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George Panichas, the Courage of Judgment, and Modern Age

Winter/Spring 2011 - Vol. 53, Nos. 1 - 2


This contribution to George Panichas: A Tribute appears in the Winter-Spring 2011 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.


When Russell Kirk and Henry Regnery first floated the idea of The Conservative Review, “a magazine of controversy,” in the Southern Observer in August 1955, they were cautiously optimistic that it might exert a genuine if indirect influence over the intellectual life of the nation. They proposed a bimonthly magazine with “two principal purposes”: “to stimulate private taste and judgment, and to give some degree of coherence to our society.” The occasion for such a publication was “a marked decline of the reflective review” over the preceding two decades. While Kirk and Regnery conceded that the decline of thoughtful reading was caused in some measure by “new diversions”—they mention “the automobile, the radio, the motion picture”—as well as the defectiveness of American education, they were nonetheless convinced that the serious journal was mainly a victim of the economic dislocation of the Great Depression. Hence it seemed there was reason to anticipate that a serious bimonthly magazine could find a sufficient audience: “We do not have so low an opinion of American minds and hearts as to believe that only six or seven thousand people in the nation think, or need to think, the rest being sufficiently cared for by the ephemeral press.” The extent of Kirk’s and Regnery’s optimism may be gauged by what was offered as a modest goal: “We do not expect our subscription list ever to exceed fifty thousand, and we can do our work with fewer than that.”1

When the “new review,” Modern Age, actually appeared two years later, its scope was somewhat more restrained. “Conservative review” was relegated to the subtitle, and it had become a quarterly review rather than a bimonthly magazine. In an opening “Apology for a New Review,” which is largely a revision of the original Southern Observer piece, Russell Kirk mentions no subscription numbers and praise of “American minds and hearts” is muted. Nevertheless, the tone is still comparatively optimistic. “For the time being,” Kirk writes, “our numbers will appear quarterly; later, if your interest appears to justify more frequent publications, we may make the review monthly.”2

When he assumed the editorship of Modern Age more than twenty-five years later in the winter of 1984, fourth in succession after Kirk, Eugene Davidson, and David S. Collier, the mood of the late George A. Panichas was considerably less sanguine. The brief essay with which he inaugurated his tenure, “In Continuity: An Editorial Restatement,” projects a tone of dismay, defiant but embattled. “To speak for continuity in a predominantly liberal society invites derision,” he complains. His assessment of the state of the nation and the world is grim:

The passage from discontinuity to Dis, it seems, is not unusual if one is to judge by the existent conditions of American (and Western) civilization. Indeed, it is the relentless speed with which this passage has been made that is so frightening. Little or nothing to contain the momentum is evident; no inner check, as it were, is deemed an appropriate measure to be applied correctively to our expansive temperament and mischievous habits.3

In his inaugural essay, Russell Kirk had recalled, with mischievous humor, a character in The New Grub Street who promised to “scarify” upon founding a new critical review. “We, however, have no intention of scarifying,” Kirk remarked; “we think the American mind and the American heart, in this hour, require something more generous.”4 One could never accuse George Panichas of “scarifying,” but his judgment of our cultural situation in the 1980s and beyond is sufficiently scary.

To understand this difference in outlook and tone between the first editor of Modern Age and a recent successor, whose tenure ended a scant three years ago, will furnish us with the opportunity to dwell not only upon the distinctive contribution of George Panichas to conserving and extending the legacy created by Russell Kirk, but also to reflect further upon the social and moral milieu in which he carried out his duties. A conventional conservative Republican may well have been taken aback by Panichas’s evident lack of enthusiasm for the state of American politics at the beginning of 1984. During the year so ominously marked out by George Orwell, the most conservative presidential administration in living memory was drawing to the end of a first term that was highly successful according to all the standard political and economic indicators, and Ronald Reagan would be swept back into office by a comfortable majority of voters the following November. The Soviet Union, in the midst of its disaster in Afghanistan, was already beginning to wilt under the varying but equally relentless pressure exerted by President Reagan and his ally Margaret Thatcher, on the one hand, and Pope John Paul II, on the other. Growing economic prosperity and the rise of the Christian right were also regarded as positive signs: conservative politics and traditional religion seemed resurgent in America and throughout the world. In some quarters, history was thought to have ended by the early 1990s.

