Apples of Gold in Pictures of Silver: Honoring the Work of Leon R. Kass
edited by Yuval Levin, Thomas W. Merrill, and Adam Schulman
Lexington, 296 pages, $80
Leon Kass is a national treasure. I first came across his work nearly a decade ago as he led the President’s Council on Bioethics to produce some of the finest reflections on bioethical questions ever produced. These led me to his earlier works, which consistently vindicated Kass’s self-description in his justly acclaimed Towards a More Natural Science: “The author of this book is by reading a moralist, by education a generalist, by training a physician and biochemist, by vocation a teacher—and student—of philosophical texts, and by choice a lover of serious conversations, who thinks best when sharing thoughts and speeches with another.”
The fifteen essays in this Festschrift acknowledge all these facets of Kass’s life and celebrate his many contributions in the most fitting way: by continuing the conversation. Among the luminaries sharing their thoughts are Eric Cohen, Ralph Lerner, Yuval Levin, Harvey Mansfield, Paul McHugh, Gilbert Meilaender, and Diana Schaub.
Some of the essays take penetrating looks, in the spirit of Kass’s own approach, at great Western texts by ancient Greeks such as Homer, Sophocles, and Plato; by modern philosophers such as Spinoza, Rousseau, Heidegger, and Strauss; and by literary greats such as Austen, Hawthorne, and James.
The best essays focus on Kass. Paul McHugh, the distinguished Johns Hopkins psychiatrist, offers a fitting tribute to Kass’s efforts to civilize and humanize the discipline of bioethics. Rebecca Dresser, a self-described “liberal Democrat,” provides a necessary corrective to the standard liberal bashing of Kass’s chairmanship of the Bioethics Council with her moving testament to his wisdom in creating a seminar of humanists to clarify the values at stake, rather than a board of bioethicist technocrats to provide pat answers.
Kass’s protégés—Cohen and Levin—pen the most thoughtful essays, Cohen on Kass’s treatment of “The God-Seeking Animal” and Levin on his treatment of “The Traditional Animal.” For Cohen, seeing man as “the upright being who bows his head in reverence” is “perhaps the great anthropological” insight running throughout Kass’s work. As Levin explains, “In search of wisdom about how human beings may flourish, he has studied nature and man’s nature, and in pursuit of man’s nature he has delved deeply and broadly into our cultural wisdom about justice and ethics, nobility and excellence, and then sanctity and holiness.”
Ryan T. Anderson is editor of Public Discourse.