There is a divine order of being of which we must be a part. To reject this order and our part therein is to choose madness and make any decent life impossible. As a literary critic, George Panichas shed great light on the relationship between this recognition of the order of being and our ability to lead decent lives. And this, I submit, made him a great seer worthy of our attention and admiration…

Both as a writer and as editor of Modern AgeGeorge Panichas sought to show the patrimony that conservatives seek to conserve and to engage us, not merely on the level of contemporary political discourse, but on a much deeper level. What may not be readily apparent about this deeper level is that it is, in one of its essential aspects, literary. Like his successor, Panichas published poetry as well as discussions of historical and political issues, and he, like his successor, was a literary critic. Indeed, Panichas was first and foremost a literary critic, so understanding Panichas and what he represents in conservatism requires that we first come to some understanding of his role as critic.

Literary Criticism and the Moral Imagination

Panichas was a literary critic of a specific kind. He was most concerned with the spiritual and the prophetic. Today, most of us would denote Panichas’ concerns as religious. This is not to say that his goals were either primarily theological or devotional. Neither, of course, were they mathematical or social “scientific”; Panichas rejected the destructive conceits of modern methodological cant. Rather, Panichas’ goals, his methods, and his material, all were deeply embedded aspects of the tradition of Christian humanism—a tradition that I would argue forms the essence of conservatism properly understood. They partook of the moral imagination, that form of thought and conduct informed by an understanding of the difference between good and evil, by acceptance of the inherent structure of reality, and by recognition of the duty to preserve and live within that structure.

Panichas was Orthodox. That is, to begin with, he was a member of the Orthodox Church. More than this, though, he was deeply concerned with the Orthodox tradition and its way of approaching life. In considering the Orthodox tradition, here, it may be best to begin by noting Panichas’ collection of icons. Roman Catholics certainly would be concerned with the iconic figure of the crucifix as capturing their tradition. But if we are to get at the heart or “way” of Catholicism we had better look at the literature of “the lives of the saints.” These stories are intentionally time bound; they lay out people’s lives, telling how they conducted themselves in concrete experience (including experience of the divine) so as to become saints. Catholics often look to these stories for inspiration and insight into the nature of being, but Panichas looked more to his icons. These portraits of holy figures are attempts to capture a bit of the transcendent for this life, moments of the eternal for those of us bound by time to witness. This would seem to be a significant difference in sensibility and understanding, and one that extends throughout the arts. If you were to talk, for example, to John Taverner, a well-known contemporary composer and convert to the Greek Orthodox Church, he would tell you that he actively dislikes Catholic music. He sees Catholic music as all about movement up and down the scale, whereas he seeks to capture unchanging moments of eternity. There is constancy in Mr. Taverner’s music, returning to the same tones rather than seeking to go on a long journey.

Whatever one’s aesthetic judgment regarding the results of the Orthodox vision of music, it may seem odd to have it applied to the task of a literary critic. After all, what is literature about if not stories? It may seem that I am postulating a contradiction in Panichas’ work between the desire for the unchanging and the inherent instability of life, but I don’t think this is a contradiction within Panichas’ work—although it may be a tension we all face in our existence. For Panichas, as a critic, literature by nature is a spiritual art, seeking to capture moments of transcendence. For example, according to Panichas the novel, that which most of us think of as an extended story, ought to be a kind of reality of its own.

The novelist’s world becomes both a process of discovery and a journey of revelation. His fictional world makes us more aware of the map of our human world. In the end, what the novelist does, if he is really successful, is to dramatize for us the inner and the outer aspects of the world which we call our home, our universe…. Since too often we know, or think we know, that we possess and control the world we live in, we perhaps take it too much for granted.[1]

