oung people in America, Leon R. Kass writes, “are increasingly confused about what a worthy life might look like, and about how they might be able to live one.” Kass strives to clarify this confusion in his latest book, Leading a Worthy Life, in which he explores topics ranging from courtship to intimacy, human dignity, physician-assisted suicide, eugenics, liberal education, patriotism, and religion.
“Near the beginning of the Ethics,” Kass writes, Aristotle warns “that his book is not intended for the young and inexperienced, or for those who have been badly brought up. And he tells us at the end that it will be largely useless for those who do not already have a longing for the noble and the good.” So it is with Leading a Worthy Life, a book bursting with nuggets of golden erudition—assuming the reader is armed with the tools to mine them. Kass, a longtime professor of political philosophy at the University of Chicago and the Madden-Jewett Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, runs the gamut of Western Civilization. His book travels from the Decalogue to Aristotle, from Erasmus and Euripides to Herodotus and Thucydides, from the Peloponnesian War to Socrates, Plato, and Rousseau, from the Gettysburg Address to Churchill—all in inventive and eye-opening ways. Kass’s central point is clear: Contrary to the conventional thinking of the moment, the old white men of yore do indeed have wisdom worth exploring, and the keys to leading a worthy life are embedded in the many hundreds of thousands of pages they have collectively contributed to the storehouse of human understanding.
“I offer no single account of what makes for a worthy life,” he writes. In fact, he recognizes his own inconsistencies, noting that “the various chapters and sources I rely on point in different, often competing directions.” Though he notes the myriad manifestations of the worthy life, Kass is no relativist. He attacks the “mind-deadening and self-indulgent poison that truth, like beauty, lies only in the eye of the beholder, with each person freely ‘constructing’ reality according to his own tastes,” and he affirms that “despite the lazy lure of relativism, we really do know in our bones that some opinions are truer, some books better, some lives and nations more admirable than others.” Those who hope to lead a worthy life must not fall prey to the notion that worth can be found anywhere and in anything.
Kass’s paean to the wisdom of the past is not without fault. His chapters on courtship and sex education at times seem designed to grate rather than inspire. Take, for example, his claim that women in their 20s who live “neither in the homes of their fathers nor in the homes of their husbands” are “unprotected, lonely, and out of sync with their inborn nature.” Are such women bereft of, say, mothers, in whose homes they also might choose not to reside? And though Kass claims that “while some women positively welcome this state of affairs…most do not,” he offers not a shred of data to support this sweeping assertion.
Kass is not unaware of the reactions some of his more archaic arguments may provoke: “Many readers will find this talk about courtship and female chastity quaint at best. People will insist, perhaps rightly, that most women will never wish to return to the mores of an age that knew not female contraception, late marriage, and careers for women.” But if their insistence is “perhaps right,” then his argument collapses. So which is it?
Where the book falters is in its own identity: What is it exactly? In his introduction, Kass acknowledges that the chapters of Leading a Worthy Life “were originally separate essays, written for different occasions over a period of 20 years,” but he reassures the reader that in addition to being revised and updated, they have all been “organized into a coherent structure.” At times a mammoth op-ed, a course-reader for a college philosophy class, a how-to on living meaningfully, Leading a Worthy Life reads like a dizzying amalgamation of every thought Kass has ever had on every topic worth writing about.
One of the best chapters, “What’s Your Name,” is a wonderfully interesting exploration of what we call ourselves and one another, and why. Yet it somehow feels tangential; what does it have to do with leading a worthy life? Kass’s assessments of American patriotism and the intellectual viruses plaguing our republic are astute and well argued but suffer from the same lack of thematic connection. The same is true of his ruminations on the hypocrisy of liberal intellectuals who, on the one hand, “decry national distinctions, deny the need for patriotic sacrifice, and urge us to join the party of humanity and to see ourselves as ‘citizens of the world,’” while also “encourag[ing] divisive identity politics at home, accentuating ethnic and racial differences, eschewing assimilation and the melting pot, and celebrating only hyphenated-America identities.”
Living a Worthy Life lacks the coherence Kass promises and should have been presented as a compilation of distinct pieces rather than an overarching text. But it is inspiring and heartening nonetheless. Kass notes that since “we have many talents and diverging circumstances, the path to a worthy life taken by one of us will rarely match the path taken by another.” The one goal we all share, or should share, is “to have earned in word and deed our place at the banquet of human life to which we have been so graciously (and undeservedly) invited.”