Though sadly forgotten by almost everyone today—with the exception of a few sociologists and other academics, here and there, and by a few conservatives and libertarians, here and there—Robert Nisbet once stood as a leading public intellectual, respected and admired in the media and throughout western universities. Even histories of conservatism and the right, such as George Nash’s magisterial The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, have generally ignored or underplayed Nisbet’s contributions to the post-war movement.
Yet just one example is needed to see just how vital he was to the conservative movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In late 1953, after the publication of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind and Nisbet’s The Quest for Community, an executive at General Motors, Jay Gordon Hall, contacted Kirk for the first time. Did he know of a wonderful book by a California scholar, Robert Nisbet? As it turned out, Kirk and Nisbet had already corresponded and developed a deep respect for one another, a respect that would last until the death of each.
But Hall’s contact with Kirk turned out to be fortuitous, as it was Hall who would over the next half decade introduce Kirk and William F. Buckley to a politician emerging nationally out of Arizona, Barry Goldwater. Or, as Goldwater called Hall, “Sir Jay.” Further, Kirk sent copies of The Quest for Community to T.S. Eliot (who wanted the book for his firm, Faber and Faber), Leonard Read of the Foundation for Economic Education, W.T. Couch of Collier’s Encyclopedia, and B.E. Hutchinson, board chairman of Chrysler.
In return, it was Nisbet who (mostly) secured a Guggenheim Fellowship for Kirk in 1954. His praise of Kirk is worth noting at length:
I do not have to tell you of the extremely high regard in which I hold your judgment on all philosophical and humanistic matters. For that reason, I take understandable pride in a book [Quest for Community] that receives the high measure of your praise. I have been delighted by several of the reviews my book has received but by none so much as your own. Yours is certainly the most authoritative view of the book that could be written by a living American and you have written it with all of your habitual insight and sparkling eloquence.
It was not just Kirk’s mind, however, that Nisbet admired so much. He felt that no single writer in the English-speaking world possessed the love and understanding of language more than did Kirk.
Never content with the state of the world and desirous of reforming it through his own writings, Nisbet wrote and edited over 20 critically-acclaimed books and dozens and dozens of articles, essays, and book reviews. He also wrote a number of broad essays for outlets as diverse as the Wall Street Journal, Commentary, and Harper’s. He spent his professional career at the University of California campuses at Berkeley and Riverside, the University of Arizona, and retired at Columbia University. He held prestigious academic chairs and even gave the 1988 Jefferson Lecture, a prize sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities that has honored such luminaries as Robert Penn Warren, Forrest McDonald, Walker Percy, Tom Wolfe, and Wendell Berry. The lecture eventually became one of Nisbet’s most popular and penetrating books, The Present Age (now published by Liberty Fund).
While always careful in his scholarship, Nisbet could write with an acid-tipped pen, especially when dealing with controversies of the moment. His most interesting non-academic work was certainly the aptly-named Prejudices (1982), which offered thoughtful essays on everything from abortion to corruption to individualism to snobbism. Profoundly and traditionally conservative in the most appropriate sense of that word in an ideological word, Nisbet’s iconoclastic views came out most stridently in his public writings. In these many essays, for example, he feared the Soviet Union as much as he feared Christian televangelists. One corroded us from the outside, the other, he feared, from within.
Though it is never exactly clear when, Nisbet came to embrace a rather Burkean view of the world, especially as he cast his eyes over Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and Communist China. “Insight into the nature of the totalitarian mind, complete with its passion for centralization and uniformity, for rationalist extirpation of tradition and prejudgment, and for an absolute moralism that would extend when necessary to terror was not so easily come by in the late 18th Century,” he gushed. “We owe Burke much for this first insight.” Further, Nisbet noted, “few minds of stature have ever given more brilliant witness to rights, liberties and equities in the affairs of government” as had Burke.
Liberally educated and a proponent throughout his life of the great western conversation from Socrates to the present, Nisbet advanced three significant ideas in his writings.
First, a specialist in the establishment and history of social institutions, Nisbet is best remembered as a sociologist. Far from the cut-and-dried sociology rampant for so long in the 1970s and 1980s, Nisbet looked at the nearly uncountable and unaccountable nuances in social norms and mores, universal in communities but uniquely manifested in each individual community. In his work, he anticipated almost every aspect of the current communitarian movement in sociology and religious studies and the neo-republicanism of present-day philosophers.
Second, a historian of ideas, Nisbet traced the nearly untraceable influence of one thinker or another on thinkers of later generations. In several of his works, as had Kirk, Nisbet evaluated Socratic and Greek notions as remade and re-manifested in later western civilizations, taking into account the roles of societies as well as individuals, from Xenophanes to Cicero to Sir Thomas More to Herbert Spencer to Winston Churchill. In his own intellectual histories, Nisbet considered ideas of war, progress, ethics, and economics as central controversies and questions worth asking about the reasons for and against human flourishing.
Finally, it would be difficult to find any scholar in the 20th century who better analyzed and deconstructed the modern nation-state. In his many works, Nisbet employed the scholarship and ideas of many 19th-century (especially Alexis de Tocqueville) and early 20th-century thinkers (such as Christopher Dawson) to see the modern nation-state as something unique in history. Though it had antecedents in the god-kings of the ancient world, the modern nation-state does away with all pretense and exerts extraordinary control over its citizens in the workplace, the schoolroom, and the bedroom. Armed with media technology as well as the most advanced weaponry known in human history, the modern nation-state manifests itself in every aspect of a person’s life, utterly annihilating private spheres. Although Nisbet—a World War II veteran and sometime philosophical anarchist—despised this aspect of modern history, he also could examine it with a cold and scholarly eye.
Since his death, of course, the American state at home and abroad has metastasized. What Nisbet feared as the totalist state has become not only the reality, but perhaps the certainty. His voice was the voice of the prophet as well as the poet. Let us hope it was not the last such voice.
Bradley J. Birzer is the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies at Hillsdale College and author of the biography Russell Kirk: American Conservative .