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The Moral Courage of George Andrew Panichas

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.


As Russell Kirk asserted, “The moral imagination aspires to apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth.”1 The long career of George A. Panichas, who passed away in March 2010, was a testament to the importance of this idea, for in his many books and articles, and in his university teaching and editorship of Modern Age: A Quarterly Review, Panichas labored to defend the ancient truth of “right order” in self and in society. While right order was always the underlying basis of Panichas’s thought, his particular interests were many, and he pursued them with an eager and inquisitive mind. A sense of the breadth of his interests can be gained by noting that over a period of fifty years he completed book-length critical studies of Lawrence, Conrad, and Dostoevsky; published a tetralogy of moralist critical studies; edited volumes on politics and literature, including a selection from the writing of Russell Kirk; and wrote frequent social commentaries and reviews. The central purpose around which all of Panichas’s writing cohered, however, was a concern with the moral direction of Western civilization.

Panichas shared with the great conservative writers and critics of the past—with Conrad, Dostoyevsky, Lawrence, Simone Weil, F. R. Leavis, T. S. Eliot, and others in whom he took a special interest—a particular sense of moral urgency and cultural mission. He was, in one respect, a searcher whose life’s work closely resembled that of D. H. Lawrence and Simone Weil; he was also a moralist like Irving Babbitt “preaching the New England virtues of conviction, self-control, and good character.”2 Again like Babbitt, he was one who looked “not only at things but beyond them”:3 beyond immediate cases to first principles, beyond partisan concerns to enduring values, beyond literary disputes of the moment to a deeper understanding of the purposes of criticism. Seeking for answers beyond the fashions of the day, he found them rooted in traditions of thought that are religious in nature. Like all true conservatives, Panichas found himself asking ultimate questions about the purpose of life, the relation of the present to the past, and the relation of man to a transcendent order of belief. And like those whom he emulated, he viewed the role of the critic as one that involved weighty responsibilities of courage and judgment. He also understood that these responsibilities could not be carried out in the absence of a genuine state of reverence and humility.

The challenge of criticism at present consists of nothing less than the fact that one is confronted with an intellectual climate ruled for the most part by a narrow agenda of progressivist ideologies. As Panichas expressed it in an essay entitled “Thoughts of a Dissident Critic,” “the critical function has been absorbed by the liberal dialectic of the modern world that rejects serious standards of thought and judgment and endorses the general will in all its perversions.”4 Symptomatic of the breakdown of recent criticism is the tendency of criticism to migrate at will from one fashionable theory to another. It is precisely during such an age, “a time when critical standards and cultural values are under heavy attack, when change and innovation are upon us everywhere” and when the necessity for standards has been altogether forgotten, that what Panichas termed a “combative dissenting criticism”5 is especially requisite.

This is certainly the case in responding to the shift of modern criticism toward the specious criterion of “empathy” as a substitute for true standards. The attempt to ground critical response on the basis of little more than sentiment is a failing that Panichas pointed out early in his career, having been alerted to it by a painstaking consideration of Babbitt’s Democracy and Leadership. In that work Babbitt warned against the “tendency to put on sympathy a burden it cannot bear and at the same time to sacrifice a truly human hierarchy and scale of values to the principle of equality.”6 Babbitt’s words were prophetic, for American culture since that time has shifted inexorably toward empathy and away from authentic standards. The common tendency of critics to resort to special pleading has rendered the distinction between standards and sentiment all but indiscernible.

Closely aligned with sentiment is its dark twin: the militant commitment to social justice as the sole basis of critical evaluation. “Not prophets of salvation, but prophets of utopian revolution (and resexualization), with their promises of an ecstatic entrance through the ‘gates of Eden,’ are today our real cultural heroes,”Panichas wrote in an essay on Babbitt and Simone Weil.7 The damage of utopianism, a disease that permeated the writings of modernists such as John Dewey and Herbert Marcuse and that could be traced to Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau and later to Marx, was among Panichas’s chief concerns throughout his career.