The successful novelist shows us that we do not control our own world. It has very real, concrete limits. And that novelist’s story or journey can show us the structure of our world—the nature of its boundaries and limits—and so prepare us for the moment in which we can capture, or at any rate face, the eternal, the supernatural. The quotation above is taken from a discussion of the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky, of course, was himself a carrier of the Orthodox tradition. In his many important novels, from Crime and Punishment to The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky was not merely a teller of entertaining tales; he was a builder of worlds, worlds of a particularly important, enlightening kind. Panichas was most interested in what he called Dostoevsky’s “visions of order.” That is, Panichas was concerned less with the stories themselves—with journeys taken for their own sake—than with what each journey can tell us about certain elements of the order of existence. Quoting Panichas, “Religion is the matrix of Dostoevsky’s sensibility; it is, first and last, the education and discipline of his imagination. His basic ideas are religious, formed and informed as they are by ultimate concerns and ultimate questions.”[2]

Panichas used the term “religion” in a broad sense, here, to point out that Dostoevsky’s art is grounded “by ultimate concerns and ultimate questions.” That is, Dostoevsky’s artistic structure is religious in that its fundamental purpose is to pose, confront, and grapple with the nature of our existence. Not pure ratiocination, but imagination is necessary to grapple with these issues—we are studying novels, not mathematics. But the subject is not mere fluff, or even merely concrete actions. It is, rather, what particular thought and conduct in particular circumstances tell us about who we are and how our world is put together.

Panichas’ treatment of Crime and Punishment, certainly one of Dostoevsky’s most important novels, shows the sense in which literature for Panichas intends to show us the eternal within our time-bound lives. To begin I simply reproduce part of a letter in which Dostoevsky lays out the plan of the novel:

A young man of middle-class origin who is living in dire need is expelled from the university. From superficial and weak thinking…he decides to get himself out of a difficult situation quickly by killing an old woman [who] is crazy, deaf, sick, greedy, and evil. She charges scandalous rates of interest, devours the well-being of others, and, having reduced her younger sister to the state of a servant, oppresses her with work…. He decides to kill and rob her so as to make his mother, who is living in the provinces, happy; to save his sister from the libidinous importunities of the head of the estate where she is serving as a lady’s companion; and then to finish his studies, go abroad and be, for the rest of his life, honest, firm, and unflinching in fulfilling his ‘humanitarian duty toward mankind.’ This would, according to him, ‘make up for the crime’ which is committed against an old woman, who does not know why she is living and who would perhaps die in a month anyway…. He is able to commit his crime, completely by chance, quickly and successfully.

After this, a month passes…. There is not, nor can there be, any suspicion of him. After the act the psychological process of the crime unfolds. Questions which he cannot resolve well up in the murderer; feelings he had not foreseen or suspected torment his heart. God’s truth and earthly law take their toll, and he feels forced at last to give himself up…. The feeling of separation and isolation from mankind, which he felt immediately after the crime, tortured him. Human nature and the law of truth take their toll. The criminal decides to accept suffering so as to redeem his deed.[3]

Raskolnikov, the protagonist of the story, is in search of a kind of freedom. He seeks freedom from want and freedom from stress. But he also seeks a more radical freedom: freedom from the limits of law and morality. Enamored of the unfinished ideologies of the day—the Rousseauean drive for empty authenticity and the self-satisfied “religion of humanity”—Raskolnikov seeks freedom from reality, from the natural limits of our being. And freedom without limits and humility becomes “an endless adventure in self-assertion” in which all is darkened by the need for choices to be utterly free, lacking in boundaries or context, and in which the ultimate choice is to reject life altogether.[4] One can engage in this rejection, not only through murder but even, and especially, through suicide. When one ends one’s own life, one causes the world to cease to exist through one’s own act and so, in a depraved manner, becomes a depraved kind of God. Raskolnikov contemplates this final act of self-assertion. It is only when he shies away from this choice that he becomes capable of accepting punishment and pursuing redemption.

So what we have in Crime and Punishment for Panichas is a demonstration of the truth that “moral action attains its ultimate meaning as an encounter of natural and supernatural.”[5] There is a dramatic moment when the drive to self assertion meets the intrinsic limits of the order of existence. One may still make the choice to play God, to reject this order and to end it all. Or one may choose to accept the natural, inherent limits on one’s own will, and therein lie wisdom and the possibility of redemption. The eternal and the changing, the natural and the supernatural meet at such moments.

