to do. We deal here with those actions that Aristotle told us that are worthy of praise or blame. This is the second world, the one that we cause to be by how we live the one life we are given to live.

Kass’ “worthy” life echoes Plato’s concern in the Republic over whether or not all sins and crimes are punished in this world and all good deeds requited—and if so, where and how? It is at this point that metaphysics, politics, and, yes, divine revelation meet. Kass’ “worthy” life reflects Isaiah’s New Jerusalem, Plato’s City in Speech, and Aristotle’s good man in a good city, all seen against the background of personal failures to live worthily in this world in whatever polity we find ourselves, with intimations of immortality found everywhere.

Kass’ book is basically a treatise on reason and the revelation that is rooted solely in the Hebrew Bible. The reason part is happily located in Aristotle. This understanding of a worthy life requires a re-reading of Aristotle’s Ethics in particular, the guidance for which Kass provides in this book. Thus, Kass takes us through Aristotle’s notion that moral virtue—justice, fortitude, temperance, prudence, plus the minor virtues—is displayed not primarily in thought but in action, in doing and making. Prudence itself, the intellectual virtue of the moral virtues, is directed to the intelligibility of good means available in these or those particular circumstances for our ultimate end, happiness.

Kass identifies, as does Aristotle, those passions that can, with effort, become subject to our guidance. They form our habits and our character, that complexus of habits that in fact display in action how we see our ends. These habits are in the service of the end we choose, the one that defines the particular kind of happiness for which we in fact devote our lives—life of pleasure, of honor, of wealth, and of the highest things. This is the life on which, as Plato thought, we will be finally judged.

Aristotle tells us of two kinds of happiness: one having to do with our mortal lives in the cities of this world and the other a contemplative life that comes into view when we have guided ourselves in such a way as to be able to consider the meaning of what is in all its ramifications. This latter form of happiness opens us to the eschatological question of a transcendent life. It is the key locus of further considerations of revelation that concern this life and its final meaning. The tractates on marriage and friendship enter here also, as something more is implied in love and fidelity than an ending in this world at a final death.

Kass often notes the importance of Aristotle’s tractate on friendship in books eight and nine of his Ethics. Kass is concerned with the differing kinds of friendship that exist among men; he is aware of C. S. Lewis’ penetrating gloss in The Four Loves. The Hungry Soul ended with Kass’ beautiful description of the perfection of living human nature in a small group of friends dining leisurely together, with good food and good wine, in conversation, both lightsome and penetrating, about reality—about what it’s all about.

It is my experience, as it seems to have been that of Kass, that no subject is more important to the potential philosophers in their late teens and early twenties than friendship. Kass does a wonderful service in explaining the differing kinds of friendship, especially the exact nature of erotic friendship and its relation to children and family. Kass’ defense of love and marriage is really unsurpassed. He shows just why divorce, abortion, contraception, homoerotic relations, genetic manipulation, and the more erratic practices that seem to appear every day are all part of the same misconception of what marriage and the human begetting of human beings are all about.

There is a natural order in things, an intelligibility in things—especially in human things. Its violation entails enormous damage to individuals and societies, a damage that can often be spelled out in graphic terms when we see the consequences finally worked out in real lives. What is striking in Kass is that his medical and scientific background enables him to see quite clearly that these laws of being exist and cannot be crossed without enormously dire consequences, even when they are expressed in terms of newly minted political “rights” and “duties”.

Kass rightly sees a liberal education as a continuation and completion of the begetting/nurturing process itself. The human being is not mature at birth or at seven years old. At twenty he is just beginning to complete that education which includes knowing the truth of things. Plato thought that, to be mature, a man must be married, have children, been in military and public service, in addition to knowing the essentials of basic philosophy. At almost every turn, Kass reminds us of the importance of the concreteness of being human—of giving thanks, of taking care, of making time for others. Life is more than knowing, but it includes knowing, including an accurate knowing the highest things, including the things of revelation.

Kass spends considerable time on the wise man as well as on the statesman, the man of practical intellect. The ruling of oneself leads to the rule of others where rule primarily means seeing, exhorting, and, if necessary, coercing, citizens under one’s authority to lead a good life, or at least to prevent the worst from being inflicted on others. The statesman, as opposed to the wise man, is concerned with the practical common good, that good which enables all lesser goods to come forth in others. The “common” good is not a universal form imposed from above. Rather it is the making possible of individual and societal goods in the souls of individual citizens.

III.

Much more can and should be said about this incisive book. But I do want to make one last observation. I might call what I have to say here “a Catholic reading of Kass.” Several years ago, I was struck by a remark of David Goldman. He said that the happiest people on earth are the believing Jews living in Israel—not New York. I had another Moroccan Jewish student of mine who went to Israel for a couple of months after graduation. When she came back to the States, she spontaneously said the same thing Goldman did. I recall these remarks in the light of Allan Bloom’s comment in The Closing of the American Mind that the unhappiest students in America are those going to the twenty most expensive universities. The reason Bloom gave for this situation was that they had to believe they were in the best schools but that what they received was really empty. Yet, there seemed nowhere else to go.

