Remembering Michael Novak

Yesterday I wrote about knowing Ben Novak for ten years, and toasting to his 75th birthday. Today I’m sharing the program from a program honoring his brother Michael at Catholic University of America here in Washington, DC:

A Legacy of Faith and Reason: Honoring Michael Novak

Join the Busch School of Business and Economics for a very special event honoring Michael Novak – a mentor, colleague, and friend – on the occasion of the first anniversary of his death.

We will welcome the Novak family and hear from a number of voices, celebrating and reflecting on Michael’s life and work, as well as our role in carrying forward his legacy of faith, reason, and service to both our Church and our country.

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Schedule

  • 8:45 a.m. – Registration and continental breakfast
  • 9:30 a.m. – Welcome and introductory remarks, Dr. Andrew Abela, provost, The Catholic University of America
  • 9:45 a.m. – Dr. Jay Richards, The Catholic University of America and host of EWTN series “A Force for Good”
  • 10:30 a.m. – Break
  • 10:45 a.m. – Panel of Catholic University colleagues including Dr. Michael Pakaluk and Dr. Max Torres
  • 11:30 a.m. – Fr. Robert Sirico, founder and president, Acton Institute
  • 12:15 p.m. – Lunch and screening of “A Force for Good”
  • 1:30 p.m. – Panel of former students
  • 2:15 p.m. – Remarks from Ms. Mary Ann Novak and Dr. Ben Novak
  • 3:00 p.m. – Mass in the Crypt of the Basilica of the National Shrine
  • 4:15 p.m. – Reception

I was standing just a few feet from Michael when the photo above was taken in Ave Maria, Florida, in front of what was then Ave Maria University’s Oratory. I think he was a bit tired that day, but his joie de vivre shines through in it nonetheless.

Michael was a joy to be around, even and especially when he was admonishing you for some failing and maybe especially when he was encouraging you to work harder, because in those moments you realized you were with someone who really cared about you, and really wanted you to strive for something greater, and to reject self-satisfaction and laziness.

I’m here today to hopefully honor that spirit of his, and to keep the flame alive. I’ll share photos from the day afterwards:

Robb Klucik from Ave Maria also sang this short, adapted version of Hillaire Belloc’s “Benedicamus Domino” in honor of Michael:

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Ben Novak’s 75th birthday

Ben Novak celebrated his 75th birthday on February 14th at home in Ave Maria, Florida, and this evening, at La Chaumière on M Street in Georgetown, I’ll be with Ben and family and friends for what I’m sure will be a night of joyful stories, memories, and mirth.

I first met Ben in 2008. At the time, he was living in Bratislava, Slovakia in what was partially a self-imposed exile after a full life and career as a Central Pennsylvania attorney, founder of the Mount Nittany Conservancy, four-term Penn State trustee, and a dozen other or so things to contribute to public life in State College, Pennsylvania.

I remember, vividly, meeting Ben for the first time. A few minutes after shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries, Ben asks me what I’m majoring in at Penn State. “Political Science,” I offer. As we’re walking down College Avenue, he responds: “What good is that going to do for you?” And I loved that reply, and was attracted to him for having the pugnacity to put that question to me so directly, because I understood his meaning to be not “What practical/career value will that degree have?” but rather, “What good is that going to do for you?” What will it do to and for you as a human being; to your soul? What sort of person does it help you to become?

That exchange captures so much about Ben, both his willingness to be forthright and incredibly direct to the point of consternation, as well as his concern for the true and the good and the necessary pursuit of those things in a life that’s to have any meaning. These sound like high-minded things, but in practice with Ben they almost never are.

The essence and fullness of Ben Novak is expressed in all the everyday things: in his willingness to do almost anything for someone he cares about; in his self deprecation; in his longing for community and communal life with other good people; in his quick smile and his hearty laugh; in his intellectual humility and his insistence that the intellectual and philosophical stakes are real and worth engaging; in the tireless work ethic that seems to run in his family; in his love and affection for his parents; in his spirit of adventure both external and internal.

