Michael Novak reminds me of Forrest Gump – i.e., his obscure life, starting in a dying steel-mill town of Johnsville, PA, seems to have fortuitously involved him in many of the most interesting events of the past few decades. He also reminds me of my best friend Mike Callen because he studied to become a priest before deciding he preferred to remain in the lay world as a lifelong philosophical theologian or a theological philosopher. Although I had never heard of Novak before stumbling across this book, Callen told me that Novak cast a big shadow in the Jesuit/theological world back when Callen was studying at Fordham to be a priest.
After leaving his priestly studies, Novak studied philosophy and theology at Harvard and came under the influence of two great men – French philosopher Gabriel Marcel and Protestant theological ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr:
- Gabriel Marcel – “Marcel brought new light to daily experiences, such as recognizing the ‘presence’ of other persons and ‘encounter’ with another person – in other words, not just a passing, inattentive moment with another human being, but something more. He drew attention to the difference between sitting between two people on the subway for an hour – treating them without recognition or interest or attention – and the act of having a memorable exchange of personal qualities.”
That reminds me of my dad, who “never met a stranger.” The first night that Novak met Marcel, the philosopher generously spent much of the evening talking to Novak and even read to him extensively from a favorite play, The Funeral Pyre. At the end of the evening, Marcel said to Novak – “Tonight, I think we had an encounter. I think so. Don’t you?”
- Reinhold Niebuhr – In 1937 he coined The Serenity Prayer. (Original version by Niebuhr – “Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.” It was later revised to read by an unknown person to read – “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can change, And wisdom to know the difference.”)
Novak was most impressed by Niebuhr’s moral axioms:
- Expect that every man sometimes sins.
- Expect that every man has the capacity to act virtuously (and that the power of God might prompt man to rise to the occasion.
- Expect the laws of irony to operate – i.e., one’s stated motives are not always one’s unexamined, baser aims and there are almost always unintended consequences.
- Expect to feel the bite of tragedy – i.e., tragedy flows from overlooked human weaknesses that turn high hopes upside down.
- Know that decision-makers for social and political bodies must take into account factors that individuals do not.
- Know that in social and political actions by decision-makers, the difference between public duties and personal inclination is often keenly felt by the decision-maker.
- Know that our actions in history seldom work out as we hope, but even so we are responsible for protecting our actions from unanticipated ill effects as best we can.
There is an old saying that an old liberal has no brain, while a young conservative has no heart. Well, Novak fits that mold perfectly, as his book is subtitled, “My journey from liberal to conservative.” As a brilliant young man, he was drawn to the left and Humphrey, McCarthy, the Kennedys, and McGovern, with a special place in his heart for Sergeant Shriver.
But as he got older, he realized that liberal policies didn’t work – “Where has socialism ever worked?” The war of poverty, welfare, and socialism corrupted people while capitalism caused them to flourish. Similarly, military weakness brought out the worst in other countries. Although Novak remained a Democrat, he worked for Reagan and became a big fan of the Bushes.
Like his hero Niebuhr, Novak attempted to balance idealism and realism, as reflected in his statement – “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” President Obama also is impressed with Niebuhr, calling him his favorite philosopher and theologian.
Fascinating guy, with a rare combination of intellectualism and down-to-earthness. And his description of Marcel’s “encounters” is something that I plan to apply to the rest of my life.
Incidentally, Novak loved President Kennedy, but his recollection of Kennedy’s time seems inaccurate:
- “Both us had rejoiced in the subsequent celebrations of ‘Camelot’; ironic and silly as the idea was, it was contagious. Now we felt only the senselessness of the television set in front of us, one scene being played over and over again, as the open convertible pulled slowly around the circle in Dealy Plaza in Dallas. The head of the president snapping forward, his collapse, and Jacqueline Kennedy bending over him. This squalid killing.”
The pre-assassination reference to Camelot is false because the use of term to describe the Kennedy administration originated with Jackie Kennedy talking to Theodore White after the assassination. And regarding the film showing Kennedy being shot – the Zapruder film – Life magazine outbid CBC for the film and it was released a few days later in the magazine, not on TV.