Public Arguments: Looking Backward, Looking Ahead

[These remarks were delivered on the announcement of the 1994 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, March 8, 1994, in New York City.]

One of my favorite images is the white-hot ingot, such as I often saw while I was a youngster in the yards of Bethlehem Steel in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The ingot suggested how God is present in the world: the fire and light at the heart of everything, creating all things and seeing that they are good.

The images of my childhood—of World War II and the holocaust, especially—have stayed with me. The nihilism of the twentieth century seemed to me a necessary starting place for writing about faith. One had to go into the nothingness, I thought, into the night, if one wished to write truthfully. The murder of my closest brother, Dick, personalized the world’s irrationality but the roots of the latter were far broader and deeper than anything personal.

Since at least the second grade, and maybe before, I have always wanted to be a writer. I wanted to try stories, novels, poems, plays, the verse for musical comedies, philosophy—everything. I wasn’t sure which forms I could do well, but I wanted to try everything.

I loved novels. As a teen, I tried to read fifty a year.

In college, the models that most excited me were Albert Camus, Francois Mauriac, Jean-Paul Sartre, because they were engagé, because they wrote both fiction and philosophy, and regular journalism, too. I loved the boundary areas between philosophical inquiry and the imagination. I thought fiction needed to be pressed deeper into philosophical inquiry, and philosophy to be pressed deeper into the role of metaphors and story in philosophical thinking itself. I took a double major in philosophy and literature, and as many courses in political and social thought as I could.

About my sophomore year I noted that Aristotle said a young man cannot fully understand (let alone write about) ethics—which he saw as a branch of politics—and that Jacques Maritain, the French Catholic Thomist, wrote that a man could not write well about metaphysics until he was at least fifty. This led me to ask: What should I do until I am fifty? I noted that Aristotle and Maritain gained as much experience in other spheres of life as they could, learning about the arts, politics, and other practical enterprises. Maritain became an ambassador and was active in the composition of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the founding of UNESCO; Aristotle accompanied Alexander the Great as his tutor, wrote dramas and dialogues (now lost), and collected extant constitutions of city states. They wrote about metaphysics and ethics later, on a base of broad and rich experience.

I determined to put myself in the way of as many diverse experiences as I could. My dream was to compose as deep a philosophy (or theology) of culture as I could.

Journalism seemed a very good medium for gaining such experiences, so I seized every opportunity offered me for taking on assignments—to Rome for the Vatican Council in 1963 and 1964, to Vietnam in 1967, covering presidential primaries in 1968 and 1972, etc. Actually, even during my seminary years I wrote as much journalism as I could.

I also wrote a lot of fiction, some short stories, and a small brace of poems. My first published book was a novel—simple, naive, but clean and carefully written—and was a modest success. My second novel (in 1970) wasn’t very good, and I piled up manuscripts of about three or four others even less good. Meanwhile, in the middle of long years of postgraduate education, and writing and teaching philosophy and religious studies, I had become more adept at philosophical and theological prose. It became harder to free my imagination as fiction requires. And I had a lot that I wanted to investigate—about being a believer, a Christian, a Catholic in America, the most advanced country in the world, and about being an American who understood the American experience from a different point of view than most of those I encountered in print—as a Catholic, a grandson of Slovak immigrants, a man with a mind and imagination steeped in traditions older than the United States.

It took me a while to work out my own identity, voice, style, but I think I have done that, and in a way capable of reaching a certain universality easily grasped in faraway cultures.

Belief and Unbelief (1965) and The Experience of Nothingness (1970), two favorites of mine and more significant for my thought as a whole than many have noticed, are both still in print.

Beginning in 1976, I began inquiring into the philosophy and/or theology of economics. I wanted to settle the century’s number one question—socialism or capitalism?—in my own mind. Otherwise put, I wanted to know why, even though I was determined (like Jacques Maritain) to be a man of the left, the socialist ideal left me restless. The more I inquired into it, the less satisfactory socialism seemed. It seemed clear that I needed to learn more economics than I then knew.

I kept thinking of my family still in Slovakia. I had returned there for a week in the summer of 1974, the first member of my family to revisit the homestead in the Tatra mountains from which my maternal grandfather had fled by night along “the underground railroad” at the age of sixteen, to escape being impressed into the Hungarian army. He had told me of a crucifix he put up in a tree alongside the road. It was still there, I discovered, close to tears, although the road had long since been moved and the tree stood alone in the middle of a hillside meadow. One of my “cousins” (relationships are still unclear to me after so many years) was a Communist official in the area, if I understood correctly. Although in their own terms the family lived in rural prosperity greater than they had known before, they were very poor and their lives were very simple by the standards of their American relatives. Constraints upon even our intra-familial conversations lay heavy on the air; no one knew for sure the status of my translator, who worked for the government news agency.

In 1969 I had taken the first of many trips to Latin America. As a Catholic, I felt close to Latin Americans, both in religion and in the experience of the new world, even though Latin America seemed in many ways closer to Europe, especially Latin Europe, than the United States did. The problem of socialism v. capitalism was not just a philosophical problem there; by the early 1970s it was becoming a question over which people killed one another, families became bitterly divided, and even the Church was being torn apart. This seemed to me a misconceived struggle.

