Michael Novak: A Model for Social Scientists


The “real human person” was the persistent subject of Michael Novak’s life’s work. Novak wanted real, gritty, ordinary persons, in ordinary life, and he wanted a political and economic order for those real, gritty, ordinary persons.

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I once resigned from a professional association of social scientists over Michael Novak. I won’t name the group, but on the email listserv someone had started a thread that involved heaping abuse on Novak. Scores of emails filled my inbox, excoriating Novak as right-wing, neocon, extreme, warmongering, and dubiously Catholic. At some point I was fed up; a colleague and I penned a short note to the head of the group and resigned our memberships. It was a great moment.

Looking back, I suppose we accomplished nothing. But as the saying goes, the enemy of my friend is my enemy. Now, I have not agreed with Novak about everything: surely, “agreement” makes for a shabby measure of friendship. But instead of being demonized, Michael Novak ought to have been considered as a shining example for Catholic social scientists, as I shall come around to arguing here.

In fact, disagreement with Novak may have been one of the sweetest paths to friendship with him, for disagreement led inevitably to long, passionate arguments. While he defended his own positions forcefully, he listened and responded thoughtfully. Sometimes he gave ground; other times he advanced. He managed a conversation like a skilled athlete—in it for the long match, patient, loving the volley as much as the points. I can think of few greater pleasures than to savor an hour’s conversation with Michael. I have longed for that often in the months since his passing.

Our Disagreements and Friendship

To give some examples: we often argued about social justice. Michael wanted to define it as a new thing—an American kind of thing, really—a habit of associating for the common good, the habit that leads to the building up of rich layers of civil society. I preferred, and I confess I still do, a more modest definition of social justice. Of course, at the end of these quarrels Michael wrote a book about his view—a very good book, with Paul Adams. One of Michael's geniuses was the insight that one should not wait until one’s views are settled to write: one writes to settle one’s views.

Another argument we carried on frequently was over the state of marriage. I liked to emphasize how bad things had gotten, and how much worse, in my view, they were likely to get. Michael, was more optimistic: “when they say half of marriages fail, that means that half of marriages last until death!” Now, it is a fact that Michael Novak was one of the earliest voices making the case that family breakdown is a source of social decay, economic poverty, and spiritual estrangement. He wrote about this long before he moved to the right politically, and his clarity on this—on refusing to see people as mere economic agents, on seeing that economic and political factors are rarely separate from cultural and spiritual factors—itself helped to propel him closer to those on the right.

A final example is our quarrels about Catholic social thought. We taught a course on the topic together one year, at Ave Maria University. I thought his lectures were sometimes weak, and I thought his reading of the Church’s thought too American, too—for lack of a better term—Novakian. I liked to highlight the manifestly Augustinian aspects of social thought: the stark claims that society cannot flourish if Jesus Christ does not reign, and if civil society is not explicitly Christian. I tended to believe (and still do) that contemporary readings of Christian social thought tend to be functionally Pelagian. In fact, I tended to believe (and still do) that most of our students were functionally Pelagian. And so I would emphasize the role of grace, drawing out medieval and early modern ideas about nature and grace that undergird the magisterial texts of Leo XIII and Pius XI—ideas that also, on my reading, run rich and full through John Paul II’s corpus. I taught that when Karol Wojtyla, as the Great Pope, stood in Victory Square in Warsaw in 1979 and called on the Holy Spirit to descend—that this, this and no other, should be considered as the climactic moment, the incarnational moment for how the Church understands political and economic action.

This was decidedly not Novak’s approach, but he loved mine, and we pressed upon each other in our way of thinking about things. In a personal email to me from that semester, I recently found this gem: “[It is] hard to describe the joy that teaching with you brings me. To say I feel a little like proud father to beloved daughter does not quite get it right, but there is some deep sui generis bond there.”

Michael was often more right than he—or I—knew. After teaching the course many times on my own, I reached the conclusion that the presentation of Catholic social thought was much more comprehensible if I first helped the students to see what is wrong with the world—or at least to glimpse the critique of the world as it is. There is a close relation, it turns out, between being functionally Pelagian and thinking that there is nothing seriously wrong with the world. So I started to lead in with Solzhenitsyn’s scathing critique of the West. I started to lead in with brief, compelling images of the problem of evil.

It was only a few months ago, reading through my old correspondence with Novak after his death, that I discovered an email in which he laid out a proposal for beginning the Catholic social thought course with his earlier work on The Experience of Nothingness. At the time, I couldn’t understand this at all. Frankly, I worried that he was getting a little “light” in his old age; I was fresh out of graduate school, and I wanted to do rigorous readings of the texts. Now I realize that Michael had known then what would take me four or five years’ teaching to figure out. He understood, well before I did, that the social Gospel is a response, not a question.

Tertio Millennio

I first met Michael in Poland in 1997. I was twenty-one years old, and it was the summer after my junior year. I knew nothing about him at that time. I didn’t know about the Templeton Prize, I hadn’t read any of his work. I went to Poland at the invitation of Russ Hittinger, an invitation that arose out of the desperate sense that I needed to study with Catholic thinkers before discounting the faith for good. My life changed tremendously that summer.