“We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst,” writes C.S. Lewis. In Ben, I met a man with a chest, and with a sense of honor that made trust and fast friendship easy—even when he was being a damned bastard about some point or other. To turn Lewis around a bit, and poorly: in Ben I was shocked to find a whole man in my midst.

Is Ben a brother to me? Yes. Is Ben like a father to me? Yes.

We’ve collaborated many times over the past decade. An inspiration for the Nittany Valley Society, he was the one who introduced me to American Indian folklore. He and Vince Verbeke and others introduced me to a love for Mount Nittany. He helped me think more deeply and meaningfully about Penn State and the nature of a university. He showed me in practice a deep sort of Christianity that’s unselfconscious and confident. He recovered in me a love for the grail legends of King Arthur and an authentic chivalric sense of honor and duty and love. I’ve spent collectively coming up on a year living in Ave Maria, Florida with him and his late brother Michael. Together, we’ve published his essays “Is Penn State a Real University? An Investigation of the University as a Living Ideal” and his craft beer columns in “The Birth of the Craft Brew Revolution.” We recorded and released two audiobooks, with a third (on the American Indian legends of Central Pennsylvania) coming later this year. I kept kicking him until he finally knuckled down to publish his PhD dissertation on Abductive Logic, the logic of Sherlock Holmes and the tyrants of modernity. Here’s Ben telling Henry W. Shoemaker’s legend of Princess Nita-Nee:

Unlike his brother Michael, the diplomat, Ben might be described by contrast as the aggressor. In our present cultural moment, that confounds and frightens some people. What both the diplomat and the aggressor shared as brothers and Novaks might be described as the desire to “get at the heart of things,” urged on by Joseph Campell’s sense of the “call to adventure.” Celebrating Michael’s 80th birthday a few years ago in Washington, at the Army-Navy Club was a joy, in particular this vignette: Ben toasting to the genius of his brother’s “Spirit of Democratic Capitalism” and its key insight that capitalism didn’t just have to be tolerated, but could be defended as a force for moral good against the allegedly morally superior Marxist-Communist ideal, so long as it was restrained from rapaciousness:

(That’s Clarence Thomas seated in front of Ben, which was cool.)

After the scandal of the Jerry Sandusky revelations, and the Penn State Trustees’ utterly scandalous response to the allegations of Sandusky’s crimes, which itself led to the unjust loss of Joe Paterno’s reputation and a reputational taint that Penn Staters will need a half century to recover from, Ben helped lead the way in showing that love and community feeling were some of the only responses that could lead to recovery. Here we are attempting to honor Joe Paterno’s legacy by reading from his autobiography in November 2011 and delving into the coach’s sense of right and wrong through Virgil:

The shock of both the Sandusky scandal and Penn State’s disastrous response to it all led us to release the adapted essays of “Is Penn State a Real University”, which were essays that Ben first drafted in the late 1980s and which originally helped him get elected to his four-terms as a Penn State trustee. We also recorded the audiobook version of those essays, because people today tend not read books:

Is Penn State a Real University?

And it was in Ben who I encountered a love for nature and for the power of symbol, particularly in recovering a memory of Old Willow as Penn State’s first symbol and a tangible and lasting gift of Evan Pugh and Penn State’s founders. Here’s Ben telling the story of Old Willow:

Yes, Ben is the sort of person who would devote himself to honoring a tree. Of course, “honoring a tree” is only how someone without a deeper sense of the value of such things would think of it. The same love Ben has for Old Willow is what inspired his titanic efforts to conserve 300+ acres of Mount Nittany in the 1980s and found the Mount Nittany Conservancy, and in these things I recognized the same values that he would have shared with my grandfather, and I felt echoes of the experience of nature of my boyhood, growing up near great trees Pop planted and near surviving suburban woodlots, and feeling so deeply the power of creation to speak to the soul of a person.

