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Joseph Sobran


Jack Fowler of NRO reports the passing of Joe Sobran - a brilliant, big-hearted, eccentric and somewhat unpredictable Catholic thinker. Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him.

Our former NR colleague, Joe Sobran, passed away today after a long battle with a variety of ailments. He was relatively young, just 64, and while physically beaten at the end, he also departed spiritually triumphant.

Surely, in short order, there will be ample reflection — much of it critical — on the hyper-talented, hyper-controversial writer. There will be a recounting of his history at NR, the break, the following years, and Joe’s soured relationship with WFB (happily, they rekindled their friendship before Bill passed away). Good, let’s discuss all that, and more. But later. Right now, let us, if only for a minute, pray for the repose of his soul, to hope: That he abides now with his old boss, and they together with our Creator. For the peace that proved so elusive in this lifetime, Joe, may you now have it.

Comments (26)

My exposure to Sobran's writing was, I thought, through his articles in The American Spectator. Later I thoroughly enjoyed reading his book, Alias Shakespeare, and his conclusions colored my view of the authorship controversy to this day.

I loved Mr. Sobran. He was a major influence on me and the despicable treatment he received at the hands of Mr Buckley was a Cross he bore with good humor and dignity.

I have copies of his old NR (formerly National Review, now, Not Relevant)"Pensees" piece.


And,of course, this is a classic of his that I have on audio tape.


God Bless you Mr. Sobran. I hope you heard this at your funeral.


And now I am going to go pray. And cry.

Sobran would be the last man to follow a crowd. Thinking for himself and staying true was as natural to him as drawing breath.
He opposed belligerent entry into the Mid East, an apostasy treated as such in his usual circles of friends.
As with Gina's comments above I was influenced by his analysis of the Shakespeare issue. Among other things, he claimed that the commoner from the hamlet of Stratford had an usually tin ear for the dialect of his own people. Having seen Henry V earlier & then reading Sobran I felt he had made a point.
He went his own way. R.I.P.

In my long journey out of the cave and toward the light, Joe Sobran was an early influence. When he later announced his conversion to political anarchism, I reacted in frustration: how could he abandon his great calling, the one place where he was indispensable, for a hopeless, uninteresting and naive position that was sure to relegate him to irrelevance?

Three years later I joined him.

Today I am thinking of the final chorale of the St. John Passion:

O Lord, send your angel in my last hour to bear my soul away to Abraham's bosom
And let my body rest in its sleeping chamber,
Completely in peace, without any sorrow or pain,
Until the Last Day!

Then raise me from the dead,
So that my eyes will look on you
In all joy, O Son of God,
My Savior and Throne of Grace!

Lord Jesus Christ, grant me this:
I want to praise you eternally!

I met Joe a small number of times in a circle of friends that read conservative works and worked in conservative activities. We read some Shakespeare plays out loud together, for example. His reading voice for this was simply magnificent - well, not just his voice, of course, but his whole projection of a character out of the page into the room. He could make everyone else's hopelessly amateur reading melt away into inconsequentiality, somehow.

I've read much of his shorter stuff, articles and such. While I often agree with his points, and find many of his insights startlingly penetrating, I certainly did not agree with his later political theories (anarchistic, for example). But I never found his arguments trivial. Or his goals mean. I will miss his presence on our stage.

Our Protestant friends might appreciate this piece from Sobran in 2002:


Today I write in an unaccustomed vein. I speak as a member of a minority group, though maybe not in the usual aggrieved style of minority group members.

I am a Catholic in a Protestant country. Even if Protestants are no longer a numerical majority, they have made this country what it is, and its culture remains thoroughly Protestant. What does it feel like to be a Catholic in Protestant America?

It feels wonderful. On the whole, Protestants must be among the world’s most decent people. I feel grateful to live among them, and it’s time someone said this. They are too nice to defend themselves even when they’re smeared, as they often are.

I have serious differences with them, because I take religion seriously. I know everything that has been said against them. I know their sins, their errors, their prejudices, their dark side — even their silly side. I can criticize them too. I have criticized them in the past, and I will so in the future.

