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A Harsh Winter Still

Winter 2010 - Vol. 52, No. 1

The introduction to last winter's issueof Modern Age began by reflecting onthe challenges facing "Conservatism inWinter" at a time when numerous politicalcommentators were predicting a longtermascendancy of "progressive" politicsand policies ushered in by the election ofBarack Obama as President of the UnitedStates. At that time I maintained that noreturn of authentic and lasting politicalreason could be expected without a priorrestoration of cultural and moral integrityto American society. The recent discomfitures of Mr. Obama and his allies are noreason for premature rejoicing on the partof conservatives. And while we may bepermitted a smile at the way an exceptionallysevere winter swept across the entireNorthern Hemisphere on the heels of aseries of well-publicized embarrassmentsfor the strident prophets of global warming,harsh weather is hardly a cause for excessiveglee, since everyone's toes are pinchedby the chill. Schadenfreude at the prospectof every party and persuasion joining conservatism"in winter" would not only beunseemly; it would be ill-advised.

It is incumbent upon conservatives topersevere in the tasks that have alwaysbeen ours: to remind our fellow men andwomen of the truths that are the landmarksof our earthly pilgrimage. Insofaras we attempt to participate in electoralcampaigns and make political alliances, wemust strive to be "wise as serpents" whileremaining "innocent as doves"; for we are,after all, "as sheep in the midst of wolves."Skeptical resistance to the intrusions ofmeddlesome government is a definitivecharacteristic of conservatism; hence, ithardly behooves us to indulge in breathlessanticipation of the results of polling dataconcerning probable voters. While thereare undoubtedly different degrees of competenceand integrity among administrationsand varying levels of prudence andeffectuality among legislative programs,the best of them serve but for a season; andnone of them dispenses us from the gruelingbusiness of getting through the vagariesof mortal life among men and womenwho are sinners like ourselves. We do wellalways to recall that a sly master of merrytales, St. Thomas More, located the perfectsociety literally "nowhere."

The essays in this issue engage conservativeambivalence about political activity intwo different ways: the first two directly,the latter two by way of literary dramatizationsof those perennial truths that it isthe conservative's mission to expound andextol. Carl Bankston provides a shrewdcritiqueof the standard (liberal) readingof Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedienceas the literary charter of progressivesocial activism. Bankston shows that, tothe contrary, Thoreau's diatribe is a libertariandemand that government restrict itsactivity and generally leave the individualalone. Nevertheless, Bankston takes notethat Thoreau's provision for individualliberty offers little basis for the social stabilitythat makes such freedom possible."Reading this old essay as a living document,"he maintains, "requires us to lookat what it really says and, above all, toargue with it."

John Caiazza considers the relationshipbetween "American Catholicismand the Catholic Church" and concludesthat, although the Church in this countryis often seen as a liberal institution, itsproper political orientation is conservative.The Church needs to acknowledge thatconservative principles are more in keepingwith her traditional morality and thesocial stability necessary for the flourishingof strong families, and conservativescan certainly benefit by allying themselveswith the Church's institutional durability.Both conservatism and Catholic Christianityare rooted in the maintenance of andadherence to tradition, and it is somethingof an accident of American history thatthey are somewhat estranged in this country.Both prefer to see projects initiated andissues resolved at the local level. But perhapsthe final implicit conclusion of Caiazza'spiece is that political theory—the waythings rationally ought to be—rarely attainsanything close to perfect correspondencewith political realities. Conservatism willno more find a constant temporal ally in theCatholic Church than in any other institution,secular or religious, with its ownparticular agenda. What transcends theworldly realm of politics is another matteraltogether.

Our other two articles deal directlywith literature, but their underlying politicalinsights are more lasting and profoundthan daily punditry concerning electoralpolitics and policy "initiatives." MaryBeth Garbitelli and her father, DouglasKries, investigate the novels of Jane Austenin light of Aristotle's Politics and discover aremarkable resemblance in the thought ofthese two quite different writers, as well asstriking divergences. The point of courseis not that Emma Woodhouse was engagedin Peripatetic theorizing in her strollsaround Highbury with Harriet Smith, butrather the continuity of the Western moraland political tradition, which is more concernedwith the long-term flourishing ofcommunities than with an administrativeagenda. Similarly, Richard Harp investigatesusury as a moral and spiritual issue inThe Merchant of Venice, showing that ethicaland economic considerations can never betruly separated.

The comprehensiveness of the traditionalliterary vision is exemplified by thepoems included in this issue of Modern Age.Robert Champ offers wistful realizationsof a distinctly twentieth-century composerand of an image that no man could haveseen until the last fifty years. AnthonyEsolen and Stella Nesanovich on the otherhand dramatize charismatic voices of thedistant past, the Old Testament prophetDaniel and the medieval mystic Julianof Norwich. All of these poems providea means for that contemplation of thedeeper realities, which is the finest culturalachievement, and which furnishes the ultimatejustification of all political arrangements.

This issue proffers a wide range of bookreviews. Thomas Albert Howard considersa book on European anti-Americanism,and there are reviews of books of broaderhistorical focus: Terry Pickett on the GermanRight, J. Daryl Charles on liberalism and natural law, and A. S. Duff on thepolitical theories of the Canadian politicalphilosopher George Grant.

There are also reviews that deal withliterature: David Middleton and JamesMatthew Wilson both address volumesof poetry whose authors manifest a commitmentboth to careful verse craftsmanshipand to the craft of living. Middletonfinds in Jack Gilbert's poems an expressivetribute to the good life in close touch withthe land, for which the poet renounced alife as a university professor. Wilson, onthe other hand, finds in a volume of verseby Richard Wakefield a poignant sense ofnostalgia, but also indignation over a lostagrarian world—a casualty, in large measure,of overweening politicians. Bothreviewers direct our attention to the realmof life that precedes politics, or, better, thatis political in a deeper, Aristotelian sense,rarely acknowledged in the political chatterof the mass media.

Finally, the "Documentation" sectionfeatures a selection of verse in English bythe distinguished French literary scholar,Robert Ellrodt. Ellrodt began writingEnglish poetry decades ago, and we areespecially pleased to publish a letter hereceived from T. S. Eliot commenting onthe (then) young Frenchman's efforts atbilingual creativity. In addition, we offer atranslation of a rather poetic piece of Spanishprose by the Colombian thinker, NicolásGómez Dávila, that dramatically laysout what separates a traditional perspectivefrom that of "progressives" of all varieties.

We thus add to the evidence gatheredfrom our own country signs from abroadthat the liberal arts and the generouslyhumane vision they provide continue tosurvive the illiberal machinations of contemporaryliberalism. While the politicalforecast may still be wintry, conservatismcontinues to enjoy and nurture a hope thatwill never be part of an electoral campaign.

RVY