Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn might have been the world’s most fascinating man
There are thinkers who are so far to the left or right, they fall off the spectrum altogether. On the left, I put thinkers like Ralph Nader and Ivan Illich.
On the right, I put a thinker named Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, a man described as a “Walking Book of Knowledge,” who could read 25 languages. William F. Buckley described him as “the world’s most fascinating man.”
Now, Buckley was the godfather of modern conservatism, but a man isn’t fascinating if he just repeats his political tribe’s talking points. Show me a party soldier and I’ll show you a decidedly un-fascinating man.
But show me a man who’s a “conservative arch-liberal”? Now I’m listening.
And that’s how Kuehnelt-Leddihn described himself: a conservative arch-liberal.
Kuehnelt-Leddihn was an aristocratic Catholic monarchist from Austria. He was a member of the Knights of Malta, back in the days when you had to be “of noble birth” to qualify. He held a doctorate in political science from the University of Budapest.
He fled darkling continental Europe in the 1930s, settling in England and then the United States, where he taught at Georgetown, Fordham, and other schools. He returned to Europe after World War II, where he turned to world travel, lecturing, and lots and lots of writing. He was a journalist, historian, novelist, and essayist.
Of Our Time but Not of Our Time
Based on the years he lived, he’s our contemporary. He died in 1999.
But based on his mental world? It’s really hard to say, but he’s not our contemporary.
I might put him at 1910 . . . or maybe 1440, the year his Habsburgs took the Holy Roman Empire throne . . . or maybe 1806, the year the Empire was officially dissolved and the Habsburg’s incredible run came to a final end.
His mental world is far removed from ours, but he is, chronologically, our contemporary. He knew what was going on in the late twentieth century, but he observed the world from a perspective that is so alien to ours that . . . Well, it’s almost as though an actual alien (from outer space) was observing it.
Any reference to Kuehnelt-Leddihn being “conservative” or “liberal” is about as meaningful as labeling Montaigne, Dostoyevsky, or Nietzsche “conservative” or “liberal.” Sure, they might have been more or less one or the other, but, in the arena of Trump v. Biden or Woke v. Privilege? Such labels border on the inane.
The labels don’t fit because the times have shifted so much. Words fit into a cultural web. As the cultural web changes, the words take different meanings.
But that doesn’t mean Montaigne, Dostoyevsky, and Nietzsche have nothing to tell us about today.
And it doesn’t mean Kuehnelt-Leddihn doesn’t.
Physically, he lived and wrote in the twentieth century. Mentally (intellectually and emotionally) he lived hundreds of years earlier.
In other words, Kuehnelt-Leddihn’s mental cultural web was entirely different than the one he physically lived in, due to his aristocratic bent and shocking breadth of knowledge, but he nonetheless was forced to write within the twentieth century’s cultural web.
That, I believe, is what made him the world’s most fascinating man.
It’s also why I believe his observations ring a little louder than they would have if he had physically lived in previous centuries.
Six Kuehnelt-Leddihn (“KL”) Observations
“Fear and envy, needless to say, are twin brothers, yet we really should speak of triplets, because hate keeps them good company.”
KL is writing about the effects of inequality. Inequality is inevitable. It’s the human condition: some are stronger, some are prettier, some are wealthier, some get more respect.
Inequality breeds (either real or perceived) inferiority, which breeds unease, which is a type of fear. It also breeds envy. Fear and envy then interact with their third brother: hate.
Such is the dangerous reality of inequality: inevitable and dangerous.
“Bodies are mutually attracted by nearness, knowledge, and pleasure but souls by distance, mystery, and suffering.”
Such thinking could trend into Cartesian dualism, which undermines the sacramental nature of existence, but it’s always important to emphasize that the soul and body are not the same. They’re friends and allies in the war against the flesh and darkness, where the battles must be fought up close (bodily passions) and from a distance (one’s thoughts).
The Robotic Soul
“There is little doubt that atheism, agnosticism, and the denial of the other world are partially responsible for the rapid technological development which gave us, apart from exquisite instruments for mass destruction, various means to bridge time and space. . . Ortega y Gasset points out very adroitly the fact that the automobile is the very expression of our present acute feeling of mortality. . . If we were bodily immortal we would feel no need for technical gadgets saving time by conquering space.”
KL is right.
And it makes me uneasy. I love those time-saving gadgets. If a person with a strong sense of immortality feels no need for technical gadgets to save time by conquering space, what does that say about those of us who feel the need to save time with the gadgets?
The Reading Illiterates
“A reading-writing education as such has benefited nobody, has elated nobody spiritually or culturally. There is no need to go to the other extreme and to believe that the knowledge of the three R’s is basically destructive, but nothing is more stupid or unrealistic than to judge the level of other countries by the number of illiterates.”
It reminds me of a Dear Abby column years ago. A mother wrote, saying that she couldn’t get her children to read, until she came up with this novel approach: she turned off the volume on the TV and turned on close-captioning. The result: The children had to read in order to watch TV! Dear Abby was elated with the advice and passed it onto her readers.
Reading for the sake of reading is about as healthy as eating for the sake of eating. Eating of any sort is good as opposed to starving, and reading of any sort (even the close-captioned reading) is better than no reading, but a diet of potato chips and ice cream doesn’t benefit a person’s health in the long-run, just as a diet of Tweets and Pinterest captions doesn’t benefit a person’s mind in the long run.
Liberty and Safety
“Facing the choice of cash or liberty human beings will always choose the former because it spells safety.”
How else can you explain the popularity of the Social Security system? In the United States, citizens give up the liberty to dispose of a portion of their income (6.2 cents of every dollar) however they want, and in exchange, they are assured a modest retirement income.
If they were allowed to keep their money and invest it conservatively, the average person would get nearly $5,000 per month at retirement, which is more than double the maximum monthly Social Security benefit. But people don’t trust themselves, so they give up liberty now for security later.
This isn’t to say that social welfare programs are bad, but it is a point to keep in mind. Such programs are based on the fragile human mental condition rather than prudential economic reality.
Who’s Your Authority?
“Ochlocrats who never tire of accusing conservatives and Catholics of superstition, illogical traditionalism, and ‘unscientific’ procedure make an act of faith in the inner illumination of the individual and the infallibility of numerical majorities.”
Every person has an authority, a source of faith, which he or she accepts as guideposts in life. The arrogant man never questions whatever flits into his mind. The arrogantly religious woman never questions her interpretation of the Bible. The free marketer never questions Ayn Rand. The Soviet never questions Lenin. The modern never questions science.
The only difference with respect to authority is, are you aware you have one? If you’re conscious of it, you’re one step ahead of the rest.
I don’t want to mislead you: Kuehnelt-Leddihn isn’t easy to read. You will have to read him slowly and carefully, probably with your noise-canceling headphones fixed to your head.
But I think you’ll find his anachronistic perspectives refreshing, if at times puzzling.