I’m Ezra Klein, and this is “The Ezra Klein Show.”
Hey, it is Ezra. While I’m on paternity leave, we’ve got so many great people sitting in behind the mic. This week, it is David Brooks. David writes about politics, culture and the social sciences for The Times. He’s been a columnist here since 2003. I have read more David Brooks columns and books at this point than I can count. He’s the author of several books, including “The Second Mountain: The Quest For a Moral Life.” And he’s just an all-around fascinating human being. Enjoy.
One of the reasons I love teaching is that I get to be around 20-year-olds. They’re mentally quick and funny, and the big questions of life are electric in their minds. What is the purpose of life? How do I choose a vocation that will have meaning? What does it mean to be a good person?
When Ezra asked me to sub in for him during his paternity leave, I thought it might be fun to have an episode that brought us back to those big questions. I thought that because our public discussions are overpoliticized and undermoralized. We spend too much time arguing about trivial political gaffes and not enough time thinking about how our character is formed — how to be courageous, loving, considerate, and faithful. But I didn’t want to have this kind of conversation with just anyone. I wanted to have it with someone who would be substantive and wise. And that brought me very quickly to Leon Kass.
When I myself was a 20-year-old, I attended the University of Chicago. The professors there had a fervor that I’ve never encountered since. They believed that there are certain questions that confront every generation. And over the centuries, great thinkers from all over the world have put some of the best responses to those questions in books. If you read those books carefully and well and talk about them honestly with each other, you will learn something about how to live.
Leon was one of those professors. By the time I encountered him then, he’d already done a bunch of impressive things. In 1965, he went to Mississippi to support the cause of civil rights. He went to medical school and then got a Ph.D. in biochemistry. But his real calling is philosophy and ethics, leading conversations with the young and old. Along the way, he’s written books on courtship, bioethics, the philosophy of eating, the meaning of America, and “Founding God’s Nation,” the product of 20 years studying the Book of Exodus. Basically, he’s never stopped teaching in the classroom and in the wider world.
So this conversation is about the biggest of all big questions: What is a worthy life? Along the way, we talk about career, love, marriage, friendship. We discuss what it means to be a good person and how to become better. And then, at the end, we zoom out and talk about the nation. What does it mean to take a group of tribes and form them into one people?
Before we get started, a reminder that you can always email the show with feedback or guest suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. My conversation with Leon Kass after the break.
Leon, welcome to “The Ezra Klein Show.”
Good to be with you, David.
You may not remember, but many, many decades ago, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I volunteered for the school paper. And the first interview I ever conducted in my journalism career was you. I interviewed you when I was an undergrad. And such began a long and nefarious career in journalism. So happy to do it again.
Thank you very much. I remember that interview, David. And I’ve followed you with interest all these years.
Well, you and your fellow professors at Chicago implanted me with the biggest of all big questions. And I thought we would dwell on them since they’ve stayed with me for the rest of my life. And they’re the big questions like, what is a worthy life? How do we improve our desires? How do we think about family? And especially, how do we think about a nation? How do we build a nation and build a people? And so I’m going to start with a big question. You wrote a book called “Leading a Worthy Life.” So tell me what a worthy life is.
Yeah, that’s not very nice of you, David. Look, there are lots of potential answers to this. But the general formula that I would give would be how to live in such a way that, at the end of it, whether you have to give an account in the next life or not, you could say to yourself that you’ve made something out of the gift of existence here that we have, not because of our merit but as a kind of unearned blessing.
And the time is precious. There are lots of ways to spend it well, and lots of ways to spend it less well. And the task is to find some way that fulfills the possibilities of our humanity both for ourselves and for the people we live with.
Let me break that project down the way I think about it and see your reaction. I was sort of thinking that, to lead a worthy life, you sort of have to have three projects or three accomplishments. One is to be in internal harmony with yourself. And that’s to do the practices that will elevate you. I like reading spiritual books as my way to get my insides elevated rather than degraded.
The second is to be in harmony with others. And I think the crucial skill there is the ability to see people and understand them and make them feel that they’ve been considered, heard and understood. And then the final thing is to commit to some great loves, to fall in love with great things and really commit to them. My definition of a commitment is falling in love with something, and then building a structure of behavior around it for those moments when love falters. So like Jews love their God, but they keep kosher just in case.
And so it’s those commitments which tend to be like commitments to a vocation, commitment to a family, commitment to a philosophy or faith, and commitments to a community, a place. And so those are like the three lanes, what I would think of, of a worthy life.
Look, that’s very nice. It has a certain abstract quality. In the book you’ve alluded to, in an essay, the kind of introductory essay, I talk about four domains in which people, in fact, find meaning. And through that, those activities have a rich and fulfilling life. One of them is the domain of real work, work that one does not for a livelihood but that one lives to do. Second is the domain of love and friendship, of private life.
The third is the area of the devotion to one’s community, to one’s country, to one’s nation, to one’s people. The fourth is the domain of learning and understanding and seeking wisdom. And although I didn’t mention in that essay, because it was given in a secular audience, of course, the other is some kind of devotion to something higher than ourselves and to be in touch with the divine as it is given to us to know it.
Where do we concretely — even if we don’t have the theory for it, where do people live in such a way that they find their lives meaningful? And all of those domains, at the present time, face great challenges, in part because, although people find their way to live in those domains in a worthy way, the culture doesn’t give it much support. We don’t have much guidance. People sort of find their way to it on their own.
Look, people really do, in some inchoate way, want to say that the life they live has mattered, that they have lived somehow fully, that they’ve made something of this astonishing opportunity to live in the world. And we have to find the means in our culture to address those desires and to speak positively about them.
