The Corner

National Review

William F. Buckley, Happy Birthday in Heaven

Our founder was born on this day in 1925. He would be 95. Bill passed away in 2008, at his desk. Beset by many afflictions, he carried on. His legacy endures.

In the picture here, he is with a dear friend, Lady Thatcher, popular again of late courtesy of The Crown. This comes from one of the many splendid conferences she hosted while serving as National Review Institute’s Honorary Chairman.

This week we cannot help but think of Pilgrims. Bill once wrote an important piece about the original pilgrims — the ones who ventured to places holy, to seek cures, to do penance. In 2018, this website republished his 1993 magazine essay, “To Be a Pilgrim: a Visit to Lourdes.” It is a wonderful spiritual reflection that is available in full to all. Read it here.

I find the last paragraphs particularly touching:

They are in Lourdes because of this palpability of the emanations that gave birth to the shrine. The spiritual tonic is felt. If it were otherwise, the pilgrims would diminish in number, would, by now, have disappeared, as at Delphos, which one visits as a museum, not a shrine. What it is that fetches them is I think quite simply stated, namely a reinforced conviction that the Lord God loves His creatures, healthy or infirm; that they — we — must understand the nature of love, which is salvific in its powers; and that although we are free to attempt to divine God’s purpose, we will never succeed in doing so. The reason is that we cannot know (the manifest contradictions are too disturbing) what is the purpose behind particular phenomena and therefore must make do with only the grandest plan of God, which treats with eternal salvation. To keep the faith: To do this (the grammar of assent) requires the discipline of submission, some assurance that those who are stricken can, even so, be happy; and that the greatest tonic of all is divine love, which is nourished by human love, even as human love is nourished by divine love.

Waiting to board the airplane to Paris I found myself in the company of three malades. They could walk, else they’d have been on one of the trains, on stretchers. One young man had a face wretchedly distorted — it brought to mind one of the unpleasant pictures of Picasso. Around his neck the attendant placed a plastic folder, his ticket inside, his travel arrangements upon landing at Orly explained. With heavy use of a heavy cane he could, so to speak, walk. He was treated, by this company returning from Lourdes, as — a member of the family, which he was, as Lourdes manages to make plain.

There was plenty of melancholy about Bill in his later years — many exceptional examples of his writing were remembrances and obituaries of departed friends (and some, of departed enemies). A few years back our pal James Rosen assembled some of these WFB classics in A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century. It is a remarkable book. Avail yourself of it.

But today marks a date of birth, which implies youth, a future of potential, of consequence. That is what Bill Buckley had in 1925, and he embraced it fully.

Let us consider him still young as he launched National Review in 1955 (if only because he was young), and conclude this birthday greeting by unearthing from the archives and sharing a piece by our friend and founder. Here, from the January 28, 1961 issue, is an important review of an important book: John Courtney Murray’s We Hold These Truths. Here’s Bill’s review, and here’s how it concludes:

The consensus proper to American liberal society is purely procedural. It involves no agreement on the premises and purposes of political life and legal institutions; it is solely an agreement with regard to the method of making decisions and getting things done, whatever the things may be. The substance of American society is our “democratic institutions,” conceived as purely formal categories. These institutions have no content; they are simply channels through which any kind of content may flow. In the end, the only life-or-death question for American society is that it should live or die under punctilious regard for correct democratic procedures.

That is not enough, obviously. And everyone appears to agree that is not enough, as witness the aching search for National Objectives. Every editor or foundation head in America worth his salt has during the past year commissioned his subordinates to find him a national objective, allowing, in the case of an opulent journal, as much as three months for the job. The need is patently there. It is a felt need, and that much is good. Fr. Murray wonders whether it will be found in time, and whether those who search for the public philosophy will turn, no doubt with anguished resignation, to the natural law: the neglected, tatterdemalion lode from which, if we set out to do it, we can mine a public philosophy which will bring the West out alive.

Happy heavenly birthday, Bill.

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