Why was George Panichas so gloomy? A superficial answer—as superficial as the potted summary of the 1980s that I have just supplied—would be that he foresaw the last ten years. He was not an astrologer or soothsayer, however, but a prophet; that is, he had a deep insight into human nature and history as depicted in the great works of intellect, imagination, and spirit that constitute the Western canon. Hence he knew that political and military triumph and economic success are always ephemeral, and that no social order or culture can last for any length of time unless its moral and religious foundations are firm. In his opening remarks to the first issue of Modern Age edited by George Panichas, Henry Regnery offers the following account of Panichas’s qualifications for the job: “He is a professor of English, but no pedant, a conservative, but as Austin Warren says of him, neither a doctrinaire nor programmatic conservative, and as the many essays and reviews he has contributed to Modern Age clearly show, he has a discerning mind, high critical standards, and the will to apply them.” Regnery goes on to say, “We live in a time of dissolution,” and “In such a time what Panichas calls ‘the courage of judgment,’ the willingness to call things by their right names, is desperately needed.”5The Courage of Judgment is, of course, the title of one of George Panichas’s most important books, and in that title he identifies what may be the essential attribute of the editor of a quarterly review.

The editor of such a publication has to make a great many decisions in addition to the obvious one of choosing which submissions are published and which are not. He must decide which books will be reviewed and at what length, and who the reviewers will be. He must set a certain tone and style for the journal if it is to have an identity, and determine what the balance will be between older established figures of recognized attainment and younger emerging writers of promise. The range of topics, the extent to which the topics selected and their treatment gravitate toward the timely or the timeless, the degree to which the authors write in a scholarly or academic or somewhat more popular mode—these are all ways of shaping a journal’s profile within the discretion of an editor. In the course of nearly a quarter of a century, George Panichas brought to pass with admirable consistency the goal of continuity that he set for himself in his first issue: continuity stretching back through the tenures of David Collier and Eugene Davidson to the editing principles of the founder, Russell Kirk.

A reconsideration of Kirk’s initial proposal, devised with the collaboration of Henry Regnery, as well as of his introductory note to the first issue of Modern Age reveals, underneath the apparent divergence in tone between his “optimism” and Panichas’s “pessimism,” a fundamental agreement in their estimation of the condition of American moral and intellectual life in the latter half of the twentieth century. Although Kirk had kind things to say about the minds and hearts of Americans in both versions of the journal’s prospectus and was undoubtedly inspired with confidence at the outset of such a brave endeavor, he saw the situation with which the journal was to deal as very grave indeed. Modern Age was not a casual undertaking for satisfying the vanity of authors and providing entertainment for readers: “modern society cannot endure—and its survival is immediately in question—without discussion among thinking men.”6 Notwithstanding the political success enjoyed by the Republican Party and the new prominence of conservatism in public discourse in 1984, there was even less “discussion among thinking men” at that time than thirty years before; the signs of cultural decadence and moral and spiritual degradation were a terror to behold.

Panichas took note of the discrepancy between the essay that introduced his first issue of Modern Age and Kirk’s remarks more than twenty-five years earlier:

The note of hopefulness with which Kirk concluded his editorial statement has, regrettably, less justification today when one views the present cultural situation as it lies ensnared in the nets of deconstructionism, of fragmentation, of what Sr. Ortega prophetically called “extremism as a way of life.”7

While Kirk had expressed a certain enthusiasm for the Reagan presidency and clearly found much to admire in the man,8 it is also true that he was fully aware that, at a more fundamental level, the tide had set against a restoration of a traditional society of decency and order. Decadence and Renewal in the Higher Learning: An Episodic History of American University and College Since 1953 (published in 1978), treating roughly the period between his editing of Modern Age and that of George Panichas, deals considerably more with decadence than renewal, which is a matter of hope rather than palpable reality; and Redeeming the Time ends on a rather elegiac note: “Providence, it seems, is quite as often retributory as it is beneficent, and ordinarily Providence operates through human agency. In the hope of moving the thoughts and sentiments of some few people who might become, all unwitting or unwilling, Providence’s instruments for the renewal of moral and political order—why, in that hope these lectures were delivered.”9

