Another busy, travel-heavy week, so I wasn’t able to post a proper obituary notice for John Lukacs, who passed away early this week at the age of 95. The first Lukacs book I read as an undergraduate way back in 1980 was The Passing of the Modern Age, followed shortly by 1945: Year Zero, and I was hooked. (Both of these books hold up extremely well after 40 years.)
Lukacs was a literary-philosophical historian akin to Herbert Butterfield or E.H. Carr, and thus unlike 99 percent of the writers and scholars who work in the field today. His works are always compelling and compulsively readable. He was my model, along with Paul Johnson, for how to do historical writing—a style I described once to Johnson and Lukacs as “analytical narrative.” They both liked the label.
Lukacs may be best known for his several books that have Churchill as their central focus, especially Churchill: Historian, Visionary, Statesman, which is one of the best short analytical books about Churchill. He was the historical adviser to the Darkest Hour film project, which was partly based on his terrific little book Five Days in London about that critical episode of the third week of Churchill’s premiership. But not to be missed is his book The Duel: The Hundred-Day War Between Churchill and Hitler, and The Last European War: 1939-1941. He also had a lot of interesting things to say about Tocqueville, and more than a few things that were arguably wrong. And he was perhaps more fond of George Kennan, whom he knew well, than he should have been.
I got to spend some time with Lukacs at a small Churchill conference at the University of Louisville about 20 years ago, and among the many interesting things about that encounter was something he told me and James Muller over dinner about David Irving, the infamous Holocaust-denier “historian.” Lukacs said that while we was working in the British archives on one of his books, he decided to check on a few of Irving’s footnotes sourced to original documentary material. Lukacs couldn’t find many key documents. This didn’t necessarily mean the documents did not exist, but Lukacs was strongly inclined to the view that Irving had simply fabricated some of his evidence. I always hoped that he might follow up on this and expose Irving.
The other surprise of that encounter was the discovery that for all of his very perceptive writing about Churchill, Lukacs had never read any of Churchill’s essays in Thoughts and Adventures, which were the subject of my talk at the conference. I told him, correctly, that he was in for a treat.
Likewise I missed a notice of the passing of Fr. James Schall, the long-time professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University. I did not know Fr. Schall especially well, but we exchanged letters on a few occasions, and one letter from him in particular back in the mid-1980s encouraged me to continue my graduate studies out at Claremont. At the time I wrote to him inquiring whether I might transfer to Georgetown to finish my Ph.D, he was uncertain about where the Georgetown government department might be headed, and advised me to stay put.
Much of Fr. Schall’s great work concerns the divide between—or potential synthesis of—reason and revelation, which makes him a successor of sorts to Thomas Aquinas—a comparison I know he would have disavowed. But you can grasp his profound understanding from just a single sentence of one of his books, Reason, Revelation, and the Foundations of Political Philosophy:
Political philosophy has come to be the first line of defense not merely of the limited city but also of a revelation that does not conceive its task to be one of building a city based implicitly on the denial of the norms of nature.
Back in the 1980s he was my go-to guy for how to think about the problem of “liberation theology,” which was all the rage on the left then. (I called it “Marxism with salsa.”) More recently he drew our attention to the content and significance of Pope Benedict XVI’s 2006 “Regensberg Lecture,” which inflamed the politically correct everywhere because of its criticism of Islam. This was to miss the depth of the Pope’s rich teaching about reason and science in that lecture. I especially like these two passages of Fr. Schall’s analysis:
A professorial pope will demand of his listeners a high level of careful reading and intelligent reflection to understand what he is about. He will be much more demanding on intellectuals, that usually proud and often touchy lot, than on ordinary people. The former, the scholars, cannot so easily avoid the implications of his arguments if the pope’s intellectual stature stands on the same natural grounds as theirs. Yes, as Aquinas showed, intelligence is not intended to obscure but clarify things, even for beginners and for those who have no intention of being philosophers. Well-ordered minds are their own delight.
And, from his analysis of the heart of the Regensberg Lecture:
Modern philosophy is seen in this lecture as a steady and gradual effort to eliminate any understanding of reason that would prevent man from doing whatever he wills. Hence modernity is seen as an effort to “dehellenize,” that is, to get rid of Greek thought and principles. This effort entails a discussion of the meaning of reason in modern science, and whether it is the only or prime understanding of reason. What Benedict finally suggests is that any kind of reason must be protected from a concept of voluntarism that would justify violence in the name of reason or God. Thus, this whole lecture is based on a sustained argument about reason.
You can see why Islamic extremists, and Western nihilists (aka, the media) were outraged.