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A Legacy of Temperament

by Roger Kimball

The Neoconservative Persuasion: Selected Essays, 1942-2009, by Irving Kristol, edited by Gertrude Himmelfarb (Basic, 343 pp., $29.95)

An honest man, said the poet William Blake, may change his opinions, but not his principles. Irving Kristol, who died in September 2009 just shy of 90, embarked on intellectual life at City College in New York as a Trotskyist. Long before he emerged as “the godfather of neoconservatism” (no one knows who the father was), he had shed that youthful flirtation with neo-Marxism and, with it, had shed a lot of opinions about . . . well, about everything from what counted as great art to what counted as sound social policy. But the evidence of this posthumous collection of essays, which span nearly 70 years and touch upon a galaxy of topics, suggests that his principles remained constant.

What were those principles? They are, I think, easier to adumbrate than define and depend as much upon temperament or — if I may use an old-fashioned term — character as upon rules or commandments. In his foreword to this volume, Kristol’s son William minutes the essential ingredients: “confidence without arrogance; worldly wisdom along with intellectual curiosity; a wry wit and a kindly disposition; and a clear-eyed realism about the world along with a great generosity of spirit.” Bill first enumerated that list of virtues, each amplified by the presence of its contrary, at the funeral for his father; those who did not know Irving Kristol personally might be forgiven for thinking they amount to the usual idealized catalogue eulogists bestow upon the lately dead. But anyone who knew Irving will instantly recognize the truth of this inventory. Irving’s personality, like his writing, exhibited a fetching combination of geniality and perspicacity: common sense and uncommon insight, unfailingly delivered with a twinkle that somehow did not compromise seriousness.

Irving himself seems to have suspected that his perspective had something to do with the word (or the reality it names) “neo.” He asks, in an oft-quoted passage from “An Autobiographical Memoir” (1995), the longest essay in this book and the only one that has appeared previously between hard covers:

Is there such a thing as a “neo” gene? I ask that question because, looking back over a lifetime of my opinions, I am struck by the fact that they all qualify as “neo.” I have been a neo-Marxist, a neo-Trotskyist, a neo-socialist, a neoliberal, and finally a neoconservative. It seems that no ideology or philosophy has ever been able to encompass all of reality to my satisfaction. There was always a degree of detachment qualifying my commitment.

Detachment, it is worth noting, can come in a variety of flavors. It can betoken a hesitation or aestheticizing distance from commitment. But it can also suggest commitment enlarged by an acknowledgment of complication and the inherent limitation or partiality of all our schemes for interpreting the world.

Reading through this clutch of 50 essays, one is struck again and again by two things: the precociousness of the young Irving Kristol and the consistency of tone his work exhibits. Each of the book’s eight sections is chronologically ordered, so the reader journeys several times from 1942 to the mid-to-late 2000s. Nineteen forty-two: Irving was only 22 when he wrote, under the party nom de plume William Ferry, “The Quality of Doubt,” a review of W. H. Auden’s book The Double Man. I do not know many — correction, I do not know any — 22-year-olds who command the sinewy prose, maturity of judgment, and appreciation of complexity Irving displays in this essay. Although he clearly admires Auden, he also registers the “nasty Stalinist bent” that surfaced in some of his early work. Auden’s “close to brilliant” accumulation of subtlety came later. The takeaway from the essay is Irving’s observation that “it is given to no one type of mind to discern the totality of truth.” Human imperfection — what the Christian tradition calls original sin — inscribes doubt and limitation into all our projects, yet (here is the typical Kristol touch) we must also be wary of elevating doubt into “a political program.” T. S. Eliot once said of Tennyson that what was distinctively religious about him was not the quality of his faith but the quality of his doubt. It is that doubleness — the cultivation of an affirmative, energizing doubt — that Auden celebrates and Irving memorializes.

Two years later, in an essay on Lionel Trilling, “The Moral Critic,” Irving distances himself from that version of Marxism in which

there has always been a kind of disgust with humanity as it is and a perfect faith in humanity as it is to be. It is this simplistic faith in perfectibility which cultivates the domineering arrogance of the self-righteous reformer, and which forgives in advance inhumanity disguised as humanistic zeal. The present is only a transitional (almost illusory) epoch, and living men possess value in a potential and inferential sense, never in their own right.

Wise words at any age, but particularly wise from a 24-year-old, especially one marinated in the heady stew of Marxism. And here he is on the “liberal state of mind”: It is “reformist and humanitarian,” which anyone might say. But Irving makes it interesting with his further observation that the “basis” for the liberal state of mind is “snobbery, self-satisfaction, unimaginativeness.” Again: “The religious mind is an aversion to liberalism”: sure enough. But Irving’s genius is to continue: “yet [it] partakes of the same spirit, substituting theological credo for social purpose.”