In Ben’s “open letter to the future,” first published in the Centre Daily Times in 1995 and narrated below, Ben uses the Disney film The Never-ending Story to call out to Penn Staters of the future to find something true and good in the essence of Penn State and recover it with love:

These are a smattering of vignettes and testimonies and reminiscences of my friendship with Ben over the past ten years in honor of his 75th birthday.

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Pop’s 91st birthday

John Albert Shakely, my grandfather, would be 91 today. An adventurer, soldier, Penn Stater, geologist, sailor, wildcatter, and teacher, Pop was a humble, heroic man in my childhood life, the sort of person who teaches a boy how to be a man without ever sitting him down to give him a lesson. Requiescat in pace.

I shared the tribute above on Facebook, and my Aunt Amy Bourgeron (daughter of grandfather John’s sister Jean) added that “Uncle John was an iconic figure of my youth- the quintessential baroudeur.” (Baroudeur: adventurer, fighter.) Visiting Amy in July 2016 in Denver, it was special to me to see in her home the same Turkish footstool that Pop sent home for her in the 1950s, when he was stationed in Diyarbakir as an oil-well geologist.

Michael Novak

I was in Michael Novak’s home, but he wasn’t there. It was October 2009, and I was with his brother Ben. We had traveled from State College to Washington, DC for a conference the was starting the next day and we were house sitting that night while Michael was away for something.

What does a house reveal about its inhabitants? The Novak home revealed a lot to me, even in just one night’s stay. It was already being prepared for sale. Michael’s wife Karen had died not long ago. It felt drenched in all the vibrant energy of a whole family. Michael’s sister Mary Ann had been there earlier and had left a crock pot of her lamb stew in the kitchen. (Ben and I had a taste, and I think my memory of that day will be bound up with my experience of that stew forever, it was such a culinary revelation to my young palate.) It was a humble, beautiful, comfortable place. The sort of home that felt like a sanctuary. I remember Michael’s expansive first floor office and library, just piles after piles and books all over. The whole place felt like it was an inspiration for Norman Rockwell’s America. I had just turned 22 and I was trying to consciously absorb everything I could about what seemed to make for a good life. Michael’s home was an obvious example to me, and the next morning when Ben and I left for our conference I snapped this photo:

But it would be almost two years before I met Michael. He and Ben had moved in together in a bungalow in Ave Maria, Florida. It made sense: despite a ten year age difference, both brothers were getting older and I think both were grateful for the companionship. (They had never really lived with each other before; by the time Ben was old enough to really remember anything, Michael had already left Johnstown for seminary. This was also a way for them to get to know each other.) Visiting Michael and Ben in Ave Maria was memorable, and their warmth and friendship brought me back to that special Catholic town again and again. All told I think I’ve stayed with them there cumulatively something like eight months over the past five years. Their hospitality has been rightly legendary there.

So while my first encounter with Michael had been as something of an interloper in Washington with his brother, it was in Ave Maria that I got to know him.

“Ambassador Novak,” especially in the first years of my visits when Ave Maria was still very small and tight knit, functioned as a sort of model citizen for that growing experiment in Catholic community. The honorific came from his service to President Reagan as human rights diplomat, and his reputation as a philosopher and intellectual had led to his appointment as the first of Ave Maria’s trustees. R.R. Reno very compactly explains Michael’s most brilliant achievement:

During the Cold War, conservative intellectuals defended the American Way of Life. That way included capitalism, which was contrasted with the command-and-control economy of communism. But there remained a suspicion that socialism—if implemented in a humane way—was the morally superior approach. What Michael did in his most famous book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, was to describe the moral contributions a free economy makes to a healthy society.

