Editors’ note: The following is an edited version of remarks delivered at The New Criterion’s gala on April 28, 2022, honoring Larry P. Arnn with the ninth Edmund Burke Award for Service to Culture and Society.

This is not the only honor I have received this month. I have also been named by The New Republic as the number one enemy in America of “our democracy.” I am ahead even of my friend Cleta Mitchell, who is high on the list. This is the complexity of honor. As Aristotle reminds us, it depends as much on the giver as the recipient. This means that this night is not only about me.

Thank God this is not The New Republic’s gala dinner.

I take both pleasure and honor in being here in this estimable company, full of friends. I am proud to have my wife, my dearest Penelope, and my daughter Alice, an architect with the same appreciation for classical style and proportions as, say, the architect Peter Pennoyer, who appears often in the pages of The New Criterion. I have learned from Alice and from her teachers that classical architecture is beautiful and worth the expense, which is not inconsiderable.

The world in which honor is most magnified is the political one. The governor of Nebraska, Pete Ricketts, comes here tonight from a land like the one where I live, in flyover country. He is such a good governor that I have offered to trade the people of Nebraska our governor in Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, the wicked witch of the Midwest, for Governor Ricketts. There was no enthusiasm for the trade. The Nebraskans saw that it would made things worse for them. I thank Governor Ricketts for his splendid service and for coming here tonight.

I have thought of making such a deal here in New York. But you may be even more miserable than we in Michigan.

I thank you all for your generosity to The New Criterion, which perhaps will console Roger and his colleagues for having to put up with me. Many of you have also been generous to Hillsdale College, about which good things have been said here tonight. We who work there find it a privilege, and we are deeply grateful. Several of my colleagues are here this evening, and they know, and yet I should tell them even more, of the gratitude that I have for them, my brothers-in-arms.

What is honor, and why should I be grateful for it? The life of honor first appears in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as superior to the life devoted to pleasure, which he compares to the life of fatted cattle. The life of honor never occupies the highest place on the various lists of ways of living, but it is never degraded to the level of the beast. Aristotle says that “People of superior refinement and of active disposition identify happiness with honor,” but it is “too superficial” to be the highest good,

since it is thought to depend on those who bestow honor rather than on him who receives it, but the good we divine to be something proper to a man and not easily taken from him. Further, men seem to pursue honor in order that they may be assured of their goodness.

So the life of honor is never complete in itself, but always points to some greater virtue. Honor is not the same sort of thing as happiness, what Aristotle calls a “final end,” which “no one chooses . . . for anything other than itself.” The pursuit of honor is consistently worthy but, taken by itself, consistently somewhere in the middle.

By the operation of virtue, however, pleasure is dramatically elevated from the bestial almost to the divine. Aristotle continues:

Now for most men their pleasures are in conflict with one another because these [sources of pleasure] are not by nature pleasant, but the lovers of what is noble find pleasant the things that are by nature pleasant, and virtuous actions are such . . . . Their life, therefore, has no further need of pleasure as a sort of adventitious charm, but has its pleasure in itself.

Pleasure becomes, not the highest human activity, but the mark of the completion of that activity. To behold and grasp, or rather to be grasped by, some permanent and elevated thing is to experience the greatest pleasure we can know.

This passage of pleasure from the low to the high is mediated through the relation of friendship. At its best, friendship perfects justice; as Aristotle says,

when men are friends they have no need of justice, while when they are just they need friendship as well, and the truest form of justice is thought to be a friendly quality.

The highest form of friendship makes a unity between people, only a small number, who have improved themselves as much as possible. They have the discipline to direct themselves to the best things available. Friendship is thus a training ground for virtue. True friends are not distracted by any fear “of the flies buzzing around them.” They can see and recognize the low, but always in light of the high.

Among themselves, friends are not concerned with who gets what or who owes what, but rather with the question of which good thing can be given to a friend. As Aristotle says,

those who wish well to their friends for their sake are most truly friends; for they do this by reason of own nature and not incidentally; therefore their friendship lasts as long as they are good—and goodness is an enduring thing.

As friendship replaces justice in “binding cities together,” so it solidifies or even replaces honor.

Politics, the world of honor, can place a strain on many kinds of relationships, but I think not real friendship.

Take the case of Roger Kimball. He works here in New York, the center of high culture and what passes for it in America, and he edits America’s foremost magazine of high culture. His prolific articles invite you to a lunch in the sun in Provence to eat the food and drink the wine of the region; he tells you about statues and paintings and buildings, about Bellini and Phidias, about Rembrandt and Picasso; he tells you about the Greeks and the Persians and the Romans, their wars and their words, their victories and their defeats. I do not think I have ever read an article by Roger that did not require me to turn to a dictionary.

It came as a surprise, then, to many who called themselves Roger’s friends that he supported Donald Trump, who is a different sort of fellow. Trump does not speak much of Provence, Bellini, or the classics. His weapon of choice is the bludgeon, where Roger prefers the stiletto. What would attract the one to the other?

I confess that I have committed the same transgression as Roger in supporting Trump, and I get similar questions. They go something like this: “How can you admire Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln and then support Donald Trump?” At first, I would reply that I was unaware that Churchill or Lincoln was in the race. Later I would say that I have not mistaken Donald Trump for Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln, nor have I mistaken him for Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden.

The questions Roger and I have had to answer often suggest menace more than curiosity. Politics is a world of animosity. Many of those who called themselves friends of his, and of his magazine, no longer do. Politics changes all the time, and people react in different ways to the changes. Enemies become friends, and friends, enemies. When that happens, the old friends—now enemies—charge each other with inconsistency.

