The Other War on Poverty

Leon R. Kass

Summer 2012

Twenty years ago, in his Francis Boyer Lecture titled "The Cultural Revolution and the Capitalist Future," Irving Kristol explored the growing gap between our thriving capitalist economy and our unraveling bourgeois culture. Regarding the economy, he showed how capitalism had produced a widely shared prosperity that put paid to arguments in favor of the socialist alternative. Regarding the culture, he showed how succeeding waves of elitist opposition to our inherited moral, aesthetic, and spiritual norms and sensibilities had issued finally in a nihilistic anti-culture, hostile not only to religion, family, patriotism, and traditional morality, but even to the promise of enlightenment reason itself.

Concluding with a look to the future, Kristol foresaw both good news and bad. In the short run, he was confident that the nihilism preached by our elites would not prevail politically, because our sensible, bourgeois, property-owning democracy breeds its own antibodies that "immunize it, in large degree, against the lunacies of its intellectuals and artists." Regarding the long run, he was much less sanguine:

But a society needs more than sensible men and women if it is to prosper: It needs the energies of the creative imagination as expressed in religion and the arts. It is crucial to the lives of all of our citizens, as it is to all human beings at all times, that they encounter a world that possesses a transcendent meaning, a world in which the human experience makes sense. Nothing is more dehumanizing, more certain to generate a crisis, than to experience one's life as a meaningless event in a meaningless world.

Bourgeois society...has produced through the market economy a world prosperous beyond all previous imaginings — even socialist imaginings....[But] this world, with every passing decade, has become ever more spiritually impoverished. That war on poverty is the great unfinished task before us.

Irving Kristol was second to none in his appreciation of America's political genius and commercial spirit. He esteemed the blessings of freedom and prosperity and he extolled the virtues that make them possible. But he also knew that freedom and prosperity are not ends in themselves and do not alone guarantee a life with purpose, a life with meaning, a life of genuine human flourishing. And he was concerned that the very successes of the American enterprise might tragically lead us to neglect those higher human goods.

Twenty years on, how fares the struggle against our spiritual impoverishment? Are we Americans, despite our continuing freedom and prosperity, really losing the quest for meaningful lives?

It would be easy to argue that life in America is spiritually more impoverished than ever. As evidence, one might cite the rising respectability of public atheism and the falling off of religious observance; the eclipse of the ideal of work as vocation; the emptiness of the popular culture; the weakening of marriage and family ties; the failure of higher education to nurture the hungry souls of our young, and the huge increase in clinical depression among college students; the decline of patriotism and national attachment; and new expressions of doubt about America's future, fueled by a strident cynicism on the left and a growing despair on the right.

But this picture is at best incomplete. As Charles Murray points out in his recent book Coming Apart, marriage, industriousness, law-abidingness, and religiosity are alive and well among the nation's elite, even as they are in decline among the lower classes. Many of our social indicators show a partial repair of earlier unravelings. Community service is on the rise; so is private philanthropy. There is once again a proper respect for our armed forces. And despite their superficial cynicisms, America's young people — and not only among the privileged — continue to harbor deep desires for a life that will prove meaningful: a life of love and work, with service to God and country, in pursuit of truth or goodness or beauty.

All in all, there is thus reason to believe that our deeds and practices — if not also our spiritual prospects — are better than the dispiriting speeches and theories that garner the greatest notoriety. That is welcome news. But it hardly means that the campaign against spiritual poverty has been won. What most decent Americans still practice or know in their bones they do and know despite the strenuous and unceasing efforts of our intellectuals and our popular culture to persuade them otherwise — efforts whose doleful consequences are all around us. To improve beyond this point, to wage a truly winning war on spiritual impoverishment, we need much more. Ultimately, we need a newly inspirited cultural elite, one that, as Murray puts it, confidently preaches what it practices. And we need institutions that will once again educate our elite in the sources, the ideas, and the beliefs that guide us as a people. But for that to happen, we need, first and most, a full-throated intellectual defense and celebration of just what it is that most Americans still tacitly know and live by. And that requires especially an account of just why and how our most worthy practices do in fact answer to our deepest human aspirations and longings.