Yeah. Now, you teach college. And I’ve taught college, on and off, for about 25 years. And the one the students are most interested in is the real work. How do I choose a vocation? And they come and ask, well, how do you choose what you want to devote your work life to? Do you have an answer when a student comes to you and says that, how do you choose a vocation?
Well, I mean, choosing a vocation is itself funny, David. Because vocation means literally to be called, that to which one is called. And many people today don’t hear any such calls. So they’re sort of stuck with the cafeteria of this and that. And they are in a position of choosing.
I’ve had lots of students come with those questions, as you have as well. And what I try to find out from them is not what sounds good on their résumé, or would please their parents, or give them prestige in the society, but what actually makes their heart sing? What do they like to do when they get up in the morning? Is there anything to which they go and engage themselves in which they’re not aware of the time passing?
Do they find this in study? Do they find this in being in a soup kitchen? Do they find this in listening to troubles of their friends? Are they interested really, not just in the abstract sense, in social justice, but the way they actually are willing to put their shoulder to the wheel to try to make things a little better rather than a little worse? In other words, to find out where they really live.
And students in college, they’re very often not in touch with where they live because they’re fulfilling obligations and trying to keep up with the social mores and social expectations. And it’s going to take a lot of, in the present age, time, probably, away from school, and trying a little of this and a little of that before it might strike them, this is work that really I find fulfilling.
Now, a lot of young people, as they think about how they’re going to dedicate their life, they do feel a passion toward one avenue or another. How do you tell if what they’re feeling, or how can they tell if what they’re feeling is a genuine passion for the project and for the work or just a passion for the status and the sense of admiration that comes along with it?
Most of the conversations that I get to have with students about these things are people who I’ve had in class. And I’ve got to know them pretty well because I don’t lecture. We actually talk about texts. And I learn what kinds of things they think about.
And when they come in with this kind of question, I just ask lots of questions. And I’m trying to find out what do they care about if nobody knew? What gives them the kind of satisfaction that doesn’t depend upon somebody patting them on the back?
It’s not easy to discern that. But if you begin to plant, in their mind, the question, what do you really love to do that you also admire? What do you do that makes you feel alive and in the way in which you’re sort of pleased with yourself, proud of yourself? Even if they don’t have an answer to it now, you’ve, in a way, changed their way of thinking about it.
And look, most of these kids who come to college have spent most of their life accumulating things on their résumé so they can get to the next place. Well, eventually you get to a place from which you’re not trying to get to the next place. And it better be a place where you like to be, and feel somehow at home, and where your soul sings in the work that you do. And not everybody’s going to be privileged enough to have it. But those people who have an opportunity to have it should be encouraged to look as hard as they can to find it and to go for it.
I like the way you mentioned that it’s aesthetic, it’s what are you doing when you feel most alive. My daughter, when she was 5, she walked into a hockey rink, and she just felt alive there. And she coaches hockey to this day.
I think Einstein, I read, when he was 4, his dad gave him a compass. And he noticed hidden forces of the universe were moving the needle round. And he said, oh, hidden forces of the universe. He spent his life studying the hidden forces of the universe. It’s what feels most beautiful.
The other thing I give students, I always try to assign “Man’s Search for Meaning,” by Viktor Frankl. Because I know it’s going to change about 20 percent of the students’ lives just to read that book. And one of the things he says is don’t look inside yourself; look outside yourself. It’s not what you ask of life, it’s what life is asking of you.
So you’ve got to go where the problems are. And eventually you’ll stumble off into a problem that really haunts you and grips you. And you’re probably not going to find that problem at McKinsey. You’re going to find it somewhere out in the world. Fred Buechner has a line, the novelist, “you find your vocation where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” I’ve always found some wisdom in that.
That’s really lovely. I mean, part of the difficulty now is that the bloom is off the rose for many of the vocations that used to attract people. The professions no longer have that kind of idealistic aura about them. I mean, when I first started teaching, I would encourage people to study law, or simply go to medicine, or become teachers. And so I still encourage people to teach if they have any taste for it. But the obvious paths are not there.
Very few people wind up in a profession and stay in it for their life. The usual way is much more, try this, try that. And who should talk? I mean, I’ve changed my professional identity five and six times in my life. From the inside, it seems like one continuous life informed by a continuous concern. And I’ve been very lucky to have had doors open for me in which I could sort of answer the next invitation.
But the world isn’t like that for the young people. And I don’t envy them, at the moment, finding their way.
Yeah, I taught an Army colonel once. And he said, every time we get stationed at a new base, my family and I, we take a personal retreat. And we withdraw to someplace for a weekend. And we break down our lives to the studs. We say, are we happy with the way the army is? Are we happy with our marriage? Are we happy with the way we’re leading our lives? And he said, so I don’t think about my life in total. That’s too big a question. I think of it in chapters. Like this four-year chapter is a chapter. And what am I going to do with that chapter? And I think we shouldn’t be fearful of the discontinuities of life that are — as you say, they’re going to be there. And so just pick a chapter. If you don’t pick a chapter, your whole life can go by, day by day, and you can come to have regrets because you never really broke it down to be intentional about it.
I agree completely with that, David.
Now, what about examples? Like who do you look to, either historically or around you, who says, well, that’s a worthy life?
There are large examples and there are small examples. I come from very modest beginnings. Both my parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe, came to this country with no formal schooling, grew up in dirt poverty. My father was a saintly man. He originally sold blankets and towels and linens from door to door, with a horse and buggy, in Canada. Eventually saved up enough to start a clothing store.
He was a happy man and thrilled that he could provide education for his children so that they could go on and learn and do something in the world. And I’ve done lots of interesting and successful things. But when I think about it, they pale in comparison to what he managed to accomplish. Never had a harsh word to say about anybody. Nobody ever had anything negative to say about him. And he was a beautiful soul.