It is difficult to imagine, therefore, that Kirk would have disagreed with Panichas’s prescription for the mission of conservatives and of the place of Modern Age within that mission: “We need more than ever, then, to think as moral realists as we contemplate a disorientation that is spiritually both invasive and pervasive.” The core of real conservatism is, then, not a matter of election campaigns and policy initiatives. It is, rather, the maintenance of society’s awareness of the basic moral and spiritual realities without which all political activity is futile: “We need to begin with spiritual premises,” Panichas continues, “before we can even begin to deal with, or hope to alter, the political framework of life.”10 In this view George Panichas is undoubtedly of one mind with the journal’s founder, who had wryly written, “We shall not pretend to be able to predict next fall’s election or next year’s revolution.” Instead, he had claimed, “By ‘conservative,’ we mean a journal dedicated to conserving the best elements in our civilization; and those best elements are in peril nowadays.”11

George Panichas was, therefore, an ideal successor to Russell Kirk and fulfilled adroitly the pledge to execute an editorial policy “in continuity” with Kirk’s. Panichas seized on a key sentence in Kirk’s original statement and made it central to his own editorial procedure: “Modern Age intends to pursue a conservative policy for the sake of liberal understanding.” Kirk clarified this gnomic utterance by further observing, “We are not ideologists: we do not believe we have all the remedies for all the ills to which flesh is heir.”12 What Panichas grasped was that Kirk envisioned Modern Age as a vehicle for the salvation of all that is gracious and illuminating in the term liberal—liberal learning, liberal understanding, liberality in conduct and spirit—from the long slide of political, really ideological, liberalism into Gnostic progressivism. Anyone who seeks to find the liberal spirit of inquiry and comprehension during the years 1984 through 2007—that is, imaginative and reflective writing that would be acknowledged as “liberal” by figures like Lionel Trilling or Mark Van Doren—will have far more success perusing the pages of Modern Age than he would in The New Republic or The New Yorker.

Given the brevity of his original statement, Kirk gives fairly specific and concrete instruction about how this might be achieved:

We are endeavoring to publish a journal which will make it possible for contributors to write and think as well as they possibly can. We shall not try to be popular, and we shall not try to be didactic. We shall not be afraid of the long essay, or the long review article, or of wit. We hope to publish a few distinguished short stories, and some good verse. We shall encourage the debate and the symposium.13

There is not a single item on this list that is not accounted for handsomely in the twenty-four volumes of Modern Age edited by George Panichas, and it is worth considering how these categories of writing contribute to “conserving the best elements in our civilization.” We must also grasp the importance of an editor’s good judgment—and the absolutely crucial necessity of his wielding the courage of judgment.

Enabling “contributors to write and think as well as they possibly can” requires both courage and judgment. An editor must be able to judge the soundness of both thought and its expression, and courage is required in two ways: first, he must be able to say “no” to inferior or simply unsuitable work by prominent authors or require work that has been done hastily or thoughtlessly to be substantially revised; and, second, he must have confidence that the journal’s readers can tell the difference between the name of the writer and the quality of the essay. The editor must often ask his subscribers to trust his judgment that an essay by a young or unheard-of author is worth the investment of time and effort. The consistently high level of writing and thinking published in Modern Age over the course of George Panichas’s years as editor and the remarkable blend of familiar and unfamiliar, old and young, famous and nearly anonymous contributors is ample evidence that he achieved the tasks of selection and Socratic “midwifery” in a way that would have pleased Russell Kirk.

