The primary responsibility of the young scholar is to an integrity as person—that is, to a fulfillment of his gifts as this person, limited in gifts but sharing with humanity a nature as intellectual soul incarnate…


Polonius: “What do you read, my lord?”
Hamlet: “Words, words, words.”

At this turning of a millennium it is both a difficult and a dangerous undertaking to use signs, most especially to attempt wise words suited to the recovery and sharing of what T.S. Eliot called “The Permanent Things” necessary to community. Difficult, because our signs are decayed by indifference to or deliberate misuse of them. Symptom to the point: Only the “sound-bite” passes as currency in the commerce of the “global village.” The speculator in signs feels forced to bright facility at the expense of reflective economy. He is expected to be as quick-witted as an Oscar Wilde, whatever purchase involved: Whether as poet or as philosopher, but most certainly as politician. That is why the “media expert” is the chief expense in political campaigns, to sell a program or elect a candidate to a public authority over programs. Ours has become an age demanding instant communication of words suited to arresting feeling, out of a gradual conditioning of public expectations which have set thought aside from feeling. How little we seem to notice that the clever word is in this moment epigraph but decays into this moment’s epitaph the moment passed. Such is the intellectual climate of our dissolving community with which the scholar now, and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, must contend.

If in this climate the task of bearing witness to the truth of things is difficult, it is even more so dangerous to the bearer of signs, to the scholar whose offices are those of both poet and philosopher. It is dangerous to him in relation to a primary responsibility to his own integrity as person—as an intellectual soul incarnate. In pursuing this responsibility, in literature and philosophy, I have more and more been concerned with signs as touching upon truth beyond the reaches of zip codes or e-mail stations, beyond scholarly journals and books. No wonder, then, that I approach this present responsibility, to bear cryptic witness out of fifty years in the academy, with fear and trembling. What may I say to the “Conservative Scholar” who finds himself inheritor of responsibilities to signs in the “Twenty-First Century?”

I remember Nestor two millennia (almost) ago, garrulous beyond his several wars in the midst of yet another one, regaling impatient Greek warriors in their prime under the walls of Troy. The circumstances offer analogy most haunting, if one substitutes Academy for Troy and Conservative Scholar for impatient Greek warrior. More centrally relevant to prudence, in respect to an appropriate literary analogue to my present responsibility, I remember not Nestor but Sophocles’s Tiresias at Thebes. But then remember that wise seer in Dante’s treatment of him: In Hell, his head turned backward to rub his nose in history for presuming a wisdom presumptuous about future contingencies—as if he might resolve them intellectually as “seer” and solve the future. For Dante, the concern becomes for history (past, present, future) as it must be engaged in the light of eternity, requiring of the poet as seer that he sort and maintain the permanent things as best he may, as fallible seer. That is, as prophetic poet, Dante recognizes his own limits, being responsible to recall us to known but forgotten truths about our given, created, nature as intellectual soul incarnate.

The difficulty to poet or philosopher or scholar is to sort tradition itself in order to rescue whatever of history is viable to a present concern for a continuing community of the living and the dead, with some confident expectation in the yet-to-be-born. It is a concern governed primarily by the light of eternity, avoiding fear of or presumptions about future contingencies. Through this concern the worthy things inherited from our fathers become viable, a nurturing out of tradition in a living present to this community. My emphasis on terms is to call attention to terms in relation to the truth in them, which truth depends upon truth as independent of my uses of terms, that being the ancient reality long neglected in a progressive modernism. As a conservator of life-giving truth to community, I know from experience that I am already tempted to arrest the viable inheritance to mere artifact.

This is a danger to me differing somewhat from that to Tiresias, who inclines (in Dante’s view) to a prideful holding through presumption. Tiresias would prove more dramatic a presence, of course, than Hamlet’s would-be mentor Laertes. That this is so requires only our listening carefully to political prophets of the time. Or to this point if in question: cast a cold eye on the tabloid offerings next to the grocery checkout. Nostradamus is a growing presence as our Tiresias to the popular mind at this millennium’s turning. A duller, more tedious spectacle is our inclination to tradition as artifact, in contrast to sensational prophecy by our seers, whom we now term experts.