Michael was always brimming over with ideas for new associations, literary efforts, and educational initiatives. The Tertio Millennio Seminar in Krakow was one of those initiatives. I owe to Novak not only a large portion of my intellectual development, but also a portion of my spiritual conversion, which happened on a hot afternoon at Auschwitz that summer. I often reflect on the fact that we fail to appreciate the good that others have done for us. Life moves forward, and we imagine that we were the primary mover of good things, when, in reality, there were layers of graces, and the gifts of dear friends willing to be agents of grace for us.

What I remember most from that summer is Novak’s manner, certain impressions I had of him. The way he told stories with so much pleasure. The way he paused often when he was speaking. The unusually soft and high tone of his voice. The way he smiled. The flash of intelligence in his eyes, his devastating wit, and, perhaps most of all, the way he loved us. I have sometimes wondered, looking back, if I was changed that summer more by the power of ideas or by an encounter with love in the classroom. I can think of only one or two of my college professors who seemed to take any joy in a classroom, and these I could not say were motivated by love. For Novak, the joy he experienced with his students was palpable, and over long association it was clear this was love.

Novak as Economist

Michael didn’t like to be called an “economist,” but I believe that Michael Novak was more of an economist than the majority of those who go by that name.

At the time of Novak’s passing, I was rereading a classic article published in 1964 by Nobel-laureate James Buchanan: “What Should Economists Do?” “Economics,” Buchanan said, “as a well-defined subject of scholarship, seems to be disintegrating, and . . . a realistic appraisal suggests that this inexorable process will not be stopped.” Buchanan’s critique rested on the idea that economics had become overly concerned with questions of “allocative efficiency,” subjected to scrutiny through a “technological” method. He argued that while these matters were worthy of study, they could not become the staple project of economists, for questions that could be settled with a maximization problem were not inherently substantive of the fundamental questions of the discipline. He wrote: “Economists should, I think, face up to their basic responsibility; they should at least try to know their subject matter.”

And what was this subject matter? Following Adam Smith, Buchanan suggested that economics ought to be concerned with the propensity in human nature to trade and exchange for mutual benefit. He expanded this to include all the related “forms of human activity” and the “various institutional arrangements that arise as a result of this activity.” Finally, he wrote that it would be natural to extend the proper area of economic inquiry “beyond the individual, include the family, businesses and firms, trade associations, Churches, neighborhoods, state and local governments, and finally the world”—all with a view to understanding human nature, its propensities, and tendencies, and possibly even “rules” and “traditions.”

Now Novak’s thought was always marked by the spirit Buchanan pronounced to be missing from the vast pages of economic literature. Consider this excerpt from Novak’s masterful 1971 essay The Volatile Counterculture, which addresses the question of radicals and university life.

Specifically, one may take human action as one’s central field of inquiry. What makes actions human? What makes them wise, humanistic, good? Is it true that men never act according to rational, logical principles but always according to a sense of reality, story, symbol? In what ways are their science, theories, art, religion present in their actions? One can make action, not theory, the focal point of one’s theory.

Novak went on to say that “the theoretician who wishes to understand human action does well, it appears, to place himself in the middle of at least some social and political actions . . . not as an activist solely, for the sake of immediate relevance alone, but as a theoretician as well.” He goes on, “To develop this notion further would require a great deal more space—in fact, a life's work.”

The Real Human Person

The “real human person” remained the patient and persistent subject of Novak’s life’s work. He resisted, and eventually broke with, the unreal mythologies of the left. At the same time, he never embraced the mythologies of the right (whatever some social justice warriors may say). Novak wanted real, gritty, ordinary persons, in ordinary life: and he wanted a political and economic order for those real, gritty, ordinary persons.

Consider this from the “The Family Out of Favor,” an essay published, astonishingly, in 1976:

It is no surprise that in our age many resistant sentiments should war against marriage and family. Marriage and family are tribute paid to earth: to the tides, cycles, and needs of the body and of bodily persons; to the angularity and difficulties of the individual psyche; to the dirty diapers, dirty dishes, and endless noise and confusion of the household . . . The point of marriage and family is to make us realistic.

For these reasons, Novak ran hard against Marxist socialism, and against all forms of tyranny of the elite, including the brutal secular liberalism that oppresses in the name of freedom. He sympathized with the underdogs, the working classes, and the experience of the flesh, or the embodied person, against romanticism of every stripe.

My God is a God of ordinary things, of routine, of the grind and jading of everyday life—of a simple cigar, of a grain of sand, of boredom and tedium and hard work as well as moments of rapture. One way I test politicians, theoreticians, poets, activists, philosophers, and friends is by how alert they are to the mysteries of the ordinary. The . . . quest for “ecstasy,” “revelation,” “faith”, and “transparency” gives me a certain fear of those abstractions in whose name concrete, complex human organisms are so often crushed.

Herein, I say, is the key to why Novak is the economist that Buchanan wished to have—though economists welcomed him not—and why he was similarly the political theorist, the philosopher, and the theologian, of the same measure. Because, to quote what I take as the most significant line from his Templeton Address, “An age wrong about God is almost certain to be wrong about man.”

In this sense, Novak really is a model for contemporary social thinkers: it is not sufficient to be technically competent. To be truly wise, humanistic, and good, one must begin by getting it right about God. Short of this, Jesus Christ the God-man cannot possibly be fathomed. And without the Christ, who reveals man to himself, man—who is the pursuit of the social thinker—remains a mystery to man.

C.R. Pakaluk is Assistant Professor of Economics at The Catholic University of America.

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