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.