A Legacy of Temperament

Roger Kimball, "A Legacy of Temperament," National Review, June 6, 2011. (A review of The Neoconservative Persuasion by Irving Kristol.)


An honest man, said the poet William Blake, may change his opinions, but not his principles. Irving Kristol, who died in September 2009 just shy of 90, embarked on intellectual life at City College in New York as a Trotskyist. Long before he emerged as “the godfather of neoconservatism” (no one knows who the father was), he had shed that youthful flirtation with neo-Marxism and, with it, had shed a lot of opinions about . . . well, about everything from what counted as great art to what counted as sound social policy. But the evidence of this posthumous collection of essays, which span nearly 70 years and touch upon a galaxy of topics, suggests that his principles remained constant.

What were those principles? They are, I think, easier to adumbrate than define and depend as much upon temperament or — if I may use an old-fashioned term — character as upon rules or commandments. In his foreword to this volume, Kristol’s son William minutes the essential ingredients: “confidence without arrogance; worldly wisdom along with intellectual curiosity; a wry wit and a kindly disposition; and a clear-eyed realism about the world along with a great generosity of spirit.” Bill first enumerated that list of virtues, each amplified by the presence of its contrary, at the funeral for his father; those who did not know Irving Kristol personally might be forgiven for thinking they amount to the usual idealized catalogue eulogists bestow upon the lately dead. But anyone who knew Irving will instantly recognize the truth of this inventory. Irving’s personality, like his writing, exhibited a fetching combination of geniality and perspicacity: common sense and uncommon insight, unfailingly delivered with a twinkle that somehow did not compromise seriousness.

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