Leon Kass on How to Lead a Worthy Life - Encounter Books

Leon Kass on How to Lead a Worthy Life

AN ENCOUNTER BOOKS INTERVIEW
By Ben Weingarten | May 03, 2018

Leon Kass discussed his new book Leading a Worthy Life with our own Ben Weingarten. What follows is a full transcript of their discussion, slightly modified for clarity.

You can also listen to their interview in its entirety below. And to instantly receive Encounter Books Podcast interviews like this one upon publication, be sure to subscribe.

Ben Weingarten: What is a “worthy life?” Define it for us.

Leon Kass: Well, it’s, I think, not easy to define in simple terms, but I think the heart of it is that it is a life that makes sense, a life of meaning. It is a life that can be had through meaningful and fulfilling work, through deep love, family relations and friendship, through the attainment of excellence in one important human domain or another, and the practice of a dignified humanity. It can be attained through the search of understanding and wisdom, a significant place in our communities, an opportunity to serve, and a relationship to something higher or beyond.

There are multiple paths to multiple forms of a worthy life. But if I had to sum it up, I would say that all of these have in common the notion that when life is finished, one could say to oneself, I have made good use of the gift of the time allotted me, a gift that I did not get by virtue of merit. But that I have not squandered this time. I’ve put it to good use and I have fulfilled one of the various possible opportunities for human flourishing and human service and devotion.

There are multiple paths to multiple forms of a worthy life. But if I had to sum it up, I would say that all of these have in common the notion that when life is finished, one could say to oneself, I have made good use of the gift of the time allotted me, a gift that I did not get by virtue of merit.

Ben Weingarten: In this book, you suggest that many people today are not living worthy lives, but yearn to or they should yearn to. And you write, and I’ll quote here: ” Today, we are supercompetent when it comes to efficiency, utility, speed, convenience, and getting ahead in the world; but we are at a loss concerning what it’s all for. This lack of cultural and moral confidence about what makes a life worth living is perhaps the deepest curse of living in our interesting time.” Prior generations always lament that the present society is worse or deficient in some way relative to the society that preceded it. Why in this era today are things really different?

Leon Kass: Yeah. Well, I’m not immune to the suspicion, even the self-suspicion, that these may be the musings of a nostalgic and grumpy old man, but I don’t think so. And I think the real difference is…And by the way, I would correct one thing that you said. I think there are lots of people who are living worthy lives. What’s different is that the dominant culture has lost its dominance in a way and lost its confidence about its ability to teach, especially the young, how to get on a path toward living a worthy life, and even what a worthy life means. This is really the difference and it’s taken place largely in my lifetime.

Young people during my growing up had certain encouragement and paths that led to marriage, not exactly the courtship of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, but there were certain kinds of forms that had marriage as its goal; no longer. In the universities, the true, the good, and the beautiful had strong defenders, and universities spoke proudly about that they were in the business of seeking the truth. You won’t find a single university leader today who says that the pursuit of the truth is the business of our university. We’re in the business of knowledge creation. We’re preparing people to have a place in the new economy, etcetera, etcetera.

And with respect to the love of country, with respect to the love of wisdom, there’s a kind of higher cynicism in the culture as a whole. It’s that we do not have the elite, and others who live a worthy life do not have any encouragement from the general culture. And to put it in Charles Murray’s words, “We do not preach what we practice.”

And this is I think a big change, and it’s occurred really over the course of my lifetime so that young people…in my experience teaching 35 years in the University of Chicago, they still have the same aspirations as young people have always had. And despite the massive changes in our common life and a lot of distracting, addicting, isolating amusements, debased popular culture, nevertheless the human soul in these young people still wants what it always wants. And so that the task is to try to give voice to those aspirations and to encourage them. And that’s what these essays in their variety are trying to do.

Ben Weingarten: Is there a historical precedent based upon your study of these matters for a society like ours, that for example, has in many ways at least among the elite (although, as you noted, in their own lives they continue to kind of foster and value these sorts of values and principles) rejects the Judeo-Christian and classical liberal principles on which Western civilization in general, in America in particular, have flourished…that repudiates these core principles or no longer suggests that those are the superior principles and then ultimately winds up re-embracing them over time?

Leon Kass: I don’t really know. There have been periods in our past where there was a certain falling away, let us say, from the religious traditions, and then there were several Great Awakenings in American history in which there was some return. And it’s an open question whether there is another Great Awakening in religious terms in the American future.

