That most overrated academic fop of the twentieth-century, Peter Gay, spent a considerable amount of time and vitriol in the 1950s taking swipes at Russell Kirk, believing the duke of Mecosta a superficial romantic, stuck in the past, fighting for the most worthless and transient of causes. In 1961, he finally wrote something of substance (if poorly argued) against Kirk, replacing the one liners of the previous decade. Taking the efforts of Kirk and his allies into account, Gay lamented. “But the prevailing mood in the historical profession, always timidly sensitive to the drift of the times, is conservative,” he wrote in the prestigious Yale Review, a journal for which a number of prominent conservatives wrote as well.
“The decline of Whiggism and Marxism has been accompanied by the rise of Toryism and Cosmic Complaining. Consider the adulation and exploitation of Tocqueville, a conservative too important to be left in the hands of conservatives; consider the absurdly inflated reputation of Burke, whose shrewd guesses and useful insights are placed like a fig leaf before his malicious incomprehension, confused politics and unashamed ignorance.” So much for all of the work of Russell Kirk, Leo Strauss, and Robert Nisbet.
“Hogwash” Gay might as well have cried in his obvious frustration.
“Consider the brave new words on the lips of philosophical historians: ‘complexity,’ ‘the human condition,’ ‘the crisis of our time.’ A bill of these things suggest that the assault of Whig clichés has laid us open to an assault by counter-clichés.” It should be noted here that both Friedrich Hayek and Kirk understood well the word, “Whig,” and they employed it properly, in ways that Gay simply failed to understand. Others, such as Caroline Robbins Douglass Adair, though not allied with the Kirks and Hayeks of the world, would have understood it as had Kirk and Hayek. “In discarding the liberal view of history, we have not replaced falsehood with truth, but one inadequate scheme of explanation by another. Conservative ideologues have been much helped, of course, by the effects of the recent researches which have torn so many holes in the fabric of liberalism. But superior information, while never in itself a Bad Thing, does not insure superior wisdom.”
There are probably many proper critics that could be leveled at Kirk, but superficiality and lack of wisdom would not spring to the mind of any sane critic. Perhaps not too surprisingly, Kirk’s close friend, Peter Stanlis, wrote a letter of unadulterated glee and mischief after reading Gay’s piece in the Yale Review. They had successfully gotten under the Columbia’s historian’s skin.
Yet, it is well worth considering Gay’s critique, no matter how false it was. Though Gay failed to articulate his position well, he clearly “felt” some kind of upheaval in the history profession. Not being a part of the cause of that upheaval, the priggish Gay chose to lash out at Kirk and his fellow conservatives in an anti-quasi conspiratorial way.
Had Gay lost his mind, or, in his muddled confusion, was he on to something vital in the conservative movement?
Kirk, Hayek, Nisbet, and Strauss—along with Eric Voegelin and Peter Stanlis and others—had changed the debate. They had each—though to varying degrees—understood how important Burke and Tocqueville were as symbols in a way to bolster the West’s understanding of itself as it had defeated German fascism and Japanese imperialism, but now confronted Soviet and Chinese communism. With much effort, the great non-leftist academics had spent the decade and a half after the conclusion of World War II doing everything possible to promote the newly discovered figures of Burke and Tocqueville as the quintessential thinkers of the modern era to combat modernity. Not only had they networked with one another in person, they had professionally and quietly encouraged this or that scholar to debate this or that opponent of Burke and Tocqueville, whether in mass media, or in journals or periodicals, or at conferences. Often the defenses and attacks were open and direct, but, just as often, the conservatives and libertarians promoting Burke and Tocqueville came from the side or even the rear.
In one telling example, Kirk attacked the well-recognized and most important 20-century scholar of Samuel Johnson, Donald Greene, using his review of the man’s book to promote the excellence of brilliance of Leo Strauss. If only Greene would read Strauss, Kirk suggested, he might be able to overcome his “logical positivism” and “latter-day liberalism.” Indeed, Kirk suggested that readers should merely pity Greene for being so uneducated. Once he read Strauss, Kirk continued, Greene would not only see the errors of his ways, but he would become a member of the “Great Tradition” of the western great books, thus seeing Johnson and Burke properly.
Not long after Kirk’s death in 1994, Peter Stanlis revealed just how detailed and intimate their concerted plan of attack had been. Because of the rise of Strauss and Nisbet, the two men believed that the western world had come to a “Burkean moment.” As much as each man loved and respect Edmund Burke, they clearly loved him for real and actual self as much as they loved him as a symbol. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, St. John, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Petrarch, and Thomas More could each be found in the thought of Burke, thus allowing the Anglo-Irish statesman to become a stand-in for all of the greats of western civilization. “The philosophical roots of modern political conservatism extend back over many generations through Burke and the natural law to the Middle Ages and classical antiquity,” Stanlis revealed in his 1994 talk about his secret alliance with Kirk. With Burke, Kirk and Stanlis could promote not only a just and humane conservatism but, perhaps more importantly, a vibrant, living Christian Humanism. That is, they could not only critique what was liberal and progressive and wrong in the modern world, they could also, perhaps more importantly, defend something positive from the past, a conserving of the true, the good, and the beautiful. And, they could do so in a gay and willing pride.