Restoring the Meaning of Conservatism: Writings from Modern Age
by George A. Panichas.
ISI Books (Wilmington, Del.)
350 pp., $18.00 paper, 2008

A nationally known conservative figure recently remarked in the presence of this writer, “The American conservative movement is dead. It had a great run while it lasted; but while there is still a large number of men and women who are conservative or call themselves conservative, the movement itself is dead.”

Needless to say, these are sobering words. At a time when conservatives are seeking direction, when “progressive” champions are strutting and preening victoriously, proclaiming it their destiny to make all things new, it can bedisheartening to muse upon what has been lost. And it is cold comfort to cite H. L. Mencken’s words that nobody ever lost money by betting on the stupidity of the American people, or the Sage of Baltimore’s definition of democracy as “the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

In a less colorful but more thoughtful vein, we are reminded of Russell Kirk’s cautionary words from his essay “Enlivening the Conservative Mind.” In this short piece, Kirk warned that many cultural gains conservatism has painstakingly attained over the course of decades past can be—and indeed, now have been—undone by complacent stupidity. Kirk wrote: “[Unless] conservatives show the rising generation what requires to be conserved, and how to go about the work of preservation with intelligence and imagination—why, the present wave of conservative opinion will break upon a stern and rockbound coast, perhaps with a savage behind every giant tree.”

Kirk’s point is that within this or any other democratic culture, cocky triumphalism, economic prosperity, or even democracy itself are not enough to ensure order, justice, freedom, and a civil society. For there must be within any democratic society or culture worthy of the name a seasoning of people possessing “intelligence and imagination” who embrace the permanent things—those timeless norms we ignore at our peril—and who recognize that we are accountable not only to ourselves but to each other and to God.

If ever the very idea of conservatism needed defining afresh or restoration, the time is at hand; for during the many years since the Reagan Revolution, the self-styled “mavericks” and high-gloss “conservatives” of the Sunday-morning television chat-fests have together gone far toward blurring the word’s meaning into a muddy scrawl. All too often, these specialists in name-calling, clever turns of phrase, political gamesmanship, and armed messianic internationalism have inadvertently given credence to Lionel Trilling’s long-ago criticism that conservatives do not traffic in ideas, but in “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” Many persons of an ostensibly conservative mind draw a line in the sand, each claiming to believe in something, but none understanding the lessons of history or why he believes as he does. Conservatism, to such people, has something to do with flag-waving, attaining political power, and becoming wealthy. Or . . . or something.

As things stand at present, conservatives may well spend many years in the wilderness regrouping, rethinking, and re-strategizing, seeking to shore the movement’s fragments against their ruins. For truly, as Dr. George A. Panichas has written, as things stand, “we now find ourselves in the midst of a crisis of conservatism that is also a crisis of standards, language, and points of reference,” a time when the best truly lack all conviction and the worst are filled with a passionate intensity. “Perhaps, as the ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus tells us,” he writes, “only in agony will we learn wisdom.”

In Restoring the Meaning of Conservatism, Dr. Panichas gathers his many essays, articles, and reviews originally published in Modern Age—the conservative review he edited for over a quarter century—to form a battlement of fragments, to reaffirm or re-teach conservatism’s standards, language, and points of reference. While the author is best known for his scholarship related to Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, Simone Weil, Irving Babbitt, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, he relegates his references to these giants in Modern Age to scattered but well-considered brief references and a single essay on Lawrence near the end of this worthwhile volume. At the outset he seeks to answer the overarching question, “What is conservatism?” as a strong foundation for all that is to follow—and his definition is entirely in line with the various definitions of conservatism offered over the course of a long career by the founder of Modern Age, Russell Kirk.

Dr. Panichas writes, “Conservatism stands for enduring values; when one speaks, then, of the moral sense or the historical sense or the religious sense, one can also speak of the conservative sense as an indwelling quality: a predisposition and an interior recognition of the idea of transcendence and the human need to soar beyond collectivist nets thrown around the social self by sociopolitical, socioeconomic, and sociohistorical forces conditioned by naturalistic, relativistic, and doctrinal considerations.” He adds “Ultimately conservatism and conservatorship are continuous and integral qualities of a universal perspective and a conjoined ascent on the ladder of affirmation, reverence, wisdom, tradition: a belief in the supernatural nature of man and woman, and the pursuit of moral principles and virtues that redeem the time and sanctify life.”

