A Tribute to Michael Novak by Christopher C. DeMuth

A tribute to Michael Novak on the occasion of his award of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion by Christopher C. DeMuth Christopher C. DeMuth, President American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research May 23, 1994

I don’t know what got into them, those hard-nosed business I executives who sit on AEI’s Board of Trustees, when they invited a theologian from Syracuse University to move down to Washington and join the Institute’s research staff in 1979. But I do know that no other AEI appointment has been so prescient and that no one has contributed more to the AEI spirit or to the progress of its ideals than Michael Novak.

Thanks to the generosity of Mr. Templeton and the perspicacity of the Templeton Prize judges, Michael is now himself a walking illustration of the Novakian principle that wit and creativity, properly cultivated, can produce miracles of wealth. So I am happy to see him back from the Templeton Prize ceremonies in London not yet driving a Mercedes or wearing a Giorgio Armani suit or sporting a Christophe hairdo. In fact, I have been trying anxiously to reach him and have left several voice-mail messages requesting an appointment—just a brief visit at Mr. Novak’s convenience to drop off some AEI literature and tell him about the work of the Institute and answer any questions he may have about our pressing financial needs.

Michael’s Templeton Prize is not only richly deserved but a source of special satisfaction to everyone associated with the American Enterprise Institute. At AEI, our concern for free enterprise and limited government is more than a matter of economics and efficiency (as important as we hold these things to be), and our concern for individual freedom is more than a matter of libertarian principle. Michael’s work has singularly embodied and advanced this spirit. He has never been a utilitarian or libertarian cheerleader; his moral justification of capitalism is not abstract or mechanistic; it convinces where others fail precisely because it is sinewy and particular, comfortable with tradition, and compassionate. He began a socialist and was led to his current position by despair at the extent of poverty in the modern world and extended inquiry into the practical means of alleviating poverty. In the course of becoming one of the world’s foremost supply-side poverty warriors, he developed an appreciation of the institutions of capitalism based not only on their tendency to improve material welfare but also to foster social cooperation and inventiveness. Like his old Congregation of Holy Cross and socialist comrades, he sees material wealth as the manifestation of cooperative human action; unlike them, he sees that effective cooperation springs from individual freedom and that political coercion is often the enemy of such cooperation.

We have discovered in recent years how deeply Michael Novak’s writings resonated with those who suffered at the hands of state Communism; his continuing influence with political and economic reformers in post-Communist and third-world nations is surely as gratifying to him as the formal recognition of the Templeton Prize. In my own rounds as head of a business-supported research institute, I have been equally struck by his repute and influence among those who, like the men who first brought him to AEI, devote their days to the practical managerial tasks of modern capitalism. To reiterate, this is not because Michael is anybody’s cheerleader:

Corporations err morally . . . in many ways. They may through their advertising appeal to hedonism and escape, in ways that undercut the restraint and self-discipline required by a responsible democracy and that discourage the deferral of present satisfaction on which savings and investment for the future depend. They may incorporate methods of governance that injure dignity, cooperation, inventiveness, and personal development. They may seek their own immediate interests at the expense of the common good. . . . They are capable of the sins of individuals and of grave institutional sins as well. Thus, it is a perfectly proper task of all involved within corporations and in society at large to hold them to the highest moral standards, to accuse them when they fail, and to be vigilant about every form of abuse. Corporations are human institutions designed to stimulate economic activism and thus to provide the economic base for a democratic polity committed to high moral-cultural ideals. When they fall short of these purposes, their failure injures all.

That Michael regards the firm and the market not as mere engines of consumer satisfaction but as morally serious institutions—capable of great harm and great good and therefore demanding our highest standards—is, I think, the key to understanding the appeal of his writings with the general public and above all with business executives themselves.

