Since becoming familiar with the work of Frank S. Meyer, one of the greatest and most overlooked conservative-libertarian thinkers of the twentieth century, I’ve scoured the internet trying to find as much of his work as possible. Meyer was one of the original editors of William F. Buckley’s National Review back when it was a respectable intellectual journal and not the pop-conservative rag that it has become. He wrote a fortnightly column in the magazine’s early days titled Principles and Heresies. Unfortunately, I haven’t come across any easily and freely accessible National Review issues from the 60s and 70s. In addition to writing and editing several books (most of which are on my bookshelf at home), Meyer also contributed to Modern Age, The American Mercury, and a number of other conservative and libertarian publications.
Thus far, I have managed to find several of Meyer’s essays published in the lesser-known venues. Among them, is one titled “Conservatism and Crisis,” from the Winter 1962-1963 issue of Modern Age. In this essay, Meyer discusses one of the topics on which he spends the most time: the relationship between the individual, the State, and virtue.
Because Fr. Parry [a conservative who whom Meyer is responding] conceives freedom only as a by-product, not as a primary condition, of a good social order, does not understand the character of the sickness of our society: the displacement of freedom in behalf of what those with power think the good to be. It does not matter here that I would agree with Fr. Parry that their [the secular collectivist] concept of the good is disastrously wrong, totally out of accord with the constitution of being; the evidence of historical experience confirms what the founders of the Republic drew from the insight of the West: if the freedom of individual persons is not guaranteed by the arrangements of the political order, power always corrupts, even when the motives of those who use it to enforce their beliefs are beneficent. This is not to deny the necessity of devotion to virtue in the persons who make up a social order, and particularly in those who hold positions of influence in it if such an order is to survive. But to affirm the necessity of virtue as an end for men does not require a subordination of freedom. Rather, if individual persons, who are the only spiritually significant entities in the social order, are to achieve virtue, they must be free. The responsibility for recognizing the demands of virtue, articulating the modes of virtue, and inculcating the virtue cannot rest in any social organism, but only in individual persons. The coercive organs of society cannot establish or enforce virtue, since by its nature must be the free choice of persons. The attempt to enforce it by the power turns gold into dross….
The deep understanding that the Founders of our Republic derived from the essential Christian and Western recognition of the mutual independence of virtue and freedom, they made socially actual in the institutions and the ethos of the Republic. Fr. Parry rejects that high point in Western history; he maintains that to posit virtue as interdependent necessities of the social order, and to place the responsibility for virtue upon the individual, is to neglect “the problem of right social order and in doing so [to neglect] the central problem of civilizational crisis.” But this “spiritual individualism” is our tradition. It is the understanding that still remains in the hearts of the American people, inarticulate, instinctive perhaps, but firmly held. And it is to the articulation, the renewal, the development in contemporary conditions of their vision that the rising American conservative leadership is devoted….
It is not only from the collectivist riders of power abroad and at home that defeat can come. The tenuous tension between the claims of virtue and the claims of freedom can be upset as well by men who—although they hate tyranny and collectivism with a fierce hatred—blind themselves to the central truth of the West, that neither virtue nor freedom can be made the end in a social order at the expense of the other without spiritual disaster.