The coming of the Depression and the Second World War put an end to a kind of age of hedonism and shallow attachments, and then life all of a sudden became very serious. And also, new opportunities opened up for people who had been marginalized and at the bottom in the immediate post-war period. I’m one of the beneficiaries of that. My contemporaries were given an opportunity to make something of themselves through education and working hard to fulfill our aspirations.

I do think that if you’re just talking…I mean there have been societies in the past that have undergone cultural decline and despair. The one I referred to in the introduction to my book is ancient Athens, which like the United States sort of stumbled into an empire after the Persian War. And then after the war with Sparta, things began to unravel. And there was…the old pieties were under attack. They had their own intellectuals, sophists. They were known…a good translation of sophist would be public intellectual or law professor, and they ran around mocking the old pieties and patriotism in the gods and so on. And Athens went down the drain, though it turns out that the time of chaos was also a time of great intellectual and personal renewal, primarily through the person of Socrates and his divine student Plato, who memorialized his conversations in which in the absence of compelling cultural answers to the good life, the question of how to live becomes a question. And many of the best young people rallied around Socrates and took up his quest, some living better than they might otherwise have done, others winding up rascals and scoundrels.

That’s a long way off, and that’s not Western civilization informed by the Judeo-Christian ethic and religion, as well as by philosophy and the moral virtues. I don’t know that there are example in the 20th century of, more or less, liberal, enlightened societies gone bad. Germany would be the great example, and a certain rejection of the moral tradition there. But I don’t know that in the bulk of liberal Western Christendom there’s been anything like a society that surrendered its patrimony and lived to sing a happy song.

Ben Weingarten: Naturally, one of the starting points of your book is a focus on the importance of family and interpersonal relations, and you write and I quote, “Real reform in the direction of sanity would require a restoration of cultural gravity about sex, marriage, and the life cycle.” What has been lost when it comes to sex, marriage, and the life cycle?

Leon Kass: Several things. The history of how we got to this point is overdetermined, and people who want to claim that this is all the result of the decadent ‘60s or the revolutionary ‘60s need to think more deeply. A certain kind of emphasis on individuality and individual rights quite apart from the ‘60s leads to a kind of fraying of the notion of dependence and the notion of the primacy of two rather than one, or two and a multitude of children rather than me, myself, fulfilling my own promise. But I think that technology has played a significant role in this — effective contraception, especially the pill, has in a way made it possible for sex to be a little severed not only from its procreative intention and ever-present possibility, but therefore, from it’s gravity.

Young people today will give their bodies but not their hearts, and hooking up is easy and getting to know you comes after the fact, if it comes at all. That would have been I think, unheard of for people who understood that sex was intermittently connected with eros; that eros had strivings beyond the scratching of the sexual urge; that it was generative of children; that it was the spur to rise in terms of deed and thought and poetry and song. We’ve in a way reduced sex really to something largely trivial, immediate and severed from anything really high.

Young people today will give their bodies but not their hearts, and hooking up is easy and getting to know you comes after the fact, if it comes at all.

We have sex education which teaches safe sex, primarily to prevent the unwanted diseases of venereal diseases or sexually transmitted diseases, and the so-called “disease,” because unwanted, of pregnancy. But sex education really is a right. The higher sex education, I have a chapter in the book on this, is really the education of the heart, and the education of the imagination, and the leading of the soul upward in search of a soulmate and the higher possibilities that come with it.

We’ve had the treatment, partly thanks to the feminist movement, of the transformation of speech about sex in terms of power. And that all of everything connected with sexuality in its deeper sense is delicate, there’s play in it, there’s possibility of shame, and embarrassment, and loss, and joy, and spontaneity. And here there’s an attempt to see everything in terms of power relations, and on the one hand to remove all restraint and now — especially with the, I think rather welcomed calling out of the male predators — also a kind of new prudishness, that doesn’t seek to restore the old mores or a sense of the delicacy of things, but in fact still thinking about these things in terms of power; to insist that what we have to do is provide very explicit rules and guidelines and make sure that all of this is simply under the will.

Well, the whole realm of eros is a kind of reminder that we are in the grip of powers and directions that are not the product of our own will. And we have to learn how to live with those powers in their glory and their danger, but it’s not handled, I think, under the concepts that are in the saddle today. Yeah, I guess that, for openers, those would be part of what I think afflicts us.

