Well-deserved tributes are pouring forth for Michael Novak, who died yesterday at the age of 83. It’s frankly hard to know where to begin in praising him.
His scholarship and writing—he was the author of more than four dozen books—evinced an extraordinary combination of depth and range, though it is likely his most lasting work will be his 1982 classic The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. In offering a moral case for the market economy that also grasped its moral limits and risks, Novak reached back to the roots of modern economic thought and helped recover not only the moral philosophy of Adam Smith but also its much deeper foundations. The immense influence of that book is easy to overlook now, but it really launched a revival of the non-libertarian, anti-utopian moral case for capitalism, and it is the reason why that kind of case to this day is still most frequently articulated in the vocabulary of Catholic social teaching, even by us non-Catholics. The legacy of that book alone, let alone of his scholarship more broadly, would be enough to mark Novak as a giant.
But for those who had the privilege to know him (and I knew him far less well than some around here), it was Michael’s generosity of spirit and sheer kindness that really marked him out. He would go absurdly far out of his way to offer a kind word, especially to a younger person or a student. In any gathering, he would instinctively plant himself next to the person who seemed most out of place or anxious and start a conversation aimed at putting that person at ease. In a formal discussion, he would wait for some consensus to take shape and then speak up for whoever seemed forgotten by the group’s agreement. This generous compassion never seemed forced. It was natural to him, which made it all the more impressive.
Books are important, and arguments matter, but Novak’s lavish kindness is what I thought of when I heard the sad news of his passing yesterday, and what so often distinguished him. Our country was lucky to have him.
Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.