Shakespeare catches, by wit and humor, a dramatic presence of dullness in that play between Hamlet and Polonius, so effectively that we may lose something of Polonius’s witness to truth. “To thine own self be true,” he solemnly proclaims, an obligation we might argue to be both Greek and Christian, as Plato and St. Augustine would argue. But the dullness in Polonius is “off-putting.” And, suspected by Hamlet as being from one in cahoots with his own devious elders, Polonius’s wise words seem codified and condescending, lacking wisdom’s immediacy. For, as youth is likely to know intuitively, true wisdom bears an immediacy to present contingencies to youth’s action in a present threatening moment, though to be acquired by long labors turning beards gray. Both Hamlet and the young warriors under the walls of Troy know as much, though they may treat wise words as but words, words, words. Sound-bites untuned to the present, savored by old busybodies remembering their lost youth. Eager youth is seldom ravenous for wisdom.

The young know that Polonius’s wisdom is borrowed wisdom, hinting at collusion and hence suspect. In the old days. When I was young. As my grandfather used to say. And so impatient youth responds to such preamble as if merely bearing dullness in Polonius. Or perhaps combined with an arrogant affront in a Tiresias. Not a deportment in the old inviting to a reflective prospect upon the future by the young, however much any seer of any moment may actually intend to wake them to a sense of reality sufficient to youth’s responsibilities. Thus wise old Homer puts dramatically one of those permanent things concerning fathers and sons, but wisely puts it with charitable humor: young warriors on the brink of first battles, impatient of old Nestor as they turn to the immediacy of an ancient “multicultural” conflict in pursuit of glory in the name of justice.

Even so, a Nestor is obligated to bear witness to the present. And so I must, to the young warrior on the threshold of action—the “Conservative Scholar” besieging or invading the academic city in its growing collapse to jungle—identify both the difficulty and the danger he is obligated to endure by such witness in my signs. What I may or must say comes out of fifty years spent in a collapsing intellectual community, the academy which Jonathan Swift examined nearly three-hundred years ago with devastating irony. Though the careful, analytical account of the Grand Academy of Lagado by his majesty’s surgeon Lemuel Gulliver up almost to our century passed as of the literary genre called satire, in the next century it may well be taught (if allowed into the State Lagado of tomorrow) as a naturalistic fiction based in current reality.


Increasingly, I find it uncomfortable in describing myself, or being described, as a conservative, though my most central concern is to conserve what is viable to my own journeying as homo viator. This because terms have so easily become shibboleths used for power that they obscure valid content. As Eric Voegelin observed, our signs are largely opaque, to which I add that they thus serve as self-reflectors rather than as openings upon truth. And so I find myself attempting definition and redefinition, lest I distort truth and be misunderstood by the wary. Hence I am cautious toward epithets like conservative, now popular as a pejorative term in our current ideological wars. Thus epithet by adversarial intent is turned epitaph to prevent careful reflection. I would conserve the valid. But then I encounter a cognate term, conservation, which as flag to current thematic programs appears most various and unacceptable in significance—in its signifying meaning. As an ambiguous term, it appears sprung from a liberal mentality (in a pejorative popular sense), rather than a conservative one. It grows in authority, at least since William of Occam, in proportion as it becomes established doctrine eschewing conservation as properly our governing, through responsibility as persons, the holiness of things—a responsibility charged to us as stewards of being.

The holiness of things: These are things encountered by homo viator, and existing as holy because they are the existing consequences of a sustaining action of transcendent Love—however that relation between a causing Love and the thing caused may be riddled and “intermed” by scientist, philosopher, poet. The British poet David Jones, in a great but neglected poem, Anathemata, remarks in his “Preface” that “while Prudentia is exercised about our intentions, Ars is concerned with the shape of a finished article,” the made thing, whose purpose in the making is tribute to, rescue of, whatever things are “cursed,” the “profane things that somehow are redeemed” in part through our sacramental devotions as stewards. He speaks movingly and at length here of the “holiness of things,” which I invoke as governing each person’s responsibilities to stewardship—each according to his gifts as person.