And I don’t know that there’s any going back to something like female modesty and male gentlemanliness in these matters. The internet and the internet matchmaking has introduced a certain salutary distance in which it makes it somehow possible, in the best case, for people to get to know each other before things get sticky, but that’s a technological remedy for certain deformations of previous technological innovations. And there really is no substitute for being face to face in synchronous time, risking everything in intimate speech, and trying to be to your prospective beloved what you hope to be to yourself and vice versa. There are opportunities, but it would take large cultural changes to reverse the erosions that I have seen in my lifetime.

Ben Weingarten: You have a somewhat more optimistic perception of college students than probably many of our listeners, granting that those students who you’ve taught represent a self-selecting group, perhaps not representative of the entire population. But you seem to have had at least some limited success in terms of putting forth a perspective that you just put forth and seeing college students respond to it positively over time. How do you influence students? Are there any ideas that can be presented and that have effectively shattered students’ preconceived notions or biases going into your classroom?

Leon Kass: Yeah. Look and I’ll give you the example in a moment. But it’s very uncool for young people, and they take the cues in part from the fact that irony is everywhere the coin of the realm. It’s very uncool for them to own up to the fact that they really have longings; that they really would like to meet someone with whom to make a life; that they really would like to do something significant in the world. It’s much better to hide behind a certain sort of cynical view that among other things protects them against disappointment.

And this I learned largely from my late wife, who’s also taught with me and taught classes successfully at [the University of] Chicago for 34 years. She says, and I think she’s right, she’s never met a student who didn’t want to be taken seriously as himself or herself. She’d never met a student who wasn’t interested in having real friends, as opposed to the Facebook variety. And our experience has always been that if you create a safe space [chuckle], in this sense: A space which is safe for people to speak really honestly, not about what’s on the tip of their tongue, but what might be in the deeper recesses of their hearts and minds, and you make room for any opinion honestly offered to be taken seriously, not just by you as a teacher, but insist that it be taken seriously by everybody in the room…And you then put good books before the student, which you then don’t lecture about, but you go through it on the assumption that this book might have something to teach you about the most important things for your own life, that you don’t even know about and you might not know about if you don’t read this book, as if it could teach you something…It’s been…I say I’ve never had a class in which the majority of the students didn’t rise to the occasion.

And I’ll give you an example from a class that my late wife, Amy, and I did on courtship and marriage. We put together an anthology, Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying, in a way prompted by our discovery that the students that we had taught, now well into their late 30s, eager to get married but not having a clue…It was then that we discovered that there were really no cultural forms leading in this direction. So we thought we would try to remedy this by putting together some readings that people could read. And then to test the proposition, we offered a course for undergraduates, 25 students in a seminar. Second day of class, the following opinions were voiced: “The idea being married to the same woman for 25 years is preposterous,” young man. Young woman, English major: “We know that we’re not supposed to get married until we’re at least 28. So all of our relationships with men are supposed to be transient and impermanent.” Another young woman: “Casual sex with men is a great blessing, ’cause it gets the sex out of the way, so that you can become friends with boys or men in a way it was never possible before.”

And I remember going home that night and told my wife, “These people are from Mars. I’m not going back in there.” She says, “Don’t worry. We’ll do what we always do. You’ll see.” And the readings included the Garden of Eden story, Ares and Aphrodite from the tale in the Odyssey, Jacob Meets Rachel at the well, various other essays on our current situation, and eventually various sample courtships: Darcy and Elizabeth from Pride and Prejudice; Emile and Sophie from Rousseau’s Emile; Orlando and Rosalind from As You Like It.

And then we did this little colloquy written by Erasmus simply called “Courtship…” 1530-something, if I’m not making it up. And we had them enact the courtship in which a young man who’s in love with love, and lusting for this young woman, is put in — through a dialogue with her — through his paces so that she forces him to make the argument for marriage, rather than an affair. And we had the students enact each of the two parts, we’d pause and have them comment on what’s going on, and then at the end of the discussion towards the end, where she finally persuades him to seek marriage, and she sends him off to her parents to seek their blessing. Erasmus, by the way, is proposing this as a substitute for arranged marriage. This was novel, to be worked out by the young couple and then to get the parental blessings. And the young man is about to go off, and he says to her, “So, before I go, would you give me a little token of your affection, a kiss at least?” And she says to him coyly, “Would you like me to bestow my kisses on others?” And he says, “No, I want you to save them all for me.” She says, “Well then, I’ll save them for you. Here’s a little sachet and let’s shake hands.” And we were sure we’d really lost them here. Up until this point they were playing along, they saw the power of what was going on. And my good wife had the genius to say to this class, “So what’s a kiss?” And this same group which had voiced these barbaric opinions at the beginning, said as follows in short order: “A kiss is the most erotic thing imaginable.” “A kiss is the sharing of the breath, which is the spirit.” “A kiss is a promise.” And, “A kiss is a small consummation.” None of these things did they hear from us. And to tell the truth, if forced to answer under those circumstances, I couldn’t have matched it.

