Please forgive the following rambles. I’m in Louisville, ready to work with the mighty Gary Gregg again today. Last night, I had the great privilege of speaking with a number of his excellent McConnell Fellows for nearly two hours about Eliot’s Ash Wednesday and another ninety minutes on Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring.
I came back to the hotel—the very haunted and stately Seelbach—full of energy and a humbled desire to change the world. The following is, for better or worse, what I’ve come up with. As you’ll see at the end, there’s no real conclusion (be forewarned!) just a bit of bloviated excitement.
When English historian and man of letters, Christopher Dawson, became editor of the venerable Catholic journal, the Dublin Review, in 1940, he wrote: Roman Catholics “have an historical mission to maintain and strengthen the unity of Western culture which had its roots in Christendom against the destructive forces which are attempting its total subversion.”
As Dawson wrote this, the National Socialists had already marched east and the International Socialists had already marched west, each into Poland, dividing and destroying the deeply Catholic nation. At the time of Dawson’s first editorial, England had already sided with the cause of the Poles, while America watched with horror at the swiftness and brutality of events across the Atlantic. For Dawson, English and American Catholics should lead the world in ideas and moral direction, advocating that the war and the subsequent peace be waged on Christian principles. Ideally, the two powers would serve as the twin pillars of Atlantis.
But, in large part because of America, Christian principles had become increasingly difficult to advocate and achieve during the 1920s and the 1930s. America had moved the world more toward “scientific progress” and crass materialism, while the Germans, Italians, and Communists had ripped apart the West through ideologies of the Left and Right, each man-made religions.
Caught between these various forces, ideas and imagination had been all but forgotten. Rather than being an outgrowth of culture and religion, politics and the political had become ascendant throughout western society. Dawson viewed this as incredibly dangerous, a narrowing of options and of an understanding of the human person. The movement toward the political and the ideological, which Dawson labeled “the Age of Propaganda” was nothing less than anti-humane.
Nowhere, Dawson believed, was this more reflected than in journals of opinion. “There is not only a positive lack of new ideas but also a subjective loss of interesting ideas as such, he wrote his good friend, Bernard Wall, in 1946. “Politics seems to be swamping everything and the non-political writer becomes increasingly uprooted and helpless,” he complained.
Dawson’s own editorial adventures demonstrate what could be done in a solid and energetic Catholic Republic of Letters.
In the 1920s, Dawson helped edit and publish a journal with Tom Burns, the future and long-time editor of England’s The Tablet. Though only four issues long, the Burns and Dawson Order attempted to “form a Catholic mind,” which the journal defined as “the development of personal and public moral qualities as necessary for the apperception of truth on most levels—vigilance.” Roman Catholicism, Dawson believed, “is essentially the religion of Order.” Ultimately, Order became Catholic publisher Sheed and Ward’s important series, Essays in Order, featuring such authors as Dawson, Jacques Maritain, E.I. Watkin, Nicholas Berdyaev, Thomas Gilby, and Francois Mauriac. Truly, Sheed and Ward had created a European Catholic Republic of Letters.
In the 1930s, Dawson also helped co-edit Colosseum, featuring many of the same authors as Essays in Order and which professed “not to be a polite review.” It would, it proclaimed, fight against the ““shrieking contradictions of Capitalism, Bolshevism, Yogi, Democracy, Usury, Determinism, Freudianism, Starvation and Advocates of Poison Gas,” as the human person “has been defaced and is now exploited and commercialized.”
Dawson took these same ideas—of a militant, but united Catholicism, based on a Republic of Letters—to the Dublin Review. During his five years at the Dublin, Dawson published poetry, short stories, and serious articles on politics, history, literature, economics, law, and, of course, theology.
One of the last numbers he edited, the January-February-March 1945 issue, reveals much. In it, J.R.R. Tolkien published his now famous and inspired short story about purgatory, “Leaf by Niggle.” In addition, scholarly articles on Sir Thomas More, The Roman Empire, the Christian Tradition in England, John Henry Newman, and Czechoslovakia also appeared n the same issue.
Ultimately, the publisher fired Dawson because he had published articles by Maritain and George Bernanos, each of whom had opposed the Spanish general, Francisco Franco.
It’s hard not to gaze in wonder at the achievements of the great quarterlies of the early and mid part of the 20th century. Eliot’s Criterion and Dawson’s Dublin Review and Colosseum in England challenged many of the worst disorders of the 1930s and 1940s.
When Kirk published Modern Age between 1957 and 1959, he consciously emulated these English journals. As with the earlier journals, Modern Age strove to challenge the follies of its time — not through soundbites but through well-argued discussion and debate.
In the second issue of Modern Age, the then-famous Christian Humanist scholar, Lynn Harold Hough, published an essay entitled, “Conservatism and the Creative Spirit.”
In it, he wrote, “Civilization and its achievement are a balance between stability and freedom: a freedom in law, not a freedom from law. Thus conservation is the basis of adventure.” A beautiful statement, reflecting Eliot’s 1919 essay on Individualism and Tradition.
In print, of course, magazines such as Dan McCarthy’s The American Conservative and Scott Richert’s Chronicles follow the old line of thinking: each is a conservative adventure. But how grotesquely politicized what remains of print journalism has become over the past sixty years.
Other forms of media are even worse. With the obvious and vital exception of Mike Church, so many of those who proclaim “conservatism” on the radio and on Fox News have behaved rapaciously toward the noble term, draining it of its verve, calculating with it as if it could be bought and sold in the exchanges of the market. Their words are as plastic as their reconstructive surgeries.
As our own John Willson has recently written, he no longer calls himself a conservative as he does not want to be associated with those who buy and sell it in the temple.
But, I don’t think we should dismiss the term. We should cherish it and reclaim it. We should, once again, baptize it (though, I’m not an anabaptist).
Despite the language just used, I don’t propose we treat ourselves as a sect, fondling some secret as though it held the key to the universe that we alone possess, passing the sacred knowledge through a diabolic apostolic succession.
The Gnostics of the modern world can be damned, for all I care. They speak pretty words, con their audiences, and send children to die in foreign lands. They’ve damned themselves.
But, let them not damn the world.
We must—as The Imaginative Conservative has been doing for almost two years now and others such as Church, McCarthy, and Richert have been doing for even longer—treat all with humane respect, promoting ideas with meaning, not propaganda. We must, in short, recreate an immediate republic of letters to join with the eternal Republic of Letters. We must not shut off debate, we must welcome it.
As always, it’s well worth exploring those who came before us to understand how to reach those who will come after us.
The task of the imaginative conservative is to bring the same kind of breadth as well as depth as the great editors and writers of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s brought to the public: exciting but well argued and reasoned discourse.In short, we must continue to promote and engage the conservative adventure.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.