Reading Peter Viereck Anew
In the 1950s the late Peter Viereck—historian, social critic, and poet—stirred thinking Americans with deep and lively reflections on cultural and political problems of the post-World War II era. He called for increased appreciation on this side of the Atlantic of the Western ethical heritage of Christian and Judaic religion and Greco-Roman and European humanism, threatened by modern commercialism and mass media. And he made a strong case for the relevance of Burkean and Federalist wisdom rooted in Anglo-American freedoms, indirect democracy, timely and humane reforms, and moderate politics eschewing extremes of left and right.
Born in Manhattan in 1916, Viereck studied at Harvard, earning his B.A. in 1937 and his Ph.D. in history in 1942. During World War II he served as an intelligence officer in Italy. Back from the war, he taught modern European and Russian history at Mount Holyoke College for forty-seven years. His books, meanwhile, were widely reviewed and led to speaking engagements and to Guggenheim Fellowships abroad. At home he was devoted to his family, read the New York Times, and tapped out prose and poetry on his typewriter. Appreciating nature, he was fascinated by trees and often walked around a lake adjacent to the campus. His early book of poems Terror and Decorum received a Pulitzer Prize in 1948. Viereck’s prose books appeared during the 1940s and 50s, and all of them are now available from Transaction in high-quality reprint editions with prefaces written by the author before his death in 2007.
Shame and Glory of the Intellectuals, originally published in 1953, sheds light on America in the early Cold War years, with lasting relevance. Viereck opened by defining intellectuals as “educators in the broadest sense: philosophers, clergymen, artists, professors, poets, and also . . . editors and the more serious interpreters of news.” Their true function, he continued, is ethical. “Their direct influence is almost nonexistent. What of it? Indirectly and in the long run, their influence can be decisive.”
It was, Viereck held, the glory of intellectuals that they staunchly opposed the Nazi menace to the Western heritage of human dignity, constitutional democracy, and tolerant pluralism. After Hitler’s defeat, he continued, some of them, to their shame, failed to see Stalin’s regime as another version of totalitarianism. These “fellow travelers” he satirized in a fictional encounter with the fashionable Gaylord Babbitt—pseudo-literary son of Sinclair Lewis’s George Babbitt— who read pro-Soviet weeklies while sipping wine at Café Chic in New York and supported Henry Wallace for president in 1948, while most intellectuals, liberal and conservative, supported anti-communist containment policies in Europe. In these pages and elsewhere Viereck also set his face against McCarthyism as demagogic “pseudo anti-communism,” thus opposing the far right as well as the far left.
Furthermore, Viereck, like Russell Kirk and Reinhold Niebuhr, criticized William F. Buckley, Jr.’s God and Man at Yale for advocating alumni pressures on his alma mater to fire faculty whose views on economics and religion Buckley and others disliked—a notion insensitive to academic freedom. It was really meant, critics noted, as a means of promoting laissez faire economics at Yale and beyond. In a related chapter Viereck argued for calling an end to “the mutual baiting of the business world and the intellectual world.”
“Civilization,” Viereck maintained, “is an infinitely fragile bundle of accumulated habits and restraints. The necessary conservative function of any generation is not just to enjoy itself but to pass on this bundle in good condition to the next generation.” Toward this end, true conservatives start not in politics and economics but “in the world of literature, the arts and sciences, intellectual history, the universities, the humanities.” The moral and cultural values and the insights into human nature and history so discovered will, by osmosis, enter the practical realm.
In America, Viereck noted, confusion results from journalists unhistorically applying the term “conservative” to the unregulated capitalism which Old Guard Republicans derive from the Gilded Age and the Manchester liberalism of Victorian England. British conservatism, he pointed out, beginning with Burke, evolved into the “Tory democracy” of Disraeli and Churchill, who championed not only property interests but all classes through labor and housing laws and other measures. So also in America “laissez faire has given way to social reforms and to restraints on an anarchistic capitalism,” thanks to “the New Deal of that fabulous character straight from Disraeli’s Coningsby, the aristocratic Squire of Hyde Park.” Noting that business reforms have been partly voluntary but also necessarily imposed by government and negotiated by unions, Viereck stated, “I have faith in American capitalism because I believe its profit system has been sufficiently modified by ethics, and I believe it can continue to be revised peacefully, without need of socialism.”
Shame and Glory, though consisting mostly of loosely organized chapters of previously published pieces, is coherent and brilliant. Will Herberg said as much in his Commonweal review, and Clinton Rossiter in The Review of Politics.
In Unadjusted Man in an Age of Overadjustment, which first appeared in 1956 as The Unadjusted Man, Viereck addressed thoughtful spirits in the placid 1950s. His “new hero for Americans” was not the many who conform to fads or smugness—David Riesman’s “other-directed” individuals—but persons adjusted not to the age but to the ages, “defying the majority-rule of mass habits, mass tastes.” They form a natural aristocracy, carrying on traditions of Athens and Jerusalem, and of parliamentary Britain and America’s founders. Indeed, Viereck held, “the existence of society as a whole” depends on “the moral, scientific, intellectual, and economic contributions of the unadjusted, above-average minority.” Modern America, he noted, is a country where such persons can find “cultural burrows” that are “often left intact not out of appreciation but indifference.”