There are things sleeping in the souls of young people which if you recognize that they're there and you talk to them as if they are better than they think they are, they will try to prove you right.

And this was the best proof anybody ever needs. There are things sleeping in the souls of young people which if you recognize that they’re there and you talk to them as if they are better than they think they are, they will try to prove you right. And more often than not, they succeed. The problem in the universities — yeah, the students come from a debased culture, and now their attention spans are limited, you don’t have to quiet a class at the beginning and tell them to stop talking to themselves because none of them are talking to themselves, they’re, each of them, on their own private phone somewhere else — but that I think is still superficial. And the problem in the universities is not largely with the students. It’s with the curriculum and with the faculty. And if the universities were doing their job and if they were encouraging the students to think about what their life means and what they want out of life and to take seriously the treasuries that our tradition has passed us, to help us think about those things, the students would rise to the occasion and they wouldn’t be so vulnerable to all of this political idiocy which now they are seduced by and which takes the place of real learning. Their tuition is being thrown down the drain.

...The problem in the universities is not largely with the students. It's with the curriculum and with the faculty.

Ben Weingarten: When you speak of a debased culture, one manifestation of this, in my view, and you can tell me if you disagree, is the idea that today’s society, in some respects, celebrates failure. And maybe that’s a manifestation of our sort of self-loathing and our love of our self-loathing. But you write about the importance of human flourishing and excellence. How do you cultivate a love of excellence, and how do we get people to pursue, once again, a flourishing life?

Leon Kass: Well, look, some kind of excellent activity — and I don’t mean by that necessarily as measured by external success of a full curriculum vitae and a six figure income, but activities in which the human powers are exercised fully and at a high level — is for many people the heart of what it means to live a meaningful life, and one sees it. I mean, one sees it in craftsman and artisans. One sees it in the gifted teachers in secondary schools and primary schools. One sees it in nurses and in doctors, in policemen and firefighters. People who are committed to their work and do a really good job are fulfilled in that work.

And I don’t think it’s true that…I mean it’s true that we have tended to elevate victims, partly as a way of not having people who come up on the short end of the stick feel that they don’t belong in the society at all; and that we’ve adopted a kind of false view of cultivating self-esteem which is not tied even to anything estimable. But I do think there are lots of pockets of a pursuit of excellence. We just don’t have a lot of talk about it.

There is an essay in the book which I’m very fond of. It’s written by my young friend Eric Cohen, called, “For the Love of the Game” which is all about sports, which is a domain in which the pursuit of excellence is still very much in evidence and in which the culture as a whole esteems it. So there too, there has been a corruption in which victory means everything. The highlight reel substitutes for connoisseur-ship of the whole game, and in which money distorts absolutely everything. And nevertheless, there are people who play their entire life out in public and they play with a full heart and everything that they have, they train, they match themselves up against the best that can be offered against them and they do it in broad daylight and they shine or they fall. And we respond to this that we don’t have comparable support.

And by the way, one sees something of this in the way in which one recruits for the Armed Forces. And there is an appeal to “be all you can be” and the promise of some kind of fulfillment of your possibility through service. So it’s not the case. It’s not the case that these things don’t exist. It’s that we have as a culture lost the courage to talk about the importance of the pursuit of excellence and that esteem should somehow be earned rather than just granted.

Look, I mean I keep interrupting myself. One sees it in the cultivation of music and the children who are really talented in classical music. They know the difference between excellence and not, and they devote themselves to it and are intrinsically rewarded by learning how to do it really well. It’s just that once again, we don’t speak properly about these things, and what we need really is a rather diversified view of the excellencies that in fact command respect. It’s not true that everybody ought to go to a four-year college and get credentialed rather than pursue things that they’re good at, that they would be fulfilled at and that in fact at which they could be excellent. I think we need to recover a praise of excellence, its recognition in many areas of our life, and the understanding that excellent activity for its own sake is the heart of a flourishing life. It’s not a means to the praise or the money or the status, but to be at work doing something as well as it can is really what it means to thrive. We just have lost our ability to talk about it.

