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T he February 13,issue of Esquire magazine did not feature a typical cover model. He was not an actor, a politician, or a sports star. A professor but not a Ph. That may have been too limiting a description. Kristol was part of a tradition that sought not only to understand the world, but to change it. He was at the center of the small but influential movement known as neoconservatism — an idea, Esquire proclaimed, "whose time is now.

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What neoconservatism was — and is — and Kristol's relation to it, has been a subject of intense interest ever since. The Esquire article was typical of a certain style of writing about Irving Kristol. It was more interested in the man than in his thought. It was Kristol's role as a political entrepreneur, as an activist and organizer as well as a commentator, which provided most of the fodder for magazine profiles.

Journalists studied him and his associates as anthropologists study foreign cultures. He was thought to be a catalyst of ideas rather than an originator of them. This belief was and is widespread. A fascination with the professional biography of Irving Kristol — with his journey from the Young People's Socialist League to the Republican Party; his institutional affiliations with City College, Basic Books, New York University, and the American Enterprise Institute; his founding of EncounterThe Public Interestand The National Interest ; his advice to politicians such as Jack Kemp and to journalists such as Jude Wanniski — has characterized much of the writing about the man and his work.

Kristol's various occupations have been the preoccupation, as it were, of articles from Robert Bartley's "Irving Kristol and Friends" in the Wall Street Journal into the numerous obituaries published after Kristol's death, five years ago this fall. If writers did not focus on his career, they focused on his personality: his wit, detachment, realism, modesty, ironic sensibility, equanimity, directness, consistency, and cheerfulness.

Charles Krauthammer has called him the right's "Cool Hand Luke. The example of Kristol is held up as superior to the supposed populism, dogmatism, idealism, and immoderation of the contemporary right. It is long past time, then, to examine not Kristol the man but Kristol the political thinker, to subject his writings and views to close reading, and to discern what lessons they might hold for today. Reading these materials, along with Kristol's five collections, it soon becomes clear that it is not quite true to write, as Esquire did so many decades ago, that Irving Kristol achieved notoriety mainly for his role in "advancing other people's ideas.

He had some big and important and ificant ideas of his own: on religion, on capitalism, on socialism, on nihilism, and on the welfare state. These ideas reveal Kristol to be a sort of theologian — a writer whose deep interest in religious matters informed his cultural and political criticism.

And these ideas are as relevant and provocative today as they were when Kristol first committed them to paper. Neoconservatism very much remains an idea "whose time is now. Indeed, sifting through the materials, one is struck by the similarities between the political climate of the s and the political climate of today.

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We, too, are experiencing a lack of economic growth, a preoccupation with income inequality, an apocalyptic environmentalism, an intellectually exhausted left, and an intellectually confused right. As we think through the multiplying challenges confronting America and begin to formulate responses — and perhaps even tentative solutions — to them, it is worth recalling the teachings of Irving Kristol.

A respect for religious orthodoxy as the primary source of moral knowledge, as a conduit for tradition and supra-human authority, as that which legitimizes marriage and the family and serves as a bulwark against messianic and utopian politics, is found throughout his writings. The two epigraphs to Kristol's collection, Reflections of a Neoconservativedraw attention to the religious dimension of his thought. The first epigraph is from Kierkegaard: "Everything that passes for politics today will be unmasked as religion tomorrow.

These are the only epigraphs in the four books Kristol published during his lifetime. Paired in this way, the two statements suggest continuity between politics and religion, and between religion and politics, prompting us to consider whether political conflict is not another form of religious conflict.

The political, for Kristol, was not "the personal. The traditional understanding of Judeo-Christian religion plays a leading role in what a post-modernist might call the Kristol meta-narrative: the intellectual history of capitalism and its degeneration that is the basis for his interpretation of politics. It was inat a conference of theologians organized by Michael Novak at the American Enterprise Institute, that Kristol described most plainly the religious lens through which he viewed modernity.

His talk was later condensed into an essay, "Christianity, Judaism, and Socialism. Kristol began with an anecdote. He said that a recent conversation with a friend, a prominent rabbi, had reminded him of the distinction between the "prophetic" tradition in Judaism and the "rabbinic" one. The former are the rebels against the law, the critics of society's failure to live to the highest and strictest ethical standards; the latter are the followers of the law. The two tendencies, Kristol went on, are present in all of the world's major religions.

To a gnostic, the world is a very bad place. Horrible things happen to innocent creatures. There is no satisfactory explanation for the problem of evil. Society is unequal. It does not live up to our high expectations. Laws are unjust or ignored; institutions are archaic and corrupt. Human beings fail to realize their potential. These unsatisfactory conditions of life provoke a revolt. Such a rebellion is directed at both the religious and civil law. The orthodox view is different.

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Whereas the gnostic sees the world as unholy and corrupt, the orthodox sees it as benign, as blessed by God, as something to be sanctified through the law or through the imitation of Jesus and the saints. Whereas the gnostic sees human beings as innately good and society or the world as evil, the orthodox sees human beings as innately sinful and society and the world as natural and morally neutral. The orthodox obey the commandment to be fruitful and multiply, to marry, have children, and keep a home. In gnostic sexuality, by contrast, a woman might participate in an orgy, but it would be "obscene" if she became pregnant as a result.

Christianity, Kristol said, emerged out of a gnostic rebellion against Judaism. Christians rejected the Mosaic law and embraced Jesus as the messiah. But for Christianity to become successful, for it to last, for it to spread beyond the Eastern Mediterranean, the Church fathers had to manage the transition from gnostic movement to orthodox faith.