Certainly, person proves a term emptied of its traditional content through promotion of the term individual. In that older understanding, person is an intellectual soul incarnate, understood as dependent upon causes other than himself. But with the gradual glorification of the person through individualism, with a growing virtue of autonomy through individuality, the sense of a givenness of personhood becomes obscured. We come to value most, as Emerson would have it, the “self-made man.” And so out of autonomous sovereignty of individuals, promoted by conglomerates of persons, there developed a concomitant but contrary doctrine: the autonomous sovereignty of the individual as a god beyond being itself. The two doctrines are currently embattled in contentions between individual rights and a collectivistic common good. It is contention to the continuing detriment of the holiness of things made—created—but most especially including the person.

Our scholar, now on the threshold of the new millennium, will find the coming age a rich field, embedded with ironies, though a complex of antithetic circumstances to his thought will not be kindly inclined to his responsibilities to the truth. Thus, the individual as conservationist, affected by residual idealism, in his very deportment will likely become naively inclined to a detachment from creation as holy in its things. After all, the latest science would prohibit such a perspective. And so in a desperateness of idealism he may conclude that mankind is himself alien to creation—a foreign destructive agent ravenously intruding upon an ambiguous “nature” rather than himself a fallen, sinful, created person. If one so decides, man must be put in isolation from nature. Once declared by that old poet King David only a little lower than the angels and wonderfully made, he must now be declared lower than plants and animals and earth and water and fire and air.

It is not that man’s violations of stewardship since the Renaissance are to be gainsaid. But what is to be observed in his ravenous progress in and against nature is an accompanying gradual self-apotheosis, whereby he presumes himself by angelism higher than the angels, an autonomous seizing by gnostic power of an illusion of his freedom as if absolute, thus evidenced in his destructions of what is now called the environment rather than creation. So conspicuous are the effects of this presumption that a kindred version of a Puritanism secularized as Pragmatism emerges: environmentalism as pseudo-religion. But the residual person in us experiences a disquiet with this new religion. What the person would require is not man’s binding, lest he violate “nature” by a positive law divorced from natural law. Meanwhile, among the ironies, our scholar encounters the “environmentalist,” who tends to consent to and even to demand a divorce of the positive and natural law, in agreement with his adversary, the exploiter, in the interest of his own collective power. For he does not reject that convenient science which denies the transcendent as reconciler of positive and natural law.

As a present Laertes, then, I must encourage a recovery of person, a reorientation to stewardship of the holy, in recognition of our having been progressively dislocated from creation by the presumption now dominant that man is intellectually autonomous. There has been a long war since Occam, at least, over the world’s body, with allies aligning on either hand under the flags of exploiter of that body on the one hand and preservationist of that body on the other, those terms pejorative as applied one by the other. Two species akin evolved out of an ancient Puritanism in the old Manichaeans. It is more immediate to us out of our own Puritan fathers, occurring by a secularization of their intent to a shining city on the hill of “nature” once nature is forcefully ordered and subdued. The other, a Paganism sentimentalized, whose issue has become the question of the abolition of man to save “nature,” revelation to that end sought in curious ways by contemplating rocks in a desert perhaps with New Age enthusiasms.

And so the “Conservative Scholar” of the next century will engage a most formidable responsibility as scholar, as a borrower and lender of truth in the interest of community. He must struggle to recover, to clarify, terms in relation to the reality of existential creation itself: positive law, natural law, person, individual. His advantage: Each nascent person, though reduced to individual through intellectual reductions of the concept of personhood, nevertheless daily experiences that reality, which experience stirs common sense. His disadvantage: He will find himself as intellectual besieged within the academy. There he must contend with terms decayed through a rhetoric derived from Nominalism, sweetened by Cartesian idealism which is flattering to self-pity at its extreme. A rhetoric is made intellectually respectable through Kantian universalisms such as helped maintain our most famous “American Scholar,” Ralph Waldo Emerson. In short, our “Conservative Scholar” must contend with a general if vague intellectual deportment which is powerfully seductive, to judge by our current academic intelligentsia among whom he will of course discover exceptions, a heroic Diaspora devoted to the truth of things.