None of this is to say that the journey itself is unimportant to the critic. In fact, entering and understanding the journey and the structure of the world in which it takes place are necessary if we are to make the right choice when the eternal and the changing meet in our lives. But, as Panichas recognized, the moment of truth—or of choice between truth and lies—is the thing in itself, with which we are concerned, and toward which the novel’s journey by nature should lead.

It is here that we enter the concern with conservatism proper. For criticism is necessary to connect us with the eternal, with the metaphysical. Panichas was concerned as a critic with prophecy, “an ever threatening communication of experience possessed in vision rather than in ratiocination.”[6] Conservatives have often been accused of being un- or even anti-philosophical; of not having any ideas but only grunting motions, passions, and hatreds. But one who actually reads the literature of conservatism will find that what the conservative seeks is an appropriate balancing of passion and reason through moral imagination. In Russell Kirk’s writing, for example, one sees an emphasis on the role of the seer. Most of us most of the time must concern ourselves with the practicalities of life. Sadly, most of us spend most of our lives getting and spending money. But even in a decent life, most of our time is consumed with daily activities, in actions ruled by routine and habit. Now and again, however, we meet with a seer, someone who is capable of recognizing the nature of our existence, the order of the universe. And if we are lucky, and if we work hard at it, we can learn from this seer, and see what makes our lives have meaning, how we can perhaps better them in practical ways, and how we ought to treat others.

I am reminded of a Kirkian story of a traveler in the desert who comes across a group of tribesmen who surround and threaten him. Luckily for the traveler, there is with these tribesmen a seer—an old, wise, and holy man. The seer tells his people that they must treat the stranger with respect. Obviously relieved, the traveler asks the seer how he managed to convince his people of their duty to treat strangers well. The seer responds to the effect that they already knew their duty; they had only to be reminded of it.

It is the calling of all who are able to recognize eternal truths to work to do so, and to remind others of their existence and meaning. This means that art, including and especially spiritual art, is not there merely for its own sake. Such art is by nature intended to bring us into a realization of our limits, of our need for constraints on our will, of a natural order in accordance with the divine order if we are to lead decent lives. It is the stuff of the moral imagination. As Panichas argued:

If we are to avoid the awful consequences of non-oriented and disoriented thought in our comprehension of modern literature, and if we are to penetrate more meaningfully into the artist’s world, it is necessary to restrict our attention to the world of the novelist that has its source in the moral imagination, that qualitative imagination which is aware of the differences, the eternal struggle, between good and evil.[7]

Mere ratiocination cannot distinguish good from evil for us; we cannot merely cook up a philosophical construct to define them. To distinguish good from evil we must begin from proper premises. We must understand our place in the order of existence. We must develop a sensibility—an imagination—such that we will know, almost from instinct, what choice to make when the material meets the transcendent in our lives. The critic’s role is to help us develop this sense. Possessed with “visions of order,” he should teach us something of this order, but also how to recognize it, and how and why to value it.[8] He should show us what to look for, and what to look out for in literature so that we can develop and hone our moral imagination. Knowing who is worthy of praise or blame (and why) in a novel, for example, is a necessary step on the path toward developing our mind and our character—both as individual persons and as peoples. As Panichas pointed out and showed in his own work, helping others develop such knowledge is the deeply natural conservative duty of the literary critic.

The Essentials of Conservatism

I now turn to one of Panichas’ final accomplishments. Late in life Panichas edited—that is, selected, organized, and provided commentary on—a rather massive and important collection of works, The Essential Russell Kirk. This book is important in its own right, for its content: critical essays from perhaps the most important figure in postwar American conservatism. But I want to examine is Panichas’ creative role in putting this volume together. I want to look at the plan or thematic structure of the book as laid out by Panichas to show the understanding of the human person, of the order of existence, and of the proper ordering of society that is shown by that plan, as well as why and how this choice of themes sheds light on conservatism.

