Will’s Testament

The Pursuit of Virtue and Other Tory Notions.
by George F. Will.
Simon & Schuster. 397 pp. $16.50.

This is the second collection of his columns George Will has published; the first, brought out in 1978, bore the title, The Pursuit of Happiness and Other Sobering Thoughts. Included here are roughly a quarter of the 500 newspaper and Newsweek pieces Will has written in the past four years. Rereading them, one is reminded of the many qualities in Will’s writing that make it interesting and enjoyable, whatever one may think of his conservative politics, and which for that reason have helped make him one of the most widely read and quoted columnists today.

Will can be very funny, and can also poke fun at himself. His much-praised wit is only the most noticeable feature of his precise and elegant style. His sentences respect important logical distinctions (such as that between “that” and “which”). He is fond of semicolons and parentheses; metaphor (John Wayne’s walk is “the heavy heaving of a barge on a rolling ocean swell”) and simile (presidential campaigns “involve candidates bouncing around the continent like popcorn in a skillet”). The rhetorical devices of repetition, antithesis, and juxtaposition make frequent appearances in his columns. As for epigrams, when Will is not quoting someone else’s (his mind must be a bin of quotations), he is composing one of his own.

Of all the syndicated columnists, perhaps only William F. Buckley has a stylistic signature so immediately recognizable. And no columnist writes on such a variety of subjects—including the oft-neglected topic of American mores. Will devotes whole columns to life in cities other than Washington and New York (Cleveland, Denver, Los Angeles); to life in a particular state (“Nebraska: The Fairest of Girls, The Squarest Boys”); to life on the baseball diamond, such as it is (“The Chicago Cubs and the Decline of the West”). Other pieces in this volume concern camping in the mountains, raising children, and turning forty—subjects off the beaten path of news and issues.



But this collection is notable for more than Will’s abilities as a writer. Taken whole, it offers an opportunity to reflect on the idea summed up by the archaic phrase in the book’s title—the pursuit of virtue. In his introduction to this book Will writes that “a society that dedicates itself to the pursuit of happiness had better dedicate itself, including its government, to the pursuit of the virtues indispensable to ordered liberty.” What these virtues are, and how America is lacking in them, are the constant themes of almost all of Will’s columns.

Thus, for Will, the self-described conservative, free enterprise must not be all that free. Capitalism, whose energies he praises, should be constrained by government regulation, and also by people of character. The marks of character are honesty, respect for others, and a recognition that the public good is not produced by “the unfettered pursuit of private goals.”

For Will, capitalism does not teach these virtues: in fact it tends to undermine them by encouraging notions of “expansiveness” and “possibility.” It is, rather, the proper goal of education to inculcate these virtues; Will cites Aristotle to the effect that “the aim of education is to get the student to like and dislike what he ought.” But much contemporary education, in Will’s view, fails to do this. Furthermore, much education suggests that all ways of living are morally equal. For Will, a society unwilling to believe that some ways of life are more important than others may not be able to sustain itself.

For example, a society, if it is to endure, must believe in raising children—“the world’s most important business”—and in transmitting to the next generation “the essential tools and graces of life.” These are indispensable virtues for Will, and stand in contrast to modern ideas of homosexual marriage and other “sexual lifestyles.” Transmitting civilization requires people who know their own minds; for this reason Will admires (and writes columns about) the Mormons, John Bunyan, Pope John Paul II, Solzhenitsyn, and Sir Thomas More.

A society that wishes to endure must also believe in its own worth, and be ready if necessary to take steps to preserve itself. It must exhibit a capacity for “strenuous, protracted action in foreign policy.” It will not be eager, as Will judges America to be, to delude itself about the world. Especially will it not delude itself with the idea that Soviet leaders share our intentions and essential views.

Because a democratic society presupposes virtuous citizens, virtue, in Will’s view, should be nurtured. He applauds people with moral and social imagination who can perform deeds of grace and goodness for others—people like the Little Brothers of the Poor (a Catholic lay group) in Chicago. But private platoons like the Little Brothers cannot do the whole job; government, too, must nourish virtue, not just “soybeans.” Will supports a strong government, able to shape society toward certain ends. In his judgment government today does shape society, but usually only by bending to society’s pursuits of pleasure and notions of legal entitlement. For Will, the banner of “freedom of choice” has come to justify such essentially destructive phenomena as legalized gambling and widespread pornography, both subversive of community standards of virtue.

In public life, Will insists on the need for virtues like “the ability to lead, and the ability to formulate and administer policies that address the great issues of the day.” Such virtues are not as valued by the body politic as “private virtues” like sincerity and earnestness—Jimmy Carter’s specialties. But for Will the political vocation is an admirable one, itself a school of virtue and a virtuous pursuit, if one too often corrupted today by politicians who pander to their constituents and conduct politics according to the polls.



This, then, is the essential Will as disclosed by his new collection of columns. As with all columnists, one will find areas of disagreement. For example, I am not sure legalized gambling is a sign of the decline of the West, and I believe that Will underrates capitalism. It will not save any souls, but it can help foster minimal civic virtues like honesty, diligence, and keeping one’s word. Of greater danger today is education: in my experience, far more people have been ruined by college than by commerce. Moreover, although Will sometimes seems to suggest otherwise, virtue has not really lost all its appeal for Americans. A society that can bestow an Academy Award on Chariots of Fire, a movie about moral and spiritual aspiration (which Will praised in a December 1981 column), must still retain a degree of health.

But if Will sometimes overdraws his criticisms, he is right, on balance, to be preoccupied with virtue. The nation was conceived in liberty, but the Founding Fathers also preached the importance of virtue. Indeed, the story of America can fairly be written in terms of the rise of liberty and the fall of virtue, a rise and fall that have been most evident in this century. Today, for the first time in American political history, the leadership of a major political party (the Democratic party) seems to show little interest in the questions of virtue that rightly concern Will, while many Americans—perhaps a majority—are meanwhile inclined to laugh at the very mention of the word. On a Washington television station in late March, Will was interviewed by a talk-show host who, having got to the word “virtue” in the book’s title, broke out in laughter, as though Will were from outer space (not Illinois, where, as Will writes in one of the columns, “virtue is valued and I am from”).

The central issue facing the nation is one Will himself suggests in a column in this collection: whether, “a century from now, philosophers and historians will study the trajectory of the United States in the second half of this century as the most striking instance of national decline since that of Spain, centuries ago.” If that decline is finally arrested, it will be through an infusion of the virtue, and the virtues, so ably celebrated by George Will.

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