I have noticed, in the weeks since the announcement of Michael’s Templeton Prize, a rush of pleasure among his friends and admirers that goes beyond the usual feelings of friendship and good will. I think there are two reasons for this. First, Michael’s influence has become so pervasive as to be almost invisible; he is like the Nobel economist whose theories seem obvious to everyone who reads about them in the New York Times thirty years after they were first propounded in an obscure journal. Those who remember how very strange the terms democratic capitalism, mediating structures, and empowerment sounded just a decade ago, and how strenuously resisted and ridiculed they were, feel that due recognition has been given. Second, although the terms just mentioned have now become staples of political rhetoric, in promiscuous use across the philosophical spectrum, the ideas they denote are in fact radically out of favor today in official Washington—which regards empowerment as something to be bestowed by a government program and is hellbent on establishing a direct and unmediated dependence of the individual on the state.

Intellectuals often find it gratifying to stand in glorious opposition to the powers that be. But Michael Novak’s friends know him to be more than an intellectual: we know that he is also an activist, that he is out for bigger game than self-gratification, and that he likes to win. What the Templeton Prize has done is to fortify our sense that he has extracted from the slag heap of the twentieth century some great truths about human liberty and the free society, that these truths are continuing to gain ground in the intellectual realm, and that they will in time prevail in the political realm to a greater degree than the current generation of politicians can foresee.

Awakening from Nihilism: The Templeton Prize Address

This essay is adapted from an address presented by Mr. Novak at Westminster Abbey on May 5, 1994. He is the twenty-fourth recipient of The Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. This essay appeared in First Things.


As we draw near the close of the twentieth century, we owe ourselves a reckoning.

This century was history's bloodiest. From this revered and mortally threatened Abbey some fifty years ago, one could hear the screech of falling bombs. At a time they didn't choose, and in a way they didn't foresee, more than a hundred million persons in Europe found their lives brutally taken from them. An earlier Templeton laureate, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, has agreed that, beyond the war dead, 66 million prisoners perished in the Soviet labor camps. Add the scores of millions dead in Asia, Africa, and the other continents since 1900.

Nor is there any guarantee that the twenty-first century will not be bloodier.

And yet the world has drawn four painful lessons from the ashes of our century. First, even under conditions of nihilism, better than cowardice is fidelity to truth. From fidelity to truth, inner liberty is wrested.

Second, the boast of Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler that dictatorship is more vigorous than "decadent democracy" was empty. It led to concentration camps.

Third, the claim that socialism is morally superior to capitalism, and better for the poor, was also empty. It paved the road to serfdom.

Fourth, vulgar relativism, now widely ascendant, undermines the culture of liberty. If it triumphs, free institutions may not survive the twenty-first century.

For three centuries, modernity has been supremely fruitful in its practical discoveries-in, for example, its magnificent institutions of political and economic liberty. But it has been spectacularly wrong in its underlying philosophy of life. An age wrong about God is almost certain to be wrong about man.

History, Hegel once remarked, is a butcher's bench. Homo homini lupus. Many sober inquirers, seeing how prodigally in this century the bodies of individuals have been thrown around like sacks of bones, understandably asserted that God is dead.

And yet, in this dark night of a century, a first fundamental lesson was drawn from the bowels of nihilism itself: Truth matters. Even for those unsure whether there is a God, a truth is different from a lie. Torturers can twist your mind, even reduce you to a vegetable, but as long as you retain the ability to say "Yes" or "No" as truth alone commands, they cannot own you.

Further, as the prison literature of the twentieth century-a very large literature, alas-abundantly testifies, truth is not simply a pragmatic compromise, although torturers try seductively to present it so. "It is such a little thing," they say. "All you have to do is say yes,' sign here, and this will all be over. Then you can forget about it. What harm will come of it? We have been in power for seventy years, we will always be in power. Be reasonable. Accept reality. It is such a little thing. Who will ever know? Just sign and be done with it."

Michael Novak delivers his Templeton address at Westminster Abbey.

Yet millions have known in such circumstances that their identity as free women and free men was at stake; more exactly, their salvation. Irina Ratushinskaya, Raoul Wallenberg, Andrei Sakharov, Maxi milian Kolbe, Vladimir Bukovsky, Vaclav Havel, Anatoly Sharansky, Pavel Bratinka, Tomas Halik, Mihailo Mihailov-let us summon up the witnesses, the endless scroll of honor of our century.

