Conor Cruise O’Brien, Irish intellectual and former visiting professor at Williams, has passed away. Did any readers study with O’Brien? My roommate reported that the class was excellent, if too large. Former Williams President Frank Oakley reflects on O’Brien’s work in this 1995 essay.

So, where does all of this put me along Conor Cruise O’Brien’s continuum of pessimism to optimism? What I have had to say should place me, I suppose, well towards the outer, pessimistic reaches. But I find myself reluctant to be located on that continuum at all. If I am well aware of the sorry historical record of setbacks and failures, I also cannot help taking heart from some of the successes. Despite the predictions of so many pundits that Portugal and Spain would be unable to make an effective transition to liberal democracy after the ending of the Salazar and Franco regimes, they succeeded in so doing. If so many tyrannical regimes have flourished in Africa, constitutionalist (if not necessarily liberal democratic) orders have survived in Botswana and Zimbabwe, and, against all forecasts, have made an unexpectedly successful start, at least, in South Africa. And, whatever its flaws, a parliamentary, constitutionalist order will soon be celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in the vast reaches of the Republic of India.

Rather than pessimism, I am left simply with a sense of the wisdom, in these matters, of modest expectations, of the importance of attending carefully to the nourishing of grass roots initiatives–the network of voluntary organizations, the collaborative efforts of state agencies with the non-profit–all of those undramatic, piecemeal activities which go to weave and strengthen the very fabric of civil society.

Modest expectations are rarely disappointed. Those interested in the history of thought behind civil society might start with The Great Melody, O’Brien’s masterful biography of Edmund Burke.

Condolences to all.

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