The first section of the book is titled “The Idea of Conservatism.” This section could have been called “The Definition of Conservatism.” It has often been said that many of Kirk’s best writings, including the seminal The Conservative Mind, are in fact essays in definition. But “definition” sounds awful in a title, and we are, after all, defining an idea in conservatism, not a simple thing. It is important that we know what our terms mean so that we know how to use them. And we cannot gain this understanding by simply leafing through a dictionary. There is no “four corners of the document” understanding of conservatism, as some claim there is of the Constitution, because conservatism is a tradition. To understand such a term we need to go beyond the notion of “analysis,” by which we simply break down a thing or a term to its smallest component parts, and apply our imagination to the relevant history, culture, and discourse. To be accurate, a definition of conservatism must involve general understandings of key concepts like virtue and institutions like family, church, and local association. Conservatism has no simple, concise definition, but rather a set of general elements which we must interact with and nurture.

The second section is called “Our Sacred Patrimony.” Here, we confront some of the dangers of contemporary discourse as well as a point from which to address them. A patrimony may be truly sacred: It is, by nature, the primary source of our current way of life, deeply embedded in our lives and ourselves and so to be valued and nurtured. “Patrimony” denotes both sacredness and necessity because of the deep connections between culture and cult. One of the more common sayings among traditional conservatives is that culture comes from the cult. Taken from the work of Christopher Dawson, this truism reflects the etymological fact of a common root for the terms in the Latin colere, meaning to cultivate—whether one’s garden or one’s character.

Culture is concerned with the book, with the plant, and most of all with the church. Religion is the primordial starting point for culture. Anyone who has looked at the history of early peoples will note that among the very first artifacts of any culture is the religious totem. Perhaps more relevant to us today is the role of the church in Western cities and towns as the gathering place and focus of public life. So our patrimony is something that should be seen as sacred because it is involved with a view of what is sacred, and also because it is essential to both our survival as a culture and our ability to interact with the divine order; therefore, it should be nurtured. Culture grows out of common customs and practices, and flourishes only if we understand our need to work out our lives together, growing more fully human through purposeful interactions with one another.

The dual nature of the sacred, as both that which concerns God and that which is necessary for our own lives to make sense, may bring great danger when the real sacred becomes lost or confused in our lives. This happens, for example, when our patrimony is dismissed as the product of “dead white males” or various other terms intended to dismiss as oppressive or simply outdated that which grounds our lives. The sacred will still come forth, but we will not recognize it in our patrimony, which grounds us and within which we can build decent, orderly lives. Instead, we will attach our sense of the sacred to the state, now imbued with myths of the supposed sacredness of majority rule, the satisfaction of individuals’ desires, and equality. We then get a civil religion, an ideology according to which we can make a moral equivalent of holy war out of our struggle against (“war on”) poverty, prejudice, drugs, or whatever ill we face. We may end by surrendering both freedom and virtue to the state in the deluded belief that we can render our lives meaningful through the fruitless quest to eliminate all the inevitable failings of human social life.

Panichas titles the next section “Principles of Order.” This is appropriate, of course, because for Kirk order is the first need of all. You cannot have liberty if there is no order. No liberty will exist where there is chaos, where people are killing one another, where there is no settled government, or even where there is no order in the souls of the people such that they are capable of leading their own lives with a substantial degree of cooperation and virtue. If you look at the giants of the conservative tradition, Burke and Tocqueville for example, you will see philosophers of order. Burke and Tocqueville examine what makes us virtuous, what makes us capable of living decent lives of ordered liberty—especially tradition and experience within the institutions of local life. These philosophers produced no blueprints for the perfect state as one would find in French Revolutionary dogma. Instead, again, they invoke those institutions, beliefs, and practices in which we must live in order to flourish, which we must value and nurture if our lives are to have meaning and we are to be capable of living as free, decent persons.

What we really need, then, is not a specific form of government, but rather a government that respects more fundamental institutions so that we, and they, may forge decent lives. For these institutions are utterly necessary if there is to be order in our souls and, from that, order in the state. Virtue itself is a habit, doing the right thing as a matter of course. And character is a collection of habits; one has a good character because one habitually acts bravely, piously, and so on. When, and only when, most of the people most of the time act with virtue (for example, obeying the laws out of a sense of duty rather than fear) can free and decent government be maintained. Thus, free government can only be part of an overall decent life; it can neither replace virtue nor survive without it.