Panichas argued that the reliance on reason to the exclusion of the “permanent things”—those institutions, traditions, and inherited beliefs that afford not only social stability but true wisdom—has been responsible for much of the political, cultural, and spiritual damage witnessed during the past century. The rise of totalitarianism in its various guises, predicated as it was on instrumentalist theories dedicated to addressing human suffering and oppression, was proof of the fatally flawed nature of rationalism. It was not reason alone that should guide human beings in the conduct of life but “character,” the product of training, experience, and wisdom. As Babbitt wrote in Democracy and Leadership: “The unit to which all things must finally be referred is not the State or humanity or any other abstraction, but the man of character.”8

The wisdom on which proper character depends is a quality more profound and unfathomable than can be grasped by any devotee of pure rationality. As Panichas understood it, wisdom was the product of mankind’s sustained contemplation of its place within a divinely created universe. Though not divorced from the concerns of daily life, the traditional wisdom that Panichas sought transcended partisan discourse and calculations of material advantage. It constituted a higher order of thought than ordinary forms of perception and reasoning, and as such it linked the earthly and the celestial. Panichas insisted that the accumulated wisdom of humanity over time—the “sacred patrimony” of rules, laws, and standards of conduct that afford unambiguous direction on how to live—must be ranked above all utilitarian considerations. This “definitive ethos,” acknowledged and embodied in the writing of Babbitt, Weil, and other modern exemplars, was the product of classical and Judeo-Christian traditions of moral philosophy.

Panichas undoubtedly agreed with Eliot’s statement that “If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes.”9 Moreover, if the culture that we have inherited is discredited, it will be a very long time before it is replaced by even a rudimentary system of laws, traditions, and beliefs, for the problem with cultural innovation, as Eliot perceived, was that “you cannot put on a new culture ready made.”10 An established civilization is the product of thousands of years of human contemplation, receptivity, and inspiration, and it cannot be replaced by the glib musings of a few New Age prophets or Marxist revolutionaries. Once culture has been handed over to the care of such modern-day utopians as Mao Tse-tung or Joseph Stalin—the latter a tyrant who began life as an idealistic young theological student by the name of Iosif Vissarionovich—the result is an uncompromising demand for absolute power in the name of social justice.

Faith and its antithesis are central issues in Panichas’s criticism, as in those passages in The Reverent Discipline devoted to Dostoevsky’s antithetical figures of Stavrogin in The Devils and Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov. Panichas’s discussion of the erroneous treatment of Stavrogin as a heroic antagonist in contemporary criticism—criticism that approaches all subjects from either a morally neutral or a morally perverse perspective—reveals a fundamental failing in contemporary taste. Stavrogin, that crucial embodiment of evil in Dostoevsky’s work, serves as a touchstone that discloses the “excessively secularized critical pronouncements of the skeptic, the aesthete, the formalist, the rationalist, the positivist.”11 In this illuminating discussion, Panichas speaks to the central failing of present-day criticism: its refusal to address distinctions of good and evil.

If criticism has failed to tackle the problem of evil as exemplified by Stavrogin, it has also turned its back on the salvational and redemptive aspects of religious faith. In his discussion of Brothers Karamazov, Panichas deals at length with Father Zossima, a figure who “embodies Dostoevsky’s concept of a new kind of sanctity.”12 Sanctity, along with humility, devotion, and restraint, is a virtue that has been much neglected by recent criticism, presumably because of the contemporary critic’s reluctance to acknowledge the hierarchic relations at the core of human experience. The prevailing viewpoint inherent in postmodern theory has been analyzed brilliantly by Alasdair MacIntyre, who demonstrates that postmodernism is hardly original, as it professes to be, but merely an application to literary criticism of the familiar philosophical posture of relativism. As MacIntyre writes: “Every text, so the radical postmodernist proclaims, is susceptible of indefinitely many interpretative readings. The understanding of the text is not controlled by authorial intention or by any relationship to an audience with specific shared beliefs, for it is outside context except the context of interpretation.”13 Panichas, on the other hand, devoted much of his life to understanding and teaching the “radical and existential”14 form of Christianity that Father Zossima exemplifies. Panichas understood that the only antidote to the dislocated consciousness of his time was adherence to a definite belief system.

