Historian and political theorist Ignatieff (A Just Measure of Pain) is troubled that we've lost track of a way to talk about, and hence think about, the kinds of human needs that can't be expressed purely in physical or bodily terms. He's worried about whether we can talk about the needs of other people at all. In thinking through these questions, Ignatieff meditates on the fate of King Lear, torn loose from familial obligation, forced to justify his needs (""O, reason not the need!""), and ultimately reduced to a bare body on the heath--which Ignatieff sees as the location of an atomized society. To get a handle on the distinction between need and desire and the choice between them, Ignatieff turns to St. Augustine, who emphasized two kinds of freedom in the matter: the freedom to choose and the freedom that comes from knowing that one has made the right choice. The second kind of freedom is tied to Grace, and Ignatieff's discussion of modern writers is tied to the problem of what to substitute for Grace: how can we constitute a collective meaning to make such freedom possible apart from faith? Among those writers are Adam Smith and David Hume, who thought it could be done through a combination of ""metaphysics and the market""--that is, by individual self-examination--and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx, who looked the other way, to an indentification of self and community. But Ignatieff is still looking for a way to express the needs people have for respect and belonging in a modern world without shared meanings and firm roots, and in the end he turns to modern artists--Hopper, Joyce, Kundera--for a way to understand the ""fleeting and transient solidarity"" of modern life. In modern art, he thinks, we can find a language for needs. It's not much of a hope, and relatively unexplored here, but the getting there is all. A sensitive, often moving reflection.