My mother, also from very modest circumstances, no formal schooling, taught herself to read novels and other books late into the night, and was a moralist, and insisted that her children think about the question, is this right? Is this good? Is this fair? And it’s not just the romanticization of one’s own. I mean, I look around the world now. I look at my own function as a father. I’m not up to what I got from them.
So we can start there.
I wish I could quote it directly, the very end of “Middlemarch,” where the world is somehow a better place thanks to people who live in unmarked graves. It’s a beautiful thought. And if we look only to the people who one reads about in the papers, we’re missing a great deal.
You know, one of the nice things about being human is our capacity for moral admiration. You don’t even have to think about it. When you see something generous, it just strikes you as beautiful. Morality is more like a taste for something than believing an argument about something.
For example, I was in Waco, Texas a few years ago. And I ran into a guy named Jimmy Dorrell. Jimmy was a pastor down there. And he wanted to serve the homeless in his church. But the homeless didn’t want to go into the church. So he brought the church to the homeless. He created something called Church Under the Bridge, which was a church — outdoor services — he led under the overpass of the highway where the homeless slept. And he’s a guy who serves the homeless, lives with the homeless. He’s just a beautiful, giving spirit. And it warms your heart to see somebody who’s made a life of radical self-sacrifice.
And once, I was in Waco, and I was having breakfast with a teacher, a woman named LaRue Dorsey. And she was a disciplinarian. She was very formidable older lady. And she was tough. She said to me, I loved my children enough to discipline them. She was like a bit like a Marine drill sergeant.
So we’re in the diner having breakfast. And Jimmy comes in, and he sees her. And they’re old friends. And he says, Mrs. Dorsey, Mrs. Dorsey, you’re the best, you’re the best, I love you, I love you. And suddenly this disciplinarian lady looks like a 9-year-old girl with a smile just beaming across her face. It was just a beautiful little moment. And I think of that kind of goodness, I think of people like Jimmy and LaRue Dorsey, and I find they’re everywhere. I find them everywhere.
Now, look, if you care about this and you have an eye for it, it’s all around. One sees it in the remarkable fact of people caring for total strangers. And I’m thinking really of the nurses who tend to people with cancer over the long haul, and the kind of loving kindness, and attention to detail, and the pouring of oneself out for the well-being and comfort and sustenance and just ease of people who are suffering. It’s an absolutely gorgeous thing to see.
I’ve seen it in classrooms. I’ve seen the kind of loving care of young children who can find the spark in them and blow on it and so that they sort of catch fire and become alive with curiosity and concern for the world around them. I’ve seen it with a certain kind of nobility of physicians.
There are all kinds of people who are technically competent but don’t have a clue about how to reach the anxieties and concerns of the suffering. And to see somebody who practices this as if there’s no other patient in the world and can somehow completely understand what’s before him, it’s an absolutely gorgeous thing to watch.
I want to sort of lower the definition of the good life to incorporate some of the things that are maybe less otherworldly, maybe less purely loving. I wrote a book called The Road to Character a couple of years ago, based on this distinction between the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are what make you good at your job, and the eulogy virtues are what they say about you after you’re dead.
And there were two characters who I thought of as twinned in my mind. One of them is Dorothy Day, who was a person of radical goodness, who lived with the poor, served the poor. The other was this woman Frances Perkins. And she was sort of a general do-gooder. And around 1910, she happened to witness the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, this horrific fire in Lower Manhattan where lots of people died. And she watched people, like on 9/11, throwing themselves out of this tall factory to their deaths rather than burning to death.
It was sort of her agency moment, her call. And she said, I’m going to do anything I can for worker rights. And she became a lobbyist in Albany. And she eventually became the first woman who was Secretary of Labor under Franklin Roosevelt.
And she was not pure. Because she was in politics all her life. And so she was willing to compromise with anything, cut deals. And so it was a different kind of goodness than Dorothy Day’s. Dorothy Day’s is pure. Frances Perkins’s is in the world, making compromises, making morally hazardous decisions, but still leading a very impactful life that serves as a model for a lot of people.
Yeah, look, there are practical virtues that require a certain courage, a certain toughness. And finally, I mean, to have your eye on the best but to be able to see the best possible, and to have the kind of prudent judgment to know what you have to do to get things done.
And probably my all-time hero is Abraham Lincoln, who suffered all the terrible things that he had to countenance and do, but he was iron-willed in the pursuit of the right, as God gave him to see the right. And the country has been saved, really, by his leadership, his vision and also his thought.
I want to talk to you, how do you become a good person? Moral formation is what they call it in academic circles. And so let’s stick with Lincoln. He was a super-ambitious young man, was terrified of his own ambition. But he went through this period of depression, of real suffering. Do you think that period of suffering helped make Lincoln what he was? Or do you think one has to go through a period of suffering to sort of understand the full depths of oneself to feel compassion for the suffering of others?
Look, I mean, there are people who go through the depths of depression and who suffer a great deal and who come out hardened rather than compassionate. I mean, it’s not somehow guaranteed that certain common experiences produce the same results. The vision of the slave market made a huge impression on him, and I think was a kind of guiding experience for the rest of his life, sort of seared in his mind, the evil of this practice.
And one doesn’t know really what he got at home from parents. I mean, the traditional teaching about character formation — and for me, character is not just what moral rules you obey or disobey, but what is your disposition with respect to the various passions and things that can enslave one and weigh one down?
I mean, here, my teacher really is much more Aristotle’s ethics than Kantian morality and so on. And there, I mean, the classical teaching on this is, I think, correct. One’s character is formed, really, as a result of habituation in facing the things which are hard. If one is fearful, one somehow has to go face the fearful things and somehow learn to judge which ones are really too much for you.
