Sunday, May 24, 2009

Leon Kass and The Abolition of Man

Leon Kass gave the Jefferson Lecture on May 22nd on the topic of Diogenes' search for an honest man. Pretty sparse pickings these days. In the course of the address SEE HERE Dr. Kass invoked one of my favorite "honest men", C.S. Lewis who influenced Kass's decision to abandon his medical practice and set forth on Diogenes the Cynic's search through "... the sunlit streets of Athens, lantern in hand, looking for an honest man." He straightens us out first, for Diogenes was not searching for the "honest man" but for anthrôpon zeto, the true man, the exemplar, the goal which we should all be seeking since it is what we should become.
Reading Rousseau Kass said, "... I acquired some real questions, pressing questions, more challenging than those one can answer in the laboratory." The kind of questions were "Is it really true that, as the arts and sciences climb upward, so morals, taste, and citizenship slide downward, and, what’s worse, that the rise of the former causes the fall of the latter?"

Dr. Kass read C.S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man. But let me give it in his own words:
" According to C. S. Lewis, the dehumanization threatened by the mastery of nature has, at its deepest cause, less the emerging biotechnologies that might directly denature bodies and flatten souls, more the underlying value-neutral, soulless and heartless accounts that science proffers of living nature and of man. By expunging from its account of life any notion of soul, aspiration, and purpose, and by setting itself against the evidence of our lived experience, modern biology ultimately undermines our self-understanding as creatures of freedom and dignity, as well as our inherited teachings regarding how to live, teachings linked to philosophical anthropologies that science has now seemingly dethroned."
Kass turned to Aristotle and found there some surprises, but especially that notions we have today of soul are no part of Aristotle's meaning, instead, “Soul names the unified powers of aliveness, awareness, action, and appetite that living things all manifest." It is evidenced in the whole reality. I was reminded of C.S. Lewis' essay Meditation in a Toolshed.
Kass concludes his address by admitting he has not found all that he sought, nor have his students of whom he says:"Most young people in my experience still want to be taken seriously. Despite their facile sophistication and easy-going cynicism—more often than not, largely a defense against disappointment—most of them are in fact looking for a meaningful life or listening for a summons." We should remember that unless we search we shall not find. And the search is the search for the whole person, not the dismembered person Kass finds on the autopsy table and in the test tubes of science.

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