Leon Kass’s grand tour of humanity

Last night’s 2009 National Endowment for the Humanities Lecture with Leon Kass was, unsurprisingly, superb. Kass, who among other things assembled the first President’s Council on Bioethics, is the epitome of a renaissance man due to his diverse background of study, gave a lecture entitled, “Searching for an Honest Man: Reflections of an Unlicensed Humanist.”

The lecture followed the motif of the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who walked the streets endlessly with a lantern “looking for an honest man.” Kass notes that what Diogenes is really looking for is better translated as a “true human being.” The search for the true human being — and just what it means to be a human being — made up the bulk of the lecture.

Like Harvey Mansfield’s Jefferson lecture two years before, Kass noted that modern science has — to its fault — abdicated the humanities. No longer does medicine look at health, but to emerging technologies. Modern science looks intricately at the parts, but often fails to observe the whole. It can describe what chemical processes take place in the eye for vision to occur, but it cannot explain “seeing.” The humanities are needed for such endeavors — and they are likewise needed when dealing with decisions that involve whole human beings.

Kass has found progress in his own search for the true human in sources such as the Aristotelian view of the soul, the Hebrew Bible, and through books and companions along the way. Kass, more so than many other public intellectuals, is on the right track in viewing humanity as the sum of its parts, a unified psyche and soma.

The only thing that I might add (if I dare!) to Kass’s grand tour of true humanity is to note the Christian view of true humanity’s culmination — namely the True Human Being: Jesus of Nazareth. Fully God, Jesus was the true human being — the only human who was and is fully human.

1 thought on “Leon Kass’s grand tour of humanity”

  1. I couldn’t disagree more! I suffered through Kass’s lecture and thought, “so many words, so little said.” I saw little more than a huge ego on the stage. To me, his speech amounted to this, “I’m a great man. Listen to and emulate some random recollections about how I became so great and you, too, can be great!”

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