But gradually you build up the capacity to stand against them. Similarly with respect to the love of sweets and excessive sexual desire and what have you, and with respect to wealth and anger and so on. And one doesn’t raise oneself. I mean, the beginning of our moral education lies with others, with our parents, with our communities, with our teachers, with our religious leaders and the community as a whole.
If it works well, you get somebody who is able to take the reins of his or her own chariot at some point. And then the cognitive element enters. And you begin to be able to make better judgments about what’s called for here or there. But the fundamental moral formation depends really on being well brought up. People can reform. I mean, it’s not destiny, but it’s close to it. And it’s very hard to change the habits of licentiousness or lifetime cowardice or irascibility. These are very, very difficult things to change once you’ve grown up a certain way.
You know, I wrote two books on moral formation. And they had different theories of it. The first one was “The Road to Character.” And it was about what you talked about, the confrontation with your own weakness, the confrontation with sin.
And so one of the characters in that book was Dwight Eisenhower. And when he was a kid, he had this terrible temper. And once he wanted to out trick or treating, and his mom wouldn’t let him. So he punched the tree in his front yard. And he rubbed all the skin off his fingers. His mom sent him up to his room and had him cry for an hour. And then she came up to him to bandage his wounds and said, he who conquered his own soul is greater than he would conquer the city, which I think is from Proverbs. And he said that was the most important conversation in his life. Because it taught him he had this terrible temper. And if he was going to make anything of himself, he had to fight it. And so that was one formula. The second — then I wrote another book called “The Second Mountain.” And in that one, I came to think willpower is just not that strong. If it were, our New Year’s resolutions would all come true, and they don’t. And so the real problem with behaving well is being motivated, being properly motivated, so your desires to behave well.
And so when you have a kid, for example, you discover a level of love and devotion that you didn’t know existed before. And so you want to serve your kid. So on the weekend, you don’t go out and whatever, play golf or whatever. You take your kid playing. And you become slightly less selfish. Morality, I came to think, is more about having the proper desires and having more elevated desires than lower desires.
I think these two things are related. I don’t think they’re simply different theories. What it means, in part, to acquire the habit is really the shaping of the desires. It’s to come to love and hate the right things — to love the beautiful, to hate the base and the ugly, to love the just and to hate the unjust. That’s the beginning. It has to be then refined by judgment that comes from experience and that depends on some intelligence. I mean, just having a good will but being a fool can lead you to do all kinds of things that in fact you’re going to regret and so will everybody else.
But the beginning of moral education really is the shaping of the appetites and especially the loves. And the other thing which you said, which is, I think, very important, responsibility is not in everybody. But sometimes the office makes the man. And to rise to the office and vocation of parenthood has straightened out many a frivolous person. I mean, all of a sudden, there’s a person in the world for whose existence you’re responsible. They depend upon you. Nature has made them more or less lovable early. So it helps.
But it’s not so much getting your own car and a job and a pad that makes a grown-up. And it’s not even cohabiting. It’s finally when you have produced the generation that’s going to replace you that life gets serious for many people. And the people who had doubts about their future when they were young very often surprise you when the responsibility settles in on them. And they rise to meet it.
Yeah, I’m a big believer of Saint Augustine, in the hierarchy of loves, that we all have a lot of loves, and some loves we know are higher than others. Love of a child is higher than love of money. Love of truth is higher than love of popularity. And sin is putting a lower level above a higher love, that if you told me a secret and I blab it at a dinner party, then I’ve put my love of popularity over my love of friendship. And that’s a sin.
And so I like the way the conversation is shifting away from sort of superrationalism, Kantianism, to an emphasis on the passions and the emotions and the desires. I think we’re primarily desiring creatures, not thinking creatures. And I get that from Augustine.
But I want to read a passage from your book that is very counterintuitive to our culture and struck me very powerfully, and I thought it was very just useful. And the passage is about the desires. And you write, “The most revealing distinctions among human beings are not race, class and gender. Neither should we look to wealth or power or culture for explanations of the most basic differences among us. Rather, human beings are fundamentally distinguished by the ruling passions of their souls — a passion for fun or pleasure, a passion for honor and recognition, a passion for learning or knowledge or wisdom. Most people are primarily lovers of pleasures. Some people are primarily lovers of victory and honor. A few people are lovers of understanding.” If you think about the people in your life, you really can— you don’t learn everything about them, but you can have some insight into them by thinking, what is sort of the controlling passion of their soul?
The insight is not mine. I got it from the beginning of Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics,” where he’s talking about everybody agrees that happiness is the human good, but they disagree about what makes people happy. And they have different opinions. But Aristotle’s smart. He says, you’re not going to ask them just what they say; he’s going to look at how they live.
From the time I read that, it knocked me over. I began to look at the people that I met. It’s too simple. There are gradations. Everybody is partly moved by all. But you really look around, and you see there are certain people who are just driven in the political world, you see, all of them, they’re driven by the desire for recognition and honor and status and so on as somehow proof of their own worthiness.
But lots of people, life is just having fun. And by the way, I’m not disparaging it, but it’s simply a statement of fact. More people live to have a good time and have fun than live to somehow seek honor. And the number of people who are lifelong learners and get their jollies from that and somehow feel that that’s really the most meaningful thing, there are not very many.
I might disagree with you there. We give talks, or you look at who’s reading books, or listening to this podcast, it strikes me that there’s a lot of people who — why would you listen to a podcast, or go to a talk, read a book, unless it was some sort of love of wisdom? And it strikes me there are a lot of those people.
Well, that’s a good question. I mean, love of information, love of keeping up with what’s current? Or a love of wisdom informed by the knowledge of how little we know and how ignorant we are? In my experience, there not a lot of those people. It’s an information age, and it’s also a certain kind of cachet to be informed. But the kind of deep desire to really understand things, to the bottom, and aware with a kind of real humility about how little we understand — and how little compared to the great authors we understand — that’s not that common.
