By Bruce P. Frohnen
Like many of his friends, I met Gerald Russello only a few times in person. We spoke only a few times by phone and exchanged emails only on occasion. But he was always an important part of my life. As a kind, judicious, and imaginative editor, a political brother-in-arms, and an intellectual and spiritual companion he brought both comfort and joy to my life. And there was more, much more he provided through his writings and through his example and witness.
Now that his suffering has ended and he is with God and the saints, it seems proper to say that Gerald’s was a truly good and beautiful life. He was many things: Husband, father, man of deep Catholic faith, proud Italian, full-bore New Yorker, high-powered Wall Street attorney, man of letters, and deeply learned scholar with a profound understanding of life’s multiple aspects and its final, true meaning in God. His deep faith anchored a moral imagination that enabled him to be all these things, and more, while always being truly and fully himself.
Gerald was, of course, a kind man who had so many friends one wonders how he kept track of us all. In one sense I was among the least of them, for he knew me chiefly through our mutual interest in law and politics — arenas of much evil and only partial, functional goods whose chief benefit is to provide the order necessary to pursue higher, more imaginative pursuits and the more intimate goods of social life. But the lure of power too often leads men to turn law and politics into a war for dominance undermining the peace, order, and variety necessary for a good life. And Gerald had an astonishing insight into this temptation, as well as the necessity of combating it through promotion of better, higher goods.
Our shared, traditional conservatism has all but disappeared from public life and certainly from the academy. Perhaps this is why important conservatives like Gerald and Russell Kirk thought it best to make their living outside politics and academics. It also is why the kind of Christian humanism Gerald promoted in the work of Christopher Dawson, and which is at the heart of Kirk’s work, is so crucial to the survival of meaningful, civil social order.
Gerald found the key to the survival of our humanity in this passing age of calculators and into the coming, post-modern age of sentiments, especially through study of Kirk’s work. He was no mere secondary reader of Kirk, however. As he showed in his brilliant study, The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk, he understands Kirk better than perhaps anyone else and built on that understanding with crucial insights of his own. Most importantly, he eschewed today’s too-common focus on criticizing the ideologies that impose a second, false reality on the world around us. Instead, he focused on the alternative to ideology: imagination. Others have written on imagination and Kirk himself was most concerned to spell out the basics of this difficult concept. Gerald did much to understand and explain how our limited, discursive, and calculating reason is buttressed and sometimes superseded by sentiment, which is not mere emotion but something between reason and feeling, encompassing the motivations and inclinations of our hearts, formed by custom, habit, and the images presented to us by literature, art, and architecture.
Why do I bring up such a technical point of epistemology in an appreciation for a good man’s life? Because Gerald did more than anyone else to make this insight — the stuff of a philosophy higher than that of today’s logicians and ideologues — available to people seeking to understand the basis of a truly, fully human life. We are not all philosophers, of course, but for centuries now our society has been increasingly based in an inhuman understanding of reality that makes us mere “selves” — choice-makers who see the world through a series of ideological filters and so miss the glories of our being. As Gerald pointed out, and as he infused into his own literary criticism and legal and political commentary, it is the very integration of reason with imagination, couched in experience, faith, and love, that allows us to see and be fully a part of our families, churches, communities, and social order.
This is why Gerald insisted that the journal he took over from Kirk, The University Bookman, review as many books on literature and the arts as on more politicized topics. This determination reflected an understanding shared by Kirk, that quintessential man of letters, that what matters most is our understanding of who we are (unique persons made in the image and likeness of God) and why we are here (to know, love, and serve God). That understanding, seemingly so simple, is the key to fighting the true simplifiers of the modern world. Various “rationalists” have torn society apart by insisting that we are all simple beings who require simple lives, overseen by technocrats who can break down these lives into small components to be managed by a centralized state. A true, meaningful life, meanwhile, requires that we pursue the varieties of experience that make us unique, though equally imbued with human dignity, provided they are grounded in the ultimate reality of God.
It is in this light that law and politics can be seen as important. Unless the concrete structures of society — the laws and governmental powers that establish public rewards and punishments — are rooted in a healthy, variegated culture, we shall become objects more than persons, impoverished souls chained to mere appetites, calculations, and emotions. America’s constitutional order was intended to maintain the multiplicity of authorities that until recently characterized a full, though ordered, culture. Gerald saw in the breakdown of this order, frightening as it is, the possibility of a new order that could bring great evil or, if rooted in God, religion, and a moral imagination, promise for a return to fully human lives.
Gerald lived that fully human life, despite the depredations of our current age. How? By grounding himself in faith, family, and a definite place — the beleaguered New York City of faithful Italian Catholics. From here he could venture to the ends of the universe in his mind and soul, secure in the universal faith in God’s goodness and grace.
Bruce P. Frohnen is Ella and Ernest Fisher Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University’s College of Law and a Senior Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal.
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