In what may be his finest essay, “The Critic as Conservator,” Panichas offered the clearest and most forthright exposition of his conception of the relationship of criticism to the classical–Christian tradition. Above all, he insisted, the critic is a “moral conservator,” one who “insists upon preserving a hierarchy of givens, not on what necessarily is but ought to be.”15 Much is implied in this simple statement: in Panichas’s conception the critic must be attentive at all times to moral distinctions, and he must have the courage, even in the face of a near universal climate of skepticism, to speak of what “ought to be.”

For the critic as conservator, literature is not an aimless “adventure in learning” in which, beginning with an ethical tabula rasa, one discovers one’s true self in the process of reading: it is a vital task—a duty, a necessity—in which one brings into relation the chaotic realm of lived experience and a transcendent order of knowledge inherited from the past. It is, in other words, a civilizing activity by way of which power is constrained and tempered by an enduring and transcendent body of knowledge. In the absence of such understanding, as Dostoevsky wrote in The Idiot, “from the right of force it is not far to the right of tigers and crocodiles.”16 Unfortunately, the “right of force” has often manifested itself unopposed among critics of modern culture. One recalls the near universal failure of Western intellectuals, including Jean-Paul Sartre, to condemn the regime of Stalin even after the revelations of Soviet show trials in the late 1930s, or the reluctance of others to denounce the homicidal regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia. Motivated by ideology, a virtual procession of prominent critics—one that includes Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, Terry Eagleton, and Noam Chomsky, among others—has betrayed the most fundamental of moral responsibilities, that of discriminating between good and evil.

The damage of this failure to engage in moral discrimination has been great, indeed. Where, Panichas argued, are the great moral exemplars among today’s writers and artists? They’re not to be found among recent recipients of national literary prizes or even, in most cases, among Nobel prize winners. With few exceptions, those prize-winners seem to have been chosen more on the basis of ideological purity than genuine merit. The possession of a mature moral sensibility, more often than not, would seem to be grounds for disqualification. As Panichas wrote in “The Eclipse of Excellence,” “even Nobel prize winners in literature and MacArthur ‘genius’ recipients must first satisfy the requirements of diversity and political relevance, not excellence.”17

Not that institutional censorship of this kind is necessary. For a half century now, the intellectual establishment—what Panichas called the “control-centers” of modern-day culture: “the political, intellectual, publishing, broadcast, educational, and religious worlds”18—has been engaged in a process of self-censorship that has effectively silenced all but a small number of voices. For society at large, the result has been the assumption that discourse in the humanities and social sciences must as a matter of course focus on the meanest sort of pragmatism and partisanship. Even as one wishes it were not so, one now anticipates that every account of American history must hinge on the exploitative motives of the Founders and the continuing repressiveness of American traditions and institutions. Critique of this sort is not only mistaken; it is also cynical and ignoble. Where, Panichas questions, are “the classical elements of restraint, dignity, and tragedy”19 that reside at the core of the authentic literary imagination? They’re almost nowhere to be found in contemporary writing, nor are they defended by today’s critics. In contemporary writing, as Panichas frequently pointed out, it is all too often sensationalism and sentimentality (including the sentimental appeal to “fairness”) that are most on display. This shift in sensibility has had an anarchic effect on culture as one extreme demand for attention or sympathy displaces another, and the public’s attention span becomes ever more fleeting.

“The critic,” Panichas writes, “conserves the hierarchic idea of value, that there are tacit, paradigmatic reverences, verities, and meanings superior to others.”20 In the midst of contemporary culture, in particular, Panichas perceives the need for courageous practitioners, for in the imaginative literature of the present, and in the critical response to it, not only has there been a lapse in the acknowledgment of standards: there has been an unbridled and macabre celebration of that very lapse. The ruling ethos reflects a descent into instinctual drives in which literature focuses not on beauty and truth but on “the dark, the equivocal, the depraved, the enigmatic, the anthropoidal, the sensational.”21 For the critic who fully embraces the postmodern ethic, the purpose of criticism is to direct attention away from the “permanent things” and toward the peculiar, the adversarial, and the alienated—in essence, as Lawrence had it, toward death itself. Against this descent into barbarism, the critic as conservator is, inevitably, “playing defense” since he represents one of a remnant dedicated to the preservation of a traditional morality that is broadly under assault. For the conservator, it is necessary to respond to the widespread falsity and confusion of a culture that has abandoned its moorings whether by way of a misguided conception of tolerance, a revolutionary enthusiasm for social action, or simply a neutral formalist approach (the failing that Panichas detected in the criticism of René Wellek).

