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Two Encounters of a Classic Kind

by Jay Nordlinger

Past and Present: The Challenges of Modernity, from the Pre-Victorians to the Postmodernists, by Gertrude Himmelfarb (Encounter, 256 pp., $23.99)

On Liberty and Its Enemies: Essays of Kenneth Minogue, edited by Timothy Fuller (Encounter, 352 pp., $27.99)

Encounter Books is a publisher in New York, founded in 1998 by Peter Collier. It is now run by Roger Kimball, who is also the editor and publisher of The New Criterion. Encounter has a new line: Encounter Classics. The first two volumes are collections of essays, each of those collections showcasing the work of one author. Our authors — the showcasees — are Gertrude Himmelfarb and Kenneth Minogue.

Himmelfarb is a historian, born in 1922. She is particularly known for her work on Victorian England, and she has a special interest in morality: the moral tempers of various places in various times. Our society has been “de-moralized,” she says. Morality has been erased from it, or shoved to the sidelines. Society needs to be “re-moralized.” I don’t like those terms, but I don’t know better ones. And I agree with Himmelfarb entirely.

She has illustrious relations, starting with Milton Himmelfarb, her late brother. He was a social researcher. Her late husband is Irving Kristol, the “godfather of neoconservatism.” Their son is William. There are grandchildren to keep an eye on too.

At National Review right now, we have an intern who has absorbed, and profited from, many essays by Irving Kristol. Let this be of some comfort to the writer who thinks he toils in vain (even if that writer falls short of the gifts of Irving Kristol).

Himmelfarb’s new collection is Past and Present, and she is indeed a linker of the past and present. Reading her, I thought of something I heard from another historian, Shaw Livermore Jr. He said, “People say that you have to study the past in order to understand the present. The truth is, the present just as often helps us understand the past.” When I first heard him say that, in about 1983, I thought it was interesting, clever, and true-sounding. With every passing year, I see the truth of it all the more.

There are 20 essays in Himmelfarb’s collection, most of them quite recent — published last year, for example. But the first of them was published in 1951, when Truman was president, and the author was still in her twenties.

My eye fell on a short essay from 2014: “Burke’s War on Terror — and Ours.” Burke’s terror was the Terror, that of the French revolutionaries. And they were proud of this terror. The idea of a “reign of terror,” writes Himmelfarb, was not “the invention of disaffected émigrés or hostile historians.” No, “‘terror’ was the term the revolutionaries publicly and proudly applied to themselves.”

I am reminded of “political correctness.” These days, the term is never used approvingly. But I remember when people said “politically correct” without irony or disapproval. “Is it politically correct?” they would ask. When they said you were “politically incorrect,” you were rebuked.

Back to Burke, who is renowned for prudence, as Himmelfarb says. But he had contempt for a prudence that shrank from confronting the Terror. This terror, these revolutionaries, had to be fought à outrance, he said. “We are in a war of a peculiar nature.” “It is with an armed doctrine that we are at war.” The parallels to today are obvious, as Himmelfarb neatly delineates.

In other essays, she writes about Carlyle, Arnold, Disraeli, et al. like she knows them. This is because she does.

Her final essay is called “From Postmodernism to Transgenderism.” The latter, she says, is the “present manifestation” of the former. I have always been a little hazy on what “postmodern” means (as on what “transgender” means). I do, however, cherish the name of a theater troupe from the 1990s — a troupe of postmodern gay blacks: “Pomo Afro Homos.”

In all her essays, Himmelfarb is graceful and learned. She is also concerned with truth. Is this necessary to say? Aren’t we all concerned with truth? No. Lately, there has been a virtual war on the idea of truth, the idea that something can be true or false. People speak of a “post-truth age.”

Bret Stephens devoted a recent lecture to it: the Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture, delivered at UCLA. We should “honor the responsibility to separate truth from falsehood,” he said, adding that this is “never more important than when powerful people insist that falsehoods are truths, or that there is no such thing as truth to begin with.”

In June, Roger Scruton devoted an essay to it. “The concept of truth,” he wrote, “has been the victim of massive cyber-attacks in recent decades, and it has not yet recovered. The most recent attack has come from social media, which have turned the Internet into one great seething cauldron of opinions, most of them anonymous, in which every kind of malice and fantasy swamps the still small voice of humanity and truth.”

