Peter Stanlis, who died on July 18, aged 91, was Distinguished Professor of Humanities, Emeritus, at Rockford College and a world authority on Edmund Burke and Robert Frost. His scholarship and sheer intellectual courage reconfigured Burke studies by expounding the role of the moral natural law in Burke’s thought in more than thirty scholarly publications. Peter will also be remembered for his extraordinary energy in promoting conversation and scholarship in and beyond the walls of Academe, a role that made him one of the most influential American men of letters in the twentieth century.
In 1951, Peter, having just completed his doctoral dissertation on Burke at the University of Michigan, chanced upon a copy of Russell Kirk’s Randolph of Roanoke and found the author to be one of only two scholars (the other was Ross J. Hoffman) who, without communication, appeared to understand the basis of Burke’s politics as he did. Early correspondence between the two developed into a lifelong friendship, and Kirk wrote a foreword for Peter’s first book, Edmund Burke and the Natural Law (1958), that is remarkable for its identification of two key themes in Peter’s revolutionary reading of Burke: “Dualism and covenant,” Kirk wrote, “these ideas suffuse Burke’s interpretation of Natural Law, and give that abused phrase meaning in the twentieth century.” In highlighting these two terms, Kirk was signaling the power that Peter’s understanding of Burke contained for overturning well-entrenched views of the “Enlightenment” and the purchase such understanding might exert in uncovering the real intellectual roots of the ideological tyrannies of the twentieth century. The passage, therefore, not only reaches to the heart of why the grounding of Burke’s thought in the classical-Christian tradition of the moral natural law marked such a break from academic orthodoxy, but also points to how, in Peter’s own words, that work helped to establish Burke’s principles “as the basis of modern American political conservatism.”
Furthermore, “dualism and covenant” illuminate the connection between Peter’s reading of Burke and his earlier engagement with the poetry of Robert Frost, which developed out of his first meeting with Frost at the Bread Loaf School of English, after his freshman year at Middlebury College, in 1939. That intellectual friendship, which lasted up to the poet’s death in 1963, has been described by Jeffrey Nelson as “one of the happiest and most consequential facts of Stanlis’s life.” The insights it gave Peter into Frost’s poetry and philosophy are relived, for the early years, in his absorbing volume Conversations with Robert Frost: The Bread Loaf Period (2009), and they provide the key theme for his most recent scholarly monograph, Robert Frost: The Poet as Philosopher (2007). Frost emerges from these studies as a man to whom, in Peter’s words, “[t]he monism of the spirit was an abuse of religion, just as the monism of matter was an abuse of science,” and who held, in resistance to those contending totalitarian inclinations, that “all of man’s beliefs respecting man are somehow related to his belief in God.”
Peter’s scholarly achievements in the “world of ideas” were built, certainly, upon an unrivaled knowledge of the primary and secondary sources for his subjects, a prodigious memory, and extraordinary intellectual courage. They were fortified, too, by his participation in the world of “practical politics,” where he continued to work out the themes that render Burke’s thought perennially relevant. While a professor at the University of Detroit, he served on the city council and as a member of the Constitutional Commission for the state of Michigan. In 1982, he was appointed by President Reagan to a six-year term as a member of the National Council on the Humanities. When asked in a recent interview for this journal just how dead he thought Edmund Burke to be today, he answered with a characteristically oblique but deadly strike, that “for people who are alive, vital, and interested in what’s going on in the world, and who have some sense of history and how the past has shaped the present, Burke is very much alive.”
Indeed, dismissive of the “bookful blockhead, ignorantly read, / With loads of learned lumber in his head” and of those “pseudo-intellectuals” who mistake ignorance and neglect of their predecessors for originality, Peter matched his own legacy as a truly creative scholar with inspirational enthusiasm and inexhaustible energy as a mentor and patron of humane learning. His commitment to authentic intellectual conversation is revealed nowhere more fully than in his prodigious work as an editor, anthologist, and bibliographer—from establishing the Burke Newsletter (later Studies in Burke and His Time) in 1959, and nurturing it through its first twelve years, to publishing, in 1963, what is still the best anthology of Burke’s works, Edmund Burke: Selected Writings and Speeches, and compiling, twenty years later, with Clara I. Gandy, Edmund Burke: A Bibliography of Secondary Studies to 1982. All three projects remain indispensable resources for serious research on Burke. One is left to marvel at how, on top of all this, Peter found time to participate in the establishment of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, and serve (the list is nowhere near exhaustive) as a director of the Rockford Institute, an adviser to the Russell Kirk Center, a faculty associate for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and a convener of numerous Liberty Fund conferences—the latter being my own humbling introduction to the vibrancy of Burke studies in America, in 1997, from which I returned to Great Britain with vividly fresh perspectives on Burke and conservatism, and, shortly thereafter, a wife.
But for readers of the University Bookman, perhaps, more than many, it is Peter’s dedicated legacy to those cardinal links between the Republic of Letters and the world of work that should yield its interest most abundantly in the years ahead. Let me give one example. I heard of Peter’s death while I was en route to Tampa, Florida, where I was due to speak to a small gathering of professionals who meet monthly, under the name of the “Paradiso Club,” to discuss history and politics over dinner and a glass of claret. The club’s convener, Dr. Charles Martin, had got to know Peter and his work after hearing him speak at a seminar at the Russell Kirk Center in 2009, and, over the next year, Peter lent enthusiastic support to his idea of establishing some form of society on a regular basis in Tampa. It was entirely fitting, then, that, six months ago almost to the day, Peter christened the “Paradiso Club” with an inaugural talk on the American and French revolutions. Now it is precisely such “George Ade societies,” nestling in the discreet folds of the Republic of Letters, thickening the bands by which the world of ideas and the humane business of the world are richly combined, that bear witness to those special qualities in which Peter excelled and that invigorate his writings: the curiosity, imagination, and sheer dauntless energy that can only come from a deeply providential awareness of man’s created nature.
My strongest image of Peter? It is one borrowed from Dr. Martin, who, as we shared our own memories, recalled Peter for me in unforgettable terms: seated in a pontoon boat, on a cold and windy winter’s afternoon in Florida, engaged in an impromptu excursion to search out manatees on the Homosassa River, baseball cap dipped resolutely against the discomfort of the wind, body erect, facing the choppy waters, and that glint of the sheer joy of life in his eyes:
et lux perpétua lúceat ei!
Ian Crowe, a Senior Fellow of the Russell Kirk Center, is associate professor of history at Brewton-Parker College and editor of Studies in Burke and His Time.
Farewell to a great friend, Burke scholar, and one of the most influential American men of letters in the twentieth century.