For most people in the West, and for two millennia, finding transcendent meaning in life has been centrally linked to Biblical religion. For committed Christians and Jews, it is God's will and plan that makes order out of chaos, not only in nature, through the Creation, but also in human life, through his moral and spiritual instruction. In Western Europe, much of the growing spiritual malaise and loss of cultural confidence can be attributed to the so-called Death of God — the loss of belief in a superintending deity. But in the United States, the announcement of God's death is, to say the least, premature. Although more Americans than ever are religiously unaffiliated, 92% of Americans still say that they believe in God, and 81% say that religion is very (55%) or fairly (26%) important in their lives — this despite tremendous intellectual energy and a slew of bestselling books that have been devoted to undermining this blessed condition.

For present purposes, however, I propose to leave organized religion to one side. Each faith has its proper exponents and defenders, and generic arguments from the outside will not satisfy the doubting Thomases regarding the truth of God's existence or the goodness of his teachings. Let us look instead at the secular realms of human life where many Americans still find deep meaning and in which they live as if life still made sense.

I have in mind four such realms: work, love and family, community and country, and the pursuit of truth. Most of these life-affirming activities are accessible to most Americans; some are the province of the few. But they all have in common the fact that we practice and pursue them not as diversions or escapes from reality but because they answer truly to our deepest aspiration: to live a life that makes sense, a life that is worthy of the unmerited gift of our own existence.


Nearly all Americans must work to live. But there is also virtue in this necessity. Above and beyond the benefits of remuneration, there is dignity in earning a livelihood, in providing by oneself not only for oneself but also and especially for one's family. Among the rising generations, gainful employment is an early sign of maturity and the first step toward self-reliance. Holding down a job requires not only know-how and competence, but also the virtues of diligence, dependability, and the exercise of personal responsibility. For any self-respecting adult seeking work, unemployment, even if compensated, is demoralizing, degrading, and dehumanizing — as the present economic troubles have sadly reminded us.

Yet there is something missing from a purely economic account of work and even from the moral praise of industriousness and self-reliance, especially if we are looking to work as a possible source of transcendent meaning. For this we need an account of work seen as intrinsically satisfying, quite apart from the income it produces or the virtues it engenders. We need to consider work, as Dorothy Sayers put it, as "not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do." Work enables us to utilize and to most fully express our God-given talents, gaining meaning for our lives from fulfilling our natures, from seeing our work well done, and from delighting in the gifts our work provides to a world that needs and appreciates them.

True enough, for many people, work is irksome, a mere "job," worth only the wages it earns or the leisure it makes possible. (The word "job" originally meant a mere "piece or gob of work," defined in Samuel Johnson's dictionary as "a low mean lucrative busy affair; petty, piddling work.") True, too, not everyone can find work to which he or she is well suited, never mind called. Still, these empirical difficulties do not affect the main point: Real work can — and for many people still does — all by itself provide a life that makes sense, a life of intrinsic meaning and purpose, a life that lifts the worker to the fullness of his or her being, and beyond.

Many readers of these pages are blessed with work of that sort. And all of us have encountered the joy of work among artists and artisans, teachers and nurses, firefighters and policemen, soldiers and social workers, businessmen and clergy, and myriad other occupations, from the lofty to the low. For finding meaning in work generally depends less on the external task and more on one's attitude and the way the work is done. Witness the differing answers of the three laborers who were asked to describe the work they were jointly doing: "I'm making a living," said the first; "I'm dragging heavy stones," said the second; said the third, "I'm building a cathedral." Only for the last did the work possess its own full human meaning. Only for him was his work a spiritual as well as a bodily exercise.

That work should be central to life's fulfillment is a very old idea, and it persists because it is rooted in human nature. Aristotle argued that human flourishing is a life of virtuous or excellent activity, where "activity" translates a word of Aristotle's own coinage, built from a root meaning "work": energeia, literally, "being-at-work." For the fullness of who we are is manifested only when we are active, when we are "at work." To be truly human is to be humanly-at-work, exercising our humanity to the full. And doing so excellently is the heart of flourishing and fulfillment. The pleasure and subjective satisfaction that we feel as a result is merely secondary and derivative: The essence of our happiness lies in the activity itself, in our being-at-work.


