Thursday, February 28, 2008

Bill Buckley


Liberals have always had a problem with Bill Buckley,
though it is not what many suppose. He was a very
engaging man. And I mean every word of that sentence.

The first thing you noticed about him was his joy; it
streamed from his eyes; it flashed in his smile. And
joy, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, is the talisman of a
sentient and grateful being. To be under the
grace of God is to be joyful.

That Bill was engaging no one will deny. And here was
the problem that liberals fortunate enough to be
counted among his friends struggled with for as long
as God permitted him to remain among us: When he and
his wife, Pat, invited you into their home, you
partook of their friendship, and Bill's capacity for
friendship was as large as his capacity for joy. His
assault on the heart was irresistible.

For liberals who wanted to preserve the pinata they
treasured in their minds whenever they summoned up a
conservative for flogging, this was a problem. Try to
imagine a furnace in which all the petty vices of life
are burned up, and you will have an image of what it
was like to be invited into Buckley's heart and home.
He could not taste a joy without inviting others to
the feast. I would guess, judging from the company I
met when visiting him in Stamford, Buckley had as many
liberal as conservative friends, all of whom are now
grieving at their irrecoverable loss.

Others have remarked on Bill's gargantuan physical and
mental energy. No one in the intellectual rat race
could keep up with him. But it takes more than this to
make a man. It takes (C.S. Lewis again) a chest. It is
magnanimity, largeness of heart, that makes the man.
It is part of the mystery of man that a man's heart is
larger than his world of experience. Buckley's heart,
the seat of all true wisdom, had in it many mansions.

When Tolstoy died, the Russian writer Maxim Gorky said
that his passing left him an orphan on the earth. He
meant that while Tolstoy lived, the courage that
streamed from the great writer bathed his own
sensibilities in the water of life; that while Tolstoy
lived, Gorky knew that the world could not be lost
that had in it such a man; but now he was gone, and
Gorky felt at his passing the first arid breath of a
soul-shriveling cynicism.

Cynicism never had a snowball’s chance in Hell of
surviving in Buckley's presence. It was all burnt up
in the furnace of his intellect. Many people will not
believe that Buckley, in private, did not "ever," as
he put it in, "nearer, my God, to Thee," bring up his
political faith or religion "unless specifically
questioned about it." Why? "There is something about
the modern disposition (the social protocol absolutely
rules over me) that compels even those who believe in
Him to keep all such matters tidily secluded in their
own tent."

The trouble with bad manners, Buckley once said, is
that they often lead to murder.

But there was one occasion, during one of our visits,
that he slipped. We had just finished a meal -- lamb
chops with rosy centers that Buckley ate, much to the
delight of my wife, hands-on, which is the way Andree
eats them, despite her worries about social protocol
-- when he became fascinated with Jake, Andree’s
German shepherd guide dog.

"I wonder," Buckley said, "if there are dogs in
Heaven."

I wanted to say, "Of course there are dogs in heaven.
If there aren't, I'm staying here." But instead I
tailspinned into some platonic nonsense about the
possibility of there being "dogginess" in Heaven --
the dog made perfect, so to speak -- at which point
Buckley gave out a benign smile and allowed that he
had something in mind more specific than that.

He was thinking, I now realize, of the rather
imperfect dog he had loved as a young boy. For a
moment, hijacked by a memory, he had become
irresistibly innocent.

Who says you can't take it with you? Of course there
are dogs in heaven and wit and lively conversation and
sisters left behind long ago and watchful mothers and
paternal fathers -- and Bill.

7 comments:

softwareNerd said...

As one of the key intellectuals who sought an increased role of religion in America, Buckley was responsible for undermining the best of the pro-Capitalism foundations of the GOP. He set the country back many decades and dealt a huge blow to Capitalism and free-market ideas.

Don Pesci said...

Softwarenerd,

Buckley thought that the hard edges of capitalism should be softened by other mediating institutions, like the family and the church – otherwise you end up with a red in tooth and claw Darwinianism, an antheap ruled by supermen (like Hitler and Stalin).If Catholicism and capitalism are opposite and irreconcilable world views, you’re going to have to explain how it happens that the foremost defender of capitalism during the last quarter century – Ayn Rand died in 1982 -- years was also a practicing Catholic.

softwareNerd said...

Hey Don,

In my opinion Capitalism does not need any hard edges softened by law.

Anyhow, I mainly wanted to correct what you said about Rand. From what I know, her family was Jewish. However, whatever her family history, I can tell you for a fact that she was an atheist.

During her lifetime, she was never militantly atheistic. In other words, she was not like Hitchens and Dawkins during her lifetime, and there were two reasons for this.

Firstly, Rand saw how religion was the traditional bastion of some good values. Man needs philosophy. To live a full life, man needs values: purpose, productiveness, rationality, honesty and so on. Many of these values are supported by religions -- even if not in the same way and sense as Rand would support them.

Rand argued that religion provided a faulty justification for these values. Since she was an atheist, she argued that these values must be derived by looking at man and reality, and deriving moral principles from such observations. Faith and the supernatural had absolutely no role in her derivations.

