How to Confront a Crisis of Cultural Confidence

Peter Berkowitz, "How to Confront a Crisis of Cultural Confidence," Mosaic, March 15, 2018.

Peter Berkowitz, in review of Leon Kass:


Dark forebodings about the future of liberal democracy in America are agitating left and right these days.

On the left, respected figures encourage fears that the end of days is drawing near for the American experiment in self-government. The culprit: Donald Trump’s war—limited only by incompetence and emotional incontinence—on individual rights, the rule of law, and democratic norms.

On the right, some eminent men and women agree that Trump presents a uniquely toxic political threat and must be resisted intransigently. Others, farther to the right, take a longer and grimmer view, seeing Trump not as a cause but as a symptom of an already fatally flawed enterprise. Liberal democracy in America, according to them, inevitably generates isolated individuals, enfeebled families, and withered communities; a working life of grinding drudgery, preening ambition, insatiable greed; an educational system that inculcates ignorance, narcissism, and self-righteousness; and a degrading popular culture that radiates hostility to honor, nobility, and holiness.

One common response to these prophets of doom and gloom is to double down on the goodness of contemporary life. Touting the manifest material improvements and gains in freedom and equality that have been inseparable from the rise of liberal democracy over the last three centuries, stalwarts of the status quo maintain that humanity has never had it so good.

It would be truer to say that liberal democracy in America has imposed high costs and conferred substantial benefits. Luckily for us, we have at hand a rigorous and reasonable assessment of both the costs and the benefits. In Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times, the incomparable Leon Kass has gathered sixteen masterful essays on the character of our times published over the last several decades. His governing concern in the book, as throughout his extraordinary corpus of writings, is (as he writes in the introduction) “the permanent possibilities for a rich and meaningful life.”

In the book’s first three parts, Kass serially addresses love, family, and friendship; human excellence, human dignity, and biotechnology; and liberal education. In each case, he shows that our era is marked by a loss “of cultural and moral confidence about what makes a life worth living.” In the final part, Kass reconstructs central ideas from three rival Western traditions—classical political philosophy, biblical wisdom, and the teachings of modern freedom—whose insights, he maintains, can provide invaluable assistance in bolstering our confidence.