Yet sharp criticism is a far cry from vague bad-mouthing, and when I hear some malcontent running down this Protestant country as “bigoted” or “racist” I feel a mild impulse to suggest that he shut the hell up. I want to say gently, “Well, I’d sure hate to live in a country where your kind were the majority, pal.” (Vivid examples may be found on the front page of today’s paper.)

In fact one of the chief faults of Protestants is that they are too nice for their own good. They have little instinct for self-preservation. They are slow to recognize deadly enemies, because they assume that others are as decent as they are. Your typical Protestant is like Shakespeare’s Edgar in King Lear, “whose nature is so far from doing harms that he suspects none.” And this amiable but tragic defect may yet prove the ruin of this great country.

The word Protestant covers a lot of ground, from the strictest fundamentalist to the laxest liberal. Yet there is, if not a creedal common denominator, at least a specific common style — a homespun gentility shared by every sort of Protestant, an ethos of simple friendliness, a love of honest plainness, even a certain aversion to elegance (expressed in disdain for the “fancy”).

This makes nearly all Protestants fatally easy to impose on, easy to take advantage of. The self-effacing Protestant style is even a topic of a special kind of comedy: think of Mary Tyler Moore, Garrison Keillor, or Bob Newhart. All three are Midwesterners; Newhart is a Catholic, but all Midwesterners are virtual Protestants in this respect. Protestants are supposed to be humorless, but there is a very definite Protestant humor, dry and subtle, and the world could use more of it. If only Osama bin Laden had been raised in Indiana! He is open to criticism on several grounds, but basically I think he just needs to lighten up a little.

A Protestant might almost be defined as a man who has to be warned against his own virtues. He is nothing if not tolerant. It wasn’t always so: once upon a time Protestants could persecute heretics with the best of them. But even then they were exercising that peculiar sincerity which they have seldom lost.

At times American Protestants were suspicious of immigrants, and though their suspicions have become notorious, they were not without reason. At any rate, the suspicions were quickly abandoned, and the immigrants were welcomed as fellow Americans. Today the immigrants are glorified and the natives disparaged, as if the immigrants were the originators, rather than the beneficiaries, of tolerance.

It might be suggested that so gracious a majority deserves more grateful minorities than it has received. Nobody thanks a Protestant. His virtues are taken for granted, like the elements of nature. He doesn’t even think of asking for thanks. “Don’t mention it,” he is apt to say. Maybe more of us should insist on mentioning it, even if it embarrasses him a little. Protestants are so unassuming that even the Pope hasn’t apologized to them.

All this may help explain why President Bush is so completely at sea in the Middle East. He is learning, to his confusion and dismay, that Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat are definitely not Protestants. As a cynical son of the old Catholic Europe, with the blood of the Borgias coursing in my veins, I could have warned him; but he didn’t ask me.

Anyway, it isn’t my purpose to glorify the Protestants; today I merely want to thank them.

Protestants are so unassuming that even the Pope hasn’t apologized to them.

Now _there's_ a great line. And I've been waiting and wondering about that, too. That's because I'm less nice than most Protestants. :-)

But I don't agree with him about bin Laden. The way the world is going, if bin Laden had been born and raised in Indiana, that would just mean that Indiana wasn't Indiana anymore.

I think Sobran, writing in 2002, missed this bit of news from March 12, 2000:


4. Let us forgive and ask forgiveness! While we praise God who, in his merciful love, has produced in the Church a wonderful harvest of holiness, missionary zeal, total dedication to Christ and neighbour, we cannot fail to recognize the infidelities to the Gospel committed by some of our brethren, especially during the second millennium. Let us ask pardon for the divisions which have occurred among Christians, for the violence some have used in the service of the truth and for the distrustful and hostile attitudes sometimes taken towards the followers of other religions.

Does that count in Lydia's book? :-)

As for bin Laden, Sobran's remark was obviously tongue-in-cheek. He was saying what a good Protestant might be expected to say.

That "Pensees" essay from 1985, which I found some years ago rummaging through my father's magazine collection, is simply brilliant. Surely one of the greatest compositions ever to feature in NR.

Sadly, the charge of anti-Semitism, which hounded Sobran late in his career, was a self-inflicted wound of a very grievous character. He gave a speech to a bunch of clownish Holocaust-deniers. Conservatives were robbed of a great writer by this derangement.