To obey truth is to be free, and in certain extremities nothing is more clear to the tormented mind, nothing more vital to the survival of self- respect, nothing so important to one's sense of remaining a worthy human being-of being no one's cog, part of no one's machine, resister to death against the kingdom of lies. In fidelity to truth lies human dignity.

There is nothing recondite in this. Simple people have often seen it more clearly than have the clerisy. This is the plain insight that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn expressed when he wrote in his 1970 Nobel Address that one single truth is more powerful than all the weapons in the world, and that, dark as that hour then seemed in the world, with communism everywhere advancing, truth would prevail against the lie; and that those who clung to truth would overturn tyranny. (He was correct in his prediction. Truth did prevail over arms-we are witnesses to history; it is our obligation to teach this to our children.)

What those learned who suffered in prison in our time-what Dostoevsky learned in prison in the Tsar's time-is that we human beings do not own the truth. Truth is not "merely subjective," not something we make up, or choose, or cut to today's fashions or the morrow's pragmatism-we obey the truth. We do not "have" the truth, truth owns us, truth possesses us. Truth is far larger and deeper than we are. Truth leads us where it will. It is not ours for mastering.

And yet, even in prison, truth is a master before whom a free man stands erect. In obeying the evidence of truth, no human being is humiliated- rather, he is in that way alone ennobled. In obeying truth, we find the way of liberty marked out "as a lamp unto our feet." In obeying truth, a man becomes aware of participating in something greater than himself, which measures his inadequacies and weaknesses.

Truth is the light of God within us. For us its humble mode is inquiry, seeking, restlessness. Innermost at the core of us, even as children, is an irrepressible drive to ask questions. That unlimited drive is God's dynamic presence in us, the seed of our dissatisfaction with everything less than the infinite.

The Grand Refusal of the modern age to say "yes" to God is based upon a failure both of intellect and of imagination. Modernity's mistake is to have imagined God as if He were different from truth, alien from ourselves, "out there," like a ghostly object far in space, to serve Whom is to lose our own autonomy. Modernity has imagined God to be a ghostly version of the tyrants we have actually seen in the twentieth century. It took the real tyrants of our time, jackbooted, arrogant, enjoying the torture of innocents, to shatter that false identity. The tyrants may have thought they were like God; it was idiotic to flatter them that God was like them.

Many who resisted the tyrants of our era turned nihilism inside out. In the nothingness they found inner light. Many came to call the light they found there God. The relation some gradually assumed toward this inner light, whose Source, they knew, was not themselves, was that of wordless conversation or communion. They addressed their God in conversation, under the name of Truth. In the twentieth century, prisons and torture chambers have often been better places to encounter God than universities.

Until recently, then, modernity was mistaken in its relation to truth, and thus to God and humankind. But even so modernity has, to its great credit, by grant of Providence, made three great institutional discoveries. Modern thinkers first worked out, as neither the ancients nor the medievals had, the practical principles of the three-fold free society: free in its polity, free in its economy, and free in the realm of conscience and inquiry. The great modern achievements in these matters have been supremely practical: How to make free institutions work at least tolerably well, and better in most ways than earlier regimes.

However, despite these happy practical gains, modernity tore down the only philosophical foundations that can sustain the free society. The Age of Enlightenment was supposed to do away with sectarian bickering, but it did not. If you stay within your own school of thought, the foundations of the free society may seem secure. Peek outside, however, and you will hear raucous voices shouting. The Age of Enlightenment has failed to secure a mode of public moral argument worthy of the institutions it has erected.

Lest we forget: The twentieth century has been not only the bloodiest but also the most ideological of centuries. Ideology is the atheist's substitute for faith, and, lacking faith, our age did not want for warring ideologies. For nine decades of this century, armies not exactly ignorant clashed by night. Beneath the fearful din, two great practical principles of the free society were mortally contested: first, the political principle; second, the economic principle.

Despite the slogans of the 1930s ("the End of an Era," "the Decline of the West") and despite the boasts of dictators ("In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken"), decadent democracies proved they had the will, the audacity, and the stamina to defeat the principle of dictatorship. They defeated it so decisively that today hardly a dictator anywhere-too many, unfortunately, remain-dares to argue that dictatorship is an ideal form of government. Most are left to argue limply that, in the particular case of their own countries, dictatorship is expedient. They lie.

