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Modern Age at the Threshold of a New Half Century

Winter 2008 - Vol. 50, No. 1

With this issue we open the fiftieth volume of Modern Age, founded by Russell Kirk as "a journal of controversy." After half a century, there is no sign that the kind of controversy that he relished has at all diminished. Kirk founded the journal because "modern society cannot endure—and its survival is immediately in question—without discussion among thinking men." It is difficult to deny that either of these propositions has lost its force. The survival of modern society is even more questionable than it was when Kirk first introduced this journal; that is, the continuance of the humanist civilization of equity, liberality, and critical inquiry that emerged in the Western world about 500 years ago at the beginning of the Modern Age from which the journal takes its name is more problematic than ever. Indeed, voices proclaiming its demise and placing us in a "postmodern" era occupy prominent places among our academic and cultural elites. This state of affairs is in itself sufficient reason for Modern Age to maintain a forum for thoughtful discussion.

The very existence of such a journal is a Sign of Contradiction during an era increasingly dominated by electronic media and filled with warnings about the diminishing influence of the written word. But already when Kirk wrote his "Apology for a New Review" fifty years ago, he was aware of this decline: "More people are literate in America than in any other country; we have several times as many college graduates as we had at the beginning of the century; yet probably there is less serious reading, per head of population, than in any other great nation." During the intervening years, one of our most successful exports has been a crass consumerist culture, exemplified by blue jeans, coca cola, and rock 'n roll. Despite his awareness of such developments, Kirk remained confident that "The best medium for expressing considered judgments still is the serious journal." We still share this judgment today.

Modern Age has been and shall remain devoted to promulgation of the conservative perspective. Indeed, we maintain that it has long been the most important review of conservative thought that is not confined to the bounds of a specific academic discipline, partisan school, or particular cultural interest; and it is our intention that it shall remain so. Only a few years before Kirk founded the journal, no less a figure than Lionel Trilling could with perfect confidence remark that there was no conservatism in America, where liberalism was the only political and cultural tradition that mattered. Ironically, Trilling is nowadays regarded as old-fashioned and "conservative" by the leftists who dominate the universities and the media, and most men and women who still attempt to maintain the standards of liberalism are now ineluctably associated with conservatism. Russell Kirk's founding of Modern Age played no small rôle in the emergence of this new state of affairs by providing what might be called the literary space for reflective conservative discussion.

It is not difficult to imagine the kind of smirking rejoinder that the claims made here might elicit from a popular pundit in the mainstream media: "Serious conservative journal," such a one might quip (think of, say, Garrison Keillor), "is an oxymoron." He would of course mean "contradiction in terms"; but, apart from the incorrect usage, he would still have it backwards. If anything, serious conservative journal is a tautology, at least if one accepts Russell Kirk's definition of a serious journal: "we do not mean a dull and pompous review, but rather a magazine which endeavors to reach the minds of men who think of something more than the appetites of the hour." A man who thinks of "something more than the appetites of the hour" might well serve as the simplest and broadest definition of a conservative. The "doctrinaire radical" whom Kirk deprecates, because his ultimate view of reality is materialistic, cares for nothing but the appetites of the hour. Utopian schemes of social and cultural revolution are proposed to no other end than the service of appetite, and hence our current academic leftists hold forth obsessively on power and desire. Is it any wonder that old-fashioned respectable liberals find themselves scornfully dismissed as conservatives?

In the vision of the founder of Modern Age, the term means exactly what it implies as an English word: "By 'conservative', we mean a journal dedicated to conserving the best elements in our civilization: and those best elements are in peril nowadays." Apart from "a preference for the wisdom of our ancestors," he continues, "we have no party line":

Our purpose is to stimulate discussion of the great moral and social and political and economic and literary questions of the hour, and to search for the means by which the legacy of our civilization may be kept safe.

These are precisely the criteria that remain in force for Modern Age today. As Kirk adds, "We are not ideologists: we do not believe that we have all the remedies for all the ills to which flesh is heir." The journal is thus open to the entire range of conservative viewpoints, conceived in the humane tradition of its founder; and we likewise welcome essays across a broad spectrum of disciplines, although not addressed to disciplinary experts, but rather to liberally educated men and women. To those topics mentioned by Kirk, we should like to add music, art, and architecture, science insofar as it affects our common social life, and religion or theology insofar as it touches upon the spiritual nature shared by all human beings.

