Thursday, November 18, 2004 +

Notes 56

When Lionel Trilling, a committed liberal, criticized liberalism, he was acknowledged to be a significant critic. What comparable conservative today criticizes conservatism—or what passes for conservatism?

I am tempted by fantasy. No doubt my reality is unsatisfactory, but why must my resistance be, as Barzun says, “puny”: “In contrast, earlier philosophies used life as the very source of sanity; it was the measure of rightness, not vulnerable to corruption. The distinction was implicit between Life and our life at the moment; and the new thought, the new art showed what Life demanded. Even the Stoics, who did not dance with joy at the idea of being alive, left life and the cosmos their validity.” What is the cause of my “failure of nerve”? It seems that my belief in Jesus is not enough: it is “epiphenominal.” I am missing something necessary and prior. Perhaps it is the sense of honor. In John Lukacs, A New Republic I quote Lukacs quoting Burckhardt: “The sentiment of honour . . . is that enigmatic mixture of conscience and egotism which often survives in the modern man after he has lost, whether by his own fault or not, faith, love, hope. This sense of honour is compatible with much selfishness and great vices, and may be the victim of astonishing illusions; yet, nevertheless, all the noble elements that are left in the wreck of a character may gather around it, and from this fountain may draw new strength. . . . It is certainly not easy, in treating of the Italian of [the Renaissance] to distinguish this sense of honour from the passion for fame, into which, indeed it may easily pass. Yet the two sentiments are essentially different.” So I am finding that faith, love, hope are not enough. This answers my question whether Catholicism is enough. It is not enough, unless it “fulfills all righteousness,” including the righteousness both of Athens and of Jerusalem. My feelings—and perhaps the world—deceive me: life is very good, and I am made in God's image.

There is also James Agate's judgment, cited in From Dawn to Decadence: “His friends expected in 1940 that he would suspend Ego: when he said no, they expostulated: ‘It means that you regard your diary as more important than the war.’—‘Well, isn’t it? The war is vital, not important. Because I am suddenly stricken with cancer, must cancer become my whole world? Except insofar as I am a coward, it does not fill my whole mind.’” I am more important than all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them.

Unfortunately, an aphorist never acts.