Michael Novak and his work during the past thirty-five years have been abundantly feted. Celebrants have expounded on his brilliance, his prolificacy, and his influence. But brilliance and industriousness, although highly important virtues, are not nearly as rare as the total Novak phenomenon. And influence, although highly admired, is not a virtue at all—it puts Michael in the company of Eliot Spitzer and Peter Singer. So I would like to take a different tack and remark on Michael’s character, in particular his ambition and his bravery.
He spent the first twenty years of his professional life in academics. To the brilliant and industrious, university life offers wonderful opportunities for achievement and fulfillment. Michael could have continued to hold the best chairs at the best schools and to win all the teaching awards. But the academy favors work on discrete, manageable problems “in the literature” and can punish departures from certain orthodoxies. At some point in the 1970s Michael decided that he would go after bigger game.
I have often marveled that, in the midst of the Jimmy Carter administration, the hard-headed businessmen on the America Enterprise Institutes’s Board of Trustees would countenance the appointment of a theologian, and moreover a theologian with a colorful paper trail in left-wing politics and Democratic Party electioneering. But it was Michael who took by far the greater risk in accepting the offer—throwing away tenure and respectability for God knew what (but He wasn’t talking, not even to Michael.)
Since then his vocation has been the conquest of momentous, difficult, contentious problems. Problems with large practical and political components, where his philosophical learning provided a foundation but everything else was left to his own wits and experience. Today we recognize the moral architecture of democratic capitalism because Michael built it for us—even the terms were unknown before he and Irving Kristol started their work.
And he has provided many elaborations and applications: the moral architectures of economic development, of escape from the welfare trap, of nuclear deterrence, of the corporation and business-as-a-calling, of the income tax, intellectual property, mediating structures, ethnic politics, and even sports (the last however limited to Notre Dame football). If you listen in on Michael debating the progressive income tax with a professional economist, you will get an idea of the moral clarity he has brought to questions that everyone knew to be terribly complicated and endlessly nuanced.
Along the way he has dispatched many cherished liberal shibboleths and theological wrong-turns. In recent years has grafted back the second wing of faith onto the long-prevailing narrative (even at AEI) of the American founding as a secular exercise in institutional ingenuity. Bravest of all, he has provided religious instruction to Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
What Michael’s greatest projects have had in common is audacity. In taking them on, he was committing himself to originality, which risked failure, and to unflinching truth-telling, which risked elite derision if he succeeded. His brilliance may have given him the confidence to take the big risks; his industriousness may have been inspired by fear of failure. But they alone cannot explain what Michael achieved. They had to be coupled with guts—sheer obstinate confrontational Johnstown guts.
Michael’s toughness is often masked by his sweet, magnanimous disposition. Don’t be fooled. If you have watched him make a big concession in a debate, or respond sympathetically to a hostile questioner, or provide a generous account of an opposing view in a book or essay, then you know that his kindliness is often the sign that serious intellectual vivisection is about to commence.
And then there’s his vast philosophical mastery: he already knows Argument No. 27 better than the other guy, and he also knows that it is conventionally trumped by Argument No. 8—but he also knows that it is completely annihilated by Argument No. 131-C, which he derived himself fifteen years ago.
But most of all, Michael’s sweet magnanimity is genuine and in fact reflects the ambition and bravery of his intellectual position. For it expresses his certainty that there is good in human nature—good that calls for earnest entreaty on its own terms. Among career pundits and haut thinkers, nothing could be more politically incorrect, more embarrassingly naïve. Yet in Michael’s choices of projects, and in the particulars of his arguments, one sees three overarching propositions constantly at work.
First, that man for all his failings is ardently concerned to know what is right and just. Second, that politics for all its flaws is capable of pursuing social betterment and sometimes finding it. Third, that reason for all its frailties can help us find our way. To dedicate a lifetime to such propositions in late twentieth-century America one had to be not only brave but downright reckless. That the endeavor has proven so astoundingly fruitful is reason to doubt the cynicism of the age and to work, as diligently as he has, for a return of the better angels.
Let us then drink to Michael’s continuing good health, good spirit, and good works.
Christopher DeMuth is D.C. Searle Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and was AEI’s president from 1986 through 2008. These remarks were given at a retirment party for Michael Novak, who had worked at AEI for 32 years. Michael Novak is a long-time member of First Things editorial and advisory board.
RESOURCES (recent articles by Michael Novak in First Things
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The Leadership of George Bush: Pro and Con (with Joseph Bottum)
Running Into a Wall
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Solidarity and the Work of Free Men
The Liberating Balance
On Loving Karen
The Truths Americans Used to Hold, Part I, Part II, and Part III
Three Precisions: Social Justice, Common Good, and Personal Liberty