We human beings are at work not only when we are occupationally working. We are also deeply at work in the activities of love and friendship, and especially when we are actively engaged in family life, the domain of private life in which most Americans find the greatest meaning — and the second area where we need a revitalization of our thinking.

Despite high-profile public controversies about the scope and meaning of marriage, millions of Americans still devote themselves, privately and quietly, to providing decent lives and future opportunities for their children. More to the point, many of us regard our families as the heart of what makes life worthwhile. We do so, in many cases, with greater difficulty and less cultural support than did our grandparents. And many of us openly worry that the American future may not be as bright for our children and grandchildren as its present and past have been for us. Yet this very concern bespeaks the importance of our children's well-being for our own fulfillment.

Why is this so? People offering secular arguments for marriage and family often cite empirical evidence to show that married people are healthier, wealthier, and happier than unmarried people, and that children fare better by every measure when they are reared in a single home by both their parents. These utilitarian arguments are true. But they also lack a deeper anthropological account of just why love, marriage, and family continue to be central to human flourishing.

Such an account begins with human erotic desire. It is erotic desire that powerfully leads the soul away from its purely selfish preoccupations with comfort, safety, and gain. For many a callow youth, falling in love is the first soul-opening event. And while eros can be notoriously fickle in its choice of objects, when disciplined — especially by the vows and practice of a solid marriage — it can provide for a private life whose satisfactions are among the most enduring blessings life has to offer: Living life under a promise, husband and wife enjoy not only the practice of mutually giving and receiving love, one to the other. Through devotion and care, informed by the pledge and practice of fidelity, everyday life takes on the character of a sacrament. To be sure, the busyness, cares, and burdens of daily domestic life — not to speak of unforeseen economic and medical woes or difficulties with the in-laws — often obscure its deeper meaning, what is in fact the profundity of the prosaic. But looking back on life's journey, a well-married couple knows that even — or especially — in facing the most difficult challenges, oar to oar, they have enjoyed fulfillments not available to the unmarried.

But eros seeks more than loving companionship and the comforts of home, bulwarks against the loneliness of a solitary existence. Eros is at bottom also a longing for immortality in the face of finitude, and it seeks to give birth. Human love is not merely possessive and self-serving, a lack seeking to be filled; it is also generous and generative, a fullness seeking to give birth. Indeed, it is the common project of procreation that holds together what sexual difference sometimes threatens to drive apart. Flesh of their flesh, a child is the parents' own commingled being externalized, and their unification is even more powerfully enhanced by the shared work of rearing.

Providing an opening to the future beyond the grave, carrying not only our seed but also our names, our ways, and our hopes that they will surpass us in goodness and happiness, children are a testament to the opportunity for transcendence. A hope-filled repayment forward of the debt we owe backward for our own lives and rearing, our children represent also our share in the perpetual renewal of human possibility. In this way, sexual eros, which first drew our love upward and outside of ourselves, finally provides for the partial overcoming of the limitation of perishable embodiment altogether.

It is for this deeper reason that marriage, procreation, and especially child-rearing are at the heart of a serious and flourishing human life, if not for everyone then at least for the great majority. Most of us know from our own experience that life becomes truly serious when we become responsible for the lives of others for whose being in the world we have said "We do." It is fatherhood and motherhood that teach most of us what it took to bring us into our own adulthood, engaged in practices that are most fully rewarded when we live to see our children caring for children of their own. And it is the desire to give not only life but a good way of life to our children that opens us toward a serious concern for the true, the good, and even the holy. Parental love of children leads once-wayward sheep back into the fold of church and synagogue. In the best case, it can even be the beginning of the sanctification of life — yes, even in modern times.

