Introduction to the 2009 Jefferson Lecture, National Endowment for the Humanities, 22 May 2009.
It’s a great honor for me to introduce Leon Kass. There is no one in contemporary American life who better embodies the fundamental mission of the humanities. This may seem a surprising assertion about a man whose resume is so heavily tilted toward the life sciences: an M.D. from the University of Chicago, a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Harvard, and years of employment at the National Institutes of Health and the National Academy of Sciences. And yet, as the author of a dazzling array of books and essays on topics ranging from the philosophy of science to the philosophy of eating, from the wisdom of the Bible to the morality of euthanasia and the intricacies of courtship and love, Leon Kass has proven himself an exemplar of the great humanistic motto: Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto. (I am human, nothing human is alien to me.)
Indeed, perhaps the only thing alien to Leon Kass is our general tendency to treat science as a realm apart, a form of knowledge entirely distinct from the realms of literature, philosophy, history, and other venerable forms of human inquiry about human things. This is the pathology of the “two cultures,” lamented by the British writer C. P. Snow in an influential lecture given at Cambridge University almost exactly 50 years ago: May 7, 1959.
The New Atlantis