The negatives are as important as the affirmatives: avoiding the temptation to court popularity and relinquishing the “didactic” urge are also matters of courage and judgment. The lure of popularity is not difficult to understand: it may inspire an increase in the proportion of the populace buying subscriptions, thus helping to defray the cost of production—an attractive prospect for the publisher. In the realm of the quarterly review or of any serious periodical, this would not be attempted by running a celebrity gossip column or featuring glossy photographs of adorable pets; it would be rather a matter of predicting “next fall’s election or next year’s revolution,” focusing on the “news” of immediate political contexts or policy issues of the kind that “political junkies” find riveting. Panichas was not tempted by this kind of popular discourse. In the four issues of 1992, for example, there is not a single essay or review dealing with George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, or H. Ross Perot. There is, to be sure, a learned essay dealing with the long-term claims of syndicated columnist George Will to be an authentic conservative voice;14 in much the same way, Modern Age might publish an informed analysis of the effects of opinion polling on the American electoral process—but not an opinion poll.

“Didactic” is a term usually applied to imaginative literature that has, in Keats’s memorable phrase, “a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket”;15 that is, literature more concerned with inculcating a particular lesson than with an imaginative re-creation of human experience. The analogous failing of a quarterly review is to become the vehicle of a partisan political platform or of a monolithic ideological program. “We are not ideologists,” Kirk wrote. “By ‘conservative,’ we mean . . . conserving the best elements in our civilization.” Although Modern Age long ago substituted “A Quarterly Review” for “A Conservative Review” as its subtitle, it remains indubitably conservative; but it is not therefore a publication of the Republican Party, the Libertarian Party, the Conservative Party, or the Tea Party. It is, most assuredly, a publication that promotes the ideals of Western civilization, but these are not a set of policy prescriptions.

“Open-minded” is a term subject to incessant abuse, but conservatism as understood by George Panichas is open-minded in the valid sense of the expression in a way that the contemporary perpetrators of politically correct speech codes and draconian “diversity” policies could scarcely comprehend. A concrete example is provided by George Orwell, a socialist active in leftwing causes whose reputation survives today largely among conservatives. In addition to the faux pas of implicitly condemning the Soviet Union in 1984, he also fails to pass muster with contemporary liberalism on a variety of social and personal issues.16 To be sure, many conservatives saw Orwell as an ally because he was an enemy of totalitarian communism and paid little attention to the details of his career. Under George Panichas’s guidance, Modern Age took no party line. In the second issue he edited, still in the Orwellian year 1984, a severe critique appeared in which Leslie Mellichamp accused Orwell of being a terrible simplificateur and laid out the grave political consequences of his heedless adherence to egalitarian socialism.17 But twenty-one years later George Panichas published an essay in which John Rossi pairs Orwell, counterintuitively perhaps, with Evelyn Waugh. Although he talks about the shortcomings of both “irascible Englishmen,” as he calls them, he concludes with the remark, “One hundred years after their birth we remain in their debt.”18 Neither essay establishes the conservative view of George Orwell; Panichas published them because both are insightful, coherent, and informative, providing readers a basis for reflection on one of the shaping figures of twentieth-century culture and the history in which he played an important part. It is of course to offer such opportunities for thinking men that Russell Kirk founded Modern Age.

The case of Orwell furnishes merely a thumbnail sketch of the intellectual and political diversity—another term that has been turned into ideological cant by contemporary academics and bureaucrats—to be found in Modern Age. Try to imagine a liberal publication with the range represented by the “Correspondence” section of the Winter issue of 1987 in which Harry V. Jaffa took issue both with René Williamson on the subject of equality in American politics and with Antony Sullivan on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Indeed, try to imagine a liberal journal with both Jaffa and Sullivan as editorial advisors—or both James Tuttleton and Samuel T. Francis. George Panichas maintained the identity of Modern Age as a conservative journal, but it was a conservatism that would listen to traditional conservatives and libertarians, social conservatives and free-market capitalists, as well as several varieties of Straussians. He provided, in other words, not a template for a certain kind of conservative movement, but rather a forum in which conservatives could debate and discuss recurring problems in the light of enduring principles. This proclivity for examining controversial ideas and figures from a variety of perspectives doubtless accounts also for the appearance of “the debate and the symposium” as a recurrent feature in Modern Age throughout the years when Panichas was editor.

