by Bradley J. Birzer
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to review Lord Percy’s Heresy of Democracy, a book Russell Kirk considered essential for an understanding of conservatism in the 1950s. Another book he had in list that was more or less unfamiliar to me was Ross J.S. Hoffman’s The Spirit of Politics and the Future of Freedom (Milwaukee, WI, 1950). I’ve had the opportunity to read a few of Hoffman’s smaller pieces, and he and Kirk considered each other with admiration. They corresponded frequently, and Kirk looked at Hoffman in the same manner as he looked at Leo Strauss. Both were senior scholars to be approached for their advice as well as their blessing on his own endeavors.
Unlike with Strauss, though, Kirk developed a very personal relationship with Hoffman, and the two traveled extensively throughout Europe together.
Frankly, as I’ve read Hoffman’s smaller pieces and his correspondence with Kirk, he has failed to come alive to and for me. Indeed, he always seems like a rather flat figure–intelligent and perspective, but somewhat boring. Perhaps he was just a stiff writer, but most of Kirk’s other correspondents are always witty, alive, and full of personality.
ISI’s Jeff Nelson has provided an insightful and spirited article regarding Hoffman and his importance to the conservative movement here.
To sum up his life quickly, Hoffman was born in Pennsylvania, rejecting all forms of nationalism and communism in the 1920s and 1930s. The rise of ideological terror served as one vast marker denoting the fall of civilization. Another marker, though, appeared in the loss of purpose among individuals in the free nations of the West. Seeing religion as the only bulwark for western man and liberty, Hoffman converted to Christianity in 1931. In 1938, he became a professor at Fordham University, teaching there until his retirement in 1967. Hoffman passed away in 1979.
The 1950 book, The Spirit of Politics and the Future of Freedom, came from a lecture Hoffman delivered at the University of Detroit in 1950.
From the opening page, Hoffman expressed bewilderment at the state of the world. He was, he assured his audience, no prophet, possessing no ability to understand what might come in this world. Being limited by the nature of human intelligence, he did not want to state what the “great wave of the future” might be. As a case in point, he argued, he could never have predicted in 1940 that the American republic would transform or deform, depending on one’s point of view, becoming the leading empire of the world in 1950.
The free world of 1950, though, still reeling from the events of two world wars and the collapse of a relatively idyllic 19th century world, had become regimented, with those both opposed and supportive of such conformism equally dour about the future. Most see the task of reconciling freedom with the common good as impossible, with “the ministers of King Demos” embracing deceit rather than truth, fooling the literate–but uneducated–masses of democracies with every manner of propaganda.
In The Spirit of Politics, Hoffman combated what he considered equal errors about human nature: 1) the excesses of the ideologues, believing human nature to be perfectible and 2) the excesses of the Calvinists, believing human nature to be utterly corrupt. To Hoffman, only the Catholic Church understood the proper place of man, in all of his glories and in all of his horrors.
After giving this overview of the recent world, Hoffman examined modern history’s two paths, one following the American Revolution and one following the French Revolution. Not unexpectedly, Hoffman embraced the former, while interpreting it through the eyes of Burke and Tocqueville.
In the middle chapter of the book (chapter 3), Hoffman considered the rise of liberalism as a form of secularized Christianity. From this secularization, Hoffman claimed, one could either follow the utilitarian/libertarian path of Herbert Spencer, the socialist path of a variety of thinkers, or the vague, quasi-utopian “progressive” path of men such as H.G. Wells.
Because of their own history, but influenced by the changes in the world, Americans created yet another path, the seemingly gentle (but not so!) path of Pragmatism. In this role, Americans made the New Deal state, attempting to combat the Depression with governmental institutions, and then, finding itself a world power, attempted to create a New Deal state for all “liberated” areas at the end of World War II. In his Pragmatism and in his abhorrence of fascism and communism, the American rejects all abstractions, not just dangerous ones. He is left, therefore, naked before a complicated universe without any direction or purpose. He knows only the particular, having rejected and forgotten the universal.
Hoffman concluded his book by noting that the American must regain some solid metaphysical and purposeful grounding without being lost in the dangers of ideology.
To draw out those solid reasonings, by careful research directed toward the apprehension of principle, is the task of the American thinker who wishes to be practical in his politics as he enters the second half of this eventful century. If he is to succeed in that task he will have to possess a much better philosophy of state and society than pragmatism can provide. (76)
Hoffman’s conclusion will surprise no one who has read Kirk’s works in the 1950s. The solution to the problems of the world, and especially in America, he asserted, will come from a re-imagining and re-acceptance of the timeless principles of Providential care and guidance, Natural Law, and Natural Rights. In each of these suggestions, Hoffman anticipates all of Kirk’s solutions as expressed in works such as The American Cause and the Intelligent Woman’s Guide. The solutions are also already found in Burke and in some of de Tocqueville. My overall view of this book? It’s solid and good, but, by no means, great. It’s certainly not a must-own or a must-read, and I think there’s probably a just reason this book has been forgotten. While I have every reason to reread and rethink Lord Percy’s book, I can find no such equal reasons for Hoffman’s book. If you’re interested in the subject, read Christopher Dawson or Russell Kirk.
Dr. Bradley J. Birzer is co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative and a Senior Contributor. He is the author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, and American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. He is also author of The Humane Republic: The Imagination of Russell Kirk (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky). Dr. Birzer also teaches Catholics in the Public Square for Catholic Courses.