Our pilgrim scholar will find his to be a labor of recovering meaning to sign, in a stewardship to sign. His venture will prove difficult, as T.S. Eliot says in East Coker, since his is “a raid on the inarticulate/ With shabby equipment always deteriorating/ In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,/ Undisciplined squads of emotion.” These are Eliot’s poetic reflections, out of long experience as a modernist conservative New Critic philosopher, late in discovering the mystery of his personhood through poetry. He proves vatic, declaring at last that, as philosophical poet or poetic philosopher, his responsibility is the labor of “purifying” the “dialect of the tribe.”

This is Eliot in reaction to his earlier position as a skeptic pushing the world away with irony. He recognizes in this late turning that the poet in modernist guise (of whom he had been one) has been jealous of an increasingly private dialect centering upon and clinging to his own alienation. He suspects himself as particularly contributing to that severing of dialects through a refined skeptical irony well suited to his dissociation from the tribe, evidenced to Eliot in his early criticism, to his embarrassment. His new address requires of his “individual talent” a changed address to “tradition.” “Tradition,” he says in After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy, requires an alignment and purification by “orthodoxy,” lest we become but arrested, fossilized intellect, dislocated from stewardship by losing awareness of a continuousness of holiness of things, but most especially of that cumulative holiness to be maintained by a community of the living and the dead. For “a tradition is…a way of feeling and acting which characterizes a group throughout generations,” and as such “a byproduct of right living,” being “of the blood, so to speak.” It “has not the means to criticize itself.” Orthodoxy, on the other hand, “calls for the exercise of all conscious intelligence” and “represents a consensus between the living and the dead” in the light of the truth of things, though it “may be upheld by [only] one man against the world,” as he suspects true of his attempt in the early 1930s. Through orthodoxy, tradition is sorted to a continuing viability of community, if only by a lonely laborer.

Concerning this term tradition, a popular devil-term at our moment, how confusing its uses. Rather certainly, our present intellectual establishment, especially as we discover it within the academy, is thoroughly traditionalist in its doctrines, which are devoted to a dislocation of the “self” from reality. For this tradition understands the person as at once an autonomous accidental creature, by an apotheosis of self-concept effected gradually in the tradition in combining Nominalism, Cartesian idealism and Kantian universalism. But logic turns mischievous: This tradition is burdened by its faith in autonomous man as self-created, while the science rising out of that faith must define man himself as an accident of accidents in an uncaused mechanistic universe.

A confused tradition, which by its trickle-down effects upon the thought of the popular mind, yields diverse spectacles of the dissolution of social and political community. For in this strain of modernist traditionalism, the tendency has been to appropriate a proper sentiment in the person and distort it to sentimentality in the interest of agnostic power over persons and things-over being, as Eric Voegelin argues. And at the level of popular recognition of community in dissolution grows that fear that man himself is not angel but diabolic alien in nature, constituting community (in an extreme view) as a pseudo-body counter to nature. But then, how account for the devil? Or for any evil, given modernist faith in accidental man? Man seen in the extremity of this view becomes evil invader of nature nevertheless. In a desperation of idealistic extremism, there begin to occur events cleansing “nature” of man, as if a desirable “final solution.” Nor do I choose my allusion lightly here, remembering Flannery O’Connor’s remark long ago that tenderness, cut off from the person of Christ, has been “wrapped in theory.” But, she concludes, when “tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced-labor camps and in fumes of the gas chamber.”

Indeed, it may end for some persons in a growing radical “conservationism,” in an “environmentalism” turned drastic in terrorist acts, as when the life of a person (a logger) is concluded less valuable than the life of a tree. Such a reading of man in his fallen nature, reducing him to the sub-natural, can but complicate the holy righteousness used to justify extremes of violence, an extremism more closely akin to that of Ben Laden than the extremist in his righteousness is likely to admit. What may such a righteous defender of trees say when he must deal on the political stage at an international level with the more and more popular solution to political and social problems, “ethnic cleansing”? But ethnic cleansing will not go away. Given political, civil, and military eruptions, are we required to a counter cleansing? Given our technological sophistication, should we use “smart bombs” in the interest of peace on earth, good will toward men?