This commitment also required, as Russell Kirk had specified at the outset, that Modern Age “not be afraid of the long essay, or the long review article, or wit.” Obviously, neither Kirk nor Panichas was inclined to encourage wordy, rambling, incoherent articles; but in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and blogging the value of an essay that develops a complex topic at length and in depth or of a review essay that considers the implications of an important book in detail and places it carefully in a wider social and intellectual context ought to be evident. One might reasonably argue that much that has gone wrong with the political, moral, and cultural discourse of our time is the result of the shortening of our collective attention span and the degeneration of our capacity to follow a complex train of reasoning. It is hardly surprising that our public discussions of matters of the gravest import and most delicate subtlety are conducted in slogans: “Compassionate Conservatism,” “No Child Left Behind,” “Yes We Can,” “Hope and Change.” Modern Age seeks to provide its readers with a means to listen to the entire speech and appraise the soundness of its content and the logic of its arguments.

Kirk added a third item to those features of which the journal must not be “afraid,” however: wit. It seems improbable that he meant only the clever deployment of irony, although this is not infrequently a useful rhetorical device. I suspect, rather, that he meant a grace and efficacy of style that transcends adroitness of repartee and renders an article not merely readable but engaging. This means that the essays and reviews in Modern Age were to be scholarly in tone and precise in argument, but not ploddingly technical and self-consciously academic. By the time of the first issue of the journal, the academic study of the humanities was already striving to emulate—or at least create the illusion of—the straitened expertise and specialization of the sciences with bloodless prose and mind-numbingly meticulous documentation or an increasingly arcane style. Jargon and a tone of bureaucratic aloofness were the preferred mode of discourse; scholarship had become “research.” When Kirk deprecated a fear of “wit” he was subtly disparaging the anxiety of trembling academics lest their work be condemned for having been found ever so slightly pleasurable to read. That Modern Age has survived for more than fifty years without much being taken into account in university tenure and promotion decisions suggests that it has proven enjoyable more often than not, and for nearly half those fifty years, it was edited by George Panichas.

Kirk also hoped “to publish a few distinguished short stories, and some good verse,” and Panichas was exemplary in fulfilling that aspiration. One could find rhyme and meter in Modern Age before The Formalist had been launched in 1990, and there were few outlets for traditional poetry in regular verse in a literary milieu that regards John Ashberry as a great poet. Likewise, while Panichas published short stories only occasionally, at least some of them are arguably “distinguished.” While Modern Age has never published a great deal of imaginative literature, the fact that it does so is a matter of no small significance. Conservatism is more about culture and society than it is about government; the point of conservatism is that government must not expropriate the authority and functions of mediating institutions that make possible a human scale and personal engagement in our daily lives. A healthy community is diverse not in the sense that it consists of an ethnically or racially diverse group of individuals, but insofar as the individuals it comprises are themselves diverse; that is, they enjoy a variety of interests and associations.

Critics of capitalism often claim that it results in the commodification of everything; the desiccated liberalism that has dominated our culture for many decades now has rendered almost everything a matter of specialization and expertise. Poetry is to be studied in school and published in poetry journals read by other “poets in residence” at universities. Nothing displays the conservative cast that George Panichas gave to Modern Age more effectively than—to take a single instance—a reader of the spring issue of 2006 finding both Bruch Frohnen’s lengthy, intricate, and, yes, witty reflection on “The Patriotism of a Conservative” and also Mary Slayton’s poem, “White Light.” A conservative will ordinarily be possessed of a healthy interest in politics, but he will not be obsessively possessed by it. He will wish to consider political issues in the light of history, philosophy, religion, and economics—and also of literature and art. If his mind and imagination are fully alive, he will turn from Frohnen’s learned but passionate discussion, which considers a vexatious current conflict, with a gratifying sense of intellectual excitement to bask in Mary Slayton’s dazzling images:

Whiter than flocks of lambs or clouds, its rays
Fall on a condemned man, crowned with thorns, crying
“It is finished.” Darkness attacks the sun
As earth quakes. White light glows. “He is risen!”19

