Michael Novak is an American Catholic philosopher, journalist, novelist, and diplomat. The prolific author on the philosophy and theology of culture has written a new book charting his own course. Mary Eberstadt reviewed it.
Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative, by Michael Novak (Image)
Reviewed by Mary Eberstadt
Novelist, ambassador, vizier, poet: how fitting that some of Michael Novak’s monikers should parallel the rhythms of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, that classic Cold War title by John le Carré. It is fitting, for starters, because a significant chunk of Novak’s daunting body of writing not only coincided with the years of that long war, but also influenced certain of its seminal events.
His 1982 masterwork, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, to offer the most obvious example, was read and digested on both sides of the Iron Curtain—but with extra appetite in an East starved for alternative moral and economic ideas.
Vaclav Havel, later to become president of the Czech Republic, read the book in (illegal) translation with friends, and others behind the Iron Curtain would join Havel in finding in Novak’s writing a unique source of intellectual and spiritual morale. The coincidence of Spirit’s appearance on the eve of the Velvet Revolution could not have been more fortunate.
Yet the prism of the Cold War alone, helpful though it is in reflecting some of Michael Novak’s life work, remains too small to capture the breadth and depth of this singular thinker. Theologian, columnist, journalist, professor; blogger, saloniste, mentor, public intellectual: Over six decades, he has worn all of these hats and more. We now have his new memoir as a handy and engaging guide to at least some of the contributions of its author to America and the wider world.
Certain accomplishments the memoir touches on lightly or not at all, so a brief mention seems in order. Its author is, for example, the recipient of 26 honorary degrees—at last count—and, among other honors, he has been awarded (in 1994) the most prestigious annual recognition of religious thought on the planet, the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.
Then there is Novak the institution builder, the inspirational force behind a number of influential organizations: co-founder of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society, which has been nourishing future generations of Eastern European and other leaders for 20 years now, and co-founder of Crisis magazine. He has been a continuing intellectual presence at First Things; a formative figure behind a number of other bodies, including the Institute on Religion and Democracy, the Slovak Summer Institute, and Empower America; and a member of more White House and other government commissions and committees than can be counted.
There is also Novak as consigliere here and there to some of the great public figures of the day, which makes for absorbing stories chronicled in this new book: beginning on the left with Sargent Shriver, Gene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and continuing on to several presidents, left and right, as well as to that secular trinity of the Cold War, Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II.
The book also mentions the two-way street of intellectual influences between Novak and his distinguished fellow travellers from left to right: Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, Ben Wattenberg, and others.
From start to finish, Writing from Left to Right throws new light onto all that activity, intellectual and otherwise. ‘My first movement from left to right,’ writes the author, ‘began in religion’—specifically, in the heady experience of Vatican II, which he covered in all its drama in Rome with new bride Karen Laub Novak at his side. It would be hard to imagine a better crucible than Vatican II for the themes that would later become the stuff of decades’ work.
As many people outside the Catholic world (and in it) do not understand, and as Novak himself has made clear, Vatican II was animated profoundly by an impulse decidedly not new—namely, the desire to effect a recovery for the modern world of Catholic rituals, teachings, and ideas.
Mary Eberstadt is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularisation (Templeton Press).
Full review on the Ethics and Public Policy Centre website: http://www.eppc.org/publications/a-catholic-for-all-seasons/
On line review on The National Review website: https://m.nationalreview.com/media/betweenthecovers/360020
Discussion on C-Span video: http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/314561-1&buy
Commentary on The Catholic Thing: http://www.thecatholicthing.org/columns/2013/words-of-gratitude.html
Wikipedia on Michael Novak: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Novak