George F. Kennan ’25: a severe, almost Calvinist, view of life
W.W. Norton
Contrarian views and stoic prescriptions from a venerable statesman...

Editor’s note: This story from 1993 contains dated language that is no longer used today. In the interest of keeping a historical record, it appears here as it was originally published.

March Fisher, The Washington Post’s bureau chief in Germany since 1989, returns this summer to Washington, where he plans to write a book on the aftermath of German reunification.

Around the Cragged Hill: A Personal and Political Philosophy

George F. Kennan ’25

W.W. Norton, $22.95

At eighty-eight, George Kennan, diplomat, historian, and political strategist, offers what he conceives as his last striving “before age, deaths twilight, Thy Soule rest.” That bit of John Donne comes from a passage portraying the stark finality of the latter days of life, a finality that has liberated Kennan from his congenital modesty, freeing him to spell out the beliefs and biases of a man who has seen the present and declared it lacking.

Kennan is a practical man. He eschews the abstract, in philosophy as in politics. He is a man of faith who nonetheless spurns religions that use coercion or appeal to the masses. Man, he says, is a cracked vessel, imperfectible and flawed by his sexual urge and his lust for authority.

Here is a bracing but reasoned antidote to modern society’s obsession with the pursuit of happiness. Kennan’s is a severe, almost Calvinist, view of life. A worthy life, he believes, is one of rigor and honesty, modesty and self-control. “A measure of tragedy is built into the very existence of the human individual,” he writes. “It is not to be overcome by even the most drastic human interventions.”

Kennan is at times scolding Mr. Manners, praising pretense as the protector of civilization and railing against video games, comic books, the automobile, television, and advertising and its domination of public communication. He frets about “the cult of the visual image in the place of thought.” He waxes nostalgic about the Victorians’ superior approach to resisting the “demons” of sexual and egoistic urges.
He is, at times, a crotchety old man. This is a volume without humor, a philosophy without lightness. But Kennan reveals himself to be a nineteenth-century man of considerable charm and elegance. His plain and rational defense of his esthetic preferences is refreshingly politically incorrect: he chooses to stick to male pronouns in generic usage. He elects to live apart from the CNN culture of immediacy. He makes an impassioned plea for the return of domestic service – not a program of young people working in hospitals and schools, but a restoration of the age of maids and butlers. There are, Kennan writes, people “for whom service in or around the home pretty well exhausts their capabilities for contributing to the successful functioning of a society.” Stick that in your egalitarian pipe.

Our country’s greatness is vanishing before our eyes, Kennan says. The concept of the melting pot, enshrined in history as a singularly American addition to the national idea, is highly overrate, Kennan believes. There’s nothing wrong with a little segregation in American society; it is, he says, the natural way of things. School-busing and other attempts at social leveling end “with leveling to the bottom, never to the top.” Kennan goes on in this vein, covering everything from computers (far from saving time, they only increase busywork) to consumerism (the “dreary and unimaginative” basis of Western society). He opposes the hegemony of growth as the goal of capitalist economies, rejects gene manipulation as interreference with nature, and abhors labor-saving technological advances as stealing jobs from those who need them most.

Kennan’s Luddite diatribes against technological and scientific “advances” are delightful. There is a righteousness – tempered by a fine Presbyterian reserve – about his writing that saves the book from turning overly pedantic. At times, however, Kennan can be wordy and stiff, and the book cries out for some examples of the lesson learned in such a long and productive life.

But it is toward the end of Kennan’s last stand atop the cragged hill that he provides the most surprising chapters. Having spelled out his personal philosophy almost in catalogue form, apologizing every step of the way for his presumption in doing so, Kennan turns to more comfortable ground – politics. He is supremely skeptical of politicians, whose driving forces he defines as the preservation of their own power and the creation of policy for the benefit of their own political factions.

And Kennan worries that the United States has allowed healthy patriotism to lapse into a pathological form of nationalism consisting of “flag-waving, the sententious oratory, the endless reminders of the country’s greatness, the pious incantations of the oath of allegiance, the hushed pseudo-religious atmosphere of national ceremony…the self-righteous intolerance toward those who decline to share in those various ritualistic enactments…and the fondness for seeing the country’s superiority made manifest and confirmed by military posture or, if possible, on the field of battle.”

To save the United States, Kennan prescribes a minimum of external involvements, a maximum of government-sponsored domestic reforms, and a package of new policies and practices, including the withdrawal of all American troops from Europe, a fresh emphasis on public transportation, and the creation of a council of elders who would advise the president on long-term problems.

Kennan portrays himself as a man without ideology. But he is a man who believes in strict standards and eternal verities. He does not pretend to live in the culture that surrounds him, and is grateful for his cloister – the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, where he has worked for many years. That separation, along with mental discipline and emotional distance, permit him to maintain the standards of bygone days. They are, however, bygone. Below Kennan’s cragged hill, the rest of us have to live in the world passed on to us.


This was originally published in the April 7, 1993 issue of PAW.