Paul, it's been a long time since I read about the anti-semitism charges, and I remember thinking Sobran to be wrong and imprudent, but I don't remember anything so "grievous" about his remarks as to justify his exile.

Now then, his hobnobbing with the nuts at American Renaissance and the Institute for Historical Review bothers me more than anything he has ever written (to my knowledge). I wish he had been more careful about the company he kept. But I don't believe Sobran was fundamentally a racist or an anti-semite in any meaningful sense of the words.

I just read that Mr. Sobran donated his personal library to Christendom College prior to his passing.

While I often agree with his points, and find many of his insights startlingly penetrating, I certainly did not agree with his later political theories (anarchistic, for example). But I never found his arguments trivial. Or his goals mean.

Well said, Tony. I, too, found his later "philosophical anarchism" to be indefensible and, more than that, full of despair. But his writing on other topics, often enough, continued to shine.

And I've been waiting and wondering about that, too. That's because I'm less nice than most Protestants. :-)

That probably explains why I like Lydia.

Thanks, Tony!!

Jeff asks,

Does that count in Lydia's book? :-)

I'm thinkin' about it.

I'm thinkin' about it.

Is there a Protestant apology out there somewhere? Just wondering!

The government of England would be, in particular, the place to refer to for that. I identify more with the Baptists (who really were, religiously speaking, my forbears), and they never persecuted nobody.

That piece by Sobran in praise of Protestants is charming, but possibly a bit too generous. Protestants can be pretty nasty to Catholics, when they want to be. See especially the history of England. It seems that even such greats as J.R.R. Tolkien & Edward Elgar nursed a permanent sense of grievance on this score - and not without reason. Even today, anti-catholic bigotry seems to be a hatred that need not fear speaking its name.

Truthfully, Steve, I think JRRT was a little too prone to nursing senses of grievance, and it made him unnecessarily unhappy. He thought, for example, that his mother's death was somehow tied to her Catholicism. It is true that he and his brother and mother lived in greater financial straits than they otherwise would have because the families on both sides disapproved of her Catholicism. This can certainly be called a result of bigotry and was no doubt wrong on their part. But his mother died of diabetes, which was untreatable at that time. His view of her as an actual martyr (which he took quite literally) was, I believe, an exaggerated emotional response to his love for her and his grief at losing her while he was so young. As another example, in his letters Tolkien said some nearly unforgivable things about his dear friend C.S. Lewis's alleged anti-Catholicism, things that the letters themselves do not support--mere grumpy, nasty surmises about what Lewis "probably thinks." It's fortunate that Lewis never read them, and one letter in particular.

Tolkien was a very great artist, a loving father and grandfather, and a devout Christian, but his opinions about events and persons do not seem to me to have been reliable guides.

Historically, though, you're right about the mistreatment of Catholics in England, particularly in the time of Queen Elizabeth I and James I. Her treatment of otherwise innocent Catholics--motivated though it was by plots against her life and against England on the part of foreign Catholic powers sometimes working with spies within England--was appalling and makes suggestions such as those I make about "discrimination" against Muslims in America look _extremely_ mild by comparison.

The truth is that no one at that time with the exception of a couple of oddballs such as the Baptist Roger Williams really had any robust concept of religious freedom at all. Religion and often very dangerous, hardball politics, what we would today call terrorism, espionage, and revolution, plus pan-European wars, were so tightly entangled that the notion of _not_ throwing people in jail and sometimes even executing them for religious worship and/or belief per se was beyond the corporate imagination of the Western world. It was considered nearly seditious in itself to suggest such a thing, as the state would fall, it was believed, if religion were not tightly regulated by the state. But here, of course, I'm only saying what you already know as well as I do.

When Sobran talks about Protestants in the essay, I think he means American low Protestants such as those who, say, populate the present-day world of Gospel music. And there, I think he's on to something. They're lovable people, and often these days I'm very grateful that they exist, but they are often too naive for their own good. It's a puzzle, because their naivete and apolitical benevolence is part of what makes them who they are and hence is part of what makes them lovable. It's difficult to pick apart a "type." If you love, appreciate, or admire a person who is of a strongly marked type, in a sense you don't want him to change, even if you recognize certain features as flaws in an absolute sense. I think that Sobran captures this ambivalence, too.