Turning to public affairs, Viereck discerned that the British heritage of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 became rooted in America as a blend of Locke’s moderate liberalism and Burke’s moderate conservatism and that, in keeping with the Burkean practice of building on the concrete existing historical base, “the real American conserver assimilates into conservatism whatever he finds lasting and good in liberalism and the New Deal.” A non-partisan independent, Viereck appreciated and encouraged the Eisenhower Republicans, who accepted most of FDR’s revolution-preventing reforms and the bipartisan internationalism of the 1940s. And he admired Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential candidate, for articulating a politics of moderation and appreciating the danger of overadjustment among Americans. There is, Viereck emphasized, in the events and achievements of 1688, 1787, and the 1930s “a shared framework for liberals and conservatives.”
In this book Viereck developed a strong case for “indirect democracy,” filtering the people’s will through their representatives, judicial procedures, and constitutional restraints; and criticized “direct democracy,” government by unfiltered mass pressure, referendum, and public opinion polls. The former is derived from Burke, John Adams, and Madison; the latter from Rousseau, Paine, and the Populists of 1880-1900. A notable achievement of indirect democracy, Viereck pointed out, was the censure of Joseph McCarthy in late 1954, despite a torrent of telegrams, mass petitions, and a “monster rally” for McCarthy shortly before his conduct was quietly condemned by senatorial vote. Actually, McCarthy had found no Communists in the State Department, as claimed, but, Viereck perceived, he exploited popular fear of Communism during the early Cold War and stirred up anti-intellectualism and status resentments against educated Eastern leadership in government and universities.
In conclusion, Viereck returned to his theme of values, asking “Who, if not the intellectuals, will resist the periodic stampedes to entrust American culture to the manipulators of gadgets?” Against utilitarianism and hedonism, he stood for a culture based on “qualities of truth, shared goals, shared traditions” and “a very individual responsibility toward this social trust.” This responsibility, for partial and provisional solutions in an imperfect world, is “rooted in centuries of cultural and religious tradition,” and “moves beyond the propagandistic, the temporary, the overadjusted . . . toward the lasting aspect of things.” Unadjusted Man is well organized, often eloquent, and sagacious. Among major reviewers, Charles J. Rolo welcomed it in the Atlantic Monthly as “an attempt to make a broad and unconventional revaluation of the conservative and liberal traditions” and so “distill . . . a political and moral credo for our time.”
Viereck’s Conservative Thinkers: From John Adams to Churchill, originally a volume in a series for college students, is a concise and balanced historical survey followed by selected excerpts from various authors. In his new preface Viereck explains that the conservatives represented here are not “contemporary American pluto-cranks.” First defining conservatism and its special terms (e.g., aristocracy) and variant kinds (e.g. Burkean), his text takes up its expressions in Britain, in Latin Europe and east of the Rhine, and in America. Viereck’s knowledge of the European continent and his special appreciation of Burke and Churchill and of Adams and Babbitt suffuse this impressive book.
Viereck’s two earlier books have also been republished. The first, Metapolitics: From Wagner and the German Romantics to Hitler—which originally appeared in 1941—is his doctoral dissertation, published in wartime. It was unique at the time in probing the roots of Nazism as an extreme form of German romanticism and a pseudo religion of nationalism, racism, and authoritarianism, as found in Wagner and others. Hitler’s rise, Viereck argued, must be understood in terms of this as well as the historical circumstances of 1919-1933. Thomas Mann praised the book, and Crane Brinton wrote in Saturday Review that “all in all, this is the best account of the intellectual origins of Nazism available to the general reader.”
Viereck’s second early book, Conservatism Revisited—which originally appeared in 1949—focuses on Metternich, the Austrian architect of a century of European peace from 1815 to 1914, who also tried in vain to reform the Hapsburg empire. This slim book went on to present to Americans the case for a Burkean path blending reform with historical continuity. The value of this new edition is enhanced by inclusion of a lucid, fair-minded, richly insightful, fifty-page essay by Claes Ryn, “Peter Viereck and Conservatism.” Another bonus appended is Viereck’s fine 1974 article on “Conservatism” in Encyclopedia Britannica.
Besides the foregoing, Transaction has published a new Viereck reader, Strict Wildness: Discoveries in Poetry and History, with nineteen essays selected by Viereck himself. These include such pieces as “The Revolution in Values,” on developments from 1870 that led to the European catastrophe of World War I and the Hitler-Stalin era; “The Poet and the Machine,” on literary responses to technology; “The Irony about Niebuhr,” a review-article on Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History; and “Clio Is No Cleo,” on historiography and the “messiness” of history. Shame and Glory and Unadjusted Man were Viereck’s most influential prose works. Thereafter he wrote chiefly poetry. While dated in some respects, his major books of the 1950s are relevant in the early twenty-first century, for some of our problems— cultural no less than political—are similar to those of the mid-twentieth century. It is noteworthy that both Viereck and Russell Kirk, neither of them preoccupied with politics, emphasized the importance of culture, urging the value of liberal arts study for transmitting our heritage, deploring the banalities of television, and seeing the limitations as well as the value of technology. Both also found wisdom in Edmund Burke and Irving Babbitt, Viereck reviewing favorably Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. Viereck’s works, marked by depth and breadth, touched on many issues of his time, and he was right on the big questions. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., remarked that he “has many wise and sparkling things to say.” His style is concise and epigrammatic, with memorable phrases. He is well worth reading, or re-reading, today.
Charles C. Brown is the author of Niebuhr and His Age: Reinhold Niebuhr’s Prophetic Role and Legacy (Continuum, 2002). A revised and updated edition of his Russell Kirk: A Bibliography is forthcoming.
Posted: November 13, 2010
Did you see this one?
Conservatism in Germany
Volume 47, Number 3–4 (Fall 2010)