Yeah, maybe you’re right. One thing I wanted to talk about was psychologists talk about intimacy motivation, that some people — I would say this might be most people — they want to be loved by their family and friends. And that’s the core of their life. And that intimacy motivation strikes me as the most common.
And certainly amongst the young people that I’ve come to over 40 years in the classroom. And this was my wife Amy’s formulation. She said she never met a young person who didn’t want to be taken seriously and who wasn’t looking for someone with whom they could be open and true and would appreciate them for who they were.
And I don’t know that they would put it in terms of the language of the desire for intimacy. But I think that’s probably close to the mark. They’re looking — in some cases, it’s for friendship. In many cases, it’s looking for someone with whom to make a life. They won’t put it on the tip of their tongue because the danger of disappointment is very high. And they don’t own up to their deep longings, partly out of self-protection. And they even have a certain kind of superficial cynicism about the prospects.
But at bottom, people want to be known. I don’t mean known in the public, but known and loved by somebody who knows who they are really, unadulterated, open, vulnerable, searching, aspiring, capable of returning love.
I think that’s the heart of a beautiful and meaningful life for many people, even though we don’t at the moment, in the culture, have anything to speak about this in a deep and high way. Instead we’ve got these millimeter-thin, globalized, so-called friends and a way of talking which is asynchronous and screened and not immediate.
But one needs the practice of getting to know you and getting to discover that, like a great book, a good friend has an inexhaustible depth. And to be able to share in it is one of the great gifts in the world.
I guess this segues into a subject I want to talk about, which is marriage, and how you talk to young people about marriage. You famously, in our circle, had a wonderful marriage. You had a model marriage with Amy, who passed away I don’t know how many years ago, six maybe. When I talk to my students, they don’t want to talk about marriage, they want to talk about vocation. How do I choose this job? They don’t want to think about marriage. And I say, begin thinking about it. It’s a really important decision.
And I’ve collected little nuggets that I found useful I pass off to them. I think this is a Nietzsche thing. I don’t think of him as a big romantic. But he said, a marriage is a 50-year conversation. Pick someone you can talk to for the rest of your life. And then there’s sort of a psychological way to think about marriage and the marriage decision, who you’re going to marry.
And the experts say, avoid neuroticism, go with kindness. Kindness is an unappreciated skill but very useful in a spouse or life partner. Then there’s sort of a moral answer — love comes and goes, but admiration is permanent. So pick someone you really admire. And then there are three kinds of love, and you’re going to marry someone, you should have all three. One is philia, which is friendship, one is eros, which is passion and desire, and one is agape, selfless love. And if you just have philia, you have a friendship, you have a marriage. If you have eros, you have a hookup; you don’t have anything else. But if you have all three, that’s a pretty good way to think about marriage. And so this is like a little part of my speech I give to my students about this.
And one student once said to me, you know, marriage is a box that’ll come in the mail when I’m like 39. I don’t really want to think about it now. And so I try to impress upon them, like, start planning, have relationships, get some practice.
Oh, boy. I mean, this is a great cultural challenge. It’s something that occupied Amy and me. We put together this anthology, “Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying,” that was a product of discovering that we were living at a time in which there were no cultural forms that guided people in the direction of marriage. And that was published in 2000. So we’re another two decades, I think, further away from the ideal on this matter. Because there are fewer and fewer people who even confess to wanting to be married.
The climate of the time when we were writing this was, to the two of us, very lucky and still very much in love after 10 years of marriage — we were married 54 years— students would say things like, the idea of being married to the same woman for 25 years is preposterous. Or we know that the relationships with men that we’re having now are supposed to be impermanent because we’re not supposed to get married until after graduate school when we’re 28. And Amy and I thought these kids were nuts. I mean, they had no none of the aspiration for permanence.
So I think the beginning is not advice but to somehow let them think about what could married life be like. What do these passions want of us? What really is eros? I mean, the things that you’ve said, I agree with. I mean, I agree with it light. But they’re not yet ready for advice.
Yeah, I agree in general. A couple of thoughts I had as you were speaking, the first is you don’t have to worry about being married to the same person for 50 or 60 years, because that person will change six or seven times. So you’ll be married to a bunch of different people, they’re just in the same body.
The other thought — and this is one of my students said to me — there used to be a courtship regime. And it was set for a time that’s not our time. It didn’t have the gender relationship between men and women, or men and men, that we have now. And it had to go.
And we may differ on this. I more or less agree with that. I think some of the old rules more or less had to go. And eventually we’ll settle in on a new set of rules. But we’re in a period where there are almost no rules. My students describe almost no rules on how to go about deepening a relationship. And so everybody’s sort of on their own. And I think that’s just a very hard position to be in.
It’s terrible. And I don’t envy — C.S. Lewis had a wonderful line. He said, “I envy youth its stomach, not its heart.” And he said it a long time ago. And to have a heart now is to risk all kinds of disappointment because you don’t even know how to get it expressed. They don’t even have practices in calling up somebody for a date and have to experience rejection. And to learn how to manage these sorts of things — things have changed. We’re not going back to the old way.
But look, it’s still important to learn something about the character of the person who you’re going to attach yourself to. And that takes time.
And you want to see people in different kind of circumstances. You want to know whether this is a person who — there are certain people who can fly wing to wing with when the sun is shining and everything is merry, but can this person get in the boat and row against the stream when things are tough?
And part of the value of reading things like Jane Austen’s novels — I mean, they don’t get you past the marriage. You don’t really know what most of those marriages turn out to be like. But they at least give you practice, vicarious practices, in how to tell a horse from a jackass and to find ways in which the immediate falling in love with the gestalt can blind somebody to what’s really beneath the surface and what really is dependable for the long haul. That’s a practice that we just don’t have now.