At a shallow first glance, Dr. Panichas’s words might bring a gleam of recognition to the eyes of any progressive who might behold them: Yes, that’s what we believe, too. So what? But a closer look reveals key themes that arise here and throughout the essays in Restoring the Meaning of Conservatism that are anathema to much of modern thought: continuity, tradition, reverence, virtue, the permanent things, and aversion to collectivism. This is a conservatism that is, in Kirk’s famous phrase, concerned “first of all, for the regeneration of spirit and character—with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded.” Dr. Panichas holds this concept and these themes as key to restoring the meaning of conservatism, even as they were in Kirk’s works and in Bruce Frohnen’s admirable early book, Virtue and the Promise of Conservatism (1993).

Dr. Panichas refers to conservatism not as an attitude, a philosophy, or an idea, but as a way of looking at and living life. And this inevitably leads into recurrent discussions of the ongoing culture wars within American society. In 1998 he was moved to write, “The war we are engaged in, infinitely subtle and intensive, and the consequences of which have worldwide ramifications, is now being waged on the American front. Terrible battles now rage in the classrooms of our schools, in the chambers of government, in the sanctuaries of our churches and temples, in our city streets, in our courts of law—and, always and inevitably, in the hearts, minds, and souls of all Americans.” He adds, “Epic in magnitude these battles affect the order, or the disorder, to echo Eric Voegelin, not only of society but also of the soul in its component parts, and thus they constitute a total war.”

This is a war between those who envision America as a land of ordered freedom and those who envision America as a nation that has evolved to a point (in the words of B. F. Skinner) “beyond freedom and dignity,” needing to mold its citizens to form obedient, correct-thinking ciphers of an omnicompetent government. The Siren song of such a government is soothing and compelling—“Relax: we’ll do your thinking for you and give you everything you want”—but its end is servitude and boredom. The infantile desire to be taken care of, cosseted and cocooned away from all the world’s sharp edges, often lies at the heart of the modern liberal mind. Men and women who seek to chart their own courses in life—in faith, amid traditional understandings of community, and holding to the virtues of old—are to be viewed as cold-hearted obstacles to a Shining Future, viewed in much the same way a farmer views stubborn tree stumps in his field: to be plowed around until they rot and can be easily removed.

What ought the thinking conservative do to restore that which is forever slipping away, in a world in which gained causes are forever slipping away toward becoming lost causes, and vice versa? How then should we live to redeem such a time as the one in which we live? As is revealed in the 38 essays included in the present volume—on the state of the humanities, the state of Christian faith in America, modern literary criticism, and much else—Dr. Panichas believes we must: read the works of Kirk, Babbitt, Weaver, Eliot, and the other conservative greats, and then engage with the culture at large to effect positive renewal.

When asked these very questions, Dr. Panichas’s mentor, Kirk, would cite the title of an old hymn he remembered from his boyhood: “Brighten the corner where you are.” Live a life of humility and virtue, quietly and in a faithful walk with God and one’s neighbors. Kirk held as an exemplar his old friend T. S. Eliot, the “gentle dignity” of whose life won over many who denigrated his work, finding admirers in former opponents who “gradually found themselves persuaded by his honesty and his depth of feeling. And the seed of the spirit he sowed, though falling among tares, may yet germinate in fields that have lain fallow.”

Courage, faith, character, and imagination are key to this renewal; for only for ashort time can a culture live on the bank and capital of its faithful past. In time, a reckoning comes about, and “the Gods of the Copybook Headings, with terror and slaughter return.” In time, lean and hungry barbarians who care not at all about lofty rhetoric or high-minded talk about “the end of history” will seek to take by force what they can; and these modern-day Morlocks will find the effete Eloi of today helpless before them. And do not be mistaken: the helpless unborn, the physically and mentally imperfect, and the elderly will be the first to go to the wall—in the name of compassion and efficiency. During the last century, in a world caught up in self-centered frivolity as it hurtled toward the worst economic collapse in modern history a conservative giant wrote: “The world is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilised but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail, but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time; so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the Dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilisation, and save the World from suicide.” This very admonition is at the heart of Dr. Panichas’s thought.

As noted above, Kirk wrote that the modern conservative is concerned, “first of all, for the regeneration of spirit and character—with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded.” Of these words he concluded “This is conservatism at its highest.” He may well have also added words to which Dr. Panichas would readily assent: “This is the essence of conservatism”—and this is what he defines and for which he pleads in Restoring the Meaning Conservatism.

James E. Person Jr. is the author of Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (Madison Books) and Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow (Cumberland House).