Michael Novak: On Forming Good Intellectual and Spiritual Habits

Unknown-1Michael Novak, not to be confused with the late conservative journalist Robert Novak, has been (rightly I believe) described as “one of the world’s most influential social philosophers.” He has played a number of prominent roles in American life, ranging from advising candidates and presidents to teaching and writing on the ethics of the free market and welfare reform. He has taught at Harvard and Stanford and he has held academic chairs at Notre Dame and Syracuse. He was also one of the early leaders of the American Enterprise Institute, an influential think tank. In 1994 Novak won the Templeton Prize (it has been called the Nobel Prize for the life of the spirit), a prize also won by men like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Desmond Tutu, Mother Theresa of Calcutta and Charles Taylor. His writings have been translated into every major Western language as well as Chinese and Japanese.

One thing that separates Novak from many intellectuals, and elected leaders, is his genuine civility and humility. His thought is clear and he is willing to allow facts to challenge his long-held ideas. Morton Kondracke has called Michael Novak “one of America’s greatest moral philosophers (and) the theologian of democratic capitalism.” This man is a treasure. I shall always count it a singular joy that I had the opportunity personally share conversation, and mutual service, with Michael Novak. I read this memoir because I have always found him engagingly personable and profoundly insightful. I was not disappointed.

The memoir is divided into three parts: Part One: Left Turn. Part Two: Ethnicity, Economics, and the Universal Hunger for Liberty. Part Three: Culture Trumps Politics and Economics.

In part one Novak gives a snapshot of his turn to the far left in 1967. As an eighteen year old college student (at the time) I was moved by a similar turn since I began to wrestle with the same issues at that time in my life. Stories about Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy read now like news from my early adult life. In part two we learn of how Novak worked with his good friend Sergeant Shriver by traveling to thirty-nine states seeking the Democratic nomination for president in 1968. He calls George McGovern, who he worked for in 1972, a “very decent” and honorable man.

In the late 1960s Novak reasoned that any serious Christian should be a socialist. Having studied Catholic social thought he saw the depth and richness of his Catholic tradition. But two courses with Robert Bellah at Harvard taught him that he had a lot more to learn. (Any really good teacher will lead you to see how much you do not know!) Novak says what he discovered was a “yawning gap in my empirical knowledge” (147). He then read Troeltsch, Durkheim, Weber, Schumpeter and Tawney to learn their methods. Peter Berger also had a profound influence upon his thought, teaching him to ask deeper questions about equality and poverty: “Empirically, how much equality does socialism actually achieve? (2) Empirically, is socialism better for the poor?” (147). Berger gave Novak the incentive to prove that capitalism harmed the poor. But, says Novak, “I saw that in my leftist years I had framed my thinking around ‘visions’ and ‘dreams,’ as in Irving Howe’s famous line: ‘Socialism is the name of our dream.’” (148). One thing became clear to him–of all the countries in the world none had a better record of helping the poor rise out of poverty than the United States. Thus he asked, “Why did socialism keep failing? Or, forgetting about socialism, what was it in capitalism that I still did not understand?” (149).

Novak says it was much easier to argue against socialism than to find a compelling reason to embrace capitalism (149). I think this is precisely where we still are today. Many well-meaning Christians know what is wrong with capitalism, and the avaricious desire for wealth and consumption that can be fostered by it, but very few want to explain and defend it against socialism.

Novak uses baseball and football to demonstrate the analogy of a game played by rules yet one in which there is real freedom of movement, movement that can lead to innovation and success as well as to defeat. Yet he rightly concludes that “pure freedom” is not desirable. To my pleasant surprise he concludes:

I have always felt instinctively troubled by a “pure” free-market approach. I could never become a libertarian. A human being is a lot more than dollars and cents, and much more than choices regarding goods and services. Human beings live by habits of mind and spirit, and even economic activity depends on the power of these habits. Virtues depend on the culture, on what persons instill in youngsters and what the national media reinforce. Culture comes before economics. The great Nobel Prize-wining economist James Buchanan once told me that he was trying to find a way to measure the effects of the good personal habits of the Japanese on that nation’s wealth. An odd question: What are good intellectual and spiritual habits worth? But quite illuminating (154).

“Good intellectual and spiritual habits” – that sums up what Novak’s memoir is really about. How do we cultivate these in a society that is free and open to all ideas?

 

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