If Marx had made the moral case for communism, Michael Novak had made the first thoroughly moral case for capitalism—and one that influenced world opinion at the right time. These achievements led to his Templeton Prize and his Awakening from Nihilism address. George Weigel provides greater context for Michael Novak’s thought and its impact in his 2014 City Journal article “American and Catholic: Michael Novak’s Achievement“:

Catholic intellectual life consciously engages the fullness of human experience, which Catholic thinkers “read” through the prism of revelation and reason, both of which, they maintain, cast the light of truth on human affairs. This conviction—that reflection on the things of the City of God can illuminate the paradoxes, tragedies, conundrums, and possibilities of the City of Man—stands at the center of Michael Novak’s thought. …

It is not within my competence to make judgments about Novak’s account of economic life; others are better equipped to determine what he got right and what has been left incomplete in his philosophical and theological analysis of markets, free enterprise, the system of democratic capitalism, and the vocation of business. But however those judgments wind up, it’s clear that Novak, with singular dedication and real effect in the evolution of Catholic social doctrine, introduced a new temper to Catholic thinking about economic life. We can describe that new temper as an empirical sensibility that never descends into empiricism.

Novak’s account of economics begins, not with abstractions, but with keen observations of what is, which, in turn, lead to a disciplined reflection on how what is ought to be understood, casting light on moral truths and responsibilities in the process. Or, as his friend Rocco Buttiglione, the Italian social thinker, has put it, Novak’s seminal thinking about economic life raised an important question, little explored previously in Catholic social thought—or indeed in any other religiously informed social thought: Might “laws” exist in economic life analogous to the moral laws that a disciplined reflection on human moral action can discern? Is there, in other words, a deep structure to economic life that helps explain why some economies “work,” whether those economies are lodged in medieval Benedictine monasteries or in modern business enterprises? And does that deep structure reflect truths about the human person and human relationships that we can recognize by a careful, empirically informed reasoning that is attentive to the truths about the human condition that we learn from biblical religion?

From its inception with Pope Leo XIII in the late nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century, modern Catholic social doctrine, for all its insights, had a somewhat abstract, top-down quality. Thus, the strikingly empirical character of Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II’s seminal 1991 encyclical on the free and virtuous society in its political, economic, and cultural dimensions, marked a significant development in the Church’s evolving social thought. The basic principles of that tradition remained in place, but they now found themselves filled out by a far more attentive reading of the realities of late-modern political and economic life—including the one that Novak powerfully described at the outset of his groundbreaking 1982 book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism: “Of all the systems of political economy which have shaped our history, none has so revolutionized ordinary expectations of human life—lengthened the life span, made the elimination of poverty and famine imaginable, enlarged the range of human choice—as democratic capitalism.” Recognizing the truth (and limits) of that insight, Centesimus Annus developed Catholic social doctrine’s “standpoint” to include the possibilities of empowerment latent in free economies, clearly reflecting Novak’s influence. If Catholic social doctrine continues to unfold along the trajectory of Centesimus Annus, it will continue to bear the imprint of Novak’s thought.

The impact of Novak’s writing on Catholicism and economic life wasn’t just felt in Rome. A samizdat translation of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism circulated in poorly printed and tattered editions among the leaders of Solidarity in Soviet-controlled Poland, helping to shape the post-Communist future of that country. The Polish government recently acknowledged Novak’s contribution to a free Poland by awarding him the Commander’s Cross with Star of the Order of Merit, one of the nation’s highest honors. The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism had a similar influence across the Tatra Mountains, in what was then Czechoslovakia.

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Novak’s thinking on economics and his critique of Marxist-influenced “liberation theologies” also helped turn the tide against an influential movement that threatened to reduce the Church in Latin America to a political agent advancing a totalitarian agenda. At the same time, his creative extension of Catholic social doctrine helped Latin American scholars, clergy, and political leaders think beyond the authoritarianism and mercantilism that had often characterized Catholic public cultures south of the Rio Grande.

Finally, it’s important to note the influence of Novak’s economic thought on an entire generation of younger thinkers, on American officeholders of all religious persuasions and none, on religious leaders of various denominations, and on business leaders and entrepreneurs throughout the world. By demonstrating how empirical rigor about the realities of economic life could be married to core principles of Catholic social doctrine and to a profoundly biblical anthropology, Novak has helped open up once-unimaginable conversations.