Let me switch to another subject which is related. It’s not quite marriage, but it’s a similar relationship. And you’ve also written a lot about this. And this is friendship. And friendship, as Aristotle thought about friendship, might be different than the way we think about friendship, and maybe more political than we normally think about it. If you could talk about how Aristotle saw friendship.
The heart of it, I think, is first of all learning to distinguish, amongst the people we call our friends, a sort of three basic categories. There are friendships of utility in which that’s the friendship between me and the butcher. And it’s not just merely transactional. I mean, I inquire how his family is. He asks after mine. But basically our friendship is based upon how we are useful to one another.
Then there are the friendships of fun and pleasure, people who enjoy playing golf together, people who like gambling together, what have you.
But the deepest friendship, he says, is the friendships based upon character, in which you love the person for who he or she is. It’s, in a way, what you said before, in terms of admiration. And you wish that person well for their own sake and enjoy being in their company because it’s uplifting and ennobling and the activities that you engage in with them go deeper into your own soul.
The best of those friendships — and this, I think, over a lifetime, I’ve come to endorse — the deepest and richest and most permanent friendship, he says, is the friendship not of doing deeds in common, but the friendship of sharing speeches and thoughts, a friendship of seeking understanding, a friendship that is in some way philosophical. There’s no topic’s off limits. And you can spend a lifetime and never get to the end of the conversation.
Amy was one such friend. I have another friend, we’ve been friends since 1956. We get together. No one has to read the minutes of the last time we were together. I’ve changed his mind about important things. He’s changed my mind. We’re still changing each other’s mind. This kind of a friendship is unique in which the things that we share, namely ideas and thoughts and speeches, each one is enriched by what the other one gets. There’s no scarcity of what is between us. Each side gets more from being with the other. And it’s mutual.
I might expand what conversation is. I know people who have been in, like, say, a weekly basketball game with other men or women. And they converse through the passes, through the rivalry, through the jokes, through the high-fives. And they may never have had a deep conversation, but they would die for each other. And there’s some kind of process of doing stuff together. In the military, famously, people bond with incredible depth and consider them, you know, brothers. And I think it’s based on common experiences, common fear, common vulnerability, but not always so philosophical maybe.
No, that’s very good. And I’ll accept that. However, there’s a time when you don’t play basketball anymore. And camaraderie has developed. But to the extent to which the association is based upon experiences in the past, it’s loyalty, it’s memory, it’s reliving in speech those old days. And those are beautiful things. And I engage in it a lot. I have a great deal of sentimentality for people of my past, present moment included.
But the question is whether one is as vitally alive when one is being somehow stretched — and by the way, not just cognitively. There are tough things that happen in one’s life that it’s very helpful to be able to talk to people who would understand you and for whom everything can be open and discussed. So I don’t want to make this simply philosophical.
Yeah, when I’ve gone through hard times and I’ve thrown myself on my friends, I’ve always felt guilty about it because I’m burdening them. I have one friend, he would ask you like six questions about your situation. And somehow, in the rhythm of conversation, I would think, well, he’s going to give me some advice or some comfort or something. And then he would ask another six questions. He just prolonged the questioning phase longer than I was used to. And I came to consider that an act of friendship.
And then, later, when I came out of hard times, and I’ve been in good times, and people throw themselves on me, I realize that I’m thrilled when they do that. It allows us to deepen our friendship. And the lesson I’ve learned is, never hesitate to burden a friend if you’re going through something. Because it’s really a treasure to them.
We’ve sort of been widening the aperture in this conversation, starting with the soul, and moral formation, and friendship, and marriage. And now I hope to widen it to the biggest, at least, we’re going to do in this conversation, and that’s to the formation of peoples and nations. And this really turns to your recent book, “Founding God’s Nation,” which is about the Book of Exodus. The subtitle is “Reading Exodus.”
And so when I think of Exodus, I think of it as Moses or God forming a fractious band into a people, into a nation. And I realize they’re not necessarily the same things. And it seems so relevant now that, in America, at least, we are a fractious band of rival tribes. How do you think of Exodus through the prism of our contemporary politics?
Well, Exodus is the book which takes the Israelites from the sons of one man, Jacob, to a nation of 600,000 men, not counting women and children. And it tells the story in three stages. First, their abject slavery and misery in Egypt, their miraculous deliverance and their sustenance in the desert. Second, the story about their entering into a covenant with their God at Sinai, and his giving them the law, which governs all aspects of their life. And finally, the building of the Tabernacle, a place where they will worship their creator and deliver and have an opportunity to be in contact with him in their midst.
These three parts of the story have, I think, not just historical but philosophical significance. They suggest that these particular parts of the formation of the people of Israel might in fact be relevant pillars for any stably founded regime. Consider, first of all, through their story of their enslavement and deliverance, they have a national story. On the night of exodus, before they go out, they’re commanded that, every year at this time, in perpetuity, the fathers should tell the children the story of the going out of Egypt. That’s the national narrative.
Second, they have a given law and morality, given to them at Sinai. And the question is, does not this kind of law serve to not only hold them together but guide their very lives?
And then, finally, in the Tabernacle, they have an opportunity to have an answer to their aspiration to remain in touch with what is highest, that they’re not going to be simply satisfied with safety and comfort and getting and spending, but they want to be somehow in touch with what is highest in the world.
And the question is whether, to come down to the present day, can there be a stable and enduring and well-governed nation that lacks a shared national story, that lacks an accepted law and morals and that doesn’t aspire to something higher than its own comfort and safety? Can a people who have instead a dedication to technological progress, to economic prosperity, and the private pursuits of happiness, is that sufficient to make a people remain a people?
If our national story is contested or even despised, if our morals are weakened, if the national fabric is frayed, and if we’ve abandoned any kind of sense of national dedication, can we endure? So it seems to me that the things one learns about people formation in the case of the ancient Israelites holds up a mirror to any particular polity aiming to endure, and holds up a particularly challenging mirror for America in the present time.