Now, it is true that many people are denied these blessings, while others practice childless marriage without regret. It is also true that legal definitions of marriage and social designations of "family" are undergoing major transformations. But these facts do not alter the truth of what I have suggested: that we can enunciate a deep understanding of love, marriage, and family — on universal anthropological rather than strictly religious grounds — that would both describe and explain the familial ideals to which many Americans aspire and that would make clear just why those practices embody a transcendent meaning and purpose for our lives.

Conservatives must acknowledge that there will be no going back to more traditional views and practices regarding sex and marriage. But it is still possible for us to articulate — and to celebrate — an account of human love and its generative fruit that can be affirmed under present and future family forms. At the center of such an account will be the insight that children are a gift of love, not a product of our wills, and that we are most fulfilled in their rearing when we raise them to serve not our present ambitions but their future good, and, indeed the goodness of life itself.


Third, the objects of human loves and longings are not restricted to the private sphere of love and its progeny. Cooler than eros yet not for that reason less potent are the several forms of human philia: philopatria or patriotism, the love of country; philanthropy, the love of fellow human beings; and philosophy, the love of wisdom. Activities animated by these loves and longings still give meaning to the lives of many Americans, even if once again the prevailing common opinions do not do them justice. Patriotism is a good case in point.

Patriotism in the United States, like America itself, is exceptional. Ours is not an ethnic motherland or fatherland, rooted in soil with bonds of blood. We belong rather to a republic founded on ideas — and they are largely ideas that celebrate the individual rather than the collective, private rights rather than public glory. We are a nation of immigrants — today, a truly cosmopolitan nation — and anyone willing to swear allegiance to the United States can become an American, a transformation impossible for someone hoping, by change of residence, to become French or Chinese. But our liberal way of life also makes it possible for people to live among us, even as citizens enjoying our rights, civil and religious, without becoming patriots — that is, people who love and serve our country, and who, when necessary, are willing to defend her at the risk of life, fortune, and sacred honor.

Yet remarkably, and especially in critical times — from the American Revolution to our ongoing struggles against Islamist terror and brutality — Americans have risen to the occasion, putting the republic and its ideals before self, serving her nobly and well. Approximately 4 million men and women have served in the active-duty military in the ten years since 9 /11, and thousands more join their ranks every month. (More than twice as many served during the Vietnam War, and more than four times as many served in World War II.) Less dramatic but much more ubiquitous are the longstanding and still-vibrant American traditions of public and community service, practiced in local governments and through a plethora of voluntary religious, philanthropic, and civic associations. For many an American, service to the nation still makes sense and gives meaning to life.

But, as with work and family life, our thinking regarding patriotism has fallen behind our practice. Compared with the cultural attitudes surrounding World War II, and especially since the 1960s, patriotism has come under suspicion, most regrettably among those who teach the young. Our national heroes are debunked, our national achievements belittled, our every sin magnified. Liberal intellectuals — many of them hyper-critical of America — decry nationalism itself, deny the need for patriotic sacrifice, and urge us to join the party of humanity and to see ourselves as "citizens of the world."

It is relatively easy to show that this universalist dream is contrary to possibility, and that the idea of "citizen of the world" is largely empty preening. Honest-to-goodness citizenship exists only for members of a specific polity, and for the foreseeable future the world will remain divided into disparate political communities, each with its own legal system and way of life. More necessary is it to show why national identity and attachment are not only inevitable but also desirable — and for individuals, not only for the American nation. Here, the plain truth of the matter is that real life, even for those critics of America who preach liberal universalism, cannot do without the nurturing benefits of strong particularistic attachment. For the vast majority of human beings, life as actually lived is lived parochially and locally, embedded in a web of human relations, institutions, culture, and mores that define us and — whether we know it or not — give shape, character, and meaning to our lives.

One's feeling for global humanity, however sincere, is based on an abstraction, hard to translate into the concrete and meaningful expressions of interest and concern that lead neighbor actively to care and work for neighbor, Chicagoan for Chicagoan, Texan for Texan, and American for American. Civic self-government — the pride of political achievement — is possible only in the communities in which we actually live, and there can be no robust civic life without patriotic attachment. I am not talking about the psychic boost we give ourselves by yelling "USA, USA" at the Olympics. I am talking, rather, about the genuine elevation of our lives made possible by belonging freely and feelingly to something larger and more worthy than our individual selves.

