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Cheerful Chronicle

Confessions of a Conservative

by Garry Wills
Doubleday, 231 pp., $10.00

Confessional literature is an established tradition of which Augustine and Rousseau are exemplars. What distinguishes such kinds of writing from mere autobiography or from memoirs is that a confession is the story of a soul. It is an invitation to enter into a degree of intimacy with the writer that would in many circumstances be embarrassing. Indeed, one can be the recipient of confessions that are unwanted, indelicate affronts to one’s sense of decorum. A set of confessions designed for common circulation will triumph, if it does, through its style, through the unifying passion that fills the writing. This is so with Augustine and Rousseau, with Pepys and Boswell and Newman and Kilvert and parts of Mill’s Autobiography and, now and then and always enigmatically, in A Small Boy and Others and Notes of a Son and Brother. It is true that Pepys and Kilvert had no notion they would ever be published; but each was in himself a perfect audience. Confessions of this order are works of art, and this is why they don’t violate our sense of decorum. And they may be concerned not simply with inviting us into the penetralia of the soul but also with explanation, accusation, and defense.

Mr. Wills is a devoted student of Augustine and Newman. I therefore find it troubling that he should use the word “confessions” in his title and then default on the implied promise. These are memoirs that never tremble on the edge of personal disclosure; even the story, a good one so far as it goes, of his first meeting with his wife is related without a trace of inwardness, rather like run-of-the-mill Hemingway. After the memoirs, which occupy less than half of the book, come remarks on the sociology of American politics and a discussion of some of Augustine’s themes in political philosophy. These sections have nothing confessional about them, except in so far as they tell us something about the author’s mind.

The material in the first seventy pages of Confessions of a Conservative is such that one would have welcomed something in the confessional mode. Here is a young man, fresh from a Jesuit seminary, full of themes he gets from Newman and Chesterton, who finds himself taken up by William Buckley, Frank and Elsie Meyer, and others of the National Review crowd. One wants to know what it felt like to move into such a group at such a time and what the great issues were that attracted the young Wills into such company. These were men and women who in the McCarthy years were, no doubt with many subtle reservations, more for McCarthy than against him; who saw the catspaws of communism everywhere in American public life; who were, some of them, and notably Buckley himself, Catholics infatuated with laissez-faire ideals of society, traditionalists in religion, extreme liberal individualists in economic and social matters. They were perceptive about the realities of Soviet practice at a time when some liberals still thought Soviet communism a rough kind of Fabian socialism; but they were so besotted with anti-communism that they talked as though pretty well anything was allowed in the fight against communism. They had the mentality of crusaders and didn’t think Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki in any way speckled with doubt all claims to the crusading role. They were the foes of what they took to be softness, sentimentality, and liberal bad faith.

Some liberals in a panic were beginning to conceal from others and from themselves their fellow-traveling disposition in the years of anti-Fascism; but they betrayed their enduring habits of thought by exclaiming over the wickedness of right-wing tyrannies (they often showed their political illiteracy by calling all such regimes without discrimination “Fascist”) and looking the other way when the atrocities were those of left-wing regimes. Buckley and his friends were not prepared to let them get away with this. Opposition to communism, attachment to an American capitalism romantically conceived, an agreeable style of living, an engaging personality in the case of Buckley himself, one sees how all this could have been found beguiling by a young man who had dropped his commitment to the Society of Jesus but kept his faith.

Wills doesn’t explain why he joined the National Review, unless Buckley’s offering him a job is a sufficient explanation. He seems to have been enchanted by the milieu. There is a touch of William Manchester on Camelot in the following passage, in which Wills describes the first time he was entertained in the Buckley house.

At his home outside Stamford, we had a drink and looked across the lawn to the Sound…. I browsed through his records while he did a few laps in the pool. He had the 1946 Serafin Aïda, which I had never heard; and I put on the Gigli “Celeste Aïda.” Then his wife came in, as tall and as tanned as he, with the same etched precision of diction and wide voice swoops…. When Bill went to the upright piano, Pat groaned and said she would look to the meal. We ate on the porch by candlelight, Pat apologizing for some concoction that seemed to waver up on the candle’s flickers and waft itself into my mouth.

Wills is much more vivid on Frank Meyer than he is on Buckley. This portrait, however, I find in some respects unconvincing, though he catches the combination of seriousness and buffoonery of the man as he forced his way through life. Wills begins badly by telling us that Frank was at Balliol at “the high time of passion for the Spanish Republic” (another Manchesterism). Alas, Wills has got this quite wrong. Frank went up to Balliol in 1929 and left Oxford in 1932. This is not a trivial mistake. The reference is misleading because it wipes out one of the leading clues to Frank Meyer’s political outlook. He became a communist before the great turn to the right, to the policy of the Front Populaire; he learned his party lessons in the period when the main slogan was Class against Class! and when the social democrats were referred to as social fascists and, after Hitler had come to power, as “the chief support of the German bourgeoisie.” Consequently the turn to the right was always for him a maneuver, not, as for many converts of the years 1936-1939, a deep change, intellectually and emotionally, from the sectarian absurdities of the earlier period.

He was a hard man as a communist and he remained a hard man—in some respects the same man—after the great change to conservatism. Wills tells us that Frank was so much in his second phase a worshipper of a certain interpretation of the English past that “he would have become an Anglican but for the ‘liberal’ politics of America’s Episcopalians.” The notion of Frank as an Anglican is in any case slightly comic; but to suggest that a grown man might settle his religious position in this way strikes me as frivolous or offensive. Frank was in fact baptized on his deathbed, though not as an Episcopalian.

