Prophets Without Honours
‘It is true that certain faiths, ideologies and cultures make submission the supreme virtue, while the civilisation that emerged from Athens, Rome and Jerusalem has cherished liberty in all its forms’
Britain is notoriously slow to grant official recognition to those who serve the cause of civilisation. Shakespeare was only one of the first of our prophets to die without honour in his own country, making Othello declare, just before he stabs himself: “I have done the state some service, and they know ‘t.” By contrast, the Americans give honour where it is due, not only to their own citizens, but to foreigners too.
To take just one example: Jacques Barzun is 104. Not many writers are remembered a century after their birth. Even in our era of unprecedented physical longevity, to be alive, not merely in the memory but in the flesh, and moreover to be writing at this age is almost incredible. Yet that is the case with Barzun, the French-born cultural historian, who is still flourishing some 80 years after he and Lionel Trilling ran Columbia’s celebrated Great Books programme, deservedly imitated ever since. The United States knows what value to place upon those who defend, represent and augment Western civilisation, and Barzun has received many academic accolades; but it was only in his tenth decade that George W. Bush decorated him with America’s highest civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
More remarkably, President Bush gave the same award to two British writers who appear in these pages: Paul Johnson (my father) and Robert Conquest. The latter, just a decade younger than Barzun, is still keeping alive the literary tradition he created with his close friends Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis. This month we are proud to publish “Fred Agonistes”, a new sequence of Conquest’s light verse. Conquest is, of course, also the author of The Great Terror, which told the truth about Stalin’s crimes at the time when it mattered most but was least fashionable to do so. For his contributions to poetry and scholarship, Bob Conquest deserves at least a knighthood, which would symbolise the importance of moral courage to the West’s victory in the Cold War.
Another prophet thus far without honour in our country, though not in her own, is Gertrude Himmelfarb, who has just published her latest book aged 89. Known to friends as Bea Kristol — she is the widow of the late, great Irving Kristol — Gertrude Himmelfarb has changed our understanding of British culture more than any living historian. In books such as The Idea of Poverty and The Demoralization of Society, she prepared the way for the return of “Victorian values”, which she showed were neither Victorian nor values, but the timeless virtues that derive from the biblical and classical repository of Western thought. They are now championed by Michael Gove, the intrepid Education Secretary. In 1984, Margaret Thatcher made an important intellectual gesture when she made Friedrich Hayek a Companion of Honour. For the Cameron government to appoint Gertrude Himmelfarb an honorary CH (there are several other such) would send out a similarly significant signal.
Prophetic, too, is the voice of Geoffrey Hill. A Nobel for England’s greatest living poet is long overdue. Even more scandalous, however, is the fact that he should have reached his 80th year without having received any recognition from the land of his birth, other than his election as Professor of Poetry at Oxford. The Order of Merit has a vacancy after the death of Lucian Freud, and it is high time that the natural successor to T.S. Eliot and Ted Hughes (both of whom were appointed OM) should take his place alongside Sir Tom Stoppard, our greatest living playwright.
It is no mere coincidence that almost all the aforementioned living writers have been associated with Standpoint. Distinguished not only by their seniority, but by their moral courage, they are just a few of the luminaries in the intellectual galaxy that have gathered around the magazine in less than four years. Feted abroad but neglected at home, they have done the British state some service. Do the Queen and the Prime Minister know it?
The defence of civilisation has never been more urgent. The turmoil among the tyrannies of the world, from Cairo to Moscow and from Damascus to Rangoon, reminds us that countless millions still look to the West for encouragement and hope. These are only the visible manifestations of the eternal yearning to be free that is hidden in the human heart, wherever it may be. It is true that certain faiths, ideologies and cultures make submission the supreme virtue, while the civilisation that emerged from Athens, Rome and Jerusalem has cherished liberty in all its forms: free will, free speech, free trade and freedom under the law. The world we inhabit has inherited an unresolved tension: between those who wish to restrict our freedom at every turn, whether in the name of God or that of Caesar, or for whom there is no distinction between the two; and those who seek, little by little, to enlarge the realms of light.
Last year saw too many hopes raised, though our worst fears were not realised. This new year, too, is pregnant with promise and peril for the world in general and the West in particular. Let us pray that the English-speaking peoples will prevent, as they so often have before, a new iron curtain descending on humanity: between freeborn men and women subject only to God, and the slaves of the state.