Other nations, of course, can and do lay claim to similar ties and loyalties. But for us Americans, there are special reasons for patriotic attachment, for we are a parochial nation with a universal calling and a most remarkable history in answering it. The principles of human equality, inalienable rights, and government by consent, newly enunciated in the Declaration of Independence, were given operative life in the polity established by the Constitution, under which the United States became and remains a shining example of stable self-government and a beacon of hope for oppressed peoples all over the world.

We are the privileged heirs of a way of life that has offered the blessings of freedom and dignity to millions of people of all races, ethnicities, and religions, and that extols the possibility of individual achievement as far as individual talent and effort can take it. We are also a self-critical nation, whose history is replete with efforts to bring our practices more fully in line with our ideals. And our national history boasts hundreds of thousands of heroic men and women who gave their lives that that nation might live and flourish. To belong to such a nation is not only a special blessing but a special calling: to preserve freedom, dignity, and self-government at home and to encourage their spread abroad. As Abraham Lincoln put it in a call to perpetuate our political institutions: "This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform."

It should now also be clear why American patriotism and national service can and do provide a life of transcendent meaning. We love our country not only because it is ours, but because it is good — not perfect, but very good. Yet, paradoxically, we love America even more when we undertake to serve and preserve her. For when we work in her cause she becomes also the embodiment of our efforts and our very being, as we extend our being-at-work onto a larger and more enduring canvas.

Rightly understood, service is not a form of self-sacrifice in the name of freedom, but a freely chosen form of self-fulfillment. For this reason, those who spend their lives in America's cause are never victims or martyrs. They are heroes, and we honor them — and ourselves — rightly when we gratefully esteem the blessings they have safeguarded and when we emulate their example. The old Army motto had it right: Patriotic service, in peace as well as war, enables each of us to "Be all you can be."


Finally, being all we can be includes also a concern with truth. A full life includes the life of the mind, exercised not only in solving practical problems but also in the active quest of understanding, desired for its own sake. Across the nation, esteemed institutions of higher learning, charged with seeking knowledge and educating the young, operate under mottos such as "Veritas" or "The Truth Shall Make You Free." Thus is it beyond sad that these would-be homes of truth-seeking have, for several decades, been betraying their own mission.

The natural scientists, who show us how things work, for the most part still adhere to a disinterested pursuit of knowledge. But many humanists and social scientists, who should be showing us what things mean, have largely abandoned the standard of truth. In place of an appropriate truth-loving skepticism — which insists on seeing evidence and assessing arguments before accepting an opinion as true — they peddle the mind-deadening and self-indulgent poison that truth, like beauty, lies only in the eyes of the beholder, with each person freely "constructing" reality according to his own tastes. They thus turn what should be shared inquiry seeking understanding into mere fighting seeking victory, using words in place of swords. Their trendy and shallow scholarship is bad enough. But they deserve the hemlock for corrupting the hearts and minds of the young.

The best of our youth, who still come to college hungering for guidance regarding how they are to live, and who would be greatly helped in their search by introductions to the best of what has been thought and said, are promptly urged to give up such naïve views and childish dreams. Instead, they are encouraged to busy themselves at best with a careerist curriculum, at worst, and all too commonly, with a subversive one that, in the name of a vulgar relativism disguised as sophistication, teaches them to mock their own decent beliefs, not only about God, vocation, love and family, morality, and patriotism, but also about the existence of truth and goodness altogether — all this for their parents' $50,000-plus a year.