...We have as a culture lost the courage to talk about the importance of the pursuit of excellence and that esteem should somehow be earned rather than just granted.

Ben Weingarten: Sometimes in that pursuit of excellence, and I’m thinking here in the physical realm like in sports, people seek to cheat the system, as that essay that you reference from Eric Cohen alludes to. And you write about the advances in biotechnology, people seeking out better bodies, people seeking out…trying to correct for quote unquote “defects” real or imagined, through the use of science. What’s the right way to think about balancing or harmonizing medical advances on the one hand and ethical and moral concerns on the other?

Leon Kass: Well, this has been one of the two major foci of my professional life, the other being teaching young people using the great books and great questions. Biotechnology is entering its adulthood and there are wonderful new innovations that will help restore deficiencies, somatic and psychic, and we should simply welcome these things. It would be wonderful if all people could get a fair shot at a good life, not impaired in body, or in mind, or in heart. The trouble is that these same innovations also hold out the promise of going on beyond the healing of disease to so-called enhancements. And of course, we would welcome the enhancement that would enable the deaf to hear, and the blind to see, and to correct, say, the muscle weaknesses of someone born with muscular dystrophy. But we’re now on the threshold of innovations that will, as you say, offer us superior performance, better children genetically and neurologically improved, ageless bodies, and pharmacologically-assisted happy souls.

And there are people very vocal about it promising what they call a post human future, part of it coming through biotechnology partly through artificial intelligence and computer human interfacing. And I find that prospect revolting. I would not entrust the product of eons of evolution to be revised by the half-baked thoughts of some people who think they know what a better version of a human being or a non-human version of a human being would be, and that we should trade everything that has been the accumulated understanding of a rich human life for the promise of some man-machine hybrid, or of people who will get their pleasures out of a bottle, or who will have the life expectancy so prolonged that you will have extended time but the meaning of any part of it will be diminished.

Part of the trouble is, these new devices begin to interfere with what it means to be the author of your own activities, and the steroids in baseball are just the tip of the iceberg of what it would mean if people became the creatures of their chemists. They would in some way still be a performer of a deed that the record breaking fans will applaud, but it will not flow from the deep structure of their own being and their own character, and they will be increasingly in a way like horses spread for the track.

And the other big difference is that the desire to do away with our limitations and deficiencies unbeknownst to the scientists, is really [that] the end undercuts the ground of our aspiration. As Wallace Stevens put it, “Not to have is the beginning of desire.” It’s lack, it’s insufficiency, which is the basis of longing, and if one gets one’s satisfaction, not from activities but from pharmacologically induced hedonic states, we will have come even closer to that very prophetic vision of the “brave new world” Aldous Huxley gave us in the 1930s, where we have creatures of human shape but of stunted humanity. They don’t read, write, love, govern themselves. There’s no science. There’s no art. There’s no poetry. All pleasures are chemically induced. And it is a gravely dehumanized society made possible by science which came into being in order to do away with sickness, grief, sorrow, war, poverty. It had the humanitarian solution, but at the cost of our humanity. And if we’re not careful, the biological revolution can take us there, not by some omni-competent state, but on the basis of personal free choice.

Ben Weingarten: You conclude your book with a discussion of three texts, or three portions of texts. One, representing the philosophical in the Nicomachean Ethics; another representing the religious in, or theological in, The Ten Commandments; and lastly the practical or political in the “Gettysburg Address.” I wanted to ask a question regarding each of these three works. First, with respect to the Nicomachean Ethics, can you explain how that work serves as the antidote to moral relativism? Because so much of the rot in our culture and society can be attributed to that malady of belief.

Leon Kass: Well, there’s one place in it which…Aristotle, in a way, raises very near the beginning of the book the question of cultural relativity, that fire burns the same here and in Persia, but what men say is just, varies from place to place, so that people think that the noble and the just exist just by human agreement and not by nature. And the whole book is, in a way, an attempt to address that question, not by logical argument but by showing. And through books…the second half of Book Three and all of Book Four, Aristotle polishes off men of superior moral character, having 10 virtues. And he polishes them off, describes them not in a way his own culture would do, but perfects that description, and then puts them up before you in between a vice of excess and a vice of deficiency. And basically he’s saying to you, “Look. Don’t you see that this is more beautiful, more fine, more splendid than the alternatives? Courage, moderation, generosity, magnificence, greatness of soul, gentleness, friendliness, truthfulness, wit.” And he shows you these things and you look at it, and you say…and then you could find good examples out of your own life, and you see these things really are beautiful forms of our humanity. And maybe you can’t give a proof, a logical proof of it, but somebody who doesn’t see the beauty of these things, you would want to say is the moral equivalent of red-green color blind. That’s a kind of showing, and it’s been very effective in my classes. We go through the “Museum of the Virtues,” and people come out saying they’ve seen a damn good show.