Because of my family’s ties to Asia—Dick had been murdered in the land he loved, today’s Bangladesh; Ben had volunteered for service in Vietnam, because it was his generation’s battle place, he said, even though he didn’t have to go and was not wildly in favor of the war; and Jim served in various positions in several different Asian nations for more than a decade (and has recently written the world’s best introduction to the land, the culture, and the politics of Bangladesh)—I also began to attend to the economic miracles that were changing the condition of the poor in East Asia, and the unnecessarily miserable conditions of those that were still following socialist models, even those of the relatively mild Fabian type.

The obligation of those of us who had escaped from poverty through the blessings of liberty, within the living memory of our own families, it seemed to me, was to do all we could to help to improve the conditions of the poor elsewhere. My heart was most drawn to the conditions of the poor in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia. I gave some thought to Africa (at the Human Rights Commission in Geneva, I spent as much time as possible with the African delegations to learn more about that continent), but lacked firsthand experience there.

The problem of world poverty is systemic; most economic systems repress the personal economic initiative and economic creativity of their poor. In Latin America, for example, most of the poor are neither proletarians nor farm workers but entrepreneurs, hawking odds and ends to eke out a living in the swarming urban barrios, but they are seldom allowed to work legally, to incorporate small businesses, or to borrow the money that is the mother’s milk of new enterprises. They are forced to work as illegales or informales. This is a great crime against the image of God in them. They are made to be creators and to exercise personal initiative freely and fruitfully, in His image.

I have tried to work out my theology of economics with the poor in the forefront of my attention—first of all, the poverty of my own family in its beginnings and in central Europe today, but even more urgently the awful and unnecessary poverty of Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere.

Under Providence, moreover, it seems that the third wave of capitalism, like the third wave of democracy, is now beginning to gather momentum in predominantly Catholic areas of the world—from the Philippines to Poland, from Chile to the Czech Republic (it saddens me that the current leadership of Slovakia is still wed to the socialist model, spelling continuing hardship for its people). Thus it seemed useful for me to attempt to articulate a theory of capitalism and democracy that draws on the riches of the Catholic tradition, just as earlier generations of writers had thought out such theories in predominantly Protestant terms.

For example, Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which millions of students have read in college, stresses the role of the individual and the tyranny of bureaucratic reason (“the iron cage”), while overlooking the distinctive capitalist social invention, the firm held together by voluntary consent and teamwork, and the factor of surprise and novelty introduced by invention, discovery, and the virtue of enterprise. The Catholic intellectual tradition delights in the Don Quixote factor of invention and creativity, and in the argument from teamwork and voluntary cooperation, as well as in the fact that the business firm, especially the small firm, is a “mediating structure,” operating according to “the principle of subsidiarity.” You can see these threads from Leo XIII (1891) to John Paul II (1991). So it seemed useful to bring them from the background of attention to the foreground, and to reflect on their implications in more extensive and practical detail.

Thus, if I had one wish to express on the occasion of this year’s Templeton Prize, it would be that the poor of the world benefit by it, through having attention focused on the systemic issue: Which sort of system of political economy is more likely to raise the poor out of poverty, liberate them from disease, and protect their dignity as agents free to exercise their own personal economic initiative and other creative talents? It is urgently important to get the system right, and through trial and error to get it to work according to the habits and history of every individual people. One of the beauties of individual systems of democratic capitalism is that each can be quite different from every other, according to the genius of each people. Their inner principle is respect for the liberty and creativity of individual persons.

Looking ahead to the twenty-first century, the problem that worries me most is the fragility of free societies that lose their intellectual and moral roots. All it takes for a free society to fail is for a single generation to abandon the ideas and habits which constitute free institutions. The history of the human race is mainly a history of tyranny, and political and economic freedom come with no guarantee. It is entirely possible that the free society such as we know it in the United States will burn out like a comet that swept through the darkness for a little over two centuries and then disintegrated.

Today, nearly all the world’s social democracies and welfare states are in severe crisis. Family life is falling apart, moral corruption is growing, both rising crime rates and the growing irrationality of horrible crimes are terrorizing citizens, and taxes from the public are insufficient to pay for the benefits the public has been unwisely promised.

Social democracy is based on the same errors as socialism, but in a form that takes a little longer to effect self-destruction. Those errors include promising their populations security, while forgetting that complete security is not possible for humans, since human wants and needs are infinite, whereas sources of funding are finite. For this reason, the modern State is an overpromiser and an underachiever, and ultimately a fraud. It is bound to disappoint, to embitter, to divide, and to engender corrosive cynicism. Weighed down by the ever-growing financial burden of the welfare state, and undermined by the moral corruption inherent in the latter, democracy will be hard-pressed to survive the twenty-first century.

Free institutions cannot survive on the base of any morality at all. Moral relativism is deadly for democracy. Both democracy and capitalism have a moral basis, without which they perish.

For such reasons, I expect the twenty-first century to be one of great cultural crisis. This does not mean that one should bet against the free societies. It means that if our institutions are to survive, an intellectual and cultural awakening will have to occur.


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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