Thirty-five years ago, in a hospital in East Beirut, Charles Malik lay dying of vascular and kidney disease, both his legs amputated above the knees. He passed away on December 28, 1987, weeks shy of his eighty-second birthday.
In his native Lebanon, my father was larger than life. On the international stage—aside from his work as Lebanese ambassador to the United Nations and president of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, which crafted the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights—Malik received little more than fleeting notice. Yet many of the challenges and afflictions currently plaguing the West were discerned early, pondered on, and warned against by Malik decades ago.
In his speeches, commencement addresses, and published writings throughout the 1960s and 1970s and into the 1980s, Malik hammered away at the pernicious “isms” of his time (and ours): naturalism, subjectivism, rationalism, skepticism, idealism, materialism, technologism, futurism, cynicism, nihilism, Freudianism, relativism, voluntarism, humanism, monism, immanentism, secularism, and atheism. A survey of the intellectual atmosphere today will reveal stubborn lingering versions of all these “isms,” often weaponized by the left in the raging culture wars.
In the late 1960s and into the next decade, the wave of student protests and eccentric youth lifestyles reached Lebanon from the West. I was then a student at International College, the high school adjacent to the American University of Beirut, to which my father had returned after his career in politics to resume his place as a professor of philosophy. I recall on a few occasions seeing him come down from his office, in his short-sleeved white shirt and tie, to mingle with the radical students and hippies camped out on the campus’s Green Oval for their “Be In” spectacle of dissent. Amid the rock music and weed smoke, he would try to engage the students in conversation about the issues of the day and about basic matters of decency and responsibility. He cut an odd and, to many there, risible figure. Very few of the young people held a coherent exchange with him; most simply smiled and continued with their display.
I have often wondered what Malik would have thought of today’s narcissistic “cancel culture.” The malady of human self-sufficiency, which he analyzed in The Wonder of Being, is where he would commence his critique: “The good of insufficiency is that it makes you see the world and therefore leads you on beyond it. The evil of self-sufficiency is that in thinking you have found yourself, you actually lose both yourself and the world.”
Malik would have faced unflinchingly our noisy cult of self-sufficiency: “Men of real backbone will never betray their fundamental convictions. They will never allow other points of view to dull or flatten their souls. … In this age of softness, appeasement, and compromise, it is most essential that we pass to the offensive of holding fast to the deepest we know.” This “holding fast to the deepest we know” brings up another element of Malik’s legacy: His celebration of what he proudly termed the Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian Western tradition. He believed that in the Western tradition, more than in any other tradition in history, universal values have thrived, and out of which remarkable achievements for all humanity have come about. Malik was never hesitant or apologetic when asserting the existence of a hierarchy of civilizational achievements based upon how in-touch a civilization was at a given point in time with universal values that reveal timeless certainties about God, man, freedom, reason, truth, and the spirit. As he wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 1984:
A civilization constituted by Homer, Plato and Aristotle, by the Old and the New Testaments, by Cicero and Augustine, by Shakespeare and Goethe, by Newton and Einstein, by Pushkin and Dostoevsky, and by the joy and zest and adventure and freedom of the great American experience, and all that these names concretely mean—can such a civilization lack supreme values for its conviction and burning fire for its will? Who else has anything comparable with this incomparable heritage? America and the West underestimate their immense potential.
Malik’s critique of the West amounts to calling the wayward back to the greatest heritage in history.
Vilification of the West has become compulsory across the media and academia. When I was about to embark for graduate studies in the United States and was considering a focus on the Middle East, my father advised: “Son, don’t travel thousands of miles just to study yourself. Immerse yourself in the great living universal tradition, and it is only then that you will begin to understand yourself.” Wiser and truer words were seldom uttered to a young man thirsty for knowledge and discovery. At the U.N. in 1946, Malik gave a speech about the need to translate into many languages, and to disseminate, the world classics. For him these included works from non-Western cultures, though the majority were indeed Western. This translation project would help promote “international cultural cooperation.” Malik recurred to this theme on several occasions, and he was a friend to Mortimer Adler of the Great Books Project.
The decay of the classics highlighted a running concern for Malik: the increasingly deplorable state of the university. The erosion of the humanities had preoccupied him for many years, given that for centuries they had been infused with the spirit of Christ. The secular university has all but shut out Christ from its halls, courses, and research. For Malik, the Christian necessarily assumes a critical posture regarding this exclusion, and as a result can see well what ails the contemporary university. Not only are the classical humanities subject to postmodern biases and distortions; in many instances they have been supplanted by newfangled courses grounded in ideological presuppositions that are hostile to religion:
We know that the [medieval] universities, which set a pattern for all other universities, were founded on Jesus Christ, and we know that that foundation has now in practice become a relic of the past. A Christian critique of the university raises the question of why this has happened. Is it a natural phenomenon? Was it an inevitable development? What were the ultimate spiritual causes behind it? Does it really signify progress? Progress from what, to what? Is it reversible? What are its consequences upon the whole destiny of man?