We may conclude our contemplation of George Panichas’s legacy as editor of Modern Age for nearly a quarter of a century, of his conscientious guarding and nurturing of the journal’s integrity as Russell Kirk first conceived it, by observing how remarkable his achievement is and also how important. It is remarkable because by any practical reckoning, Modern Age should not have survived in the world that has been emerging in America during the time of the journal’s existence, and Panichas shepherded it through nearly half of its perilous pilgrimage. It is important precisely because it offers a vital intellectual and spiritual blessing that is most needed by the kind of society predisposed to ignore or reject it. This journal is a beacon of literate, humane wisdom in a world rapidly descending into illiterate—nay, antiliterate—technocratic barbarism. But it is most important to conservatives as a constant reminder—if you will, an admonition—not to get caught up in the giddy excitements of the moment. George Panichas offered an implicit warning against excessive political enthusiasm in his inaugural issue as editor in 1984. It is crucial that we hew to the same principle of continuity today, for we face a similar situation of popular political giddiness. It is instructive to recall that a scant two years ago popular conservatism was mired in despair: the Anti-Christ had appeared and the end times were upon us. Now it seems that the great dragon is about to be chained in the lake of fire, and we shall enjoy a thousand years of sound government. The modern age that is the subject of our deliberations is nothing if not fickle, changing with every wind of fortune. The job of the journal Modern Age is to remind men and women of those moral and spiritual truths that are not modern, not fashionable, but always available for our cultivation in good times and bad, and that cannot be discovered by an opinion poll or analyzed statistically. Like George Panichas, our fundamental concern must be with what Russell Kirk called the permanent things. ♦


R. V. Young is the editor of Modern Age.

  1. Russell Kirk and Henry Regnery, “The Conservative Review: A Magazine of Controversy: Apology for a New Review,” Southern Observer Vol. 3, No. 8 (August 1955), 228–30. I am quoting from a manuscript furnished by Annette Kirk, to whom I am most grateful for this courtesy.
  2. “Apology for a New Review,” in Modern Age: The First Twenty-Five Years: A Selection, ed. George A. Panichas (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1988), 5.
  3. Modern Age 28 (1984): 4.
  4. “Apology for a New Review,” 6.
  5. “The Fourth Editorship,” Modern Age 28 (1984): 3.
  6. “Apology for a New Review,” 5. The same words appear in “The Conservative Review.”
  7. “In Continuity: An Editorial Restatement,” 6–7.
  8. See, for example, “Audacity, Rhetoric, and Poetry in Politics,” Reclaiming a Patrimony: A Collection of Lectures by Russell Kirk, The Heritage Lectures 13 (Washington, DC: The Heritage Foundation, 1982), 105–15; and “America’s Augustan Age?” Redeeming the Time, ed. Jeffrey O. Nelson (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 1996), 164.
  9. Russell Kirk, “The Wise Men Know What Wicked Things Are Written on the Sky,” Redeeming the Time, 309.
  10. “In Continuity,” 7.
  11. “Apology for a New Review,” 6.
  12. Ibid. See “In Continuity,” 6.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Mark J. Rozell, “George F. Will and Contemporary American Conservatism,” Modern Age 35 (1992): 51–60.
  15. To John Hamilton Reynolds, 3 February 1818, Selected Letters of John Keats, ed. Robert Pack (New York: Signet Classics, 1974), 67.
  16. In one of the most influential books among contemporary academic critics, Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), 202, 268, dismisses Orwell (along with Dostoevsky and Conrad!) as “counterrevolutionary propaganda.”
  17. Leslie Mellichamp, “George Orwell: Terrible Simplificateur,” Modern Age 28 (1984): 121–27.
  18. John Rossi, “Two Irascible Englishmen: Mr. Waugh and Mr. Orwell,” Modern Age 47 (2005): 148–52.
  19. Bruce P. Frohnen, “The Patriotism of a Conservative,” Modern Age 48 (2006): 105–18; Mary E. Slayton, “White Light,” ibid., 157.