Beyond the role as moral diagnostician, however, it is necessary for the critic to perform another: that of moral exemplar. As T. H. Pickett wrote, “It is essential to note that Panichas’s critical aim is always restorative,”22 and, indeed, Panichas spent a great deal of his time urging conservatives to consider those positive and exemplary forms of critique that might contribute to the restoration of a coherent civilization. Within the traditionalist culture that Panichas promoted, beauty and love are not subjected to a sneering skepticism; standards and values are unapologetically espoused and defended; and human failings and limitations are perceived as inescapable features of the human condition, not as aspects to be overcome by way of utopian politics or psychological therapy.

Like F. R. Leavis, whose work Panichas characterized as “a great plea for the affirmation of humane values and humanistic culture,”23 Panichas devoted a lifetime to restoring a moralist criticism that promised a better understanding of the true nature of the human condition and, with this understanding, the prospect of acceptance and peace. It was, Panichas asserted, the painstaking effort to restore virtue as the primary good that was most apparent in Leavis’s practice of criticism—“the closeness of his reading; the precision and clarity of his thought; the organization and exposition, the force and economy of his arguments; the integrity and disinterestedness of his explication” that set the standard for “civilized thought.”24

As with Leavis, one aspect of life that particularly interested Panichas was politics, and his discussion of politics in the writing of Conrad, Dostoevsky, and Lawrence—as well as of the theoretical relation of politics and literature—is among the most perceptive of any recent commentator. Unlike many on the left and some on the right, Panichas never mistook narrow partisanship for genuine critical reflection. While he conceived of political engagement as one of the central activities of civilized men, Panichas understood that politics must not be allowed to become an end in itself, for as such it would displace the sacramental aspect at the core of existence.

In his reading of Conrad’s The Secret Agent, for example, Panichas not only considers the destructive consequences of political anarchism; he leads us to view “anarchism as the consummation of nihilism and its program of absolute denial and rejection of life and spirit.”25 It is not just that anarchists take life and destroy property: they intend the even greater harm of reducing experience to the godless sphere of violence for its own sake.

Indeed, the most important factor that distinguished Panichas’s criticism from that of Leavis (and from that of several other of the exemplary figures by whom he was influenced, among them Irving Babbitt) was Panichas’s explicit acknowledgment of religious sensibility as the ultimate ground of human culture. Panichas practiced what he termed “a sacramental rather than a secular humanism,”26 and it was his awareness of the centrality of the sacramental nature of existence that led him to the study of Fyodor Dostoevsky, D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, Simone Weil, and other religious writers. What Panichas wrote of Eliot and Lawrence, that their life-work consisted of “sacred personal testaments defying a secular world,”27 could well be said of Panichas himself.

Clearly, for Panichas, the defiance of the secular world entailed weighty obligations—responsibilities that made themselves felt even at the level of casual interactions. All who knew him recognized that Panichas measured his own conduct, including his deportment as editor of Modern Age and his many contributions to that and other journals, according to the highest standards. As I well know, having received a number of thoughtful letters from him, Panichas was extraordinarily meticulous in his duties as a correspondent. As Panichas wrote of Henry James—another extraordinary letter-writer—“James bestows his greatest intentness and most generous interpretation”28 on each correspondent. It is a quality that Panichas certainly shared with James, but there is a further similarly. Like James, Panichas combined a “commitment to standards of discrimination” with “acts of magnanimity” and “gestures of encouragement.”29

Those who were recipients of his letters benefited greatly from Panichas’s perceptive analysis and critique but perhaps even more so from his generosity of spirit. It was not merely kindness but reverence that one sensed: the recognition that Panichas had given of himself, as indeed he had, in composing a letter directed not just to an anonymous recipient but to you, for in his letters Panichas expressed himself with remarkable intelligence and candor. The receipt of a letter from College Park was an occasion of wonder and joy, in part because it affirmed the existence of what Panichas called a “remnant”—a community of individuals still committed to standards, to humanistic inquiry, and to metaphysical reflection.30

The concept of a remnant, echoing, of course, George Santayana’s notion of a “saving remnant,” suggests a particular orientation toward the past, and, in fact, Panichas’s entire sense of the moral life was rooted in a reverence for history. His conception of the role of criticism was grounded in a relationship with and dependence on an enduring tradition stretching back not hundreds but thousands of years, so much so that for Panichas the possibility that modern culture might “liberate” itself from history, as so many theorists from Nietzsche to the present have advocated, must have seemed bizarre.