Even for desperately poor people, the principles of democracy (the rule of law, limited government, checks and balances) are better than dictatorship. Only thus can people enjoy the zone of civil liberty necessary to ensure their dignity and self-command. Democracy is the world's first great practical lesson of our time, learned at fearful cost.

The second great practical lesson of our century is the futility of socialism as an economic principle. For 150 years, the battle over fundamental economic principles was conducted asymmetrically. Hundreds of books detailed the wonders of socialism as an ideology, passionately dissected the flaws of capitalist practice, and boastfully mapped out the coming transition from capitalism to socialism. Not one single book existed-when the time finally came-to map out the one necessary transition, from socialism to capitalism. I doubt whether ever in history were so many intellectuals wrong on a matter to which they themselves assigned highest moment, all the while thinking of themselves as "scientific" and disinterested. The story of how this happened must one day be recounted.

As Pope John Paul II pointed out in Centesimus Annus, this story is connected to the intellectual's devaluation of the human person. No system that devalues the initiative and creativity of every woman and every man, made in the image of their Creator, is fit for human habitation. On the first day that the flag of Russia snapped against the blue sky over the city hall of St. Petersburg, where for seven decades the Red flag had flown, a Russian artist told me: "The next time you want to try an experiment like socialism, try it out on animals first-men it hurts too much."

Indeed, once the Iron Curtain was joyfully torn down, and the Great Lie thoroughly unmasked, it became clear that in the heartland of "real existing socialism" the poor were living in Third World conditions; that a large majority of the population was in misery; that both the will to work and economic creativity had been suffocated; that economic intelligence had been blinded by the absurd necessity to set arbitrarily the prices of some tens of millions of commodities and services; that the omnivorous State had almost wholly swallowed civil society; that the society of "comrades" had in fact driven an untold number of people into the most thoroughly privatized, untrusting, and alienated inner isolation on earth; that this Culture of the Lie had been hated by scores of millions; and that the soils of vast stretches of the land and the waters of rivers and lakes had been despoiled.

Michael Novak with Lady Thatcher and others at Westminster Abbey.

Three great lessons have been learned from our century, then, even if the cost of learning them was fearful beyond measure. First, truth matters. Second, for all its manifest faults, even absurdities, democracy is better for the protection of individuals and minorities than dictatorship. Third, for all its deficiencies, even gaping inadequacies, capitalism is better for the poor than either of its two great rivals, socialism and the traditional Third World economy. Just watch in which direction the poor of the world invariably migrate. The poor-of whom my family in living memory was one-know better than the intellectuals. They seek opportunity and liberty. They seek systems that allow them to be economically creative, as God made them to be.

From these three lessons, one might derive reasons for hope: Quite possibly-if along that great plain that runs like an arrow eastward from Germany through Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and the Russian steppes, the new experiments in democracy and capitalism succeed-the twenty-first century could be the most prosperous and free in the history of the world. Perhaps China, too, if it becomes a democracy under the rule of law as it is already becoming capitalist, will bring to its more than one billion citizens unprecedented liberty. And throughout Latin America, there is a chance that the fertile soil of liberty will yield new fruits of education, creative energy, and prosperity for all.

Indeed, the twenty-first century could be the single most creative century in history, bringing virtually all the peoples of the world under the cool and healthful shade of liberty. It could be lovely.

Far likelier, however, is the prospect that the twenty-first century will be like the twentieth: tormented, sanguinary, barbarous. For there is still, alas, a fourth lesson.

During the twentieth century, the free society was fighting for its life. The urgent need to secure the free polity and the free economy blinded most to the cultural peril into which liberty has rapidly been falling.

Many sophisticated people love to say that they are cynical, that ours is a cynical age. They flatter themselves: They do not believe nothing; they believe anything. Ours is not an age of unbelief. It is an age of arrogant gullibility. Think how many actually believed the romances of fascism and communism. Think how many, today, believe in Global Warming; think how many believe in a coming Ice Age-and think how many believe in both! One thing our intellectual betters never lack is passionate belief.