In Centesimus Annus, John Paul II described the free and virtuous society as composed of three interlocking parts: a democratic political community, a free economy, and a vibrant public moral culture. At the same time, he stressed the crucial importance of that third sector, culture, in disciplining and tempering the energies unleashed by freedom, so that they contributed to genuine human flourishing. The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism anticipated this tripartite portrait of the free and virtuous society. As Novak argued, “democracy . . . and the . . . market . . . require a special moral-cultural base. Without certain moral and cultural presuppositions about the nature of individuals and their communities, about liberty and sin, about the changeability of history, about work and savings, about self-restraint and mutual cooperation, neither democracy nor capitalism can be made to work.”

I remember Michael as a philosopher of the humane and the practical; it was his interest in the human person that enlivened his economic, philosophical, and theological thinking, and it was his interest in the human person that I think made his economic vision in particular so rooted and so invigorating. I think that’s captured somewhat when he wrote that democratic capitalism was meant for “neither the Kingdom of God nor [a world] without sin. Yet all other known systems of political economy are worse. Such hope as we have for alleviating poverty and for removing oppressive tyranny—perhaps our last, best hope—lies in this much despised system.”

So Michael had spent a great deal of his adult life defending a distinctly Christian understanding of human life from an American perspective. But in Ave Maria he was interested in shoring up the foundations of Catholic culture in the most practical way possible—by living in community and sharing himself with others. I had the benefit of meeting Michael as a friend of Ben, his brother. In time I had the chance to collaborate with him in assembling the letters of his martyred brother, Fr. Richard Novak, CSC. My friendship with Michael developed over scattered time together in Ave Maria and in Lewis, Delaware. In the spirit of scattered remembrance, here are some of what flickers in my memory:

First, more than anything else, Michael’s work ethic in his late 70s and early 80s was greater than I’d seen from anyone else his age. A humbling thing to be outworked by someone roughly 50 years older. I remember his routine of an end-of-the-day Manhattan, and conversation that flowed afterwards at the Queen Mary Pub or simply in the living room or lanai. The visitors, from trustees to faculty to students to townspeople to whomever, felt nearly constant. There was always someone to see, to speak with, to be present with, to talk and think and smile with together. “The Ambassador,” to Ave residents.

There’s Hollow, Michael and Ben’s beautiful wolfish doggy, hopping up on his bed and being pet. There’s his Karen’s canvased paintings hanging throughout the house, and little Christmas figurines in the kitchen. “Our father told us to think of every day as Christmas,” Ben explains.

There’s an old prayer card for Fr. Richard, long dead but alive in memory and prayed for in the family. There’s Ben and Michael, in their 70s and 80s, getting to know one another and enjoy each other. Michael’s asking about Joe Paterno, and speaking out about the injustice done to him in the media-driven rush to judgement over the crimes of those around him.

We’re in Lewes, and I’m picking him up after a night out at 1776 steakhouse. He and Ed Feulner are waiting outside as I arrive. He’s back in his third floor office the next morning, working with a view of Cape Henlopen and the departing Cape May ferry.

Face cast downward, sitting at the dinner table or in a side chair, his hand resting on his head—he had this whole “thinking” posture. It’s how I remember him most distinctly—in those long and impressive stretches he’d go without speaking until some point or decision sprung forth. There’s that mischievous smile.

I forget where I heard him described this way, but Michael could “stay full of piss and vinegar for the people who deserved it” in a fruitful way. I saw firsthand his ability to be exasperated by someone’s slowness in their work. But also gentle and thoughtful in encouraging a better approach or work ethic.

There’s Michael’s ability to think laterally that showed how he connected distant threads into coherence. There’s his literally becoming his brother Ben’s keeper in their later years. Ben and Michael are sitting together enjoying a digestif, recalling “mother and father” in a way that makes it clear they’re still alive at heart—“Mother was so proud of her French Provincial furniture, because in Johnstown that was a symbol of class even more than style.” And then there was memory of their father, who had graduated ninth grade and taught them principles of business. Their father, who had responded with such dignity to the death of Richard, his missionary son.

