George Panichas, the Moral Imagination, and the Conservative Mind

By Frohnen, Bruce P. | Modern Age, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

George Panichas, the Moral Imagination, and the Conservative Mind


Frohnen, Bruce P., Modern Age


Both as a writer and as editor of Modern Age, George Panichas sought to show the patrimony that conservatives seek to conserve and to engage us, not merely on the level of contemporary political discourse, but on a much deeper level. What may not be readily apparent about this deeper level is that it is, in one of its essential aspects, literary. Like his successor, Panichas published poetry as well as discussions of historical and political issues, and he, like his successor, was a literary critic. Indeed, Panichas was first and foremost a literary critic, so understanding Panichas and what he represents in conservatism requires that we first come to some understanding of his role as critic.

Literary Criticism and the Moral Imagination

Panichas was a literary critic of a specific kind. He was most concerned with the spiritual and the prophetic. Today most of us would denote Panichas's concerns as religious. This is not to say that his goals were either primarily theological or devotional. Neither, of course, were they mathematical or social "scientific"; Panichas rejected the destructive conceits of modern methodological cant. Rather, Panichas's goals, his methods, and his material, all were deeply embedded aspects of the tradition of Christian humanism, a tradition that I would argue forms the essence of conservatism properly understood. They partook of the moral imagination, that form of thought and conduct informed by an understanding of the difference between good and evil, by acceptance of the inherent structure of reality, and by recognition of the duty to preserve and live within that structure.

Panichas was Orthodox. That is, to begin with, he was a member of the Orthodox Church. More than this, though, he was deeply concerned with the Orthodox tradition and its way of approaching life. In considering the Orthodox tradition, here, it may be best to begin by noting Panichas's collection of icons. Roman Catholics certainly would be concerned with the iconic figure of the crucifix as capturing their tradition. But if we are to get at the heart or "way" of Catholicism we had better look at the literature of "the lives of the saints." These stories are intentionally time bound; they lay out people's lives, telling how they conducted themselves in concrete experience (including experience of the divine) so as to become saints. Catholics often look to these stories for inspiration and insight into the nature of being. But Panichas looked more to his icons. These portraits of holy figures are attempts to capture a bit of the transcendent for this life, moments of the eternal for those of us bound by time to witness. This would seem to be a significant difference in sensibility and understanding, and one that extends throughout the arts. If you were to talk, for example, to John Taverner, a well known contemporary composer and convert to the Greek Orthodox Church, he would tell you that he actively dislikes Catholic music. He sees Catholic music as all about movement up and down the scale, whereas he seeks to capture unchanging moments of eternity. There is constancy in Taverner's music, returning to the same tones rather than seeking to go on a long journey.

Whatever one's aesthetic judgment regarding the results of the Orthodox vision in music, it may seem odd to have it applied to the task of a literary critic. After all, what is literature about if not stories? So it may seem that I am postulating a contradiction in Panichas's work between the desire for the unchanging and the inherent instability of life. But I don't think this is a contradiction within Panichas's work--although it may be a tension we all face in our existence. For Panichas, as a critic, literature by nature is a spiritual art, seeking to capture moments of transcendence. For example, according to Panichas the novel, that which most of us think of as an extended story, ought to be a kind of reality of its own.

  The novelist's world becomes both a process of discovery and a
  journey of revelation. … 

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