However, Rand was even more critical of the nihilists and skeptics (typically of the "left") who end up saying that nobody can know the truth. Such people use their skepticism to attack religion (as one can see in Dawkin's movie); they try to convince religious folk that values are always subjective.

Rand sought to break through this dilemma of values being either intrinsic (from some authority) or subjective. She also sought to answer the question: how does one go from "is" to "ought", without becoming subjective?

In all this, her approach was always to use observation and never to use the idea of God.

There was a second reason that Rand was not militant about her atheism. For centuries, religion has morphed by increasingly dropping its worst concretes (like literal "eyes for eyes"), by dropping various literal scriptural interpretation, by increasingly allowing for a role for individual (as opposed to clerical) judgment, and by lessening the role of faith in favor of a role for reason.

I do not know if Rand would have remained as un-militant about religion if she had been alive to see recent trends. I suspect not. For instance, she was alive when Reagan was running for President, and she denounced him for mixing religion with politics. If she had seen how that resurgence had grown, she might well have seen religion as the growing threat, perhaps even seeing it to be eclipsing the threat from the nihilist/subjectivist side.

[Thank you for your time.]

Don Pesci said...

Come now, surely a perceptive guy like you understands the difference between law and religious restraints. Otherwise I appreciate everything you’ve said here. Incidentally, Rand was not the first atheist who attempted to precind religion from the public square. The atheistic state bloomed and then shriveled in the Soviet Union. Father Walter Ciziak, the author of “With God In Russia,” was also a philosopher of sorts. Perhaps it might not be a bad idea to read his book hand in hand with “Atlas Shrugged.”

In the meantime, there is always G. K. Chesterton’s observation to wrestle with: “Those who do not believe in God do not therefore believe in nothing; they believe in everything.”

I knew Buckley well, and I can tell you that he would never attempt to foist his religion on others; I quoted him to that effect in the column. But he was a Catholic in the tradition of Chesterton, which is to say he thought deeply about and practiced his faith. I was writing a piece about someone I loved and respected. It is very unusual for me to insert myself into my columns in this way.

In any case, I appreciate your observations.

softwareNerd said...

"Come now, surely a perceptive guy like you understands the difference between law and religious restraints."

Yes, quite. I actually do not know Buckley's record on the more overt things like school prayer, and the truth is that many of those symbolic things do not bother me.

The thing is, even those of us who do not want to foist our moral philosophy upon others still derive our political philosophy from our moral philosophy. It's probably impossible for it to be otherwise, except among terrible hypocrites.

A Christian and an "idealistic" Commie atheist of a bygone era, differ fundamentally on their most fundamental view about the nature of the world. However, at the "next level" -- i.e. moving from "is" to "ought" -- two such people could agree on the broadest principles of moral philosophy. They could both easily agree that we are good to the extent we help our fellow men.

This similarlity of moral philosophy will, in turn, result in certain commonality in their political views. Even if they differ radically on how to acheive a just society, they will find themselves in fair agreement about the fundamental purposes and ideals of a political system.

The ideas of achieving the greatest common good, and having the government help those who find themselves in dire straits are not held solely by communists/atheists.

What I see in Buckley is that he agreed with the fundamental altrusitic moral premise of the left, but derived it differently -- i.e., from a religious morality.

This influenced American conservatism in the following way: while the conservatives continued to argue with liberals about implementation, they increasingly agreed with them on the underlying moral principles ("compassionate" conservatism, is an example of this).

In turn, this growing commonality at the level of moral principles has led to a change in the conservative movement. If you're interested, check out this well-researched and well-annotated essay on the subject.

I haven't read G. K. Chesterton, but I do not see why those who do not believe in God must believe in everything (i.e. be subjective and non-objective). Personally, I hold very specific values, without believing in God. Also, while the new left is nihilist, the old left commie types definitely had very specific values and beliefs.

Meanwhile, thank you for the polite and vigorous discussion. I do appreciate it.

Don Pesci said...

The reference you cite is, I think, a fair attack on neo-conservativism, not exactly the same thing as conservativism, as you know. I assume you also know that during his latter years Buckley referred to himself – some think to distinguish himself from the neo-cons – as a “libertarian individualist.” The libertarian strain in him was always what the philosophers call a live option for him; it was one of the more important of his animating principles, and it was, for him anyway, not incompatible with Catholicism.

I do not think that the ethic of the “idealistic communist” and the committed Christian, viewing both in their perfection, are at all the same in point of ends or means, and neither did Lenin.

Altruism may not be the opposite of self interest. Biology is full of examples of animals behaving altruistically for reasons of self preservation. If by altruism you mean what we non-heroic mere mortals call love, I would not personally want to associate with a system that is so loveless as to exclude it. It was Burke, no neo-con, who said that a nation to be loved must be lovely.

I am determined to let you have the last word in this discussion – not for altruistic reasons – but because to do otherwise would be unlovely.

softwareNerd said...

"I am determined to let you have the last word in this discussion ..."

Thanks. In that case I say "I right, you're wrong". :)

No, no, I'm just kidding there. I'll just say: "Thank you for the discussion."

I do appreciate it, and have learnt from it.

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