This book presents essays written by George Panichas, which initially appeared from 1962 to 1980. Panichas’s essays take the measure of a generation. What is their verdict?

It is not a happy one. Panichas finds modern conditions to be those defined by technology and Benthamism, by empiricism and quantification, and everywhere “humanistic values . . . have come under threat and attack.” Panichas urges his readers “to challenge and to resist precisely those habits of mind that lead to the ascendancy of quantifying criteria at all levels of life and letters.” It is Panichas’s unceasing effort to unveil the “habits of mind” that define modern existence and to locate the roots of our language, culture, and society at large.

Panichas wants to maintain—or, better, to reestablish—”the character of criticism,” by which he means, specifically, the moral dimensions of criticism. “The need to foment and instill critical leadership is a moral need,” one based upon “the deeper meaning of life as judgment, as conduct, as character.” The character traits required for any criticism worthy of the name are moral attributes, then, and their possession by a critic signals to Panichas that critic’s awareness of his responsibilities. “Authentic fulfillment of critical responsibility demands a rigorous commitment to principles of order, to the making of hard choices and categorical decisions, to the selection and espousal not merely of aesthetic, literary, or linguistic values but of ethical and moral derivatives—and imperatives.” Panichas’s ideal critic understands “the necessities of courage and judgment.” “

Lacking the courage of judgment,” Panichas observes, some “have forcibly reconciled themselves to . . . new conditions, even as they express serious reservations concerning the changes that are swiftly, furiously occurring. Others have enthusiastically enlisted in the ranks of those who herald the new Logos, insofar as they refuse to accept (even to understand) the role of moral imperatives in imagination, in criticism, in thought, and in culture and society as a whole.” In such an atmosphere of disorientation and disintegration of the moral sense, the “humane element in criticism, with its overarching verities, thus becomes still another victim of a continuing fragmentation. Identifying character as a centripetal element of the critical function becomes an utter impossibility.” To try to account for our critical failures by saying that they result from our growing moral relativism or moral neutrality is to say next to nothing, for these labels are merely a diagnosis, whereas we want an etiology and a cure.

Panichas accounts for our neglect of moral necessities by pointing to “the decline or even the disappearance of the humanistic tradition.”

The ethos of this tradition is centrally and singularly ethical and moral, stressing as it does the sanctity of human worth. In effect the humanistic ethos validates, qualitatively, man’s destiny and resists relentless attempts to technicalize, to objectify, and to dehumanize man’s significance and, indeed, his essentially spiritual being.

This is not an endorsement of secular humanism; that alternative, says Panichas, remains a “critical humanism without a metaphysical basis,” one that accordingly “remains incomplete, ineffectual. It fails, in short, as a totality of spiritual value.” The confrontation between the new Logos and the old Logos Panichas sees as one between “the twin tyranny of the secular and the material,” and the “permanent things, as transcendent and metaphysical constituents of humanism.” As Eliot observed in “Second Thoughts About Humanism” (1929): “There is no avoiding that dilemma: you must be either a naturalist or a supernaturalist.” Panichas casts his lot with the latter, with the Word. And, having done so, he sees in the modern conditions of criticism an exemplification of the conditions of modern existence. “As such, the crisis of criticism is related to the continuing crisis of faith, which in turn leads to the crisis of humanistic civilization.”

That we are out of touch with those virtues of prudence and justice that Sam Johnson says are “of all times and of all places,” no one can deny. But have “we” ever been in possession of these “permanent things,” these “overarching verities” or “transcendent values,” as Panichas calls them? On various scattered occasions, undoubtedly some individuals and small groups—saints, heroes, and poets—have. But as a society or as a nation? I think not. Rather, I believe that no “golden age” of adherence to these values can be found, because the humanistic tradition itself does not imagine its values to be historically fulfilled. Its vision, instead, depends upon our keeping before ourselves these “verities” as constitutive human ideals, as models of what it is to be truly or fully human. That we rarely achieve them in fact is less important than whether or not we continue to aspire to their achievement. But, at the moment, it seems that we no longer so aspire.

It is this lack of aspiration that Panichas confronts in this book. “Criticism is by its very nature confrontation—confrontation that ultimately rests on The Courage of Judgment.” Panichas enacts this confrontational strategy in his writing by placing his courageous judgments in our way, making our continued or habitual following of certain ways of thinking (and of seeing, of judging) an effort, something that we no longer can do thoughtlessly or heedlessly. By making himself an obstacle to our habituated forms of thought, he means to provoke us into summoning up our courage and exercising our perhaps atrophied capacity to judge for ourselves.

Whether he is consistently successful in this attempt, I am not certain. The role of provocateur can become confining, and the voice of the moralist deafening, or deadening. Still, Panichas is right to insist that “a combative dissenting criticism is especially needed in a time when critical standards and cultural values are under heavy attack, when change and innovation are upon us everywhere. If a critic can do nothing but warn of lost bearings and wrong directions, while at the same time instancing the moral infirmities of any human situation in which rights replace obligations, he is fulfilling his function.” I would add only that the critic must also be alive to those aspects of modern thought that have made it both viable and attractive. The sensitive and sensible critic must acknowledge that part of himself that is attracted to modernism, to the advantages and powers it offers him. There are reasons that this tradition has survived and achieved ascendancy. The critic alive to this struggle within himself will find, as Panichas himself says, that “his critical reports are reports about the struggle that rages in the world—and in himself” Such reports, if they assess candidly both sides of this struggle, may truly offer us—as Panichas so often does in this book—something that we can care about.



[The Courage of Judgment: Essays in Criticism, Culture, and Society, by George A. Panichas (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press) $24.50]