William F. Buckley: Tribute to a Spiritual Centrist and Vertical Warrior
Partly because of all the counterfeit heroes, it can be difficult to notice when a genuine hero walks among us. Words like "artist," "superstar," and "legend," are so abused and debased, that they no longer convey any objective meaning. The liberal media tell us that Bill Buckley was a "hero to conservatives" instead of to "mankind." When Noam Chomsky publishes his last and perishes into some post-tenure principality to meet his Marxist maker, he will undoubtedly be lauded as a "hero of the left."
But what exactly is a hero, and how does one gauge his moral worth? As Schuon writes, "virtues sundered from truth do not have the power to raise us above ourselves," and a hero specifically helps to lift or preserve mankind in its most noble sense. Put it this way: intelligence descends from the Truth which it will rediscover, or "recollect," on its virtuous ascent back to the One; or, if you like, to the First Principles of cosmos and man. This ascent -- although it is necessarily marked by many transient descents and other deviations -- is the Hero's Journey, if the the hero and the journey are to have any intrinsic merit.
Hero: "A mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability; an illustrious warrior; a man admired for his achievements and qualities; one that shows great courage; the central figure in an event or period" (Webster's).
An intellectual warrior endowed with superhuman strength and ability? Just consider the scoreboard:
"During his nearly 60 years in the public eye, William F. Buckley Jr. published 55 books (both fiction and nonfiction); dozens of book reviews; at least 56 introductions, prefaces, and forewords to other peoples’ books; more than 225 obituary essays; more than 800 editorials, articles, and remarks in National Review; several hundred articles in periodicals other than National Review; and approximately 5,600 newspaper columns. He gave hundreds of lectures around the world, hosted 1,429 separate Firing Line shows, and may well have composed more letters than any American who has ever lived."
But none of it would be worth the paper it was written on had it not been essentially true, for truth can be the only criterion of its intrinsic value. After all, a single line of the scripture is worth all of the books, lectures, diatribes, paranoid rants, angry polemics, and conspiracy theories of a Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, or other modern idolaters who offer their literary blood to the phantoms of their own imagination.
A man of great courage, the central figure in an event or period:
"William F. Buckley Jr. was arguably the most important public intellectual in the United States in the past half century. For an entire generation he was the preeminent voice of American conservatism and its first great ecumenical figure. He changed minds, he changed lives, and he helped to change the direction of American politics."
Divine descent? Oh, no question -- by adoption, anyway. The following exchange took place at the end of his 1970 Playboy interview:
PLAYBOY: Don’t most dogmas, theological as well as ideological, crumble sooner or later?
BUCKLEY: Most, but not all.
PLAYBOY: How can you be so sure?
BUCKLEY: I know that my Redeemer liveth.
Buckley's heroism would have been inconceivable outside his intimate familiarity with the Permanent, the True, and the Permanently True. In the founding statement of National Review, he famously wrote that the movement it championed would stand "athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it."
This statement is still misunderstood by our liberal elites who conflate progress and history. In fact, progress is unthinkable in the absence of permanent standards that necessarily transcend, but are embodied within, history. Intellectuals (in the debased sense of those who engage in "intellectualism" as opposed to intellection) gradually came to regard these permanent standards as a source of oppression instead of the key to liberation. But Truth cannot oppress, except for those who are so spiritually enfeebled that they collapse under its obligations.
53 years later, the left continues to reject our founding principles "in favor of radical social experimentation. Instead of covetously consolidating its premises, the United States seems tormented by its tradition of fixed postulates having to do with the meaning of existence, with the relationship of the state to the individual, of the individual to his neighbor, so clearly enunciated in the enabling documents of our Republic" (Buckley, emphasis mine). True in 1955, true in 2008, and true, period.
