Leon Kass’s Jefferson lecture, as I said before, needs to be read with the lectures of two of his predecessors-the philosopher of manliness Harvey Mansfield and the novelist of manliness Tom Wolfe-as a most instructive way of being introduced to the question “Who is a man?” The relevant Yiddish word here, Kass explains, is ” mentsch, ” which is “at once prosaically descriptive and inspiringly normative. To be mentsch lich is to be both “humane” and ” human , displaying in one’s character the species-specific dignity advertised in our uniquely upright posture. To be a man , Wolfe and Mansfield agree, is to display one’s own dignified character.
Kass’s lecture is an intellectual autobiography, an account of his search for an adequate answer to that dignified question. His education began with his early rearing, with the “wholly moral and wholly appealing,” “quasi-religious teaching” of his home. To become and be a mentsch was all about self-respect and the respect for other persons who are all equally mentsch ; it was all about living according to a universalistic “quasi-socialism. That way of life was a self-consciously progressive “cultural alternative” to “traditional Judaism. But it was, Kass remarks, “in fact parasitic” on the tradition. It was based on the premise that the words of the prophets could be liberated from the constraints of the Law and the Lawgiving God, and those words could be transformed into a humane secular project for the cultural left. Being human meant being humane, being fair and serving a universal conception of justice.Kass’s criticism of his parents’ wholly moral devotion is that it was short on “serious reflection, both philosophical and ethical, on the meaning of our humanity” (or being a mentsch ). We see one version of that reflection in Kass’s biggest unacknowledged intellectual debt (at least in this lecture)-Leo Strauss. For Strauss, a universal morality depends on love for a loving God; only out of love of God can human love overcome its natural tendency to be partial and particular and somewhat selfish devotion. Love does become universal, in a way, in the mind of the philosopher, but that universalism both doesn’t animate most human beings and is fundamentally impersonal. The philosopher, as such, is particularly weak on love for particular persons. So the humaneness of the cultural left depends on parasitic quasi-religious sentiment that can’t withstand rigorous scrutiny, and it’s natural that the skepticism of Enlightenment would erode it over time.
Strauss, of course, sees that the inability of philosophic inquiry to justify moral universalism is part of its relentless criticism of morality as such, and any genuinely moral man would regard that as a deep weakness of philosophic liberation. That’s why Strauss says it’s moral man-the dignified mentsch -who is always a potential believer. Kass’s parents didn’t reflect sufficiently on what it means to be moral and what it means to believe, and their characteristic shortcomings display the fragile and temporary nature of the humane intention of the cultural left. Next, I’ll move on to how Kass discovered why the moral premise of the cultural left didn’t square with what he could see with his own eyes, and why his personal observation was illuminated by is reading of Rousseau. Stay tuned.