Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable
by george weigel
ignatius, 221 pages, $17.95
More than two and a half centuries ago, Montesquieu noted that the modern world does not particularly esteem or encourage admiration. This partisan of a moderate version of modern liberty—call it commercial liberty—still recognized the claims of human greatness. In The Spirit of the Laws, he even warned against an “extreme equality,” a corruption of democracy that tore down more than it elevated the weak and the vulnerable, a democracy that demeaned accomplishment, authority, and achievement. A quite different Frenchman, the Catholic poet and philosopher Charles Péguy, went much further in his memorable account of the Dreyfus Affair, Our Youth: He defined the “modern world” as a world that equally despises heroes and saints. That judgment perhaps lacks equanimity, but it is by no means bereft of truth.
No one can accuse George Weigel of succumbing to these pathologies of the hyper-modern mind and soul. In Not Forgotten, Weigel splendidly recovers the art of admiration, with a few warnings of what to avoid (what our forebears called the via negativa) thrown into the mix. The latter include Pete Seeger’s choice of the “hammer (and sickle)” and Andrew Greeley’s tiresome and all-too-predictable division of the world into good “progressive” Catholics and mean-spirited “conservative” ones. But the cautionary portraits are never mean-spirited even if they remind us of necessary truths. Weigel’s sketches and memorials are largely tributes to the enduring power of “righteous and noble living”—and to thinking that does full justice to the sobering limits and humanizing possibilities (and the quiet but abundant “rumors of angels”) that, in every age, inform the human condition.
This work is also a tribute to friendship in the Aristotelian sense—to friendship informed by serious reflection and a shared commitment to virtue, intellectual and moral. But these classical friendships are leavened by humor, affection, and a Christian appreciation of common humanity and of inevitable human foibles, imperfections, and eccentricities. We meet the benign Fouad Ajami, the courageous Arabist and splendid stylist who refused to blame the pathologies of the Arab Islamic world on that convenient scapegoat that is the Western world. There is James Billington, the distinguished longtime head of the Woodrow Wilson Center and Librarian of Congress. The mordant wit of the sociologist and (amateur) theologian Peter Berger is richly on display. In Berger (who was born in Vienna) the Old World met the New and social science communed with capacious liberal learning and an insatiable appetite for jokes.
We see Weigel’s close friend Michael Novak as a teacher as much as a scholar, a lover of sports as well as a student of theology, philosophy, and economics. We see the full range of Richard John Neuhaus’s achievement—his wit and wisdom; this eloquent critic of “the naked public square” rightly saw the pro-life cause as the Civil Rights issue of our time. Weigel describes the fundamental decency of the post-Watergate Charles Colson and the genesis of the noble effort that is Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Each of these compact portraits is marked by affection, admiration, humor, and generosity, so that we come to know and appreciate Weigel’s thought and character as well as the figures under consideration. That is the genial reciprocity of true friendship at work. To recount these friendships is to quietly elevate the soul while humanizing figures many only know through the written word.
There are, of course, recurring themes: the book recounts the most powerful anti-totalitarian thought and action of recent times. The Czech playwright, dissident, and statesman Václav Havel, with his “brilliant literary deconstruction of the moral tawdriness of late bureaucratic communism,” was a man between faith and unbelief who saw that John Paul II’s “noble human spirit was, ultimately, grounded in a divine spirit.” Dietrich von Hildebrand, philosopher, phenomenologist, and Catholic convert, excoriated any Catholic collusion with a Nazism that “breathed the ancient spirit of the Antichrist” and wrote a memoir about his encounter with the Nazi Behemoth that, as Weigel observes, will remain a treasure of Catholic anti-totalitarian wisdom. And Franz Jägerstätter, the Austrian martyr (but no pacifist) who refused to serve the Nazi Antichrist, is recognized as a heroic witness to Christian virtue and civic steadfastness (and will soon be recognized as a saint, I hope).
In his tribute to Sophie Scholl, Weigel notes how she and the other representatives of the anti-Nazi Christian student group “The White Rose” embody “The Truth about Conscience”—true conscience, the moral law, the voice of God in the heart and soul, a moral and cognitive faculty that says a resounding “No!” to Radical Evil. Scholl and her fellows were inspired by a Catholic philosophy professor in Munich and by their reading of Goethe, Aristotle, Schiller, Lao Tzu, and Cardinal Newman. As Weigel concludes, “They (the White Rose) learned that conscience can make us courageous, and to strive to live an ideal with the help of grace is to live a truly noble life with an undivided heart.” A lesson for this and all times.
One of the merits of Weigel’s book is that it shows how the terrible encounter with totalitarianism brought so many good souls to rediscover the moral drama at the heart of the human soul and of Reality simply. Not relativism, not moral evasion, not Catholic Lite (with its absence of serious moral demands on the exercise of our freedom), but deference to humanizing Truth remains the alpha and the omega of practical life for morally serious human beings. This is the great truth represented in this book by Pope St. John Paul II, who knew that “freedom uncoupled from truth . . . leads to chaos and thence to new forms of tyranny.”
The perspective that Weigel articulates in Not Forgotten is a vital part of the via media that may just save us from Catholic Lite and self-destructive progressivism if we only have the nerve to combine courage with equanimity, a commitment to transcendent truth with love of our wounded country. Neither relativism, progressivism, nor fundamentalism points the way forward. That is one vital lesson of this wise and charming book.
Let me conclude by noting that Weigel’s book fittingly ends with a display of filial piety and Christian hope in the form of touching eulogies for his parents, Betsy Schmitz Weigel and George Shillow Weigel, loyal sons and daughters of Baltimore, the Catholic Church, and the United States of America.
Daniel J. Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption University.
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