No less confusing within this modernist ideological tradition is a vague and growing sentimentality about life itself, which perhaps might make “smart bombs” the more acceptable. In the name of humanity and nature and democracy and peace on earth, we orient by our autonomous sovereignty as individuals to programmed solutions. We decree certain positive laws divorced from natural law, justified by autonomy to a pre- and post-emptive cleansing: abortion and euthanasia. Not so arresting as an earthquake in Turkey, but we are given pause, if but for a moment, when President Harold T. Shapiro of Princeton University (chairman of President Clinton’s National Bioethics Advisory Committee) hires, and defends the hiring in the name of academic freedom, Peter Singer, who is to fill a chair in bioethics at the Center for Human Values at Princeton (again, my emphasis). Professor Singer advocates that handicapped children within twenty-eight days after birth be terminated. “Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person.” President Shapiro argues that this personal conviction of Professor Singer about the relation of infant to person, held by his chaired professor, does not affect Singer’s deportment as an objective professor of bioethics.

How confusing any terms one may use, affected as they are by the random wash of thought among the intelligentsia, and by a media osmosis affecting the popular spirit. Bioethics, human values, academic freedom. Confusions beyond the reach of the satirist. Is one conservative, liberal? Is one, under either label, perhaps a totalitarian at heart, justified as such by his autonomous power? Is one sufficiently tolerant, in regard to democracy and the individual, in regard to academic freedom? How shocking to the naive idealist to discover that social and academic and political tolerance as publicly advocated by his superior (his President or his Professor) may prove but a verbal camouflage hiding the fundamental indifference required to a private convenience and effected by thought-emptied words. Such indifference, even when “outted,” proves less alarming than an idealist may have supposed, as witnessed recently in an historic impeachment trial against a resolute advocate of family values. But cumulative disillusionment grows, evidenced in a growing cynicism of individuals alienated from public concerns and beginning to eschew “traditional” political process.

Such an individual grows less and less comfortable with circumstances attending his estate as an individual, though he be formally guaranteed his self-created sovereignty by positive law as read by political promise and expediency. At this juncture of the social-political confluence of individuals, he yet enjoys a precedence over community itself as a certified individual purged of his discrete particularities, even over that very recent Romantic concept of the “social contract.” Terms, terms, terms. At the moment, Soviet hard-liners disguised as Russian politicians maintain an old Marxist position, while blackmailing the World Bank with ideological threats they still label democratic principles. They are described nevertheless by our own democratic media as “conservatives.” But our own advocates of abortion and euthanasia as means to purify the gene pool of the tribe are called “liberal.” At their extremes, both argue positions taken for the “common good.”

The term common good has long since become an abstraction suited to the accumulation of and uses of power, programmatically divorced by formulations of positive law sufficient to sterilize effectively the holiness of things. A progressive effect of this dissociation from the realities of human nature, engineered by gnostic intent to power, has required that reduction of person to but a residual presence in the individual. And the person consents, lured by his temporal desires as scientifically derived from the premise that the measurable is ultimate to his nature. By dissociating thought and feeling, the individual is encouraged to feel his own convenience as dominant, as temporal appetitive desire demanding its “rights”—rights ultimately to be established by a collectivist action against reality itself, especially against person as intellectual soul incarnate. A false antipathy, then, between thought and feeling proves convenient to any ideological strategy to power (what Eliot as literary critic termed a “dissociation of sensibilities”). And so the consequence is at last a civil war within the person, consequential to persons in community through diverse spectacles of violence in community.