And yet we should not despair. The desire to know and the passion for truth are hard to eradicate, and there must come a reckoning for those who seek to crush these aspirations. As was said long ago, all human beings by nature desire understanding. Witness the delight that all healthy children take in hearing stories, seeing sights, and learning the names and ways of things. Most of us, no matter how sophisticated, do not really want to be self-deceived about matters of human importance, and especially about what it means to live well. We want to see clearly; we want to appreciate the complexities and wonders and mysteries of the world and our place within it; we want to be taken seriously and to learn to live a life that makes sense. Wonder of wonders, our desire for such knowledge is matched by the (at least partial) knowability of the world, and, with effort, genuine learning is possible. Despite the lazy lure of relativism, we really do know in our bones that some opinions are truer, some books better, some lives and nations more admirable than others. And anyone who has even once tasted the exhilaration of discovery is in fact a witness to the existence of truth and the value of seeking it.

But it is mainly evidence gained from 40 years of teaching undergraduates and watching their delight in learning that sustains my belief that our intellectual and spiritual prospects are much better than we might think from listening to the nihilistic preaching of the professoriate. Despite abundant cultural rot and the lack of edifying encouragement, American society still tosses up superb young people who want more from life, and from their teachers, than they are now getting. They understand, albeit dimly, that the open-minded yet passionate search for understanding is itself an integral part of a flourishing human life. If we treat them as better than they think they are, if we legitimate their spiritual hunger and feed it properly, they will more often than not rise to the occasion and vindicate our best hopes for them.

Is it not only a matter of time before some radical Young Turks rebel against their professorial elders, rejecting the sawdust and cheap tinsel of nihilism and showing again how honest concern with truth and goodness and beauty really does answer to the deepest longings of the soul? Will we not live to see the great day when serious students, with their parents' blessings, decide to Occupy the Campus, demanding real value for their time and money? We can only hope and pray so.


The discerning reader will have noticed that, although I have traveled on only secular terrain, I have not exactly left religion behind. While deliberately avoiding any specific doctrine, I have presented a picture of our humanity that emphasizes the aspirations and longings of the human soul, aspirations that are ours because we alone among the creatures stand in the world as beings in quest of a calling. Unless and until our aspirations are crushed by the cynicism of bad teachers or the despair of devastating defeats, in our hearts we live looking for an upward path — toward worthy work, love, service, and understanding. Whether we know it or not, we are, as Irving Kristol so aptly put it describing himself, theotropic — oriented toward the divine — because we sense in ourselves and in our fellow human beings a divine-like possibility and a penchant for the good.

And that thought leads to perhaps the most important — and often misunderstood — subject of hope, the one indispensable virtue. Hope is different from optimism, a belief that this is the best of all possible worlds and that everything will turn out well in the end. Hope is also more than a feeling; it is an attitude or disposition, an orientation, a way of being and holding oneself in the world. As a disposition, hope is deeper even than the sum total of our particular hopes for this or that future outcome. For even when — or perhaps especially when — specific future hopes are disappointed, the posture of hope — a strange fusion of trust, belief, and upward orientation of the will — still enables us to live and act trusting that the world is still and always the sort of place that can answer to the highest and deepest human aspirations.

In this most fundamental sense, hope is not a hope for change, but an affirmation of permanence, of the permanent possibility of a meaningful life in a hospitable world. Hope in this sense is not only a Judeo-Christian virtue. It is not only the most essential — and abundant — American virtue. It is the condition of the possibility of all human endeavor and all human fulfillment.

Yes, there is still much spiritual poverty in America. But we go forward with confidence that our spiritual hungers can yet be nurtured in this almost promised land, provided that we have the courage to insist that the well-being of the spirit is central to our notion of national success and personal flourishing. This war on poverty — on our spiritual poverty — will not add a cent to the deficit. It can enrich our lives beyond measure.

Leon R. Kass is the Addie Clark Harding Professor Emeritus in the Committee on Social Thought and the College at the University of Chicago and the Madden-Jewett Chair at the American Enterprise Institute. A version of this essay was delivered as the Irving Kristol Lecture at the American Enterprise Institute annual dinner, May 2, 2012.


from the


A weekly newsletter with free essays from past issues of National Affairs and The Public Interest that shed light on the week's pressing issues.


to your National Affairs subscriber account.

Already a subscriber? Activate your account.


Unlimited access to intelligent essays on the nation’s affairs.

Subscribe to National Affairs.