America's Modern Age Suffers Moral Anarchy
Goode, Stephen, Insight on the News
Self-described moral critic and editor George Panichas says the obsession with freedom without limits in American culture is part of the growing decline of Western civilization.
To read George A. Panichas' essays on literature and on society is to encounter the best of traditional academia because what he teaches us, if we listen, is an appreciation of what our best writers have left us. He keeps us mindful of the values of our civilization.
Panichas, who is editor of the traditionalist learned journal Modern Age, calls himself a moral critic. He has written on D.H. Lawrence and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, among others. His most recent book, published this year, is about the distinguished Harvard teacher and fellow moral critic, Irving Babbitt.
Panichas is concerned with the health of the soul and of society. "If the inner life is decadent or nihilistic, that will be revealed in the outer life, whether it's the inner life of an individual or a nation," he says.
Insight: What is a moral critic?
George A. Panichas: The moral critic, I think, is concerned with the moral life and the ethical life. Ultimately, he is concerned with the struggle of good and evil. From a social perspective, as he continues with it, I think the moral critic is concerned with what the ancient Greeks were concerned with, when you think of Aeschylus or when you think of Socrates, and that is how men and women can become better citizens in the polis, in the city. I think the moral critic is concerned with what Russell Kirk speaks of as an attempt, collectively, to improve the life of the commonwealth and the life of the soul.
Insight: In your just-published book on the great critic Irving Babbitt, you describe him as a prophet when it came to what America is today. How would you describe the present state of American culture?
GAP: I think we're living in a stage where we are moving more and more into a kind of anarchy, and that anarchy is what Babbitt spoke about when he used the old Greek word eleutheromania. It is a word that means an obsession with freedom without any limits. It is a defiance of limits, and I think that is what is happening in our culture and society. It is a relativism that has gone out of control.
We see it in the media. We see it all around us. We see it in education. I turned to Babbitt at the instigation of an old friend of mine, Austin Warren, who was a student of Babbitt's while at Harvard. That was in the sixties, with all that was happening then.
American critics spoke about the period as the point when Americans were entering the gates of Eden. What we were doing was the reverse of that. We were falling into an abyss, a bottomless abyss. I think eleutheromania, this obsession with freedom without limits, becomes anarchy, becomes a total disregard about obligations ethically and morally, intellectually and culturally. It also underlines a desire for the total defiance of the virtue of honor.
Insight: Is there no hope for an end to this decline and decay?
GAP: I've spoken in response to your question with a kind of alarm. I nonetheless also believe that we have a remnant aware of the wasteland in which we find ourselves. It is a remnant which is fighting for lost causes, so to speak. But if we can go along with it, or if we can at least listen to it, well, I think it is this remnant that helps us to resist.
It's what [University of Michigan professor emeritus of history and an associate editor of Modern Age] Stephen Tonsor calls a "creative minority." This creative minority will perhaps not save us, but at least it can indicate the importance of standards, indicating landmarks that enable us to deal with the background of anarchy.
Insight: In your entry in Who's Who in America, you've included a marvelous statement that's in italics: "In a profane age of unrest and breakdown, it is not enough for the critic to be purely and simply critical. …