Ben Weingarten: You provide an exegesis of the Ten Commandments. Can you provide us with a synopsis of your takeaway about the real importance of the Decalogue?

Leon Kass: Well…

[chuckle]

Ben Weingarten: I know that’s somewhat of a loaded question. It isn’t really worthy of an index card response. But if you…

Leon Kass: No, look. I have a reading of the Ten Commandments in which I make a lot out of the two of those commandments that are positive: “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy,” and “Honor your father and mother that your days may be long upon the earth that the Lord your G-d has given you.” All the other commandments are put in the negative. And I make the argument that it is through these two commandments that we have a teaching for truly humanistic politics — that the day of rest is a way of remembering that it’s not a Hobbesian world here, but that we stand in the world grateful for the gifts of our life and of the bounty of the earth that enables our life to sustain itself. And that we, in a way, can adopt the stand of the Creator who also stood down on the seventh day, and looked at the hole that He had made and hallowed a day of time out of time — a day not of getting and spending and grasping all you can, but a day for appreciation and gratitude and a day on which even the maidservants and the manservants of the house rest. Whatever the social distinctions, everyone, including the animals, are given a day off in commemoration of the creation and our honored place in it.

And then “honor your father and mother” is a way, and the first is in a way universal. Everybody can in a way be grateful to the Creator for the goodness of the whole and our place in it. But each of us has a special obligation to those who are responsible for our own particular being in the world, responsible for our rearing and who teach us, who launch us in life with a kind of teaching that enables us to aspire to a flourishing life. And it is the teaching on “honor your father and mother” which introduces the kind of bulwark against incest and various other sexual wildnesses which wash out the special high standing of the creature made in God’s image.

I treat the Sabbath teaching as anti-Egypt, anti-the technological project to master nature and conquer death, which has come back in modern technological society, and “honor your father and mother” is the bulwark against all the sexual perversions that were the ways of the Canaanites and to some extent also the Egyptians, against hyper-rationalism and against a kind of irrational Dionysiac element.

These two poles, always poles of human possibility, were countered in the world for the first time by the teaching given in Sinai, celebrated in the West up to the present age and, G-d willing, for the future.

Ben Weingarten: Lastly, what is the relevance of the Gettysburg Address to leading a worthy life?

Leon Kass: We who are blessed to live in the United States with all of its warts and its worries about its future…and it’s not a perfect society by any means, but this is a society that was singularly brought into being around an idea, an idea of radical human equality in the Declaration of Independence; on equality of G-d given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. There was a flaw in the founding in which some amongst us were hideously denied those rights, and the nation fought a war to vindicate that founding and those principles. And the speech of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg to dedicate the cemetery to the Union dead is perhaps the most succinct and powerful expression of the American creed and the meaning of this nation. Lincoln turns what was a self-evident truth as stated in the Declaration of Independence to a proposition to which the founders were dedicated.

And that means that equality was not somehow assumed, but was a goal; not necessarily equality of results, but an equality under the law, an equality of opportunity. And Lincoln enunciates in that speech the, as it were, baptismal statement for the re-founding of the nation born though blood in the Civil War, and puts at the end of what it is that this country now, in the future, is dedicated to.

And one should simply read him at the end where he in a way states for us the meaning of the war and what we the living, not only in his time, but for generations ahead should be dedicated to: “That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. That this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and the government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the Earth.” Lincoln adds at the end, not only the principle of natural rights, but also of democratic self-government of a people to rule itself, devoted to freedom and equality. Those principles are ours by inheritance. Those principles are ours to defend and preserve.

And freedom and equality along with justice and holiness given us by the religious traditions, along with the pursuit of wisdom, nobility and beauty given us by the Greeks — those things are all crucial, it seems to me, for a worthy life….All still needing, all still possibilities in modern times precarious perhaps more than ever, but in need of and worthy of getting a strong, articulate, intellectual defense. That’s what I’d hope to contribute to in a small way.

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BEN WEINGARTEN is a Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Research, Senior Contributor at The Federalist and Founder & CEO of ChangeUp Media LLC, a media consulting and production firm dedicated to advancing conservative principles. You can find his work at benweingarten.com, and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.


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