We hope that you will find the range and variety of pieces presented in this first issue of the fiftieth volume of Modern Age correspondent to the rich, humane conservative vision of Russell Kirk. Our first essay comes from the pen of a man who is not only an academic, but also formerly Polish Minister of Education and an elected member of the Polish Senate. Ryszard Legutko thus brings considerable political authority to his analysis of the shortcomings of liberalism, and what he shows is that liberalism as an ideology is deficient in liberality. This viewpoint is very much in keeping with Kirk's assertion, "Modern Age intends to pursue a conservative policy for the sake of liberal understanding."

We are particularly pleased to offer Terry Pickett's tribute to George Panichas in the very first issue upon his stepping down as Editor of Modern Age after twenty-four distinguished years. Professor Pickett does more, however, than offer well-earned praise. He shows how Dr. Panichas' literary criticism, which ranges from Dostoevsky to D. H. Lawrence, is deeply insightful regarding the moral and social crisis of the modern world. As Professor Pickett observes, the literary studies of George Panichas reveal how a great novel explores the inner recesses of human nature and experience—the very fabric of political life. It is novelists who make us most poignantly aware of the "discivilization" occasioned by the dispassionate destructiveness of modern war.

Russell Kirk was first of all a man of letters because he knew—as Dr. Panichas knows— that literature, along with the other fine arts, is an indispensable force in civilization, and this makes it of supreme political importance. There is of course a clear distinction between literature and political activity, contrary to the misapprehension of numerous current denizens academic literature departments. Indeed, the political power of literature resides precisely in its transcendence of partisanship and mere polemic, which permits it to shed the light of permanence on the party conflicts of the moment. With this in mind, we intend to maintain, and so far as possible, enhance the commitment to literature that Kirk envisioned in founding Modern Age. Nan Miller, who has written incisively on the follies of contemporary composition theory, here presents a dramatic reconstruction of Charles Dickens's second American reading tour. I venture to say that it is unlike anything ever published in Modern Age before, and it offers novel insights into the life of a great writer who, in some respects, seems to have anticipated the contemporary media star—a point well worth pondering from a conservative perspective.

It is with great satisfaction that in this issue we welcome David Middleton, the distinguished Louisiana poet, to the new position of poetry editor of Modern Age. He explains in a brief note the kind of poetry that we shall be seeking for Modern Age, and in the three poems we offer in this issue there is ample evidence of the discriminating taste that he brings to the job. As for the poems themselves, we hope that you will agree that they need no introduction.

John Caiazza's tightly argued discussion of Cardinal Newman's Grammar of Assent is a philosophical explication of a theological issue. It deals with religious experience in a fashion that should be of interest to all conservatives, who, whatever their personal faith commitments, will necessarily find man's spiritual life and serious reflections upon it a compelling topic. By the same token, even to those of us who are not Canadian should take heed from Bradley C. S. Watson's account of how the Canadian Charter of Rights, with its radical conception of unlimited rights, has undermined the genuine liberty guaranteed by Common Law constitutionalism in our neighbor to the North.

Our book review section is marked by an international tone in this issue, but it includes history, political philosophy, literature, and memoir and ranges in time from Darío Fernández-Morera's account of Christian captives of the Moors in medieval and early modern Spain to Barry Shain's review of a book on the dangerous power NGO's and leftist internationalism. This international emphasis is, again, in keeping with Russell Kirk's vision of Modern Age. "Foreign contributors will be welcome in our pages," he wrote, "and we shall endeavor to offer some intelligent account of life and thought outside America." To this end we have included a discussion of alarming developments in higher education in Great Britain by the distinguished Oxford physicist, Peter Hodgson, and a Lenten meditation, delivered at Notre Dame in Paris last year by Pierre Manent, which offers glimmerings of hope for Christian revival in France.

I wish to close on a personal note. I am acutely aware of the responsibility that I have assumed in becoming editor of Modern Age and greatly honored by the trust reposed in me by T. Kenneth Cribb, president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and its Board of Directors. I thank them for this confidence and vow to do my utmost to satisfy it. Finally, the continuous publication of Modern Age for fifty years is a wonder, only made possible by the vision and generosity of numerous donors. Its prospects for continuing another half century and beyond rests with this same generosity and visionary spirit. On behalf of everyone associated with the journal I offer my profound gratitude to those who support ISI and the projects, like Modern Age, that it sponsors.

— R.V. Young