Malik emphasized the need for cultivating “the life of the mind and the spirit.” He challenged Evangelicals to embrace intellectual rigor in conjunction with their scriptural anchoring. He wrote: “[H]ow meek and simple and spiritual and transparent some of the saints and saintly are, and yet how unsophisticated and wholly uninteresting and illiterate when it comes to sharing the great philosophical or scientific or world problems! We sit at their feet spiritually, but intellectually they are babes; they simply bore you; we cannot stay long with them; we crave the company of great intellects.” Given the self-worship of secularists and the intellectual indifference of many believers, Malik saw the universities sinking into ever deeper malaise, along with the societies they inevitably shape.
If the academy’s aim is no longer the search for truth, are the humanities doomed to slow extinction? Surely, the dwindling of job opportunities reinforces this impression. Many parents, including me, have had to steer their children away from formal academic pursuit of the humanities, relying instead on a Christian home to impart cultural formation. Charles Malik, who in a different era came to philosophy from a grounding in mathematics and physics, would understand the career orientations of his grandchildren given their circumstances, which he predicted would lead to the atrophy of the humanities.
Many features of Malik’s life and thought offer lessons for the present age. Beyond his identification of the plagues of postmodern secularism, particularly as they infest the university, and his celebration of the Western tradition’s calling its children to a “homecoming” to its abiding values, Malik made other contributions that remain fresh and relevant. In the 1940s, during the deliberations at the U.N. Human Rights Commission that produced the Universal Declaration, Malik, in the spirit of the Catholic concept of subsidiarity, stressed the centrality of “intermediate institutions”—family, church, school, association, circles of friends—which help cushion the individual against pressures emanating from the state. He also brought to these debates his grounding in Aquinas’s Natural Law and a focus on inherent human dignity, which reflected themselves in the Preamble, Articles 16 and 18—all of which he authored—and elsewhere throughout the Declaration. There is a lesson to be derived from Malik’s diplomatic career about how the committed Christian should operate in the domain of political responsibility.
Despite the fall of the Soviet Union, state tyranny continues today in communist China, Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, and the Islamic theocracies. Malik’s unmaskings of communist totalitarianism in speeches and writings from the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s contain insights that apply broadly to the lingering ideological versions of organized state repression. Two speeches on this topic were “War and Peace” at the U.N. in fall 1949, and “Will the Future Redeem the Past?,” addressed to some ten thousand people in an open field in colonial Williamsburg in spring 1960. In both talks Malik juxtaposed the communist threat with the fundamental elements of free Western existence, culture, and belief, which were under assault.
Malik was a pioneer of ecumenism before the word “ecumenical” became fashionable: Greek Orthodox to the bone, Catholic in his philosophical and theological orientations, and steeped in the Bible, he came to be appreciated within all three Christian sub-traditions. He was active in the 1960s in what became a historic rapprochement between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. His audiences with Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI, along with his proximity to Eastern Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras I, positioned him uniquely as a high-level go-between in preparation for a historic healing of the rift between the two churches. He attended the three encounters between pope and patriarch in Jerusalem, Istanbul, and Rome. I was present in 1967 in the small, crowded church in Phanar, Istanbul, when the two leaders met, with my father standing behind them. If progress toward deeper Christian understanding is to continue, Malik’s example can help inspire it.
By his own admission—whether in conversations with my mother, or in the company of friends during visits to our home that might stretch into the wee hours, as I sat in silence absorbing what I could—Charles Malik was “a tragic figure.” The nature of his tragedy, I believe, is twofold: He was diverted from his passion for philosophy and theology, the life of the mind and the spirit, by being plunged into the world of politics and international diplomacy; and he was a Christian from the Near East, with all the existential hardships such an identity entails. Early in his political involvement, he would write letters to Bayard Dodge, then-president of the American University of Beirut, assuring him that he intended to return to the philosophy faculty as soon as his stint in diplomacy was over—a stint that lasted fifteen years. By way of self-consolation, he often noted that professors in the shelter of academia miss out on the responsibilities and experiences that come with immersion in political decision-making, and that provide a deeper knowledge of human affairs as a prerequisite for effective leadership.
His lifelong fight for Christian freedoms in his native Lebanon and the surrounding region likewise took a toll on his time and energy. The difference between a free and a dhimmi existence for Christians in the Near East weighed heavily on him. Compounding his tragedy on the eve of his death was Lebanon's deeper collapse deeper into civil strife.
The following quote sums up Malik the person, his priorities, and his convictions:
What is the deepest question that can be asked [of] any man? I doubt whether it is the question: are you committed?, although that is very deep. I doubt whether it is the question: to what are you committed?, although that too is very deep. The deepest question you can ask any man is this: whom do you ultimately thank? I say “whom” rather than “what” because I take it we always thank persons rather than things. I thank Jesus Christ of Nazareth. I thank him for everything, but principally for his Cross. I do not say for his Resurrection, although I deeply thank him for that, but that is the work of God; I thank him for his Cross because that is my work. I crucified him and he permitted me to do so in order that he might forgive me.
Malik’s Christianity is present in everything he wrote and said, and any true account of the man will acknowledge this. I am thankful for the privilege and blessing of having been a “fly on the wall” for his life in all its trials and triumphs.
Habib C. Malik is a senior research fellow at The Philos Project.
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