For this is a very old story, foreshadowed in the enabling and ennobling document of western civilization: And the serpent said "you shall not surely die, for God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil. It's pretty simple: you can either have God or be God, and the left chooses the latter. And just as promised, death comes one way or the other (e.g., the "culture of death"). In God and Man at Yale, Buckley wrote of the left's abiding faith that
"All the society’s ills -- the economic, the social, the ethical -- can be ameliorated by Bigger and Bigger Government. No consideration of private property or individual economic freedom is to deter the government from spending 'up to the point where the marginal loss of satisfaction to those providing the revenue is just equal to the marginal gain in satisfaction derived by those benefiting from the expenditures'; and no doubts are expressed as to whether even the wisest governments know where this point is. The government, it seems, is to weigh numerical losses and gains in satisfaction; and just so long as there is a net gain (an intangible which the government is to interpret), any government policy is justified. Individual rights of the sort that for generations were never supposed to be prey to government action, are cheerily disregarded as unjustifiable impedimenta in the way of purposive and enlightened state policies."
But don't worry: for the all- wise and loving government, not a sparrow falls to the ground apart from its will, and the very hairs on your head are all numbered! I thought this was just hyperbole until I was audited by the IRS several years ago. Now my advice for those who die / Declare the pennies on your eyes (George Harrison).
At PowerLine the other day, they tossed out a casual aside of great profundity:
"Obama's appeal lies, in part, in his ability to make liberalism seem palatable. Unlike Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, he is generally not shrill or hectoring. He comes across as calm and reasonable. In this, he really does resemble Ronald Reagan."
However, "There are obvious differences between Reagan and Obama." For example, "Reagan was a life-long student of Communism, while Obama is not yet a life-long student of anything. Most important, Reagan was devoted to conservatism, which is essentially true, while Obama is devoted to liberalism, which is essentially false. This means that Obama's policies, no matter how smoothly he may advocate them, will never be as successful as Reagan's."
Exactly. It will always be true that conservatism is essentially true, just as it will always be true that liberalism is essentially false, for the former is rooted in permanent truths about human nature, and if your vision of human nature is faulty, so too will be everything built upon it.
America's memory is short, especially the vertical memory of its founding principles, which tend only to be recalled in crises: "Ronald Reagan came to power at a time when America had been carrying out, for sixteen years, an experiment with liberalism that by 1980 had brought the country to the brink of catastrophe. Americans did not adopt conservative principles because they sounded good on first hearing. They adopted conservative principles because of bitter experience with the alternative" (PowerLine).
It is amazing to think that there was a greater distance in time between the founding of National Review and Reagan's first presidency (25 years) than there has been between then and now (28 years). So today, the benefit of our knowledge of the catastrophic results of liberal governance has not just been "lost" -- which is far too passive a characterization. Rather, it has been crushed, spindled, mutilated, and disappeared. As a result, "A generation of American voters has not experienced the failures of the Great Society, the near-collapse of American cities, double-digit inflation and unemployment, seventy percent tax brackets, or the disaster of Jimmy Carter's foreign policy. In the absence of historical memory, and with a powerful assist from the ever-forgetful press, liberalism is once again emerging as the philosophy that sounds good. The fact that it doesn't work awaits as an unpleasant surprise for a new generation" (PowerLine)
Veracity, charity, and humility, the three fundamental virtues. For the left, truth reduces to power, so veracity is out of the question. Likewise, the true charity (caritas) that can only flow from the awakened human heart is rendered pointless when All Good Things come from the state. And what could be more grandiose than the belief that mankind is perfectible and that the state knows how to achieve it? "Humility" and "left" are mutually exclusive. The proud leftist always confuses empathy with indulgence, rooted in an inability to clearly see both what man is and what he is meant to be.
Buckley was not a man of the right, but a man of the center, which is to say, the vertical in all its infinite ramifications -- a man on intimate terms with the immutable order of cosmic principles, and therefore able to use his intellect to explicate them in an inexhaustible way.
Jacques Maritain famously said that there were never more than three schools of philosophy: The idealists who believe that getting the truth was easy. These are the conventional liberals, whom Bill gently mocked. The nominalists, the Sophists, who deny truth altogether; these are the hard Left, the true enemy he rallied us against. And finally the realists, who accept that the truth is out there but is fiercely difficult to lock down. Bill's most enduring achievement was to identify and shape conservatism as the political expression of philosophical realism in our time. --Richard Vigilante, The Corner