And that brings me to the chief point I want to make. How does one judge consistency in politics? I was put in mind of the topic for this occasion because Winston Churchill wrote one of his best essays under the title, “Consistency in Politics.” He begins with a few citations from Ralph Waldo Emerson, among them the following: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philophers and divines.”

Some may argue that it is inconsistent for a cultural magazine like The New Criterion to wade into politics at all. This is like telling a man to keep his feet dry when his house is flooding. Here we are, surrounded by politics as human beings always are. In such a context, Churchill argues,

a Statesman in contact with the moving current of events and anxious to keep the ship on an even keel and steer a steady course may lean all his weight now on one side and now on the other. . . . We cannot call this inconsistency. In fact it may be claimed to be the truest consistency. The only way a man can remain consistent amid changing circumstances is to change with them while preserving his same dominating purpose.

It is also well to try and find some consistency between politics and the related things that Roger and I and many of us here do and love—between politics and, say, The New Criterion and Hillsdale College. I have entitled this talk “Consistency in politics.” I will propose that this consistency, if it is to endure, depends upon knowledge that is partially outside and certainly above politics.

The hero of Churchill’s essay is Edmund Burke. In his political career, Burke seemed inconsistent. He supported the British Empire, but he ruthlessly prosecuted one of the founders of the Indian part of that empire for eight years for embezzlement, extortion, and a judicial murder in India. He argued that the empire could not be justified unless it protected the rights of the subjects who lived in the colonies.

For the same reason, Burke was a friend of the American Revolution. He was never happy about the prospect of the colony’s independence but fully recognized the truth of the arguments by which we demanded it. But soon after, he became one of the chief British enemies of the French Revolution, which was seen by many in France, Britain, and America as of a piece with the American Revolution. Many others in all those places also agreed with Burke.

Churchill describes these two Burkes as the Burke of Authority and the Burke of Liberty. Churchill’s argument is that these two Burkes can be reconciled on the practical level—differing circumstances call for different measures—but also on a level higher than either liberty or authority. “No one can read the Burke of Liberty and the Burke of Authority,” he wrote,

without feeling that here was the same man pursuing the same ends, seeking the same ideals of society and government, and defending them from assaults, now from one extreme, now from the other. The same danger approached the same man from different directions and in different forms, and the same man turned to face it with incomparable weapons, drawn from the same armory, used in a different quarter, but for the same purpose.

This is the level on which good lives are lived, excellence is pursued and attained, where justice is done, where friendship flourishes.

These considerations bring us back to the limits of a political life governed only by honor. Can such an arrangement provide the kind of freedom in which all men control their own destinies? Do the mighty respect and, when the circumstances require, obey the weak? Do the weak have a chance to live a civilized life—to write fine books, if they have the talent, or design beautiful buildings?

In 1938, as Hitler loomed, Churchill gave a commencement address as the chancellor of the University of Bristol, of which he still stands as the longest serving chancellor. It is titled “Civilization.” He defines the titular term at the beginning:

There are few words which are used more loosely than the word “Civilization.” What does it mean? It means a society based upon the opinions of civilians. It means that violence, the rule of warriors and despotic chiefs, the conditions of camps and warfare, of riot and tyranny, give place to parliaments where laws are made, and independent courts of justice in which over long periods those laws are maintained. That is Civilization—and in its soil grow continually freedom, comfort, and culture.

Civilization is cognate with the Latin word for citizen, civis. Civilization is the rule of civilians, that is, not of the armed and the martial, but the civilians. Never mind that they are weaker or have accrued fewer honors; there are other reasons that they should be in charge. This is a Burkean way to speak.

Churchill does not begin with art and architecture, philosophy, or fine dining—the things that Roger writes about. These things, which he calls “culture,” grow from civilization.

I think I speak for many here in observing that the rule of civilians is in jeopardy in America. We have now a professional government. It expends in its myriad departments more than half the gross domestic product of the nation. In education, the managers outnumber the teachers and have much more power. The military and law enforcement, especially federal law enforcement, speak not the language of combat or law and order but the language of bureaucracy. This managerial or ruling class considers itself “elite” and is, directly and indirectly, the chief source of influence in politics.

Look at the so-called knowledge it produces in universities.

Look at its inability to teach human children to read—children, that is, who develop their native capacity to talk almost by themselves. The principle applies equally to reading. Our educational system has other priorities.

Look at its attempt to democratize Afghanistan, of all places, and look at its incompetence even to leave the place properly.

Look at the decay of our cities, crime rampant, infrastructure crumbling, families broken up, and children abandoned.

Look at the so-called art that is supported by the National Endowment of the Arts.

Look at the determination not only to sexualize the youngest school children—before they are old enough to know they are simply themselves—but also, what is more important and more pernicious, to warp their understand ing of that pregnant term, nature, meaning the way by which living things come to be and flourish. One cannot understand the family without that word.

There seem to be a lot of people who think that politics is everything. That is despotism. There seem to be a lot of people who think that it is nothing. That is servitude.

Between them are people who know they are made for civic affairs, and also for more than civic affairs. Those people know that men are not angels, and so they require laws and government; and also they know that angels do not govern men, and so government must be limited and accountable to the governed. Those people are firm in this understanding because they have a sense of what angels are like and what perfection is like, and they know it is not for this world, but is to be admired from this world in order to reach toward it.

I am proud to read The New Criterion, in which these relationships among men, nature, and God are evident in every line. And I am proud to be here with you tonight, friends in the cause of civilization.

A Message from the Editors

Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 10, on page 13
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com

Popular Right Now