In the words of the English historian GM Trevelyan, curiosity was once considered “the lifeblood of real civilization”. Frank Buckley complains that “there is less curiosity today than before” and has written a new book, Curiosity and its twelve rules of life, to remedy the deficiency. If that mission seems far away to a legal scholar, Buckley defies the conventional stereotype of a law professor. In addition to his extensive academic work, Buckley is the executive editor of The American Spectator, a columnist for the New York Post, and served as an advocate and occasional speechwriter for the president many academics like to hate, Donald Trump.
Given his proven curiosity about a wide variety of different subjects, Buckley’s foray into curiosity is not surprising. He is a prolific writer and versatile scholar. While teaching at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School (since 1989), Buckley has authored numerous legal articles and books on a variety of subjects (including a couple I reviewed for Law & Liberty and elsewhere), starting with a technical review to the American legal system on rumination about the possibility of secession. Buckley was really eclectic, trained (and has dual citizenship) in Canada and the United States, helped directing George Mason’s legal and business program for over a decade, and taught at the Sorbonne.
His wide-ranging interests can be seen in Curiosity and Its Twelve Rules for Life, which sounds like a self-help book but isn’t. In fact, Buckley makes it clear right from the start that his book is not “Jordan Peterson’s twelve rules of life”. These were guidelines on how to survive in a bleak and cold climate and face life’s challenges. Buckley explains that his Twelve Rules of Curiosity, by contrast, “are for the more spirited and fun-loving people I met when I moved from Canada to the United States.” His book is not a “rule book” at all. The first “rule” he discusses is “don’t make rules”.
What exactly is the point of the book? After a year of pandemic isolation and four years of escalating (and increasingly toxic) obsession with partisan politics, Buckley wants us all to look past headlines, turmoil and social media messages to enjoy the “world of wonders” “Available to Our” Pleasure and Pleasure “when we simply open our eyes and allow our fantasies to explore. As a well-read and cultured (self-described) boomer, and with a younger audience in mind, Buckley serves as a tour guide into the world of wonders that the curious.” beckons.
Buckley takes the reader on a whirlwind (and necessarily abbreviated) survey on topics not common in basic education or popular media. The tour begins with the cover showing The Boyhood of Raleigh (1870) by John Everett Millais. Buckley is interested in art history and underscores his narrative with vignettes about Gothic architecture, Pre-Raphaelite painters, Hieronymus Bosch and Aubrey Beardsley. Buckley also has a fascination with Blaise Pascal, whom he describes as one of the “greatest thinkers of all time”. Pascal’s name appears in almost every chapter, along with – more rarely – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Immanuel Kant, Aristotle, John Stuart Mill and other philosophers.
But the book is not a dry treatise on philosophy – or art history. Buckley tells stories about the philosophers, including a recurring theme of Pascal’s defense of a strict Catholic sect called the Jansenites against the powerful Jesuits. Buckley is sometimes accused of being an Anglophile for loving parliamentary government. In Curiosity he shows an appreciation for the French intellectuals of the 20th century, especially the Pascal-influenced existentialist Albert Camus. Buckley admires Camus for Camus’ courage to break with collaborators during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II and to reject the fashionable communism of his intellectual comrades-in-arms (such as Jean-Paul Sartre) after the war. Buckley manages to get the anecdotes interesting, not in baseball. Curiosity is an old-fashioned liberal arts education in a nutshell – liberal arts for beginners.
Curiosity is structured as a series of life lessons (taking risks, insecurities in court, being original, showing grit, being creative, not being complacent, etc.) based on examples from Greek mythology, the Bible, and Catholic theology Illustrated Hebrew culture, literature, films, comedy, history (European, Canadian and American) and music. Buckley’s scholarly treatment of these subjects is vaguely reminiscent of William Bennett’s virtuous foundations of the 1990s, albeit for a more discerning college-age (or older) audience – fatherly advice for happy and fulfilling adulthood.
