The Other War on Poverty

In the current issue of National Affairs, Leon Kass writes a fascinating essay on “The Other War on Poverty,” namely, “spiritual poverty.” Here are the concluding paragraphs:

The discerning reader will have noticed that, although I have traveled on only secular terrain, I have not exactly left religion behind. While deliberately avoiding any specific doctrine, I have presented a picture of our humanity that emphasizes the aspirations and longings of the human soul, aspirations that are ours because we alone among the creatures stand in the world as beings in quest of a calling. Unless and until our aspirations are crushed by the cynicism of bad teachers or the despair of devastating defeats, in our hearts we live looking for an upward path — toward worthy work, love, service, and understanding. Whether we know it or not, we are, as Irving Kristol so aptly put it describing himself, theotropic — oriented toward the divine — because we sense in ourselves and in our fellow human beings a divine-like possibility and a penchant for the good.

And that thought leads to perhaps the most important — and often misunderstood — subject of hope, the one indispensable virtue. Hope is different from optimism, a belief that this is the best of all possible worlds and that everything will turn out well in the end. Hope is also more than a feeling; it is an attitude or disposition, an orientation, a way of being and holding oneself in the world. As a disposition, hope is deeper even than the sum total of our particular hopes for this or that future outcome. For even when — or perhaps especially when — specific future hopes are disappointed, the posture of hope — a strange fusion of trust, belief, and upward orientation of the will — still enables us to live and act trusting that the world is still and always the sort of place that can answer to the highest and deepest human aspirations.

In this most fundamental sense, hope is not a hope for change, but an affirmation of permanence, of the permanent possibility of a meaningful life in a hospitable world. Hope in this sense is not only a Judeo-Christian virtue. It is not only the most essential — and abundant — American virtue. It is the condition of the possibility of all human endeavor and all human fulfillment.

Yes, there is still much spiritual poverty in America. But we go forward with confidence that our spiritual hungers can yet be nurtured in this almost promised land, provided that we have the courage to insist that the well-being of the spirit is central to our notion of national success and personal flourishing. This war on poverty — on our spiritual poverty — will not add a cent to the deficit. It can enrich our lives beyond measure.


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