Essays on Our Endangered Republic
by Walter Karp; Franklin Square Press; 279 pages.
Walter Karp died three years ago this July after a brief illness at the age of fifty-five. His passing deprived this magazine’s readers of a fine series called “A Heritage Preserved,” in which he illuminated the nation’s great museums through an examination of the personalities of the men and women who built them. It also deprived this nation of one of the most dedicated defenders of its liberties.
It is in this latter capacity that he wrote most of the essays in this anthology—although, like George Orwell, he felt that everything he wrote was in some sense political, speaking as he did always to the genius of the individual in society, to the interests of the people as opposed to those of the state. He expressed his views with a conviction that could leave one feeling tepid, waffling, and insincere by comparison; yet keeping company with Walter made you proud to be a citizen of this Republic.
Something of his ardor and his eloquence can be seen in the following passage from an essay called “Reflections (After Watergate) on History.” During those closely attended hearings, he felt, Americans were not “a mere audience watching political ‘theatre’” but “active participants in grave affairs of state.”
“Whenever that occurs,” he writes, “the concept of history as something that happens to men evaporates like fog.
“The ancient view of history … arose with Herodotus after the Greeks created the polis and discovered, in the new freedom of the city, that men were not by nature mere creatures of habit and circumstance. They could come together and freely act together and by their common actions make things happen that otherwise would never have happened. They discovered in the new experience of political freedom that history is the story of men acting. It was not some murky Babylonian scheme of universal and invariant cycles, a conception suited for barbarians who, enchained by immemorial custom and lacking experience of freedom and action, could well believe that history was the result of superhuman forces. The Greek discovery, the ancient view of history, has been almost eclipsed in our time. Yet it is always being rediscovered through the same experience that led to its original discovery—the experience of being citizens, of participating in great affairs, of sharing, through our love of truth and justice, in the making of historic events. At such times we regain something of the ancient public virtue and understanding, and grasp anew the brave, ancient truth that history is the story, endlessly ramified, of the diverse deeds of many men.”