Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Daniel Callahan: On Living (Well) within Limits

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Daniel Callahan: On Living (Well) within Limits

Article excerpt

On 15 July 1974 Time Magazine presented a portfolio of young American leaders (under forty-five years of age) whom it dubbed "200 Faces for the Future." The cur haired, but now graying, man who we honor this evening, Daniel Callahan, made Time's list of soaring young eagles - along with Bob Packwood of Oregon.

We might differ over various names on Time's list, but not about Dan Callahan's claim to be there. Across the last twenty years, while leaders in the U.S. have struggled simply to keep existing institutions afloat, Dan Callahan and Will Gaylin launched an institution that has actually made a difference in American life, by creating a new field of interdisciplinary inquiry and by affecting how we understand our birthing, living, aging, and dying.

I have been asked to comment on Dan's own published works. However, we should note first that he has spent most of his time supporting the writing of others, not his own. Charles Curran, the Catholic ethicist, tells me that he once asked Dan what he was up to - since Curran hadn't read anything by Dan recently. Dan replied, "Charlie, that's because you haven't been rummaging in my files to read my collected foundation proposals." Still, he has published some thirty-two books across the last thirty years, including - in addition to those he edited - a remarkable series of his own.

In creating The Hastings Center, Dan has also affected the very substance and style of academic writing. Academicians seldom venture beyond the territorial boundaries of the disciplines that educate them, credential them, promote them, and honor them with retirement dinners. Academic writing has been excessively filial, oriented upward to the gate-keepers for each discipline, and insufficiently collegial, oriented outward, to intelligent inquirers from other fields. The academy has largely lost the Renaissance tradition of the public essay. We have forgotten that Machiavelli wrote The Prince, not to impress the gatekeepers in political science but to advise princes.

Few academicians on the American scene today have fulfilled the role of public intellectual - venturing out beyond dipciplinary boundaries to speak on questions of public interest and the common good. The Hastings Center has provided just such an intellectual commons; and its founder and leader, himself a graceful practitioner of the art of public discourse, has encouraged and supported academicians of every stripe to move out of their ghetto enclaves to work in that commons.

But now to turn to the over-riding themes in Callahan's own work. The titles of his last three books conveniently highlight them. He titled the first book Setting Limits: of Medical Goals in an Aging Society, and the second, What Kind of Life: the Limits of Medical Progress. The third book then grapples with the ultimate limit, death, under the title The Troubled Dream of Life: Living with Mortality.

In arguing for the moral necessity of learning how to respect and set limits, Dan Callahan swims against a very powerful stream in Western life and thought. At the very outset of the modern world, the great troubadour of the Renaissance, Pico della Mirandola, celebrated the limitless creativity of humankind. To every other creature, God gave a specific nature, but to man, God gave no particular nature, letting man fashion himself. " shapeless chameleon," gushed Pico, as he enthused over a creature who, in effect, was God's own clone, participating in the limitless creativity of divinity itself. The later romantics, with a taste and yearning for the boundless, the infinite, picked up on this theme; they celebrated the self as transcending all determinate social, cultural, and political forms.

In the early seventeenth century, a second troubadour spoke from another quarter of Western life. Francis Bacon heralded the advent of modern science, the technologies that science would yield, and the powers that these technologies would eventually give us over the limits of creation - all for the benefit of humankind. …

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