In 2003, the President’s Council on Bioethics, led by its chairman Leon Kass, published an anthology titled simply Being Human. The Council, whose membership included Francis Fukuyama, Robert George, Mary Ann Glendon, Charles Krauthammer and James Q. Wilson, drew on a broad range of generally Western sources to assemble its 600-page, 95-item anthology. It included Job and the Book of Revelation in the Bible; Homer, Plato and Aristotle from Hellenic antiquity; Saint Augustine, Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Rousseau from the diversity of Europe; Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Walker Percy from the diversity of America.
Why such a compendium from a body chartered to consider a scientifically and philosophically technical set of issues like stem cell research and human cloning? Kass tells us:
[W]e are quick to notice dangers to life, threats to freedom, and risks of discrimination or exploitation. But we are slow to think about the need to uphold human dignity and the many ways of doing and feeling and being in the world that make human life rich, deep, and fulfilling. . . . To enlarge our vision and deepen our understanding, we need to focus not only on the astonishing new technologies but also on those (in truth, equally astonishing) aspects of “being human” on which the technologies impinge and which they may serve or threaten.
Perhaps not every Council member endorsed every selection in the anthology. But it is a serious testimony, both to the quality of his writing and to his insights into the question of what it is to be human, that the Council chose to include the work of Walker Percy. As we approach the tenth anniversary of the publication of Being Human, we are more than ever in need of his wisdom.
Walker Percy held to the belief that what is universally true about all people can only be found in the particular. His writing exudes both a sense of place and the disquiet that stems from lacking such a sense.
The particulars of his own life are well known. Born and raised in the South and educated at the University of North Carolina, he was a close friend of Shelby Foote (the latter of Ken Burns’s Civil War fame). The story is told of the two young men visiting William Faulkner, with Percy unable to speak to the author out of awed reverence. After enjoying his own literary success, Percy helped found the Society of Southern Writers, conspicuously identifying himself with his region. The posthumous collection of his essays and lectures, Signposts in a Strange Land, has several entries on “One Life in the South.”
Percy’s father committed...