The next section of Panichas’ Essential Russell Kirk is titled “The Moral Imagination.” As mentioned earlier, the moral imagination is a central concern of Panichas, and as it is not mere analytic philosophy, neither is it merely the building of castles in the sky, not imagination in some vapid sense. Rather, it is concerned with an area of life that is the realm of neither mere habit nor mere abstraction, but of the “inner check.” Coming from the critic Irving Babbitt, one of Panichas’ favorite authors, this term denotes the need for what Babbitt calls our “higher will” to control our appetitive desires. Our passions, desire for self-assertion, and more obvious appetites all form a lower will of primordial motivation that confuses our ability to distinguish good from evil. The moral imagination must be cultivated so that our passions can be held in check, and so that we can develop the discernment and discipline necessary to choose good when tempted to choose evil. This is necessary in daily life—for the choice comes up with more regularity than we like to admit in our venal, commercial, sexualized society—and in those moments of contact with the transcendent.

Next, thank goodness, Panichas brings us a section with Kirk’s readings on “Places and People.” His perception in formulating this section, and placing it at the heart of the collection he edited shows, I think, the depth of Panichas’ understanding of Kirk and of conservatism. One cannot understand Kirk or the conservative mind without understanding that it revels in the particular—often the eccentric, though not the merely willful. The universal must be instantiated in the particular. Unpacking this phrase, there exist permanent things, such as truth and beauty. You will not see “truth” or “beauty” in themselves, as mere abstractions, but you can read a book of great literature or view a statue of true beauty because these great works of art capture an element of the permanent goods of truth and beauty. It is no tragedy but merely the nature of being that dictates that most of us most of the time have to find instantiations of permanent things in our daily lives. Indeed, this is a true joy of life. Finding virtue while pub crawling in Scotland, as Kirk did, or meeting with strange, eccentric personalities as we hike through a strange and beautiful land shows that we can touch the eternal in daily life. To be a true Tory, then, is to be at least somewhat of a bohemian—to enjoy the true diversity of life in the variety of personalities and cultures one can find if one looks to really experience creation.

Now, no one would accuse the Orthodox, somewhat reclusive George Panichas of being a true bohemian, and certainly not of doing any pub crawling, but he understood the importance of the journey. He emphasized the importance of that meeting between the eternal and the immediate, of the supernatural and the natural. And as we have seen, he understood that the journey, the experience of the world, is critical in that it sets up the moment of transcendence. That moment of transcendence is particular, and a great novelist sets up a particular world for us to inhabit, through which we can recognize the nature and importance of these moments.

The alternative to the life of integration, of particular moments with particular people and places aimed at making us capable of facing the universal, is the topic of the next section of Panichas’ collection of Kirk’s writing. Titled “The Drug of Ideology,” it deals with the attempt to impose a new reality on God’s creation, on the actual order of the universe. To attempt, as did the French revolutionaries for example, to abolish local associations, tear down the church, kill off the aristocracy, erase traditional provisional borders, and invent a new calendar and a new religion, inevitably leads to madness as well as murder. It is a revolt against God, an attempt to replace the natural order with something of our own devising. And the outcome will necessarily be monstrous.

The next section is titled “Decadence and Renewal in Education.” To elucidate: We all cannot be seers, and this makes it all the more important that we learn how to recognize and learn from seers and their works. Otherwise, we will become prey to the madness of the ideologue, as has become the norm in our schools today. Too many of our children’s lives are ruled by rank pragmatists concerned only with their own professional advancement and/ or desiccated revolutionaries living out their pathetic pseudo-intellectual lives preaching at captive audiences.

