In this series, the First Things junior fellows share mini-essays on their current reading endeavors.
Prior to the age of hot takes and tweetstorms—that long-ago time before opinion writing had devolved into the business of churning out listicles and “threads”—Bl. John Henry Newman was already denouncing the “direct evil” of journalism. The cardinal’s canonic Idea of a University may be over-quoted, but many of today’s commentators could use the thorough tongue-lashing he gives the media in the less-cited preface to this volume. Here, Newman castigates the “parti-coloured ingenuities” of “periodical literature,” asserting that quality universities are necessary to combat the “spurious philosophism” found in pamphlets and magazines:
Parti-coloured ingenuities are indeed one of the chief evils of the day, and men of real talent are not slow to minister to them. An intellectual man, as the world now conceives of him, is one who is full of “views” on all subjects of philosophy, on all matters of the day. … This is owing in great measure to the necessities of periodical literature, now so much in request. Every quarter of a year, every month, every day, there must be a supply, for the gratification of the public, of new and luminous theories on the subjects of religion, foreign politics, home politics, civil economy, finance, trade, agriculture, emigration, and the colonies.
Though a few luminaries (Newman mentions Dr. Johnson and his Rambler) had the intellectual aptitude for such work, column-writing generally encourages men to practice “extempore philosophy”—which “shows itself in what, for want of a word, I may call ‘viewiness.’” What Newman dubs “viewiness” we might call the addiction to “having takes.” I shudder to think how scathing the preface might be had he ever caught a glimpse of journos on Twitter.
Whereas authority formerly resided in academia, writes Newman, it now unfortunately dwells with the journalists. Although First Things is not in the habit of publishing hasty, half-formed thoughts, the cardinal offers sound warning to any of us in the trade of periodicals. His barbs are ruthless:
As the great man’s guest must produce his good stories or songs at the evening banquet, as the platform orator exhibits his telling facts at mid-day, so the journalist lies under the stern obligation of extemporizing his lucid views, leading ideas, and nutshell truths for the breakfast table. The very nature of periodical literature, broken into small wholes, and demanded punctually to an hour, involves the habit of this extempore philosophy.
Newman concludes his preface with a note of sympathy for the journalist’s “wear and tear of mind.” After all, the relentless demand for opinions most hurts the opinion-writers themselves: As men “under the rod of a cruel slavery,” they have no time to breathe, to devise thoughtful perspectives. Instead, their life becomes a mad rush to generate new content, to spout something original, to have the hottest take of all:
If works done comparatively at leisure involve such mental fatigue and exhaustion, what must be the toil of those whose intellects are to be flaunted daily before the public in full dress, and that dress ever new and varied, and spun, like the silkworm’s, out of themselves!
Although Newman is right that the magazine trade can have unpleasant side effects, we should hardly discard this form of discourse altogether. I’d like to think that First Things is not for the breakfast table (nor for lunchtime scrolling, which is perhaps more likely these days). We fill our pages with the pennings of full-fledged academics and hardened journalists alike, putting columnists, lawyers, professors, and “public intellectuals” in conversation with one another. Of course, at a magazine that sits, as Mark Bauerlein once put it, “somewhere between current events as reported by weekly magazines, and ideas and arguments as expounded in scholarly journals,” we must always ask: What habits of mind are we encouraging? I have hopes that, were Newman still living, he would exempt First Things from his condemnation of periodicals prone to “viewiness.”
Lately most of my attention has been absorbed by E. O. Lorimer’s translation of Ernst Kantorowicz’s Frederick the Second (Freidrich der Zweite), a glorious monument of tendentious historiography. Frederick II, the last of the Hohenstaufen dynasty to ascend the Roman throne, was a man of extraordinary talent and ambition. He was the last Christian to rule as the King of Jerusalem; he gave Prussia over to the Teutonic Order for conversion; his law code for the Sicilian kingdom is considered the beginning of the modern state. A successful crusader, a friend to emirs, a frequent adversary of the popes, he was known to his contemporaries by turns as the Stupor Mundi—the wonder of the world—and as the Antichrist.
Under the influence of Stefan George, Kantorowicz set out to treat the last Hohenstaufen emperor as the ur-hero of German nationalism, a Promethean law-giver and state-builder who strained against the monkish shackles of the thirteenth century. The book itself embodies the emperor’s perhaps not entirely real freewheeling spirit: Kantorowicz refused to include citations and was eventually compelled to issue a supplementary volume detailing his sources. But Frederick the Second was more than an assault on academic orthodoxy; it was a last glorious and untainted blaze of national solidarity among intellectuals, which a generation before had emptied the universities of fighting-age students and led old professors to repudiate their English academic degrees.
Never such innocence again. Frederick the Second fell in with evil company: Himmler kept it on his bedside table, and Göring presented a gift copy to Mussolini. Within ten years of the book’s publication, Hitler had received plenary powers from the Reichstag; within ten years of that, Kantorowicz’s mother had perished at Theresienstadt, and he himself had been compelled to flee to the United States. And so Frederick the Second is more than a study of the time and mindset that gave rise to Aquinas and Louis IX, or a psychological study of the great man archetype, or an exciting story. It is a cautionary artifact, a warning against putting trust in men or nations.