Irving published these essays in Enquiry, the first of seemingly innumerable magazines in which he involved himself. “Start a magazine”: That was his advice to young (and sometimes not so young) men who had something to say but no settled forum for saying it. Irving was a publisher at Basic Books for many years, a professor in New York for decades, but his intellectual life unfolded chiefly in the pages of magazines and newspapers. Enquiry lasted a scant two years, but The Public Interest, which he founded with Daniel Bell in 1965, made it to 40. Then there was Commentary and The Reporter, where he worked as an editor, and The National Interest, which he helped to found, and Encounter in London, which he coedited for five years with Stephen Spender. Irving had his fingers in many other enterprises: He was, for example, the first chairman of the entity that publishes The New Criterion, the magazine I edit, and I have it on good authority that his early blessing was instrumental in ensuring the magazine’s initial success.

The essays in this book range widely: from literature to religion to public policy in both its domestic and foreign-affairs departments. There are two recurrent themes. One involves an admonition against the higher stupidity: the stupidity of the excessively educated, the intellectuals. Typical is “On the Political Stupidity of the Jews” from 1999. This audacious essay begins by describing the young, left-wing Saul Bellow, a marxistsocialistleninist fellow-traveller of a familiar college type. He would meet with fellow University of Chicago students at his aunt’s apartment to plot the revolution. His aunt’s comment: “Your friends, they are smart, so smart. But stupid” — stupid, that is, about utopia and the way the world really worked.

The other recurrent theme involves what we might call the spiritual side of public policy. Irving’s own religious commitments seem to have been as much cultural as doctrinal. He was, he said, a nonobservant but not a nonreligious Jew. Whatever the details of his faith — or perhaps I should say, echoing that early essay on Auden, whatever the details of his doubt — Irving had a deep appreciation of the place of religion and spiritual life in the metabolism of what we aggregate under the decidedly unspiritual name of “public policy.” “In the end,” he wrote in the 1970s, “the only authentic criterion for judging any economic or political system, or any set of social institutions, is this: what kind of people emerge from them?” Returning to this theme in 1997 in “The Welfare State’s Spiritual Crisis,” he acknowledges that

it may sound odd to talk about the welfare state as if it had a spiritual dimension, as well as an economic and social one. But it does, though less visible to the naked eye and less quantifiable by social scientists. It is a dimension that involves the often subtle way in which a democratic citizen envisions his government and his political community — envisions rather than simply sees. It is implicated in the ways souls of the citizenry are formed and shaped by the welfare state.

Let me underscore this point. In “No Cheers for the Profit Motive” (1979), Irving cautions against that popular but one-sided reading of Adam Smith that sees him as an unalloyed apostle of capitalism. In fact, Irving points out, the virtues Smith celebrated (in The Theory of Moral Sentiments but also in The Wealth of Nations) were the traditional Judeo-Christian virtues of sympathy, public-spiritedness, generosity, empathy, and the like. But Smith’s great economic insight was to show how the total of self-interested individual actions, themselves non-moral, “resulted in an institution, the market economy, that was moral because it permitted everyone to better his condition even though each participant sought only his own particular good.” The subsequent emancipation of much economic thinking from its roots in the soil of traditional virtue accounts for the ghostly sterility of “the dismal science” in its modern incarnation.

This is a rich, rewarding, insightful collection, full of historical interest and contemporary insight. In the title essay, Irving describes neoconservatism as a “cast of mind” rather than a “movement.” “It is hopeful, not lugubrious; forward looking, not nostalgic; and its general tone is cheerful, not grim or dyspeptic.” It’s a characterization that applies to the author as well as the “persuasion” he was describing. “Neocons,” Irving wrote, tend to think that Hayek was alarmist with his talk of “the road to serfdom.” They “do not feel that kind of alarm or anxiety about the growth of the state in the past century, seeing it as natural, indeed inevitable.” They tend to look for guidance, he says, to “the democratic wisdom of Tocqueville” rather than “the Tory nostalgia of, say, Russell Kirk.”

Irving wrote that in 2003. I wonder what he would have to say about the growth of the state today. Perhaps Russell Kirk would still fail to provide any meaningful music for him. But I note that Hayek’s phrase “the road to serfdom” comes from that font of democratic wisdom — and, I might add, democratic admonition — Alexis de Tocqueville. I wish Irving were around to continue the conversation.

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