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It became a Christian doctrine, and it is crucial to any orthodoxy, since gnosticism says that no one knows who created the world — a demiurge or whatever — but that the world is certainly bad. Judeo-Christian orthodoxy, in Kristol's telling, held for centuries until the beginning of modernity. Like most scholars, he identified those beginnings in the Renaissance rediscovery of the ancients, and in the Reformation discovery of the individual conscience. As it developed, Kristol said, the early modern civilization of the West was "shot through with gnostic elements. The concept of original sin vanished from elite and then popular discourse.

Science and technology became endowed with extraordinary capabilities: Tasked with the mastery of nature for the relief of man's estate, the reputation of natural science expanded until it subsumed theology and philosophy and threatened the stature of religion itself.

The individual human life seemed to lack cosmic direction. Human beings became confused as to their ultimate purpose. It is religion that, traditionally, has supplied the answers to these questions. In our ever more secularized society, it is still religion that has supplied the answer to the second. It is becoming a kind of answer. Meanwhile, there arose a class of social scientists that believed the individual and society could be manipulated with the ease and skill with which natural scientists reshaped the physical world. The social scientists sought to perfect humanity in the same way that engineers perfected bridges and ro and aqueducts.

They can be summed up in one phrase: "Man makes himself. These are gnostic ideas; these are utopian ideas. It was out of the tumult of modernity, out of the clash between science and religion, between the gnostic and the orthodox, that capitalism and the Industrial Revolution were born.

But capitalism, too, soon came under assault by a gnostic movement: socialism. Capitalism was vulnerable to the attack. As a social system, it made only two promises: the gradual improvement of the material conditions of life through economic growth, and the maximum feasible amount of individual liberty. These were not lofty goals. Unlike the social systems that supported civilizations, capitalism did not offer to its members a noble ideal of existence, or a comprehensive guide to virtuous living against which human beings could judge themselves. It did not establish, as Kristol wrote in"those virtues which could only exist in a political community which is something other than a 'society.

The contours of all prior civilizations — their virtues, their values, and their codes of behavior — had been shaped by political or religious or cultural elites. All of these civilizations permitted some level of business, some degree of commerce, but not to the point where free enterprise became an independent center of power and the driving force behind public and private life.

That changed with capitalism. He continued:. Free commercial transactions not merely should take place, but should be permitted to shape the civilization as a whole. No society or civilization — and certainly no church, not even Judaism, which was very sympathetic to commercial transactions — had ever said that commercial transactions should shape the society. They believed rather that society should regulate and shape commercial transactions.

Under the capitalist dispensation, religious orthodoxy tempered the pursuit of individual self-interest and regulated the satisfaction of material appetites. Biblical faith had the same relation to capitalism as the Hebrew Bible had to the New Testament: It was the moral ground that anchored gnostic impulses to reality. The so-called "bourgeois values," Kristol said, maintained the balance between capitalist prosperity and religious tradition.

They told human beings how to live. But they were not that strong. The bourgeois values "had the immense advantage of being rather easily attainable by everyone. You didn't have to be a saint or a hero to be a good bourgeois citizen. This attainability itself was a problem, however: From the beginning of capitalist civilization, individuals have revolted against bourgeois morality, calling it limiting, mundane, boring, stifling, conformist.

But such an inner emigration included only a portion of the anti-capitalist rebels. Escapism could not satisfy the do-gooders, the world-improvers, the lifter-uppers, and the power-hungry. The socialist rebellion against bourgeois capitalism lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union in It was, in some sense, a two-front war. What the theoreticians of capitalism had not anticipated, Kristol said, was that the free market would slowly erode the very foundation of orthodoxy on which it rested. The new capitalist testament began to consume the old religious one.

Religious viewpoints, religious practices, and belief in an afterlife lost their hold over society. Attempts to ground morality on rational premises did not work. There is no such thing as a rationalist religion that gives you an authoritative moral code. If there were, you would have heard of it.

There are no rationalist ten commandments. Morality is derived from certain fundamental dogmatic truths, and I emphasize that word dogmatic. It is the function of a religion, in a society such as ours, to provide the dogmatic basis for those truths.

But the old dogmas were vanishing from the world. Men and women began to be more concerned with the here and now, with what could be gained and lost in this life, not in the next. Rising levels of affluence and education, generated by capitalist growth, empowered an increasing of people — poor people, middle-class people, rich people — to consume, to behave, and to think like the aristocratic rebels opposed to the bourgeois ethos.

Credit replaced savings as the dominant mode of popular finance. Buy now, pay later; carpe diem; let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die — these became the slogans of capitalist civilization. The consequences of this shift were to be far reaching and long lasting.

The transformation of capitalist society, Kristol noted in his essay "Adam Smith and the Spirit of Capitalism," also affected liberal-democratic politics. As the bourgeois mentality is forgotten, he wrote. The purpose of politics becomes the maximum gratification of desires and appetites, and the successful politician is one who panders most skillfully to this "revolution of rising expectations," a revolution which affluent capitalism itself generates and before which the politics of bourgeois democracy prostrates itself. The government is understood to be the only institution that can possibly meet such limitless wants:.

Inevitably, the democratic state becomes ever more powerful, and more willing to supersede the processes of the free market, as it strives to satisfy these inflated demands of both the economy and polity. Equally inevitably, since the demands are inflated, the democratic state fails in this effort, and it becomes possible for a great many people to think that a non-democratic state might do better. The quest for the immediate gratification of the population's desires in a more intrusive state, for it is assumed that collective action and bureaucratic coercion can accomplish the goals that mere individuals cannot.

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The question is: Will the state succeed?

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