Joseph Epstein, “Never Say You’ve Had a Lucky Life”

Joseph Epstein is what used to be called, and I guess still is, a “man of letters.”  That is, he is a writer of his own books, essays, and shorter pieces, on a wide variety of nonscientific subjects, as well as a literary critic.  If you’ve run across him lately, it’s probably through short columns that he frequently writes for the Wall Street Journal, and the topics there are generally political, and I think it’s fair to characterize him as a nondoctrinaire conservative.  He’s 87 years old, and this book is his autobiography.

It’s a rather light and very pleasant read, because Epstein is upbeat and interesting, as well as intelligent and witty, and he has crossed paths with all kinds of people in the various jobs he’s held in his life, as this book catalogues. The book captures a literary life and provides a view of American society that is positive and yet wistful in thinking that, in many ways, that society was better in the not so distant past, when Epstein was growing up, than it is now.  The secondary title of the book is, “Especially If You’ve Had a Lucky Life.”


But why talk about the book on this blogsite?  Well, to be sure, most of the book is indeed about topics that have little to do with faith generally or Christianity in particular — but it is precisely the fact that there is so little in the book to do with faith generally or Christianity in particular that I want to say just a bit about.  Let me stress that while I have some mild criticism here, it’s a good book and the author is a good man.

Epstein was sent to Hebrew school for four days a week during the years he attended grammar school and was bar mitvahed.  But the biography has only two entries for “Judaism”; neither of Epstein’s two wives were Jewish (62).  Epstein also says directly that the is not “seriously religious” (54) and more indirectly that he is a “pious agnostic” (239, describing a close friend who strongly influenced him).  On the other hand, Epstein knows about Judaism; to give just one example, he notes the command — thus, that is, the Fifth Commandment — to honor our parents (40).

So I think it is fair to describe Epstein as a secular Jew — that is, he is ethnically and culturally Jewish but is apparently without religious faith.  What’s more, his autobiography mentions no engagement with faith issues, no attempt to determine whether the Old Testament is true, or whether the claims of the New Testament and Christianity are.

Now, this seems to me to be problematic for a couple of reasons.  First, it is ironic for a politically conservative nonbeliever to lament the erosion of American morality and culture when the most obvious reason for that erosion is the decline of religious faith among Americans.  How long do you expect individuals to behave like believers when fewer and fewer individuals are believers?  How long do you expect a society to be able to live off the unreplenished moral capital of the generations that founded it?

Epstein himself at one point comes close to acknowledging this, when he writes, “Only the Jews, as far as I know, are able to live with such contradictions [he has just described how his father, a professed agnostic who belonged to no synagogue, nonetheless supported Jewish charities and Israel and “would have been greatly disappointed had any of his sons not had a bris and later a bar mitzvah” (36)], ignoring their religion, yet adhering to the culture of their coreligionists” (37).

Second, how can an intelligent intellectual not grapple with the question of God’s existence and what God wants us to do?  Especially if, as Epstein asserts on the last page of the book in its penultimate paragraph (265), he has spent most of his years “trying to figure out what is and is not important in life.”  As an ethnic Jew, it is particularly odd not to confront the question whether Yahweh is actually out there, and I must say it is in my opinion generally odd for any American — for any Westerner — not to wonder about the historicity of the Gospels.


Perhaps the answer is that Epstein did grapple with faith issues but determined that they could not be resolved and, thus, there was no point in writing about them; or maybe he just decided that this particular part of his life was not something he wished to share in this particular book.  Maybe so, but these answers are not completely satisfying either.  Regarding the latter, this is a big issue to leave out of an autobiography, particularly for an intellectual writing about his life of the mind.  Regarding the former, how can one simply shrug off faith issues as irresolvable if one is familiar with Pascal and his wager (notably, Epstein quotes Pascal on page 27)?  As Pascal says, we have no choice but to place our bet, and given the wildly different consequences of guessing right or wrong this way or the other, so long as there is much reason to believe then one is foolish not to cultivate one’s faith.

That Epstein may well have done some grappling, by the way, is evidenced by this quote (259):  “Is it possible to believe in a higher power and yet not, in the conventional religious sense, have faith that that power is looking over one?  It had better be, for this is my condition.”  And I’m not even sure he lacks that faith, since on the preceding page (258) he asserts, “I wake every morning, touch the top of the night table beside my bed, and say, ‘Thank you for another day.'”  One assumes he is not thanking the night table.

Again, I’m a fan of Joseph Epstein, I enjoyed his book, and maybe it’s wrong for me to fault him for failing to discuss a topic enough when, after all, it’s his autobiography and his life.  It’s just that, as discussed, the topic seems underaddressed given his outlook and priorities.