Scruton says you can blame Nietzsche — though Marx is more responsible, and Foucault more responsible still.

In an essay on Leo Strauss, Himmelfarb writes, “Truth does not change; only beliefs do.” Elsewhere, she quotes Lionel Trilling, on the liberating effect of truth. You can, as she knows, and as you know, find that in the Bible as well.

Now, have an essay by Kenneth Minogue, or at least its opening sentence: “One way of tracking the movement of a civilization is to follow the evolution of thought and sentiment in the moral life.” That is a Himmelfarbesque sentence; it is also Minoguian. “Today,” writes Minogue further on, “we have a remarkable dissonance between a vast public allegiance to the betterment of our fellows, on the one hand, and a vicious incapacity to behave morally to those who are closest to us, on the other.”

I think of an old joke: What is a Marxist? A man who loves humanity in groups of 1 million or more.

Ken Minogue was a political scientist who lived from 1930 to 2013. Born in New Zealand, he went to school in Australia, and then went to England, enrolling in the London School of Economics. He would later spend a teaching career there. He was a friend and colleague of Michael Oakeshott. The two of them were allies in the cause of classical liberalism (a cause needing a great deal of help).

Once, I asked Ken about his name — his last name. It’s Irish but has a French air about it. “When Kylie came along,” he said, “everyone knew how to pronounce it.” (Kylie Minogue is an Australian singer and actress — no relation to Ken, that I can recall.)

His new collection is edited by another friend, colleague, and ally, Timothy Fuller, a professor at Colorado College. In his introduction, Fuller writes that Minogue “was frequently active in politics, yet politics never fully absorbed him. Even when engaged by politics, he was never quite of politics.”

Scruton, after Minogue’s passing, wrote an appreciation, saying, “In many ways he was a model of the conservative activist. He was not in the business of destroying things or angering people. He was in the business of defending old-fashioned civility against ideological rage, and he believed this was the real meaning of the freedom that the English-speaking peoples have created and enjoyed.” Scruton also said, “For Ken Minogue, decency was not just a way of doing things, but also the point of doing them.”

That is an unusual, striking sentence, worth pondering.

J. S. Mill wrote a book called “On Liberty.” Karl Popper wrote one called “The Open Society and Its Enemies.” The new Minogue collection, drawing on both titles, is called “On Liberty and Its Enemies.” Alternatively, it could have been titled “On Liberalism and Its Enemies” — yet “liberalism” is a slippery term, especially in America, where socialists of all types have been called “liberal.”

In one of his essays, Minogue writes, “Locke was a very tricky customer, and so is liberalism. First you think you understand it, and then you realize that it has slipped through your fingers.”

Minogue explains that, in a weird turn of history, “liberals became the party of a centrally fostered community, and much of the inheritance of John Locke and Adam Smith passed over to those who called themselves ‘conservatives.’” Lately, Bill Kristol has floated the idea that America ought to have a “Party of Liberty.” That sounds good to me, but, aside from the question of America’s inhospitality to third parties, could there be a consensus on “liberty”?

Ken Minogue gives us a sense of his ideal in this sentence: “It was the ancient Greeks who first practiced a manner of living which combined civilization with freedom.” The phrase “civilization with freedom,” or “freedom with civilization,” could even fit on a bumper sticker.

As in the Himmelfarb volume, there are 20 essays here, and they date from 1961 to 2013. They are also chronological. Some of the essays require some work on the part of the reader — or some patience, let’s say. Others are reader-friendly — some of them very. Here is Minogue as he opens an essay (a lecture, really): “I have spent the last few years thinking about ideology, and I crave your pity for it. Ideological thinking is narrow, repetitive, limited in range, and saturated in rancor, and, I tell you frankly, I shall be glad to see the back of it.”

The essay that was to be his last is called “The Self-Interested Society.” It contains a passage that made me grin: “In an obvious sense, we all know what ‘self-interest’ means. If a car comes careering towards me, I jump out of the way.” This is Minogue at his reader-friendliest.

In any mode, he is a wonderful teacher, and thinker, and spirit. He is an uncommon blend of erudition and pleasantness. He is good company, on the page as he was in person. And now, like Gertrude Himmelfarb, he is a classic. Roger Kimball and Encounter will keep bringing out these classics. It is a public service, and a contribution to civilization with freedom.

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