One principle that today's intellectuals most passionately disseminate is vulgar relativism, "nihilism with a happy face." For them, it is certain that there is no truth, only opinion: my opinion, your opinion. They abandon the defense of intellect. There being no purchase of intellect upon reality, nothing else is left but preference, and will is everything. They retreat to the romance of will.

But this is to give to Mussolini and Hitler, posthumously and casually, what they could not vindicate by the most willful force of arms. It is to miss the first great lesson rescued from the ashes of World War II: Those who surrender the domain of intellect make straight the road of fascism. Totalitarianism, as Mussolini defined it, is la feroce volanta. It is the will-to-power, unchecked by any regard for truth. To surrender the claims of truth upon humans is to surrender Earth to thugs. It is to make a mockery of those who endured agonies for truth at the hands of torturers.

Vulgar relativism is an invisible gas, odorless, deadly, that is now polluting every free society on earth. It is a gas that attacks the central nervous system of moral striving. The most perilous threat to the free society today is, therefore, neither political nor economic. It is the poisonous, corrupting culture of relativism.

Freedom cannot grow-it cannot even survive-in every atmosphere or clime. In the wearying journey of human history, free societies have been astonishingly rare. The ecology of liberty is more fragile than the biosphere of Earth. Freedom needs clean and healthful habits, sound families, common decencies, and the unafraid respect of one human for another. Freedom needs entire rainforests of little acts of virtue, tangled loyalties, fierce loves, undying commitments. Freedom needs particular institutions and these, in turn, need peoples of particular habits of the heart.

Consider this. There are two types of liberty: one precritical, emotive, whimsical, proper to children; the other critical, sober, deliberate, responsible, proper to adults. Alexis de Tocqueville called attention to this alternative early in Democracy in America, and at Cambridge Lord Acton put it this way: Liberty is not the freedom to do what you wish; it is the freedom to do what you ought. Human beings are the only creatures on earth that do not blindly obey the laws of their nature, by instinct, but are free to choose to obey them with a loving will. Only humans enjoy the liberty to do-or not to do-what we ought to do.

It is this second kind of liberty-critical, adult liberty-that lies at the living core of the free society. It is the liberty of self-command, a mastery over one's own passions, bigotry, ignorance, and self-deceit. It is the liberty of self-government in one's own personal life. For how, James Madison once asked, can a people incapable of self-government in private life prove capable of it in public? If they cannot practice self-government over their private passions, how will they practice it over the institutions of the Republic?

There cannot be a free society among citizens who habitually lie, who malinger, who cheat, who do not meet their responsibilities, who cannot be counted on, who shirk difficulties, who flout the law-or who prefer to live as serfs or slaves, content in their dependency, so long as they are fed and entertained.

Freedom requires the exercise of conscience; it requires the practice of those virtues that, as Winston Churchill noted in his wartime speeches to the Commons, have long been practiced in these Isles: dutiful stout arms, ready hearts, courage, courtesy, ingenuity, respect for individual choice, a patient regard for hearing evidence on both sides of the story.

During the past hundred years, the question for those who loved liberty was whether, relying on the virtues of our peoples, we could survive powerful assaults from without (as, in the Battle of Britain, this city nobly did). During the next hundred years, the question for those who love liberty is whether we can survive the most insidious and duplicitous attacks from within, from those who undermine the virtues of our people, doing in advance the work of the Father of Lies. "There is no such thing as truth," they teach even the little ones. "Truth is bondage. Believe what seems right to you. There are as many truths as there are individuals. Follow your feelings. Do as you please. Get in touch with yourself. Do what feels comfortable." Those who speak in this way prepare the jails of the twenty-first century. They do the work of tyrants.

You are, no doubt, familiar with the objection to this warning. Its central argument goes like this: to accept the idea of moral truth is to accept authoritarian control. But between moral relativism and political control there is a third alternative, well known to the common sense of the English-speaking peoples. It is called self-control. We do not want a government that coerces the free consciences of individuals; on the contrary, we want self-governing individuals to restrain immoral government. We want self-government, self-command, self-control.

