Michael Novak - R.I.P.

By Samuel Casey Carter

Originally published on February 18, 2017 on Linkedin

Michael Novak died yesterday. I read his Spirit of Democratic Capitalism in 1984. That book changed permanently my outlook on the world and has formed until this very day how I think about what I am trying to do with my life. 

I worked with Michael and saw him roughly once a month from 1994 to 1998 while I was on the editorial staff of Crisis Magazine - the publication he founded with Ralph McInerney. Those conversations were among the most intellectually invigorating but also the most personally demanding I've ever known - as he brought a near manic passion to his wrestling with ideas. 

Michael's writing flows with absolute effortless ease. That end product, however, often came from an uneasy place.

If you ever had the privilege to work with him in private and learn firsthand that he could be rude or callous, dismissive, or even cruel in conversation, it was because he assumed you were working with the same unvarnished commitment to the truth that was the absolute center of his life—and that intellectual rigor requires. If your feelings got mowed over in the process - you'd both recover in friendship - because the truth would out in the end and you'd both be the better for it. Before I met Michael I already had a religious passion for ideas, but I am deeply grateful for his personal witness to me that that work, if done well, rarely comes easily.

I didn't get the job working at Crisis until after I had implored him for nearly a year to give me a chance. I called him late one afternoon when I knew he'd be working at his desk. He picked up the phone and I could tell immediately that he was frustrated with something. With nothing to lose I think I said something like, "You sound exasperated. That's why I'm calling. I want to help. What can I do to help?" Without dropping a beat, I remember exactly what he said in reply, "Do you know anything about computers? My daughter Jana is going to Duke, she needs a computer, and the computer needs to be set up." I simply, and truthfully replied, "yes, I know quite a bit about personal computers. If I can't figure out how to get her set up, I'll find the person who can." I think he liked both the directness of my answer and its focus on a positive outcome.

That very night I went to the Novak's house for dinner. I met Karen and Jana for the first time, we got her computer and printer set up rather quickly, and then Michael and I spent the entire evening in almost a breathless round-robin oral examination of the primary sources supporting Catholic social teaching, the philosophical principles of liberal democracy, and to some degree the entire canon of Western literature, music, art, science and mathematics—the last of which I had to confess was perhaps my greatest personal interest, but unfortunately I was not given the natural gifts to excel at it. I think he liked both my honesty and the willingness to take on the whirlwind he had placed before me.

"What do you want to do?" he asked at last, very gently, with that signature gentleness in his eyes that always came when the truth was out. I am not sure what he was expecting me to say, but again I remember with perfect clarity what I replied and I am so grateful for the opportunity he gave me to get started. "I want to understand how we are to live in the modern world," I said, "and I want to help others do something good with it."

He told me I could start work immediately and it's been a wild ride ever since. Requiescat in Pace, Michael. All good things come to those who work for them.