If ever a title of a post could make people move along without pausing to read so much as the first sentence, this post's title would be up to the task. Which is exactly the subject of a lengthy, yet lovingly drawn out essay by Leon R. Kass found in the new quarterly publication, National Affairs.
"Looking for an Honest Man" explores the author's search for truth and meaning (my words, not his; he prefers the term "human being," or better still, "mentsch") through his own exploration of the humanities: philosophy, religion, and other stuff of the intellectually elite. But it resonates for a reason, and that reason is that he tried and succeeded at "real life" first. He went to Harvard, was a molecular biologist, worked for civil rights in Mississippi in 1965, and woke up to the realization that the life well-lived need not include Harvard nor advanced degrees nor the mental snobbery of Boston. In fact, as Kass would discover, those very things can and do work against real happiness, real living, real life:
"In summer 1966, my closest friend had me read Rousseau's explosive Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, for which my Mississippi and Harvard experiences had prepared me. Rousseau argues that, pace the Enlightenment, progress in the arts and sciences does not lead to greater virtue. On the contrary, it necessarily produces luxury, augments inequality, debases tastes, softens character, corrupts morals, and weakens patriotism, leading ultimately not to human emancipation but to human servitude."
Rousseau's work is near the top of my list, but I've first got to finish Thomas Paine's Rights of Man while barely having waded into Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (which Kass admirably expounds upon for a few meaty paragraphs, serving to whet my appetite further). The author drives home the shortcomings of a society's (our society's) humanities-less education and worldview, which will only drift further afield as it advances along the math and science-based continuum ad infinitum (how's that for mixing advanced mathematics and classical Latin in a single phrase?) as he compares the sagacity of ancient thinkers to the present-day average American mindset:
"We focus on condemning and avoiding misconduct by, or on correcting and preventing injustice to, other people, not on elevating or improving ourselves. How liberating and encouraging, then, to encounter an ethics focused on the question, 'How to live?'...How eye-opening are arguments that suggest that happiness is not a state of passive feeling but a life of fulfilling activity, and especially of the unimpeded and excellent activity of our specifically human powers — of acting and making, of thinking and learning, of loving and befriending."
A long-form quarterly publication launching in this environment may not have a great chance at making it. Honestly, there may not be a thousand people in America with the attention span to get through an entire issue. But I will savor it while it's here, and hopefully some of you can find - no, make - the time to do the same.