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The Range and Originality of Conservative Reflection

Summer 2008 - Vol. 50, No. 3

A consideration of the contents of thisissue of Modern Age brings to mind therich variety of theme and profundity of insightavailable to thinkers who espouse aconservative perspective. We present an accountof a Jewish mystic who found theluminescence of faith in the darkness of theHolocaust during World War II and anexamination of the place of diplomacy in theconservative thought and practice of an American,an Englishman, and a Frenchman duringthe Victorian era. One essay investigates thesurprising influence of Czechoslovakia on aScottish poet, while another provides a timelyadmonition for conservatives against investingtoo heavily in a philosophical fad, especially,perhaps, if it is French. And thenthere is our continuing examination of thevery practical problem of the energy crisis.

As the subjects of these essays indicate, thisissue also has an international flavor, which isenhanced by the provenance of the authors,who hail from England, Belgium, and Albania,as well as all across the United States. Toseek out conservative thought in other nationsis in keeping with Russell Kirk's goalsfor Modern Age and continues the practice ofthe first two issues of this year. Recall thetranslations of the interview with René Girardin the Spring issue and of Pierre Manent'sLenten reflection in the Winter issue. We arepleased to note that the latter has recentlybeen published by Editions Parole et Silencein a volume that includes the participation ofManent's partner in the dialogue, What isTruth? Lenten Lectures of 2007 at Notre Damede Paris, in Dialogue with Michel Fédou on thetheme, Truth of Faith and Truth of Reason. Weare extremely pleased that the first Englishtranslation of this important dialogue hasappeared in Modern Age and hope to providesimilar documentation for our readers incoming issues.

Merely reading the essays presented in thisissue will convince anyone that the authorsare remarkably diverse in their outlook, theirstyle, and their preoccupations; it is not difficultto imagine a quite lively debate if theywere all brought together to discuss any oneof their topics. Nevertheless, each of theseessays contributes to a conservative understandingof our world because each of themconstructs an argument within a frameworkof traditional norms amenable to right reason.Conservatives are thus capable both oftheir own original thought and of bringingcritical judgment to bear on the innovationsof others, because they do not simply discardthe past and presume to build a utopianvision out of nothing. In order to makeprogress in any reasonable sense of the term,it is necessary to know where the past hasbrought us, and hence what choices aretenable, not to say desirable, within themanifold constraints of our temporal existence.Only someone with a sense of the pastcan possibly know what is genuinely new inthe present.

Of course, it is the timeless that is alwaysnew. Meins Coetsier's essay on Etty Hillesumprovides a rejoinder to the virulence ofcontemporary atheism not by meeting itsarguments in their own terms, but by openingup a realm of experience that atheistssimply ignore. The letters and diaries of thisDutch Jewish mystic and victim of Auschwitzprovide a window into what may reasonablybe described as a hell on earth, which paradoxicallymade available a vision of heaven.Grounding his analysis in Eric Voegelin'sconcept of symbolization, Coetsier makesan indirect case for the thoroughly conservativerealization that human experience,particularly as the individual's insight convergeswith traditional symbols that embodygenerations of wisdom, always takesprecedence over the naked reason of thederacinated ideologue.

The struggles of David Clinton's representativefigures were less searingly intensethan the agon endured by Etty Hillesum, buteach of them was, nonetheless, engulfed inthe urgent trials of his time. Not everyonewould think to consider John C. Calhoun,François Guizot, and Sir Robert Peel in thesame essay, but Professor Clinton shows thatall three men valued diplomacy because of itscontribution to conservatism in the mostfundamental sense: that is, diplomacy helpsto conserve social institutions and social orderby the avoidance of war, which almostinevitably brings destructive political andcultural developments, apart from what happenson the battlefield. Professor Clinton thusdemonstrates how conservative thought encouragesoriginality by considering each manand each situation afresh and on its own terms.Once again, it is the avoidance of Procrusteanideological templates that furnishes the dynamismof the conservative's vision.

In "'Between the Tiger's Paws': Scotland,Czechoslovakia, and the Poetry of EdwinMuir," Richard Cross offers an account of aScottish poet who discovered his identity asa writer while working as a correspondentand translator in a middle-European country.The essay implicitly asks that we considerthe complexities of cultural relationships at atime when both multiculturalism and its belligerent"monocultural" antagonists urge uponus equally simplistic solutions. It is worthobserving that Muir, whom Cross identifies asan anti-communist and a socialist along thelines of William Morris, is readily assimilatedto a conservative vision. Liberals, on theother hand, worry endlessly over whether itis quite decent to enjoy the poetry of Pound,Yeats, or Eliot. Perhaps nothing dampensopen-minded tolerance so much as the stridentdemand that it be rigorously observed.

Fatos Tarifa, who brings to his task aremarkable international background, surveyswhat might be called an episode inphilosophical fashion. Readers with longmemories will recall when, in the 1970s,Bernard-Henri Lévy seemed the answer toan American conservative's prayer: an aucourant French intellectual who refuted anti-Americanism. Tarifa calls into question thecredentials, both philosophical and conservative,of the nouveau philosophie in a fashionthat may well prove controversial as well ascautionary. Some will find equally controversialP. E. Hodgson's sober—and sobering—apologia for nuclear power in the secondof a series of four articles on the energycrisis. Both of these articles ask conservativesto reflect deeply and in the long-term oncrucial issues: one a matter of intellectualclarity, the other of practical utility.

The poems in this issue also cover a rangeof feeling and interest. Those by PhoebeSpinrad and William Bedford Clark are both,in their different ways, very moving. WilliamBaer's "Ballad Rode Into Town" issomething of a departure for poetry in ModernAge. The object of Baer's deft satire will berecognized with satisfaction by many readers,but I ask that you also notice what a remarkablefeat of style the poem is: by personifying"Ballad" in a poem that takes the form of aballad, Baer has made not just the sound, butthe structure, an echo of the sense.

Our reviews are varied in topic and approach.Anne Gardner considers VirgilNemoianu's account of a very different sideof Romanticism, Scott Crider finds virtue ina modern rhetorician, and Bruce Frohnenconsiders a book on Jamestown. There arealso reviews of a number of books on figuresof particular resonance for conservatism:Alexis de Tocqueville, Robert Frost, andWilliam Shakespeare; but I call particularattention to Michael Federici's review-essayon a number of recent books on Russell Kirk,the founder of this journal.

R.V. Young