The Unforgiving Minute

Left: Detail of portrait of Denis Diderot by Louis-Michel van Loo, 1767. Right: Rudyard Kipling, c. 1895. (Public Domain/Wikimedia)
We persist in defending good poetry, the Enlightenment, and the American Experiment, with composure and gratitude.

Today, we have a pop quiz. How do the insights of the 18th-century French philosopher Denis Diderot and the 19th-century British poet Rudyard Kipling combine to demonstrate the imperative of supporting National Review Institute?

Kipling wrote lyrically poignant and patriotic verse. He was immensely popular and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907. In our day, he is reviled for his imperialism, racialism, and even his humorously excessive appreciation for a fine cigar. (“The Betrothed,” if you’re wondering). One of his famous poems is entitled “If”: a metronomically engaging series of conditional statements outlining the elements of character that lead on to success. It begins:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs . . .

Perhaps you have noticed that hysteria is a feature (I call it a flaw) of politics and culture in our era. By way of contrast, the mission of National Review Institute is to extend the influence of classical conservative ideas through reasoned argument and entertaining presentation of first principles. NRI’s activities amplify the journalism and commentary of our subsidiary National Review, which has been persuading the fair-minded and the powerful for 66 years without resorting to clickbait and fabulation. Some have criticized us for an insufficient commitment to an apocalyptically emotional worldview. We are with Mr. Kipling on this point; keeping our head (and principles) while others are losing theirs is a feature, not a flaw. A disciplined and well-armed platoon of infantry is more effective in the combat of ideas than a disparate mob with twittering pitchforks.

Of course, there are two senses of Kipling’s “if-then” statements: one suggests potential and possibility; the other conveys regret.

In the Old Testament story of Israel’s founding, God lays out His promise to the Hebrews:

If ye walk in my statutes and keep my commandments,
then I will give you rain in due season
and the land shall yield her increase . . .
and I will give peace. (Lev. 26:3–6)

This is the “if” that proffers every good thing; the “if” that lies tantalizingly within our power.

Monsieur Diderot memorably captured that other, disconcerting, sense of “if”: the failure to act timely, and thereby miss a great opportunity. He is remembered as a giant of the Enlightenment, not only for the Encyclopedie and various books and plays, but also for a French term that describes the predicament of thinking of the perfect reply just a moment too late. Diderot recounts an antagonistic remark at dinner that left him speechless for a moment, but as he reached the bottom of the stairs upon leaving, he came to himself with a devastating, but now pointlessly late, retort. His ironic term for this failure is l’esprit d’escalier, literally the spirit of the staircase.

L’esprit d’escalier is a malady common to many of us as we are confronted abruptly with yet another witless effusion from our self-appointed progressive minders. The regret of not delivering the best riposte, or of failing to take action when it mattered, is expressed in the formulation, “if only . . .”  Or, as we say in New Jersey, “woulda, coulda, shoulda.”

Happily, the works and purpose of National Review Institute are here to address these matters, needing only the ways and means. Our programs are potent accelerants of conservative zeal across the fruited plain. National Review Capital Matters has become a go-to platform for the explanation and celebration of economic freedom. The WFB Communicators program explores the power of civility and respect in the contest of ideas; on those terms, conservative arguments win. High-profile debates sponsored by NRI at the fabulous Old Parkland in Dallas have demonstrated this point. Our Burke to Buckley seminars in six cities inculcate first principles in a new generation of young professionals and the NRI Regional Seminars promote conservative ideas to audiences across America. The dozen NRI fellows are influential in print and compelling at high-profile NRI events.

Kipling’s inspirational poem concludes with a final challenge:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run  . . .

At NRI, we do just that. There will be no regrets: les mots juste are ever at our lips courtesy of the NRI fellows. With cogent argument and timely wit, NRI fills the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds of Right Reason. Notwithstanding the delirium of the Left, we persist in defending good poetry, the Enlightenment, and the American Experiment, with composure and gratitude.

It lies within your power. “If” you help us, National Review Institute will continue to be an efficacious force for the advancement of the conservative ideas that make our country prosperous, strong, decent, and free. Your tax-deductible gift to NRI is what makes this possible.

I urge you to act timely. Support National Review Institute, as you may be able, and run the distance side-by-side with us in this great endeavor.


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