We have been building toward urging our young scholar to embrace a principle central to his health as person, and to his effectiveness as scholar. His primary responsibility is to an integrity as person—that is, to a fulfillment of his gifts as this person, limited in gifts but sharing with humanity a nature as intellectual soul incarnate. To himself, he must first be true (pace Laertes). Integrity lies in a proportionate integration of his properties as intellect, soul, and body whereby he may become toward a simple union designated this person, in proportionate accord with the limits of the gifts upon which depends his dignity. In recognizing as much, he may not think it a simple matter to separate an official formal academic position as expert on bioethics, for instance, from a conviction that infants up to twenty-eight months of age may be terminated with no qualms of conscience, since they are not persons. And he will less likely suffer his gift of desire for appropriate ends to intellectual action either to turn him Manichaean by rejection of his sensual nature or alternately to worship his sensual nature as ultimate to desire. In choosing such distortions, the person suffers a variety of reductions of integrity, whether intending to serve political machinations or economic machinations-whether he becomes regimented to party or devoted to pornography. For the variety of ideological substitutes for integrity as person are as numerous as the legion of sovereign individuals in deadly contention with each other in the social and political arena, however much the contestants for the prize of power share in a deadly sameness. It is a destructively haunting sameness, aptly articulated by Gerhart Niemeyer:

Ideology is the name for that kind of disorder which consists in substituting for philosophical questions about what is given a set of assertions about what is not given. What is not given includes the historical future, particularly when one ‘inquires’ about it in order to control the ‘destiny of mankind.’ What is given but not accessible to the type of knowing suitable for things in this world is the divine reality, above and beyond that of the cosmos and of human history. When speculation of the mind begins to criticize being as such, when it aims not at understanding the ‘constitution of being’ but its control by the human will, the result is not philosophy but ideology.


And so perhaps but a Polonius, but with open good will, this greeting to the young intellectual on the threshold of academic risks in the twentieth century. The risks will prove both intellectual and spiritual. A truth to suffer as more than platitude: It is not the ideological program imposed as process upon intellect that is his gravest threat because institutionalized and popularized that is the greatest danger. Rather, it is his own wavering from pursuit of integrity as person in response to the inevitable wash of programs and processes which threaten to swamp him. Integrity is that pursuit of fulfillment as intellectual soul incarnate through which this personhood may be gained by proportionate accommodation of diverse properties inherited in particularities in relation to human nature. To be pursued in response to the truth of things.

That responsibility is primary to the “self” and so will always prove a sufficient occupation in response to the evils of any day, whatever its century. What is required in moments of uncertainty is not a withdrawal to safety, but a continuing commitment to a salvage operation of oneself as intellectual steward, an occupation as person which is as ancient as that cataclysmic discovery of intellectual freedom which we still speak of, at least metaphorically, as an encounter with old ashen fruits promising knowledge of good and evil—in an old garden now only faintly remembered. Again, our poet T.S. Eliot, recovering from a shock of recognition of this memory in himself (through St. Augustine’s and St. Thomas’s supportive offices), turns to that responsibility, and reminds us that what is necessary is that, as persons, we conquer by “strength and submission.” It is a task which proves always to be truth’s rediscovery to us through a concert of thought and feeling in us, but in a shared task. “Once or twice, or several times, by men [persons] whom one cannot hope/ To emulate” by mere “competition.” Those are the persons in whose company we move, a company, if but a remnant of the living and the dead, engaged with us in “the fight to recover what has been lost/ And found and lost again and again: and now under conditions/ That seem unpropitious.” It becomes a question of “neither gain nor loss,” but “only [a steadying] trying.”

Betimes along that way, in our pursuit of integrity, we may experience a moment in an old neglected garden when its dry concrete pool may suddenly be “filled with water out of sunlight.” In such a moment we may even remember that “the lotus rose, quietly, quietly,” out of that desert but not deserted garden. We may hear “leaves full of children’s voices” or know that the rose gives promise of Dante’s Multifoliate Rose, since even in the neglected garden the spent roses yet have “the look of flowers that are looked at” beyond any human seeing. There is only the trying, upon which our desire for integrity depends. The most difficult consent of all: “The rest is not our business.” But by a devotion as intellectual soul incarnate, called as conserver of all manner of intellectual gardens, we nevertheless believe, quietly and quietly, that all manner of thing shall be well. Even, we yet believe, when the academic garden itself has become largely a training ground for ideological bulldozers purporting to be intellectual experts.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Volume 42, No. 1, 2000).

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