- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 6, 2002

By Roger Kimball
Ivan R. Dee, $28.95, 375 pages

As a general rule, book editors show little enthusiasm for collections of the occasional essays. Even if well written, they are likely to seem dated and to lack a unifying theme. When, however, they come from the pen of a writer as practiced as Roger Kimball, they can retain their freshness and exhibit a satisfying coherence. Mr. Kimball is managing editor of the New Criterion, a monthly review in the tradition of T. S. Eliot's Criterion, and so dedicated to the uncertain survival of high culture.
Broadly and well educated, Mr. Kimball writes with insight and verve on a remarkably wide range of artistic, literary, and philosophical matters while taking the role and record of modern intellectuals as his special province. Most of the essays gathered here were prompted by new publications, but they offer extended reflections on famous and undeservedly neglected "lives of the mind."
The guiding theme of "Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse," Mr. Kimball tells us, is that intelligence may be abused as well as used to good purpose. Like the rather obscure Australian philosopher David Stove (1927-94), whom he greatly admires, he thinks that the abuse of intelligence is almost always a result of some defect in character. Like Stove too, he is, as readers of an earlier work, "Tenured Radicals," know, at his best when on the attack.
Although not always entirely fair; for example, Mr. Kimball makes mincemeat of Georg Hegel and other "academic professors of philosophy" whose livelihood "is bound up with verbal legerdemain." Naturally, then, he thinks highly of Soren Kierkegaard's famous attack on Hegelianism, his use of intelligence to battle overweening intelligence. At the same time, however, he sees weakness of character in the way SK nursed his melancholy. W.H. Auden was right, he believes, that one searches the gloomy existentialist's writings in vain for any recognition that "whatever sorrows and sufferings a man may have to endure, it is nevertheless, a miraculous blessing to be alive."
Something similar might be said of Bertrand Russell's oeuvre. Certainly no one who has read Ray Monk's two-volume biography of Russell can be unaware of that brilliant mind's character flaws. Aside from an addiction to "causes," Mr. Kimball calls particular attention to what he regards as Russell's craving for disillusionment, a perverse desire he believes to be typical of the kind of intellectual who prides himself on his ability to "see through" and unmask the manners and morals that give direction to the lives of others.
Although Mr. Kimball admits to being an "intellectual pathologist," he does not overlook those who in his judgement have turned intelligence to good account, those who possess common sense because they maintain a "healthy contact with reality." He praises Raymond Aron, for example, as one who upheld common sense at a time in French history when it was in short supply, the postwar period when Jean-Paul Sartre ad Maurice Merleau-Ponty employed Hegel's (Karl Marx's) dialectic to prove that humanism, rightly understood, was Soviet terror.
In Alexis de Tocqueville, Aron's master, Mr. Kimball sees the incarnation of that conservative liberalism to which he himself inclines. The less well known Victorian writer Walter Bagehot was also, he writes, a conservative liberal who placed moderation and reasonableness above Promethean striving and rationalism of the sort that blinded Rene Descartes to the truth of Blaise Pascal's insight that "the heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of."
Bagehot's contemporary Anthony Trollope actually described himself as an "advanced conservative liberal," and Mr. Kimball admires the fact that, as one critic wrote, the novelist taught that we should "be reasonable, be moderate, in action, in desire, in expectation." P.G. Wodehouse, from whose work Mr. Kimball derives much pleasure, was of a similar cast of mind. He "left anguish and betrayal, self-knowledge and social awareness to other, generally lesser, talents."
It is worth noting that in his celebration of Wodehouse, Mr. Kimball says nothing about the writer's relationship, if any, to the Christian religion. That is unusual, for the theme of secularization and the resulting crisis of belief threads its way through most of these essays. George Santayana, himself a nonbeliever, wrote that "the absence of a positive religion … opened the door to the pervasive tyranny of the world over the soul."
Bagehot and Trollope could no longer subscribe to a creed but feared that atheism would undermine the authority of Judeo-Christian morality and hence the social order. In his essay on Friedrich Schiller, Mr, Kimball quotes the late Erich Heller to the effect that the German belonged among those "theologically displaced persons who found a precarious refuge in the emergency camp of Art."
Like so many intellectuals, in other words, Schiller was looking for a substitute religion. Hegel replaced God with the Absolute. Russell thought it important to explain publicly why he was not a Christian, and then sought vanished certainty in mathematics. Arthur Schopenhauer simply chose atheism and, by identifying Immanuel Kant's "thing-in-itself" as insatiable will, inspired gloom in such luminaries as Thomas Mann, Leo Tolstoy, Sigmund Freud, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
We know that the latter, though a mystic by nature, could not accept "organized religion" but that he wrestled with spiritual problems for which, in his view, philosophy could offer neither solutions nor consolations. Charles Peguy, who lost his faith at an early age only to embrace a heterodox version shortly before giving the last full measure of devotion in World War I, also knew spiritual struggle. And David Stove, who professed "no religion" and suffered from cancer, took his own life.
Mr. Kimball's finely crafted essays, then, do more than shed light on the use and abuse of intelligence. They show us the modern mind as it gazes or searches for ways to avoid gazing into the abyss.

Lee Congdon writes regularly on modern culture. He is professor of history at James Madison University.

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