The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 14, 2017

Rediscovering Politics
Ian Crowe - 06/29/09
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The Crisis of Modern Times: Perspectives from The Review of Politics, 1939-1962, Edited by A. James McAdams. (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007)

In January 1939, Adolf Hitler, adopting his favorite posture as a prophet, informed the German Reichstag that a second European war would bring about the elimination of the Jewish race in Europe. The same month, at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, a new journal, The Review of Politics, was launched, providing a platform from which a remarkably diverse and accomplished list of contributors was to educate its readership in the first principles that are fundamental to a free and just society. The Crisis of Modern Times, a collection of more than twenty essays selected from the first twenty-four years of that journal’s existence, shows, too, that the journal had its own prophetic aspect, exposing through its philosophical and historical analyses of Nazism and other totalitarian systems of the modern age the true nature of the ideological threats to democracy in the West.

A mere perusal of the list of writers included in this fascinating and rich collection—names such as Hannah Arendt, Russell Kirk, Jacques Maritain, Josef Pieper, Yves Simon, Leo Strauss, and Eric Voegelin—is an indication in itself of the achievement of the journal’s founding editor, Waldemar Gurian, and of the success of the project. It also suggests the difficulty that this collection’s editor, A. James McAdams, faced, not only in limiting his selection from such a pool, but also, given the range of disciplines and the passing of more than half a century of rapid political and diplomatic change, in providing overall coherence and accessibility for the reader. A few of the authors appearing here will be known to all readers; many will be recognized less through direct contact than by reputation in the burgeoning number of histories of American postwar conservatism and anti-Communism. All, though, deserve to be read on their own terms and in their own words.

In a well-wrought and scrupulous introductory essay, McAdams tackles the differences separating, and the common factors uniting, the contributors’ critical perspectives by distinguishing (albeit—as he readily concedes—at the cost of some adaptation and simplification) four broad analytical approaches identifiable in the collection as a whole: “critical Catholicism, traditionalism, the emerging discipline of political science, and phenomenology.” Each approach is briefly described and illustrated through reference to one representative writer—Jacques Maritain, John U. Nef, C.J. Friedrich, and Hannah Arendt respectively. Taken in the broad spirit intended (the essays themselves are ordered chronologically, not by any category imposed editorially), this plan is successful, (although it may helpfully expose the limitations of the term “traditionalist” when applied, however loosely, to the thought of writers such as John U. Nef and Russell Kirk.) It certainly helps to emphasize one of McAdams’ central points about the collection—that the Review of Politics was not, despite the prevalence of Catholic writers such as Maritain, Pieper, Simon, and Gurian himself, intended primarily as an organ of Catholic intellectual revivalism or neo-Thomism. Each of the critical approaches McAdams identifies shines its own particular perspective on the pursuit of Truth, distinguished by its particular understanding of the “crisis of modernity.” Yet, it must be said, the cumulative and integral effect of the collection is to disclose to the reader, at the end of each vista, the vital concept of “Love”—Love given meaning, perhaps, through our ‘vertical’ longing for our Creator, but only fulfilled in the “horizontal” relations of our social affections. It is this binding disclosure—the sole and necessary antidote to the blandishments of modern secular ideologies—that brings the reader simultaneously, as it were, to the final essay in this collection, Nef’s astonishing reflections on the question “Is the Intellectual Life an End in Itself?” and back to the first, Maritain’s magisterial “Integral Humanism and the Crisis of Modern Times.”

For the student of postwar American conservatism, the most satisfying aspect of this collection may be the opportunity it affords to “get back to the originals.” Several essays offer sharp, accessible and primary statements of some of the key intellectual ideas in twentieth-century American thought: Leo Strauss’s (lone) contribution to the journal, “Natural Right and the Historical Approach,” for example, which appeared in 1950; the fascinating exchange between Eric Voegelin and Hannah Arendt on Arendt’s recently published Origins of Totalitarianism; Russell Kirk’s 1954 contribution “Social Justice and Mass Culture”; and Yves Simon’s “Common Good and Common Action.” It should be stressed, though, that such seminal thinkers also lead us to a greater, or new, appreciation of the less familiar names with which they share this collection. (I was delighted to come upon the work of John Nef, at least two of whose essays included here, “Philosophical Values and the Future of Civilization” and “Is the Intellectual Life an End in Itself?” could be required reading for any historiography seminar course.) The light editorial touch evident in McAdams’ short biographical introductions and spare footnoting serves in some ways to facilitate these exercises of discovery and rediscovery by clearing away all but the barest of historical contexts, although, at the same time, it will be less help for those readers who wish to probe some of the intellectual influences on these writers themselves. There are, for example, intriguing, if scattered, references in the essays to thinkers such as C. E. M. Joad, Paul Elmer More, and Julien Benda. Such an exercise would be very rewarding (not to mention overdue), but McAdams is disappointingly vague in pointing the way to further reading here.

Finally, the essays in The Crisis of Modern Times, while many decades old now, should strike familiar chords with readers today. In his Introduction, McAdams argues for their relevance, in part, by remarking upon the persistent tendency both to secularize and deify the state and its political mechanisms as the best means of judging “matters of good and evil, life and death, without any reference to any of the higher principles that bind humanity together.” Today, in the West, this secular faith in the State appears to go hand in hand with a pusillanimity and weakness in defending its principles against foreign systems that may threaten it. Far from leading to a correction of such errors, the experience of Appeasement, of genocide, and the renewed trahison des clercs during the years of the Cold War appear merely to have clothed ragged delusions in more fashionable and palatable guises: the secularized sense of prudence that prioritizes dialogue and compromise as it warns against the pursuit of Truth, and the optimism that scientific and technological discoveries may increasingly buttress the body, and the body politic, against the tragedies of life and the human condition. As Maritain argued in Christianity and Democracy, optimism is not the same as hope, and the “progress [of democracy] is bound up with the spiritualization of secular existence.” Surely, and ironically, these truths have been brought home to us, seventy years after the launching of the Review of Politics, with President Obama’s contentious appearance on the campus of Notre Dame University—in which respect, Frank O’Mally’s excellent fifty-year-old piece from this collection, “The Thinker in the Church: The Spirit of Newman,” could be read with great profit by some in authority at the university today.

The essays in The Crisis of Modern Times focus particularly on international relations and political systems from the eve of the Second World War to the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and as such cover only one of the fields visited perennially in the pages of the journal. McAdams promises more volumes, the next dealing with “theories about the origins of political conflict and war.” By the high standard of the first, this project will serve as a vital and exciting aid to the exploration of mid-century conservative and Catholic thought for a new generation of scholars.

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