Let me bring in the current day in America. You sort of alluded to it earlier. Can any people — and I’ll say, can the American people — be a coherent nation without a project, without a story, without a higher aspiration, and without a common law? I must say, I’ve always been raised within the Exodus story, not only as a Jew, but also as an American. And I think Exodus, to me, has been the foundational story of America, at least for the European settlers.
The early Pilgrims came here, they thought they were living out an Exodus story, leaving oppression, crossing the wilderness, coming to the promised land. I think I’m right in saying the founders, at least some of them, wanted to put Moses on the Great Seal of the United States because they were lawgivers. Certainly every immigrant story, and certainly my family, we thought we were living out an Exodus story.
And so to me, that was the foundational story that really brought us together as a country. I began to notice a lot of people losing faith in that story, and saying, you know, we’re not really the land of milk and honey. The story of America is a very different story. And they rejected the Exodus story. And I would tell college students around the country, no, we are an Exodus country. And they would say, yeah, that’s a story rich white people say.
And to be honest, I’ve somewhat given up hope that the exodus can be our story anymore. I think now maybe of a redemption story of Lincoln’s second inaugural, an experiment that went astray. A, do you agree that Exodus really plays a role in America’s identity? And am I too quick to give up that identity, if you do agree?
The Exodus story was certainly, for some of the Pilgrims, and some of the original American colonists, and certainly some of the founders, a story in the light of which they saw themselves. And it both made sense and it also didn’t quite make sense. Usually Exodus is treated as a story of national liberation. And it certainly is that. And the liberation of the independence from Great Britain. One could treat King George as a certain kind of Pharaoh, not quite so terrible.
But the word, freedom — and most people don’t notice this — the word freedom or liberty doesn’t occur in the Exodus story at all. Their deliverance from servitude to Pharaoh in order that they might serve God on his holy mountain, it’s a replacement of servility and oppression with service, which is a kind of service which is edifying and elevating.
And when Tocqueville comes to visit America in the 1830s, he’s astonished to discover, in America, that the spirit of liberty and the spirit of religion are not only alive and well, but they’re not enemies and they’re mutually reinforcing. The spirit of liberty and self-government was seen as a celebration of God’s giving people the power to govern themselves under law. And the morality taught by the churches was seen to be indispensable for producing the kind of citizens who were capable of self-government under law. This was marriage in America. Liberal political institutions, but a religion that taught people their duties and not their rights.
The balance between those things is way out of whack. It’s been getting out of whack increasingly in my lifetime, especially beginning in the ‘60s. And certainly in the present climate, when one hears the talk about racial injustice, nobody is repairing really to the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God or to the principles of the Declaration, all men are created equal, both of which are of biblical origin.
So there is a way of saying that our reliance on the biblical teaching of our common humanity and the biblical moral teachings that would produce people who have the kind of virtues we talked about at the beginning of the conversation, there’s a way of thinking this is very much threatened and in retreat.
Yeah, it can’t be just loss of religion. America has gone through many periods in its history when it was not that religious a country. I still think we’re living in what you might call the biblical metaphysics. There are certain rules — or certain beliefs, certain foundational principles, certain moral sentiments, that grow out of the Bible, of how to treat the stranger, that the poor are closer to God.
You don’t have to actually believe in God to believe the basic principles of what constitutes justice and fairness. The very fact that all people of all ranks of society are subject to the same law and the same judgment is a biblical idea that I think we all take for granted. I do think that there is still some basic sense of justice and fairness that we’ve inherited, even as we go through a phase in which we’re not particularly as religious as we used to be.
I think that’s right. I mean, the idea of radical human equality is a gift to the world of the Hebrew Bible to begin with. I mean, the existing codes in the neighborhood made — there were differences if you harmed a noble or if you harmed a free person or you harmed a slave. Whereas the covenant that’s made at Sinai is made with every Israelite, second-person singular, equal. And the idea of everybody equally in God’s image, that’s the foundation of the teaching of the equal dignity of every human being. And similarly, the teachings about justice and truth-telling and care for the weakest among us, that’s of biblical origin. And it’s here.
The question is whether other areas, for example, the teachings that support “honor your father and mother” and certain kinds of ideals of family life, the belief that one lives in the world really making one’s way for the next generation, and that the obligations of the fathers are transmissions of a way of life rather than celebration of one’s own prosperity here and now, those cultural teachings have been much weakened.
And while the general ideas are loose and still inform various political movements, the question is whether the self-command and the self-restraint and the self-elevation is still present in the culture. And when the ritual gatherings of people that inform the outlooks of the young are weakened, then the sense of belonging in local communities and to the larger communities, I think, get weakened as well.
Yeah, I think I might tell a story that I think is interrelated — I might phrase it a little differently — that we had certainly a very strong communal sense. Tocqueville famously noted how communal and how civic we are. And these local communities really formed us and made us look out for one another.
And I would say maybe around the ‘60s — and this would be Robert Putnam’s point — we became just a much more individualistic culture. We came to define freedom as absence of restraint. And on the right, that led to an economic freedom, which is individualistic. I should be free to have my own property and my own economy the way I want it to be. And I want to be a heroic entrepreneur. On the left, it was a little more lifestyle freedom. I should be able to live the way I want to live without anybody watching over me. And that was probably needed, because we needed to break free from some of the conformity and constriction that existed, let alone the racism and the sexism and the anti-Semitism that existed.
But we’ve taken it a little too far. And so we sort of overdone it on individualism. And we’ve seen the loss of social capital, the loss of community, the loss of friendship, things I do not understand but are going on in the country. The rising number of people who say they have no close friends. Over half the country saying no one knows me well. The number of people who have ruptures in their nuclear families. Just a breakdown in connection across a wide array of social indicators. So that, to me, is a sociological problem that led to a formative problem.