If a people composed of 100 million citizens is guarded by 100 million inner policemen-that is, by 100 million self-governing consciences-then the number of policemen on its streets may be few. For a society without inner policemen, on the other hand, there aren't enough policemen in the world to make society civil. Self-control is not authoritarianism but rather the alternative to it.

"The Revolution," Charles Peguy once wrote, "is moral, or not at all." This is also the law for the free society. It will deepen its moral culture-or it will die. As human lungs need air, so does liberty need virtue. The deepest and most vital struggles of the twenty-first century will be cultural arguments over the sorts of habits necessary to the preservation of liberty. What are the habits we must teach our young? Which are the habits we must encourage in ourselves, and which discourage? To allow liberty to survive-and, more than that, to make it worth all the blood and tears expended to achieve it-how do we need to live?

With the ample wealth produced by a free economy, with private liberties bestowed abundantly by free polities, are we not now ashamed of the culture we have wrought, its shocking crimes, its loss of virtue, its loss of courtesy, the decline of common decency? Can all the sufferings of our ancestors on behalf of liberty have been endured for this-that we might be as we now are?

Nihilism builds no cities. Great cultures are built by vaulting aspiration-by the Eros of truth and love and justice and realism that flung into the sky such arches as this Abbey's.

We must learn again how to teach the virtues of the noble Greeks and Romans, the commandments God entrusted to the Hebrews, and the virtues that Jesus introduced into the world-even into secular consciences-such as gentleness, kindness, compassion, and the equality of all in our Father's love. We must celebrate again the heroes, great and humble, who have for centuries exemplified the virtues proper to our individual peoples. We must learn again how to speak of virtue, character, and nobility of soul.

Liberty itself requires unprecedented virtues, rarely seen in simpler and more simply led societies. Special virtues are needed by self- governing peoples: calm, deliberate, dispassionate reflection; careful, responsible, consequence-accepting choice. In self-government, citizens are sovereigns, and must learn to exercise the virtues of sovereigns.

The free economy, too, demands more virtues than socialist or traditional economies: It demands active persons, self-starters, women and men of enterprise and risk. It requires the willingness to sacrifice present pleasures for rewards that will be enjoyed primarily by future generations. It requires vision, discovery, invention. Its dynamism is human creativity endowed in us by our Creator, Who made us in His image.

And so, too, the pluralist society calls for higher levels of civility, tolerance, and reasoned public argument than citizens in simpler times ever needed.

To maintain free societies in any of their three parts-economic, political, or cultural-is a constant struggle. Of these three, the cultural struggle, long neglected, is the one on whose outcome the fate of free societies in the twenty-first century will most depend. We will have to learn, once again, how to think about such matters, and how to argue about them publicly, with civility, and also with the moral seriousness of those who know that the survival of liberty depends upon the outcome. The free society is moral, or not at all.

No one ever promised us that free societies will endure forever. Indeed, a cold view of history shows that submission to tyranny is the more frequent condition of the human race, and that free societies have been few in number and not often long-lived. Free societies such as our own, which have arisen rather late in the long evolution of the human race, may pass across the darkness of time like splendid little comets, burn into ashes, disappear.

Yet nothing in the entire universe, vast as it is, is as beautiful as the human person. The human person alone is shaped to the image of God. This God loves humans with a love most powerful. It is this God who draws us, erect and free, toward Himself, this God Who, in Dante's words, is "the Love that moves the sun and all the stars."

Looking Backward, Looking Ahead: Remarks on the Announcement of the 1994 Templeton Prize

Delivered March 9, 1994 in New York City: Awakening from Nihilism: The 1994 Templeton Prize Awarded to Michael Novak, ed. Derek Cross and Brian Anderson (Crisis Books, 1995), 35-42.

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, while 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 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 I certain universality easily grasped in faraway cultures.

Possibly, Belief and Unbelief (1965) and The Experience of Nothingness (1970) are deeper and more significant for my thought as a whole than has yet been noticed. I am pleased that both books are 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. Put differently, 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 guarantees. 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 hardpressed to survive the twenty-first century.

Free institutions cannot survive on the base of just any morality. 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.