I hate to admit this but I'm not an intellectual in the way that Gertrude Himmelfarb is. For one thing I was never a political radical and for another I have a tough time remembering "schools of thought" and referring to them in a single word. I think I understand libertarianism and conservatism, but there are all kinds of subclasses and nuances that I have trouble keeping straight. This piece by Ms. Himmelfarb
about Lionel Trilling showed me how far I am from being able to hold my own in a conversation with her. I'm not sure what she means by Trotsky-ite or T. S. Eliot's "religious politics." I've heard of Matthew Arnold and even read something by him, but his name doesn't have a set of associations for me the way, say, Charles Dickens does. This homage to Trilling, of whom I knew hardly anything, taught me how nuanced and subtle a lot of critical thinking and writing can be, and that we all have to be able to distinguish such things if we want to make sense of the world.
Himmelfarb focuses on an essay of Trilling's entitled "Elements That Are Wanted," in which "Trilling introduced his own radical friends, the readers of Partisan Review, to T.S. Eliot,. . ." and cautioned them to be mindful of their "pledge to the critical intellect." The title from a quote of Matthew Arnold "on the function of criticism: 'It must be apt to study and praise elements that for the fullness of spiritual perfection are wanted, even though they belong to a power which in the practical sphere may be maleficent.'" I'm not sure how to take that, but I think it means something like that critical minds must be able to recognize qualities that are worth seeking, even in people like Hitler or Stalin. I think Trilling was subtly telling them a lot of what Orwell wrote about in Animal Farm
. He was suggesting that people shouldn't become so enamored to theory that they overlook evils results.
Marxism was not the only thing that Trilling (by way of Eliot) called into question. He challenged liberalism as well. Totalitarianism, Eliot had said, was inherently "pagan," for it recognized no authority or principle but that of the state. And liberalism, far from providing an alternative to paganism, actually contained within itself the seeds of paganism, in its materialism and relativism. Only Christianity, Eliot argued--the "Idea" of Christianity, not its pietistic or revivalist expressions--could resist totalitarianism, because only Christianity offered a view of man and society that promoted the ideal of "moral perfection" and "the good life." "I am inclined," Trilling quoted Eliot, "to approach public affairs from the point of view of the moralist."
Trilling hastened to qualify his endorsement of Eliot in "Elements That Are Wanted"; he did not believe morality was absolute or a "religious politics" desirable.
He was saying, if I get it, that society needs normative values to keep things from ranging so far that we forget what made us successful in the first place.
TRILLING WAS RESPONDING to the problem George Orwell had posed so dramatically in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Reviewing that book when it appeared in 1949, Trilling made clear that Orwell was not, as liberals liked to think, merely attacking Soviet communism. "He is saying, indeed, something no less comprehensive than this: that Russia, with its idealistic social revolution now developed into a police state, is but the image of the impending future and that the ultimate threat to human freedom may well come from a similar and even more massive development of the social idealism of our democratic culture." A few years later, reviewing another book by Orwell, Trilling repeated this theme: "Social idealism" is not the only thing that can be perverted into tyranny; so can any idea "unconditioned" by reality. "The essential point of Nineteen Eighty-Four is just this, the danger of the ultimate and absolute power which the mind can develop when it frees itself from conditions, from the bondage of things and history."
This is why conservatives believe in the value of religion even as we affirm that there should be no state church. Government power has a way of corrupting the most well-meaning people. This is an essential for us to remember as we grapple with issues like separation of church and state, gay marriage, socialism and entitlement programs. For example, nobody could object to the ideal of helping the poor, but whether eliminating poverty should be a goal of government.
I hope I got the point. If I did, it's extremely important, and is mostly lost on modern liberalism of Barbara Boxer, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Ted Kennedy.