In 1968, Modern Age published an unusual essay by Frank Meyer. He was the literary editor and a regular columnist for National Review, where he developed a theory of conservatism that his friend—yet philosophical critic—Brent Bozell christened “fusionism.” That was the topic of Meyer’s essay in Modern Age a half century ago as well. But that essay, “Western Civilization: The Problem of Political Freedom” (vol. 12, no. 2), was something more than an attempt to show conservatives and libertarians that they shared a heritage of thought. It was a summation of Meyer’s understanding of our civilization’s origins and development—of the source from which the philosophy and practice of freedom flowed. The mind of Eric Voegelin could be discerned behind Meyer’s lines, but Meyer had added to what he acquired from Voegelin new turns all his own. Presaging his conversion to the Catholic Church shortly before his death in 1972, Meyer located the turning point in Western civilization in the Incarnation, the Word made flesh, a symbol, and more than a symbol, of truth and human freedom united.

One of our essays this issue revisits Meyer’s essay, not to gainsay it, but to commend to conservatives (and virtue-minded libertarians) a further dimension to be added to our understanding, drawn from the work of the French Catholic philosopher René Girard. Donald Devine knew Meyer and was one of the first to join him in expounding fusionism—now he is the last of Meyer’s earliest allies. Yet he has not let his understanding of a conservative-libertarian synthesis calcify and now takes to our pages to urge upon later generations an inquiry into humanity’s deep prehistory as the original crucible of liberty and order. Too much of what the West has long taken to be natural or inevitable, Devine argues (following Girard), is in fact a product of the most ancient religious development. The state and even the family itself arise only because ritual remade our formerly bestial existence. And if we are not to return to that almost prehuman condition, the advocates of liberty must understand what they have to conserve.

(Girard’s key books, in Devine’s estimation, are Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, translated by Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer and published by Stanford University Press, and The Scapegoat, translated by Yvonne Freccero and published by Johns Hopkins University Press.)

New understanding of old truths is at the heart of this issue of Modern Age. Pierre Manent, perhaps the wisest philosopher of Europe today, returns our attention to natural law’s foundations in our nature as human beings, with all the limits to our self-comprehension (no less than our actions) that that entails. In considering in detail another great French thinker’s conception of Europe—that of Rémi Brague—Paul Seaton casts into revealing relief the role of Christianity in the making of the West. Richard Reinsch then shifts our focus to America, looking for answers to the perennial question of what it means to have a tradition in a land as radically new as ours is thought to be.

But we begin this winter in the realm of practice, with two provocative essays on conservatism and law. Here, too, in the articles by Jesse Merriam and Mark Pulliam, what has been taken for granted is called back into question. Has the conservative legal movement succeeded, as its critics no less than its exponents contend? Is the predominant approach to law among libertarian scholars one with which conservatives can make common cause? The answer in both instances is no, according to our authors, who challenge conservative jurists to hold firm to their methods and principles in the face of temptation to claim greater success by minimizing the differences that matter. Not every conservative legal thinker may agree, but even those who part ways with Merriam and Pulliam will be the better for the shock they administer to complacency.

Modern Age is the work of generations, and that is especially true of this issue, which brings together essays commissioned by the late Peter Lawler and reviews by two of our honored alumni: Peter’s predecessor as editor, R. V. Young, and former poetry editor David Middleton. The spirit of this journal, as of the civilization we cherish, is ever one of creativity through continuity.

Daniel McCarthy is the editor in chief of Modern Age.

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