Michael and Ben are together, celebrating Michael’s 80th birthday at the Army-Navy Club in Washington with everyone from Clarence Thomas to Karl Rove in attendance. It was a beautiful night:

In remembering someone who was a part of your life, especially when doing it in a public or semi-public way, I think it’s natural to speak in anecdote. Great anecdotes tend to reveal those small moments where personalities are captured in their essence. Michael’s 80th birthday at the Army-Navy Club was a night of great anecdotes.

What did I learn from Michael? A bit of how to be a brother, a lot of how to work (just keep working), and some of how to gratefully and tactfully interact with those around you, especially those whom you’re seeking to influence. How to act, in broad ways—this was his sense of etiquette and propriety and discretion that probably made him a good diplomat, and that certainly made him stand apart as a man from another era.

What did Michael say about tradition? “Tradition lives because young people come along who catch its romance and add new glories to it.” What did he say about concrete things? “To know oneself is to disbelieve in utopia. To seek realism is to learn mercy.”

As much as Michael believed in Ave Maria as a chance to create an orthodox Catholic community, he recognized the limits of that vision in returning to Washington to teach at the Catholic University of America in what turned out to be the last year of his life. He had a knack for both anticipating and helping shape the future, and he explained his return to Washington this way:

Novak, who was interviewed recently by The Ave Herald, the news site of Ave Maria, says he will teach one class a week at CUA, “to baptize the idea” of the course and noted some of the issues he plans to explore with his students. “The 20th century was exhausting, fighting dictatorships and economic ideas like socialism. But we ignored the social and the cultural. If we lose those, we lose everything.”

In closing my poor man’s tribute to Michael, I want to quote something that Elizabeth Bruenig shared on Twitter when news broke of Michael’s death:

“I have a phone conversation with Michael Novak just about a month before he passed away. He said something I liked so much, I wrote it down: ‘A kind word not spoken takes something out of the fabric of what should’ve been.’ He said he had been thinking on this often lately.”

I have many “kinds words not spoken” that I have for Michael when I see him again. We think time passes too quickly in this life, but our frailty and weakness too often robs us of our agency to think, to speak, to act, and to love in the time we have. Michael lives on in my memory, urging me to make better use of the gift of this life. And wherever I gather with Catholic friends, I’ll carry Hilaire Belloc with me—one of Michael’s favorite benedictions, the sort of blessing that invites the experience of what it describes:

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine,
At least I’ve always found it so,
Benedicamus Domino!

Remembrances: Catholic University, Andreas Widmer, Sarah Blanchard, Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York TimesR.R. Reno, George Weigel, Andreas Widmer, and Ben Novak.

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Peter Lawler, RIP

I have only read the thinnest amount of Peter Augustine Lawler‘s writing, but he’s been someone in the periphery of my life who I’ve tried to pay attention to whenever possible. Peter died this week.

Nicholas Frankovich remembers:

What would a word cloud of Peter’s collected writing look like? Terms in big type would include Tocqueville, Walker Percy, southern Stoicism, Flannery O’Connor, relational life, and, of course, postmodern conservative, which he coined, or so he maintained, wryly but seriously.

Peter Lawler’s insight into our time is one that I’ve become very sympathetic to:

Peter was wary of the exaggerated individualism that he saw as the logical conclusion of “liberalism” in the classical sense of that term. He was of the view that, human nature being what it is, absolute autonomy is an illusion anyway — we are social creatures, and no amount of libertarian posing could ever change that. He was alert to the perils of collectivism but also to those of its opposite. He worried about conservatives who in their enthusiasm for free-market principles got carried away and forgot the necessity of “relational life.”

