Map for Modern Life

Yael Levin Hungerford, "Map for Modern Life," City Journal, February 02, 2018.

Yael Levin Hungerford reviews Leon Kass’s Leading a Worthy life.


Much of American culture today causes right-thinking people to despair, from the degradation of political discourse and higher education to the hookup culture and the decades-long decline in marriage and fertility rates. And on the horizon, looming advances in artificial intelligence threaten to transform our world in ways that we cannot yet imagine.

In Leading a Worthy Life, the renowned bioethicist and teacher Leon Kass responds not with despair but with hope. Yes, ours is an age of skepticism, both religious and cultural—and of distraction and directionless busy-ness, too. But Kass points out that the fundamental desire to live meaningfully persists. He presents wisdom intended to redirect individuals to the goods that most fully furnish a meaningful life: marriage, children, and friendship; vocation; service to country and community; and the pursuit of understanding. Our culture’s current weakness might offer an opportunity to reexamine these components of a worthwhile life; after all, it was during a time of civic and cultural crisis that Socrates instructed Athenian youth about the examined life.

This is a serious and thoughtful book, written to be understood, without the jargon typical of academic writing. It constitutes 16 essays written over a span of 20 years, during which time Kass served as professor on the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago; chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics (2001–2005); and as resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (where I worked for him). Two of the essays are coauthored with his late wife, Amy Apfel Kass.

In a manner reminiscent of Aristotle, Kass accepts phenomena as we live them as a starting place for his analysis. On whether human beings have inherent dignity, for example, Kass invites us to consider the Civil War scene of former slaves fighting for the Union Army, affirming their humanity despite their degraded past. “Anyone not humanly stunted” cannot help but admire such an “active display of what is humanly best.”

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