How is it possible that modern culture, with the inevitable limitations and embedded biases of its particular location in history, could by itself alone fashion a civilization of the highest order, or any workable civilization at all? How could the present population of the earth (or even of the West), divorced from the accumulated wisdom of the past, expect to arrive at a practical and compelling moral consensus? How could the people of any age, by their efforts alone and with no recourse to the past, expect to arrive at even a rudimentary framework of rationality and law? These questions were never far from Panichas’s mind, and they were, as he certainly understood, fundamental matters that had troubled philosophical inquiry for over two thousand years. It was only in the modern age that these questions had been largely abandoned, and deliberately so, by faithless intellectuals heedless of the consequences.

Unlike those heedless theorists, George Panichas was a man of letters who labored painstakingly to understand and preserve the vital connection between our civilization and that of the past. Now that he is no longer among us, perhaps we may more easily appreciate his extraordinary courage in the defense of the cultural heritage of the West. The moral seriousness of his approach and the profound pleasure that he derived from the interpretation of major writers are apparent in every essay that he wrote. What especially distinguishes his contribution to contemporary letters, I believe, is the comprehensiveness of his reading, not merely in terms of the number of major figures that he mastered but more so in terms of his broad understanding of relationships among literature, politics, philosophy, and religion.

More important yet is the fact that for so many years Panichas had the courage to defend an approach to interpretation that attracted few adherents during the decades in which he was writing. Panichas was unembarrassed in referring to himself as a “moralist critic,” and it was his utter courage in doing so that was his most remarkable attribute. He was, to use the word that he often deployed in speaking of the great conservative critics and writers of the past, an exemplar of the highest order. For his immeasurable devotion to the task of revitalizing our civilization, we should indeed be grateful. ♦


Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books, including In a Time of Disorder: Form and Meaning in Southern Fiction from Poe to O’Connor. He has written for Modern Age on V. S. Naipaul, higher education, and other topics.

  1. Quoted in George A. Panichas, Growing Wings to Overcome Gravity: Criticism as the Pursuit of Virtue (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1999), 104.
  2. George A. Panichas, The Courage of Judgment: Essays in Criticism, Culture, and Society (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1982), 56.
  3. Ibid., 60.
  4. George A. Panichas, The Critic as Conservator: Essays in Literature, Society, and Culture (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1992), 132.
  5. Panichas, The Courage of Judgment, 13.
  6. Quoted in ibid., 75.
  7. Panichas, The Critic as Conservator, 41.
  8. Quoted in ibid., 46.
  9. Quoted in Panichas, The Courage of Judgment, 100.
  10. Ibid.
  11. George A. Panichas, The Reverent Discipline: Essays in Literary Criticism and Culture (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1974), 231.
  12. Ibid., 281.
  13. Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Virtue, Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 386.
  14. Panichas, The Reverent Discipline, 282.
  15. Panichas, The Critic as Conservator, 226.
  16. Quoted in Panichas, The Courage of Judgment, 181.
  17. Panichas, Growing Wings to Overcome Gravity, 33.
  18. Panichas, The Critic as Conservator, 232.
  19. Ibid., 236.
  20. Ibid., 228.
  21. Ibid., 230.
  22. T. H. Pickett, “Discivilization in the Criticism of George A. Panichas,” Modern Age 50.1 (2008): 16.
  23. Panichas, The Reverent Discipline, 392.
  24. Panichas, The Courage of Judgment, 264.
  25. George A. Panichas, Joseph Conrad: His Moral Vision (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2005), 13.
  26. Panichas, The Reverent Discipline, xix.
  27. Ibid., 151.
  28. Panichas, The Critic as Conservator, 58.
  29. Ibid., 68.
  30. Ibid., 171.