He thought that our social values were in danger of being reduced to economic values. That concern of his extended to his criticism of higher education, which, he complained, was being flattened by “the empire” of “competency,” a bureaucrat’s idea of what teachers should engender in their students.

Rod Dreher remembers him, and shared an excerpt that captures why I always find Lawler’s writing so rewarding as a reader:

Southern literature at its best is a critical account of the mind of the semi-dispossessed aristocrat. Faulkner and Walker Percy, for example, let us see the self-deception at the core of racist paternalism, as well as the neglect for the truth about natural rights taught by Jefferson. But they also let us see how empty middle-class life is from an aristocratic view, and how clueless those who so methodically devote themselves to the pursuit of happiness are about what human happiness is. True individualism, from this view, regards rights not as rooted in calculated interests but as points of honor to be exercised honorably.

Among the instances in which Southern Stoic virtue has elevated the American mind, the most obvious is Harper Lee’s character Atticus (note the name) Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus’s virtue had nothing to do with Christian charity or the liberal understanding of rights. He was courageously and paternalistically taking responsibility for his inferiors, for those who couldn’t defend themselves against the vicious mob that threatened the rule of law in the decadent South.

And then there are the Stoic characters of Tom Wolfe. There’s one who becomes “a man in full” by reading Epictetus, and so knows what to do as a rational man completely isolated in a maximum security prison. There’s also the star basketball player in I Am Charlotte Simmons who learns how to treat women and regains his manly self-confidence through absorbing—making his own—his professor’s very Stoic reading of Aristotle. In Wolfe’s novels, the foundation of coming to live according to this version of natural perfection has nothing necessarily to do with being raised with Southern “class,” but he shows us that, in the classically Southern version, becoming a member of the class of rational, responsible, relational men is a possibility available to us all.

Wolfe, by reminding us that it’s barely possible but highly countercultural to live as a natural aristocrat in our clueless and trashy time—when our institutions of higher education are the most clueless and most trashy parts of American life—frames a narrative of American moral and intellectual decline. His nostalgia for the past is meant to be selective, and it is meant, of course, to inspire personal action in the present. The purely Southern mind—like all aristocratic narratives—is a reflection on our movement away from what was best about the past. And so the Southern mind is anti-progressive, even as it suggests, with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, that the one true progress is toward wisdom and virtue in a particular human life.

Actively crafting a life

I once heard a priest tell this joke during his homily:

Three men are talking after a long night of drinking (“philosophizing”) about how they want to be remembered when they die. The first man said, “As a good father and husband.” The second man, a teacher, said, “I hope my students remember me as a good teacher.” The third man said, “I hope when my friends and family surround me in my casket they say, “Look, he’s moving!” Cue laughter.

None of us want to die, yet we do. Living meaningful lives is our daily challenge.

A friend recently shared Michael Novak’s 1996 article commemorating the death of his brother, James. I found this description of his life so fascinating:

As an independent writer and international consultant, [he] cultivated an intellectual life and a life of adventure in the nineteenth-century British style. Indeed, among his papers is a brace of short stories on daily life in Asia, conceived as the observations of an American, Somerset Maugham.

In 1995, Jim accepted a dangerous assignment as consultant to the Koh-i-Noor Foundation for Afghanistan, which required extended travel in the regions controlled by feuding Afghan guerrilla armies. One of Afghanistan’s provincial governors appointed him an “honorary colonel” in the Afghan resistance army, guaranteeing his safe passage.

Michael Novak died last week. I’ll be at his funeral in Washington tomorrow. I might share a tribute to him at some point, but I’m not sure. In the meantime, I wanted to share his remembrance of his brother.

Both shared the sense of actively cultivating an intellectual life and life of adventure. Actively crafting a life is a great strategy for living one worth remembering.

Paul Mazza

Paul Mazza died three years ago today, on March 9, 2013. I wanted to share something I wrote at the time, because I’ve been thinking about Paul lately, particularly on a recent visit to State College:

Paul will likely be most remembered for founding, along with his wife Maralyn, the South Hills School of Business and Technology. I’ll remember him as a friend, a gentleman, and though it would probably make him laugh, a mentor.