As I read Kass’ book, I kept running into idea after idea that I associate with Christianity. I am not in the least surprised by this, for the Hebrew Bible is something I read every day. As an exercise in thought, we can wonder what the world would have been like had there only been the Hebrew Bible. This is the position of the believing Jew who is content that nothing in Christian revelation, as a plan of salvation that includes both testaments, is true. He is left with the Hebrew tradition to which Kass attests. And it is from this tradition that Kass comes. He is most respectful of any Christian specific position, but it is not his tradition. The Catholic, on the other hand, has to include Jewish revelation as part of his Catholic tradition.

Benedict XVI, to recall, held that Paul, the believing intellectual Jew, was not sent to India, Persia, or China, but to Macedonia, to precisely the homeland of Aristotle and the Greek mind. Benedict also read elements in the Hebrew Bible that seemed to be grounded in that same philosophical cast of mind that we find in the Greeks. He concluded that the two revelations, Jewish and Christian, together with the Greek philosophical mind pointed to the same unified source. All three were necessary to each other. And they belonged together in a non-contradictory manner.

People have asked Leon Kass about the relation of his description of the perfection of human nature in dining. Is it related to the Last Supper? Kass, from his own reflection, rightly did not think so. Yet the question haunts the Christian who reads Kass. Even more so when it comes to the Trinity and Incarnation does it seem that Kass’ analysis of the Sabbath and Creation need the resurrection and the Trinitarian life for which the world seems to have initially been created. Kass’ reading of Genesis in the Beginning takes the Christian back to the Prologue of John, to an account, as it were, of the Beginning creation before creation.

The last section of Kass’ book is devoted to Aristotle, the Commandments, and to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in which he accepts the thesis that Lincoln re-founded the American Republic to include all people. When we look at what Kass has to say about the importance of Israel, a small nation somehow surviving and being reconstituted over time, we see that Israel stands as an exemplar of what this multi-faced republic can be like. In other words, Israel is in fact carrying out the original mission given to it with the assumption that no further revelation would come about.

In this context, I have always associated the cities as Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome. This association meant that the connection between Athens and Jerusalem ran through Rome. That is, the death of Socrates and the death of Christ at the hands of the existing state, the best states of their time, addressed the coherence of the three traditions not as antagonistic to each other but as completing each other. The doctrine of the Trinity relates to the Aristotelian question of whether God was lonely, ultimately whether there is friendship and otherness in the Godhead. The Incarnation and Redemption, the Resurrection relate to the completion of man, not as a spirit but as an embodied person who must still die. And the universality of redemption as applying to all men confronted the necessary elitism in the Greek tradition, something not intrinsically opposed to hierarchy if talent and virtue. But it also recognized that the distinction of good and evil—the Socratic “it is never right to do wrong”—also applied to ordinary men in any historical society of whatever political configuration.

In short, “living a worthy life” means something both in this mortal, finite world and in everlasting. This account of Kass is simply complete in its own order and within its own terms. Catholics read the Hebrew account of its worldly and transcendent mission with deep familiarity. Kass, in giving us this extraordinary account of reason and Hebrew revelation allows us to see also more clearly what we hold in common and what seems missing, and how to account for it. We will find few, if any, books that give us more to think about, to act on, than this autobiographical account of Leon Kass on what it means to live a “worthy” life.

Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times
by Leon R. Kass
Encounter Books, 2017
Hardcover, 496 pages

About James V. Schall, S.J. 170 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018). Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.

1 Comment

  1. Humanism and Humanness are different the one a secular ideology the latter an open question studied by Kass. “He described his family as ‘Yiddish speaking, secular, socialist’. Although his upbringing was not religious, it was moralist. ‘Morality, not Judaism, was the religion of our home'” (Excerpted from Wikipedia). My brother in law Ben was quite similar in his lesser quiet obscure way. Judaism, “it is from this tradition that Kass comes” is the seat of many such intellectuals seeking truth and justice truth identified specifically with justice. I’m impressed though not surprised Fr Schall quotes Kass’s knowledge of Aristotle’s ethics and the cardinal virtues prudence justice fortitude temperance. Justice Aquinas agreed is the Queen since it necessarily incorporates all the virtues. We must possess all to be completely just and human. Kass tiptoes around Catholic belief fearing the water temp and neglects Aquinas. Just like Ben. Schall quotes Benedict XVI John Paul II is better suited to address humanness in his thoughts on a theology of Man centered on the humanness of Christ. There anthropology finds its completion justice brought to perfection.

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. The Plain Truth: Leon Kass on just about everything -

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.


*