Wills’s removal of himself from the National Review, its works and wonders, is chronicled but not described, to make a distinction that forces itself all the time on the reader. We get no sense that the parting was accompanied by inner suffering or intellectual strain. A change in his attitude to the war in Vietnam seems to have been the principal cause: “like too many other Americans, I assumed the experts knew something I did not know about Indochina’s importance in the struggle against communism; so I neither criticized nor supported the war in my columns. I ducked. I evaded.” He came to think on what he claims to be “conservative” grounds—that it was not a matter of self-defense, that pre-emptive strikes are rarely justifiable—the war was wrong. Buckley said he would publish a piece attacking the war but understandably and, in my view, properly attached the condition that Wills should explain in print how he had passed from one position on the war to another. For some reason he didn’t accept Buckley’s offer. At any rate, he and Buckley seem to have parted amicably.

The book soon passes from autobiographical memoir to commentary on American politics, from his position as a working journalist and a part-time teacher at Johns Hopkins. Then he goes on to a series of arguments in political philosophy, most of them having to do with Augustine; and with this the book ends.1

Wills’s conservatism (he insists on keeping the label) seems to rest upon an acceptance of the actual complexities and divergent interests of American society. He thinks that within the frame of law and prescribed political practice this is as good a state of affairs as we are entitled to expect. Civil disobedience on issues of great moral importance is a necessary ingredient in the political complex; it goes back to the beginnings of American society, with Anthony Benezet as its saintly progenitor. “Change is initiated by the principled few, not the compromising many; by the ‘crazies’ in the streets, not by politicians on the hustings.” But the disposition to compromise is a leading virtue in a politician, for politics is essentially a matter of balancings between particular interests.

Conservatism is a title deserved by a view that tries to value and retain the politician as well as the prophet, the bureaucrat as well as the technocrat, the business elite as well as the unions, the poor and oppressed along with the elites.

This kind of view is buttressed by appeals to texts in Augustine and Newman. This is surely to avoid serious difficulties. Neither Augustine nor Newman had the least notion of a society that (to choose a few phenomena out of many) has at its disposal weapons of war that can bring a great part of the race to death or disabling sickness, that can loot the material resources of the planet for purposes many of which are frivolous and unworthy of rational beings, that corrupts other and weaker societies by providing them with weapons of mass destruction. North America, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, Australasia, these are terrifying societies. We belong to them, they fit us, as we think, like an old coat, we see them through spectacles made in the great nineteenth century; it needs an immense effort to see them as dangerous and uncanny. Wills’s view of the conflicting interests of American society as engaged in a Caucus-race in which everyone wins and all are given prizes strikes me as beside the point. I do not blame him—how could one?—for not offering remedies for evils that seem to lie beyond the possibilities of cure in our time and by such men as we are. But he seems to me too cheerful.

I should like to add something about Wills’s use of Augustine. He argues that Augustine discards the view that it is the business of the State to embody justice; instead we are faced with many different societies bound together by shared habits and appetites and agreements in moral as in other matters; and it is the business of the political authority to provide society, however it may be constituted, with a secure framework. From this Wills concludes that it is a mistake to go too far from a rough pragmatism in politics in a search for ideal justice.

There is a respectable school of interpreters, Figgis and the Carlyles, who understand Augustine in this way, though it is plain that no one in the Middle Ages understood him so. A classic discussion of all this is by the late C.H. McIlwain2 and it seems to me that when he is finished not much of the theory of Figgis and the Carlyles is left in place. In any case, to settle the matter one needs to consider—and there is no trace of such consideration in what Wills writes—how many different and related concepts Augustine is concerned with: populus, regnum, civitas, res publica. From the fact that pagan Rome was undoubtedly a populus and a regnum, it doesn’t follow that it was a res publica, for the compelling reason, for Augustine, that a pagan populus and regnum are necessarily unjust; justice consists in rendering to each his own; and in a pagan society the true God isn’t given the worship owed to him in justice. This conclusion may strike us as remote from present political concerns, and so it is; but this seems to be how Augustine sees it.

In his final chapter Wills goes in for a brief discussion of such great topics as time and creation. In the course of this he comments on the prologue to the fourth Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us….” (This is the Revised Standard Version rendering.) Wills renders the passage thus:

At the origin the Concept was in
   and the Concept faced toward
   and was God as his Concept—
This is what faced God at the

* * *

And the Concept came to be flesh and housed itself among us.

I think this an unfortunate rendering in the acoustics of the present day. Logos is hard to render, but the traditional rendering—Verbum, the Word, la Parole—ought not to be discarded without explanation. In our current language “concept” is too close to “conceit”—what is contrived—to be a comfortable equivalent of Logos; it suggests the abstract, it belongs to meanings rather than to objects. The divine Logos is not rightly to be thought about as one object alongside other objects; but to render it “Concept” is in view of the history of the word and the climate of our period to be taken as making a reductive move.

  1. 1

    Revision and proofreading have been carelessly done. I suspect Wills would not wish to use “alternate” when “alternative” is clearly intended. There are several ambiguous sentences (e.g., “Frank, a friend of Herman Kahn who admired his effort to make nuclear war ‘thinkable”’), a lonely “ibid.” (p. 57), and other evidences of a failure to scrutinize the text.

  2. 2

    C.H. McIlwain, The Growth of Political Thought in the West (Macmillan, 1932), chapter V.

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