Do you have any hope that we can recreate community, recreate institutions that we have faith in, that we’re willing to submit to in order to be formed by them? How deep is the despair here?
One doesn’t want to sound like a grumpy old man by saying everything has gone to hell and it was much better in the old days. It’s a temptation of people my age. But sometimes the evidence is strong. And one has to be very, very worried at the present time if one cares about a robust, unified national society and culture.
We’re living in an acutely angry time. And in the short run, I don’t know how that can be turned around. But the way back has to be really to return to some of the sources not as finely authoritative for us and solve our present problems. But they are our intellectual, cultural, and moral inheritance.
And so it seems to me the task is largely a matter of education. It’s a question of partly not tearing down the country and looking only at its faults and its warts, but remembering and not taking for granted the extraordinary blessings that one has living here, including the freedom to tear down and belittle the institutions that give us that right.
But one has to return not to immediate relevance and not to vocational training, but one has to begin to return, especially in the colleges, to the great works that have informed the best of humanity over the generations. For us, it would be American founding, Tocqueville, Lincoln, American history. And it would also mean the Bible and the great works of western civilization — literary, philosophical, scientific. We have to recover what is our inheritance. Right now, we’ve turned our back on it. And there’s no way back without somehow reappropriating that and making it our own.
The positive story I would tell is that we’re renegotiating the narrative of America now. And we’re emphasizing more the oppression, the slavery, genocide against Indians. And you don’t need to be instructed on this. You were, in the mid-60s, down in the South, trying to advance the cause of civil rights. But I think a lot of people did need it.
And it’s very bumpy. And I think we’ll come to a spot — it’s simply not hard to teach the realities of slavery and oppression and also the greatness of America. That’s really not a hard story to tell. It’s the real story.
And then, as for the formation of souls and the formation of communities, the three years before Covid, I spent an almost constant travel around the country meeting local community people I call weavers. And there are people — like, I met a guy named Pancho Arguelles, who he used to take guys who have been paralyzed by construction accidents, and he’d give them diapers and catheters and wheelchairs so they could lead lives with dignity.
And I meet these people everywhere. A woman, Sarah Hemminger in Baltimore, who was lonely, who built a great organization called Thread which surrounds underperforming kids in Baltimore schools with volunteers and neighbors, people who show up no matter what.
And I just found these people everywhere. And I became much more hopeful about America before I was shut off from contact with these people and sort of condemned by Covid to live in a media world, which looks a lot uglier, I think, than the real world. And so that’s my upward spin, that cultures go through periods of renegotiation, but eventually construction, because people basically have innovative ways to solve their common problems. So that’s my hopeful story.
The two final questions I want to ask you about: one is about your reading, and then the second is about what books have meant a lot to you. And the first is the reading of the Book of Exodus. You say something very early in the book which touched me. You said the book had made you more menschlichkeit, which is a Yiddish phrase I’m going to ask you to define. And it was a very touching, especially someone who’s in his senior years, of being warmed, I think, by sitting with a book and reading a book. I’d just like you’d ask you about that and how — I guess I’m translating it as it made you gentler.
It made me humbler. Gentleness comes, in part, from forgetfulness. if. You can’t be sure that you remembered something and somebody said you said something, you say, yeah, maybe so.
But most of my teaching life, I would tell my students, we’re going to read this book. We’re going to set aside our prejudices and our suspicion and so on. We’re going to read this book the way the author wanted it to be read in the hope that we might learn something from it. We’re not teaching to learn about this book. We’re going to live with it. We’re going to experience it. And if we’re lucky, we might learn something of great importance to us.
And I would say this in every class at the beginning, whatever book I was reading. And the books would disagree with each other. But it actually happened to me reading this book. I had never expected to, in a way, submit to this book. And then I stumbled upon this sentence, when God says he took up with Israel because he wants to be known by them and to dwell among them.
And then certain experiences in the congregation where I belong where — and also sort of imagining myself among the Israelites. I mean, I’ve been trying to read myself into the story and undergo this story so that it works on me as if I were not only reading from the outside, but actually experiencing it as it’s narrated. I tried to imagine myself in this Tabernacle when it first went up.
So it’s done some things to me. It’s opened me up to things. And I more and more think that these great books should be studied not to learn about them and put them away and say we’ve read them or belong somewhere, but to open ourselves to them in the hope that it might do something to us.
Yeah, that emphasis on close reading and participation in the book is something we don’t get taught enough. So the final question, which is an Ezra Klein Show tradition, is to ask you to talk about three books that have been tremendously important in your life.
Certainly the “Nicomachean Ethics,” which I’ve taught many, many times, 20 weeks, four hours a week. We barely finished. And I learned an enormous amount from it. The Hebrew Bible, especially Genesis and Exodus, on which I’ve spent 20 years preparing a commentary on each. And then it’s a tossup between Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” and George Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda,” which is a book I didn’t read until my 70s, but have now read it three times. And I would say anything by George Eliot, you can’t go wrong. But this is a magnificent novel, and it’s moved me very, very deeply.
Well, we’ve had a true conversation in the University of Chicago manner. Talked on the big subjects. And I think, somehow, in the daily course of normal life, they’re not the subjects we focus on a lot, especially those of us who are in journalism. So I’m grateful to you for letting us dwell there and letting us harvest what you’ve done after years of careful reading and careful study. And so I’m grateful to be interviewing you again. Thank you.
David, thanks very much. Always a pleasure to converse with you.
“The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Jeff Geld, Rogé Karma, and Annie Galvin. It is fact-checked by Michelle Harris, original music by Isaac Jones, and mixing by, once again, the great Jeff Geld.