Thanks to Buckley’s extensive knowledge, there is something for everyone. A sketch by legal and economic pioneer Henry Manne, a reference to Oliver Wendell Holmes, and some Harvard Law School stories for legal readers; References to Frank Knight, the Austrian School, and John Maynard Keynes for dark science practitioners; Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, John Henry Newman, and Thomas à Kempis for Christians; and many recognizable figures in pop culture for the Philistines among us. The book is also not without the occasional political side.
How did we get so indecent? Buckley claims, “We have all staked our chips on hard ideologies that, by pretending to explain everything, teach us to ignore inconvenient counterexamples…. Curiosity, which used to be a liberal virtue, is becoming increasingly conservative as progressives bury themselves in a warped universe of risk-free lives, intersectional victims, and comic book-like villains. “Buckley explains:
In extreme cases, Trump haters and Trump lovers screech past each other like angry monkeys locked in a cage. But it’s mostly the angry progressives who are to blame. In 2020, they made curiosity about anything other than Black Lives Matter or the pandemic seem sinful. They tried to banish the risk and blame the risk taker for his negligence or toxic masculinity. They have fallen into false ideologies and bitter partisanships that enable them to ignore the harm inflicted on others. But it can’t last. As worthy as you may think, the causes of progressives will bore you in time unless you are entirely devoid of curiosity.
Buckley also has something to say about the state of higher education:
Nobody should be more curious than the boys, but they have been betrayed by America’s colleges where curiosity dies. Inquisitive people need the freedom to experiment with new ideas as one could try on new ties in front of a mirror. That will not happen when the alert police force is ready to deviate from their radical orthodoxy. The victim was armed and turned into an instrument of repression by the flint-eyed progressives on campus and their enablers of the college administrative staff.
Buckley is a skilled writer and his prose is alive and well. For example, he claims that “CNN and MSNBC viewers seem to have had their curiosity gene removed at birth, so repetitive is politics.” Curiosity is often funny and always a pleasure to read.
An entire generation has been marked by pandemic hysteria. Curiosity provides a tonic for the mental doldrums.
At the same time, Buckley soberly reflects on a serious issue that curious people shouldn’t be afraid of – the prospect of their own mortality. He explains: “The loss of religious awe and a transcendent vision of life and death have led to a mundane culture of minimalist concerns and politicized art and literature. Great art is made by people who are curious about what happens when life ends, or the purpose of being made of life when they think nothing works. “
Buckley dedicates the final chapters of the book to his final “rule” – one that aging boomers will soon encounter: Realize that you are knocking on Heaven’s door:
We’ve seen Facebook accounts go dark and old friends … walk the path of all flesh, and we’re beginning to realize the same thing is about to happen to us. When this thought hits us, we will think about the last four things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. I expect a curiosity about what happens after death and a new religious awakening. And that will be the last gift of my generation to the zeitgeist. After the sex and the drugs and the rock and roll, after experiencing every old vice and inventing a few new ones, there is only one thing left and that is a religious revival and a return to conventional morality.
Buckley ends the book with these poignant words:
Our culture challenges us to numb our curiosity about what to expect after death. Even when God made Eve curious, I think the inconspicuousness of modernity will ultimately prove unsatisfactory. We were created as curious beings and will always seek answers, especially to the most fundamental questions of our existence. And that’s why curiosity is particularly important.
Mortality can be a gloomy subject to ponder, but Buckley’s treatment ends on a hopeful note. The past year has been stressful and turbulent for many Americans. Strife, isolation, and fear took their toll on the human condition and resulted in many people becoming fearful, shy, and lonely. An entire generation has been marked by pandemic hysteria. Curiosity provides a tonic for the mental doldrums. As the perennial Buckley notes, “Now, curiosity matters more than ever. In 2020 we learned how much our health, happiness and sanity depend on it. There is only one way out of madness and that was for our curiosity to take us by the hand and guide us. “