Our universities, in particular, have a role to play in our society, shaping the higher faculties of our young, helping them develop the means to distinguish good from evil, beauty from ugliness, truth from lies. Instead, of course, they attack these distinctions themselves in pursuit of further social disorder and seek to shape the minds of our youth into mere ideological instruments for the sating of lower appetites. If this continues, we all will become Raskolnikovs, breathing in the half formed ideas of our age, finding ourselves on the precipice, considering a stark choice between suicide and redemption. And we may well make the wrong choice. Our schools having become bastions of ideology, do more to harm than help our souls, teach us more to reject than to understand (let alone follow) the order of existence, and so lead too many people to embrace existential madness or reject altogether the life of the mind.

The next section is titled “The American Republic,” not because America’s is the only valuable tradition, not because it is perfect, or uncorrupted, but because it is ours. America is our patrimony, and it is our special duty to preserve and to restore it. In order to preserve and restore our republic, however, we must know what it was, and where it came from. Despite what we hear, even from some calling themselves conservatives, the American republic did not come from the minds of one or two philosophers. It did not come from some conscious act in the eighteenth century. It came from the unfolding of institutions, beliefs, and practices over many centuries. Its origins go back deep into the Western tradition, through Plymouth plantation, through the struggles for English liberty, through the struggle of the Church to win its independence from kings and petty nobles, all the way back to Mount Sinai, where the higher law tradition was born through a process in which the Ten Commandments were handed down by God (and not some king) and accepted by the people, who would be ruled, not by god-like kings, but by laws themselves, administered by judges. We need to understand the nature of our republic, in its full historical context, if we are to address the many corruptions that have seeped in over the last several decades in particular.

Finally, Panichas brings us a section titled “Conservators of Civilization.” Panichas’ structure brings us back again to the particular. We must look to the particular persons who exemplify our tradition’s qualities to gain an understanding of its nature. We must look to seers like the literary critic Irving Babbitt, but we also must look to economists and men of affairs, like Wilhelm Röpke. It was Röpke’s chosen mission to convince us to build a more humane economy, within which families might retain their economic as well as their social importance, in which ordinary people might survive without spending all of their time in a factory, in which families might be able to work together at least some of the time and so be able to remain and develop together.

As Röpke knew, a humane life is not one of merely getting and spending; neither is it purely about the life of the mind, any more than it is purely about actions. A decent, humane life is one in which actions and thoughts both are in proper balance, and in which they are shaped by primary structures dedicated to promoting our ability to lead virtuous lives in common. Examining the thoughts and lives of particular, exemplary people can help us understand what is needed for humane living to be possible.

Conservatism, after all, is not some blueprint for heaven on earth. It is about conduct, thought, and relationships—about an integrated, humane a way of life. Traditional conservatives, Kirkian conservatives, Panichas-related conservatives, often are called “cultural” conservatives. And few of us would reject that label. But principally we are humane conservatives, concerned with what will help us live virtuous, decent lives with one another. We recognize that certain things are necessary for this to happen. Thus, as a political creed, conservatism is primarily concerned with the moral results of proper religion, of families and local associations. It focuses on the way institutions, beliefs, and practices can help us build a communal life in which we can develop meaningful relationships, personal virtue, and ordered liberty.

But behind this seemingly utilitarian view of religion and other higher-order structures is the recognition that they are essential aspects of a very real order of existence. There is a divine order of being of which we must be a part. To reject this order and our part therein is to choose madness and make any decent life impossible. As a literary critic, Panichas shed great light on the relationship between this recognition of the order of being and our ability to lead decent lives. And this, I submit, made him a great seer worthy of our attention and admiration.

Republished with the gracious permission of Modern Age 

(Winter/Spring 2011).The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] George A. Panichas, “The World of Dostoevsky,” Modern Age 22 (1978), 346.

[2] George A. Panichas, Dostoevsky’s Spiritual Art: The Burden of Vision (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2005), 9.

[3] Quoted in ibid., 25. Emphasis in original.

[4] Ibid., 17.

[5] Ibid., 14.

[6] Ibid., 12.

[7] Panichas, “The World of Dostoevsky,” 347.

[8] See, for example, the discussion of Irving Babbitt and Richard Weaver in this regard provided by Panichas’ review essay in Modern Age 38 (1996), 267–76.

Editor’s note: The featured image is from the Claude Monet Foundation and is licensed under Creative Commons 3.0.

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