It was in 2009, I think, when I first met Paul and Maralyn Mazza. They’re the sort of figures that have a spark about them that seems no less impressive when apart. After meeting them—after seeing first-hand the presence and reality that the fuzzy concept marriage has—you can’t help but first wonder Where did they come from? and perhaps later even Can I get a bit of what they’ve got? But words in moments like this are paltry. So instead I’ll share a specific memory.

It was in December that I most recently saw Paul and his wife. They honored The Nittany Valley Society, a small cultural/historical nonprofit I’m involved with, by coming to our first “Winter Reception” in downtown State College. The Mazzas are probably the best known couple in the Nittany Valley other than the Paternos, so this really was an honor. An established couple in their eighth decade didn’t have to come out on a cold December afternoon. But they did, and they brought a warmth, humor, and attentiveness that helped define the day.

In visiting the Mazzas a few days later for what turned out to be a long and memorable evening, both Paul and Maralyn sat with us for hours in conversation. What was the state of the world as we saw it? What were we doing with ourselves? Where were we finding difficulty? What’s fun? A friend of mine jokes, “Any gathering of two or more older people ends up becoming an organ recital—what’s wrong with whose body and how often.” Even if true for most elderly, there couldn’t be a less fitting way to describe Paul (or Maralyn) Mazza.

That night Paul turned in a bit earlier than Maralyn, as he was getting ready for another trip to Italy, and had to get packing. On getting up from the table, he saw I had a copy of a book I was editing. It was a very early proof copy of The Legends of the Nittany Valley. “How much for this?” Paul asks as he fingered through the paperback.

“Oh, that’s just an early rough copy. It’s not worth anything,” I reply. “Well, I’d like to have this copy,” insists Paul with his steady, slight grin. What could I say? Paul and Maralyn Mazza became the first owners of the first physical, albeit rough, copy of the book.

As it turned out, this would be the last time I’d see Paul Mazza.

At the time, I discounted this incident in my mind. It was simply a courtesy. Indeed, in describing the conversation it sounds like nothing. But, so often, those moments that matter most in one’s life end up being described as exactly that—as nothing. A great kindness or favor reduced to, “Oh, it’s nothing. Think nothing of it.”

And so I’ll cherish this moment with Paul for precisely this reason; because for Paul Mazza, those sorts of courtesies that imply a much deeper reservoir of feeling were nothing special—that is, they were ordinary. Paul Mazza, I think, hasn’t come to be so widely respected as the epitome of a gentleman because he sought to be a gentleman, but because he sought to be good to others whenever the chance arose.

It wasn’t a conscious action, or an act. For Paul, that was life. It was nothing.

But that didn’t mean it wasn’t something to me.

A remembrance from Martin Bigsby on the Centre Daily Times obituary also struck me for its metaphor: “The lasting image I have of Paul is from part of a story he once told me in passing. He mentioned that he and his dad were among the townspeople who cleared the rocks and built Community Field – I believe it was a WPA project, if memory serves. That’s the image I get of Paul – lugging rocks and toiling to make our town better. I am so sad Paul is gone.  We need more like him. We lost one of the finest, most community minded, high quality people.”

During the dark days of November 2011 in the Nittany Valley when all Penn Staters shed tears, Paul and Maralyn penned a public letter to their friends Joe and Sue Paterno. Ben Novak read their letter on November 10, 2011 on The LION 90.7fm:

 

In their letter, they describe the many years of Paterno contributions to the good of the community. I believe Paul and Maralyn’s words describe their own life together as much as their friends the Paternos. I adapt Paul and Maralyn’s words as an epitaph for Paul himself:

“When we look back over the years, we do not see a mountain of Mazza kindnesses and accomplishments. We see entire mountain ranges of Mazza kindnesses and accomplishments.

Requiescat in pace, Paul. I hope to see you again one day.