Ian Crowe
Director, Edmund Burke Society of America

Recognition of Peter Stanlis

 The Contested Roots of American Liberty
Regional Meeting of the Philadelphia Society
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
October 14, 2006

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I find it impossible to countenance summarizing Peter Stanlis’s contribution to Burke studies—let alone to scholarship more broadly—in under ten minutes.  Let me, therefore, do what every self-respecting Brit does in such a situation, and move the goalposts.  In keeping with the theme of this conference, I am creating a subdivision of the Edmund Burke Society of America, the “British-American Burke Project,” in order to focus upon one central facet of Peter’s distinguished career.  That is, his contribution to fostering a special relationship between the republics of letters in the United States, and in Great Britain and the Commonwealth of Nations. 

Peter’s teaching career began at the moment when a parallel, political “special relationship” stood triumphantly over an alien, militant ideology.  Today, two militant ideologies later, that “fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples” is stretched to its limit, its intellectual elites in confusion, or outright rebellion.  It appears that, “Out of this flower safety, we have plucked this nettle, danger.”  Peter, meanwhile, having energized Burke studies through the publication of Edmund Burke and the Natural Law in 1958 (and more than twenty scholarly publications on Burke thereafter) is about to launch a similar revolution in scholarship on Robert Frost.  His forthcoming study promises to be the capstone of an intellectual career extraordinary for its energy and consistency; but it also promises, when considered with his Burkean legacy, to serve as a timely reminder that the strength of our special relationship depends upon resources that are not only political or military but also imaginative, poetic. 

Ten years ago, I subscribed, body, heart and mind, to that anti-Americanism described recently by David Cameron: “a complacent cowardice born of resentment of success and a desire for the world’s problems simply to go away.”  Peter shattered my Anglocentric complacency in two ways.  First, he arranged for someone else to pay for my first visit to the States.  Second, he sent to me for inclusion in a publication I was compiling, an essay on “Edmund Burke and British Views of the American Revolution”: it is a piece that struck me as one of the most concise and penetrating comments on Burke’s astonishing, positive vision for the future of the empire to which he was committed. 

Since then, I have come to admire Peter’s enormous contribution to explicating that special “friendship and mutual understanding between our vast but kindred systems of society.”  And, given the difficulties our political elites have found in doing likewise, perhaps I can best account for his achievement here by pursuing an implicit parallel.  For which I turn to what will be a familiar passage from Sir Edward Coke’s Institutes of the Laws of England, in which that great lawyer likens the ideal properties of a counselor or statesman to three attributes of an elephant:  “that he hath no gall…: that he is of a most ripe and perfect memory…: that he is inflexible, and cannot bow:….” 

Men without gall, Coke explains, “though they be maximae virtutis et maximi intellectus…yet they are sociable, and goe in companies.”  The model academic is content in the seclusion of his study, but also at home arguing in the conference room, since he knows that these are integral parts of one process of enlightenment.  Peter can stalk his prey relentlessly, but his weapons are always the close reading and scholarship of intense reflection, and his vision of intellectual engagement is a splendid, fruitful compound of courtesy and incisiveness—I think of the words of Lord Shaftesbury here: “We polish one another, and rub off our Corners and rough Sides by a sort of amicable Collision.”  This is the vision that has driven the “Burke industry” to which Peter has made such a vital and diverse contribution. It is evident in print, with the extraordinary achievement of the Burke Newsletter and Studies in Burke and His Time; with that invaluable research tool, Edmund Burke: A Bibliography of Secondary Studies, which he edited with Clara Gandy; and with Burke: Selected Writings and Speeches, still without doubt the best anthology available: and it is evident in practice, in the host of societies to which he has contributed and, of course, the numerous seminars and colloquia he has organized over the years. 

Second, the elephant is “of a ripe memory, that remembering perils past, might prevent dangers to come.”  Peter’s prodigious powers of recall were one of the qualities that brought him to the attention of Robert Frost; but in his writings that diverse material is ordered by a poetic imagination to produce works remarkable for their true interdisciplinary quality, and therefore for their enduring vitality.  In this way, Peter’s pioneering study of Edmund Burke and the Natural Law (recently re-reissued!) turns us from secularized interpretations of Burke’s statesmanship to a more authentic apprehension of the politics of the eighteenth century, and to a recovery of that discourse for our own times. He shows us where Burke’s thought “begins to be ulterior…where it carries you on somewhere…”  So, for example, the concept of empire under a moral natural law emerges not just as a flat rhetorical device in the short-term maneuverings of Burke’s “party” or faltering career, but as a vibrant intellectual foundation for Burke’s astonishingly ambitious—both compelling and unattainable—conception of what R.B. McDowell has called a “generous and just imperialism.” It is surely only within this elevated imaginative framework that the Special Relationship can function as a means of creative, ordered and critical dialogue between our countries. 

Finally, our elephant is “not to be bowed, or turned from the right, either for fear, reward, or favour…”  It was Peter’s lot to be accused of applying his research to the cause of politics (as if that were an act otherwise unheard of in the Academy) and of bending Burke to the cause of Christian, and particularly Catholic, anti-Communism.  It is a prosaic charge at best, betraying an utter failure to grasp the complexity of Peter’s understanding of his subject.  Peter has reminded us, drawing upon those central concepts of natural law and moral prudence, that Burke’s awareness of the dangers of what he confronted as “metaphysics” is relevant in facing the challenge of what we know today, mutatis mutandis, as “ideology.”  

And just as metaphysics was, then, the enemy of moral prudence, so ideology now contends against all that is truly poetic in our world.  Indeed, the flat imaginations and hollow rhetoric of today appear to have reduced “prudence” merely to the excuse of a people who can no longer be troubled with taking sides.  Yet the fight is never completely lost: and as Peter knows, while Burke, in his later years let slip one fatalistic sentiment (of which some have made much), he was more true to himself when he urged, in the dark days of the conflict with Revolutionary France, that “The heart of the citizen is a perennial spring of energy to the state….The public must never be regarded as incurable.”  In which case, it’s high time for that study of Robert Frost to open up another long-awaited second front. 

Frost was not for confounding politics and poetics, and I doubt Peter is straining to join hands with that new British Frankenbunny, the “liberal conservative.”  But Peter’s distinguished, imaginative service to the republic of letters carries with it the wisdom necessary to strengthen our special relationship in its various manifestations.  Louis Bredvold once wrote: “The idea that scholarly research may be one way of attaining to ripe wisdom is nowadays too rarely entertained; wisdom is not a concept that our contemporary philosophers spend much time in analyzing or defining…And yet our dynamic world probably stands far more in need of wisdom than further discovery.” 

Thank you, Peter, for your industry over the years in the cause of true wisdom.