Elephants in the Room

Remembering Michael Novak

Last Friday we lost one of our most luminescent, brilliant minds when Michael Novak died after 83 years.


Last Friday we lost one of our most luminescent, brilliant minds when Michael Novak died after 83 years. A theologian, philosopher, public intellectual, and writer of uncommon elegance, Michael leaves an unsurpassed legacy of original insights and moral principle. His writings cross a vast array of fields and subjects, from ecclesiology and eschatology, to the sociology of immigration and assimilation, to the ethics of business, to nuclear deterrence, and even to the virtues of sports. His justifiably most famous work, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism virtually created a new field of inquiry with his deft interweaving of theology and economics. The publication of this book in 1982 also played an underappreciated role in the peaceful end of the Cold War, as its translation into many European languages and dissemination behind the Iron Curtain illuminated for many readers the spiritual impoverishment of communism and the theological richness of free enterprise and free societies.

I owe much of my own intellectual development to Michael. I first met him almost two decades ago when he graciously agreed to sponsor me for a dissertation fellowship at the American Enterprise Institute, where he labored faithfully for several decades. I once heard AEI’s former president Christopher DeMuth remark in reference to Michael that “hiring a theologian at a Washington think-tank is perhaps the best decision I ever made.” Unorthodox though it may have been at the time, Michael’s tenure at AEI singularly elevated public policy discourse by reinserting moral and theological concepts into what otherwise can lapse into stale technocratic debates about efficiency and organization. In a similar spirit today, AEI’s current president Arthur Brooks carries on Michael’s intellectual legacy of the moral foundations of economic liberty.

In my case, during my time under his tutelage Michael became a valued mentor and friend, as he spent many hours with this then-young and eager doctoral student patiently answering my many questions and exploring his incomparable library. Evan as we initially connected over a shared affinity for Reinhold Niebuhr and a common inheritance of the Augustinian tradition, he did much to help me, then and now a Reformation Protestant, to appreciate the splendors and subtleties of Catholic social thought. He was without fail gracious, kind, and patient with my endless queries, and left an indelible mark on my own research and writing.

Michael’s own intellectual lineage was at once highly original and customarily American. From his working class roots in a Slovak immigrant family in Pennsylvania, as a Catholic seminarian he was a man of the Left in his early years, and then followed the moral logic of his opposition to the Vietnam War and support for civil rights into a migration rightward. By the 1970s he had become one of the original vanguard of neoconservatives. (This when the term still had substantive meaning, rather than the vacuous epithet it has become today. For skeptical readers unfamiliar with what I am referring to, I recommend Peter Steinfels’ 1979 book The NeoConservaties, Mark Gerson’s 1995 book The Neoconservative Vision, and Irving Kristol’s Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea.) Across the span of his political convictions, from the beginning and throughout his life Michael was a consistent champion of human dignity and liberty, a voice for the vulnerable even as he articulated how power and prosperity could and should be used for the good.

Perhaps the best introduction and short distillation of his life’s work is his 1994 Templeton Prize Lecture “Awakening from Nihilism.” Here he elegantly assessed the end of the Cold War and the future of global order, while articulating the three foundational principles of free markets, free political systems, and a virtuous body politic. For other thoughtful appreciations, see this reflection by Peter Lawler and this recollection by Yuval Levin.

Michael Novak will be much missed; may he rest in peace.

Photo credit: Via Twitter/Franciscan University

Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.