Conor Cruise O’Brien, the Irish diplomat-journalist-scholar and one of the more astute writers of our time, lapses into spiteful diatribe in this collection of essays. Provoked by the position taken by the Vatican on abortion and contraception at the Cairo Conference on Population and Development in September 1994, O’Brien fears an orthodox Catholic and fundamentalist Islamic alliance for “the Repeal of the Enlightenment.” Moreover, he views this to be the objective of Pope John Paul II, about whom he proclaims, “I abhor him and hope to see the end of his pontificate—before the close of the millennium,” and for whom “hardly a day passes that I do not murmur to myself the prayer . . . ‘May his days be few and may another receive his Bishopric.'”

Pope-bashing is not the only theme of O’Brien’s essays, which contain insights regarding the addiction of democratic leaders to popularity, the inappropriateness of secular optimism, and the dangers and irrationality of politically correct multiculturalism. His animus toward the Pope, however, is central enough to require some explanation. It can in part be attributed to his Irish origins and personal history. The child of anticlerical parents (although of zealously Catholic maternal grandparents) who went through the formality of having him baptized but deliberately kept him from a Catholic education, O’Brien was never really in the bosom of the church. He came of age in a newly independent Ireland where Catholicism, although not formally established, was especially triumphalist. The institutions of state and society and the political constitution were formed in accord with a Catholic spirit of an untypical censorious and puritanical cast. In his early career as a member of the Irish Foreign Service, O’Brien, using a pseudonym, was one of the eloquent dissenters in a mid-20th century Ireland existing in self-righteous isolation.

As is well recounted in the new biography by D.H. Akenson, Conor (1994), O’Brien left the Irish diplomatic corps with an emphatic denunciation of the United Nations for catering to Western imperialist interests in the newly independent and troubled Congo. He subsequently served as Vice Chancellor of the University of Ghana, and then became a pillar of the New York left-wing intellectual elite while holding the Albert Schweitzer Chair in the Humanities at New York University. In 1969, he was elected to the Irish parliament as a member of the Irish Labour Party. O’Brien, as a politician and, subsequently, as an editor, a regular columnist, and a scholar, has been a constant critic of the Irish irredentist ideology that insists on the unification of the island as essential to the solution of the island’s problems.

O’Brien has long been interested in the 18th-century British—more accurately, Irish—statesman, Edmund Burke. He became involved in Burke studies as early as his “leftist” NYU days, when he edited the Penguin edition of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1968). In his lengthy and thoughtful introduction he went to great pains to distance Burke from his American revivalists, such as Russell Kirk, whom he accused of using Burke as a patron of Cold War ideology.

O’Brien’s continued fascination with Burke eventually brought him closer to those conservatives, as his highly acclaimed The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography of Edmund Burke (1992) suggests. By this time O’Brien was labeling the French Revolution as a child of the irreligious Voltairian and Encyclopedist Enlightenment and ancestor of the Bolshevik Revolution. He did not dismiss the Cold Warrior American Burkeans, and eloquently condemned the anti-religious zealotry and totalitarianism of the Rousseauist Jacobins. In the interlude, O’Brien had witnessed the forces of revolution close at hand in his own Ireland, which may well have tempered his perspective on many other issues in the world.

O’Brien continues to regard himself as a product of the more moderate Enlightenment—that of Locke and Hume—with its commitment to tolerance, reason, and the rule of law, which was best advanced by the English Whigs and the American revolutionaries. He regards the American Constitution as “the greatest institutional repository and transmitter of Enlightenment values.” But he also appreciates the importance of a Burkean pietas or “nimbus of awe” about the American Constitution, for without it there might be an “American nationalism that would be aware of nothing above itself.” He acknowledges that “religion and nationalism, which in other countries are always potential and often actual enemies of the Enlightenment, have in America been bound together with it.”

O’Brien’s commitment to the Enlightenment prompts his eloquent condemnation of politically correct multiculturalism, whose advocates call for the depreciation of the only culture they really know. While multiculturalism, poststructuralism, and deconstruction are elitist enthusiasms, O’Brien fears that if the elite “rejects or thinks it is rejecting the whole of Western culture, then the chances of the survival of the Enlightenment tradition are thereby significantly reduced proportionately.”

O’Brien has apocalyptic apprehensions about the Third World, where he suspects that rising criminal elites amid the impoverished masses could ultimately have the technical sophistication to wreak havoc within the West by the instruments of terrorism. In addition, he notes the possibility of engulfment of the West by mass immigration from the Third World, seeing the refusal to admit these problems, and the attempt to disguise efforts at dealing with them by platitudinous terms like Operation Restore Democracy, as a sort of “cognitive degeneration”; as part of a collective madness threatening “the privileged inhabitants of an overcrowded planet,” whose “suppressed guilt” is resulting in “a collective denial of reality.”

Other Burkeans, less infected than O’Brien with bad memories of religion though as committed as he to the moderate Anglo-American Enlightenment, are more appreciative of the pre-Enlightenment Judeo-Christian heritage which provided the premises concerning the nature of man upon which the Enlightenment was structured. Furthermore, having a Christian vision, they do not share O’Brien’s pessimism. Rather than a resigned acceptance of future barbarian horrors, they regard as more appropriate the approach of the Pope in reaching out to the Third World and bringing to it the word of human dignity and salvation. thus emulating his predecessors in the besieged Roman Empire who brought civilization to the barbarian peoples, which later became Christendom.


[On the Eve of the Millennium, by Conor Cruise O’Brien (New York: The Free Press) 166 pp., $12.00]