When Sobran talks about Protestants in the essay, I think he means American low Protestants such as those who, say, populate the present-day world of Gospel music.

Exactly, with emphasis on "present-day." He was pretty historically aware, so I doubt he had in mind the age of Henry and Elizabeth. He asks, after all, "What does it feel like to be a Catholic in Protestant America?"

This is a terrible loss. His scholarship was always interesting, and his views on Israel and its US lobby way ahead of his time, if too late to prevent much of the catastrophic damage that Lobby has caused.

RIP, Joseph Sobran. I will miss your intelligence, courage and dedication.

Mr Sobran was not an antisemite. He was not a holocaust-denier.

However, so real is the power of the Jesus-Deniers to control Christians and to destroy their careers that far too many Christians will not even broach the subject of Israel or Zionism or the power of Jews in America because of fear of the Jews and far too few Christians will rise to defend their brethren against Jesus-Deniers bearing false witness


For Christians in America, Matt 12:32 is not applicable.

The real unforgivable sin leading to perdition is any opposition to Zionism/Judaism - whether it be that crappy country Israel or the Jewish Revolutionary Spirit.


God Bless you Mr. Sobran. I hope you heard this at your funeral.


Indeed, the Dies Irae was chanted at Mr. Sobran's Funeral Mass today. I had the good fortune to have been there.

Larry Auster, at his exercise:

"Sophia A. writes:

"'he wrote something about Israel that was so unfair, so hurtful and so disgusting that it was like a splinter to my heart. Where before his words were a splinter to my brain (hurtful but stimulating), this was a splinter to the heart. And it opened my heart up to the truth about Sobran: regarding the Jews, he was a monster.

"'I realized that I had been fooling myself about this awful man. Take a few minutes to read his archives and you will see not a man who was cool and understated but a man who was quite emotionally dead. There is a huge difference between the two.

"'He had an inability to feel, to empathize. He did have a wonderful ability to lash out, and his favorite target was Jews. Yet, I doubt that even lashing out gave him any true satisfaction. I think he felt nothing. That's why he kept going back to the well of Jew-hatred. "Maybe this time, I'll feel something and get it out of my system." But he never did, and it never did.

"'I do not mourn his passing. I feel about it the way he felt about everything: nothing.'

"LA replies:

"Well put...I thought he was vastly overrated...Sobran was a negative being, wallowing in self-pity, and a heavy drinker, and the drink probably had more to do with his deterioration than anything else."


Steve Burton quotes my reply to a reader about Sobran, leaving out everything but my negative conclusion. Here is my entire comment:


Well put. Sobran up to circa 1990 was a talented and worthwhile conservative writer. Sobran after that was a broken man. I thought he was vastly overrated. For example, he gets the most credit as a critic of the federal courts' gradual destruction of the Constitution. But what did 95 percent of his columns on the Constitution consist of? A repetition of the idea of enforcing the 10th Amendment. He put no thought into this issue. He just kept repeating a slogan. He was lazy and unengaged in the subjects he was writing about. Sounding off and coming up with bon mots is not significant writing.

Also, his book on Shakespeare's real identity was a mess. If I were a publisher I would never have published it. I would have told him that this was a first draft, and a second draft was needed. But standards in the book publishing business have sunk to the basement. And his treatment of the theme was weird. He positively gloated at the idea that the real Shakespeare was homosexual. People interested in the Shakespeare identity question should read Charleton Ogburn's The Mysterious William Shakespeare, which is to Sobran's book as Hyperion is to a satyr.

Sobran was a negative being, wallowing in self-pity, and a heavy drinker, and the drink probably had more to do with his deterioration than anything else.

Mr. Auster: It's true that I didn't reprint all of the nasty things that you said about Joseph Sobran, a writer & thinker I greatly revered, on the occasion of his death (though I did provide a link to your remarks).

I thank you for correcting my oversight.

If Steve Burton thinks it's wrong to say critical things about a person on the occasion of his death, why did he quote my "nasty" remarks about Sobran at all? I guess what's ok for Mr. Burton is not ok for me.

Also, I didn't come over to WWWW and interrupt the eulogies to Sobran. Mr. Burton quoted something I had written at my site. Again, if he didn't think that negative comments should be posted about a man in the days after his death, then he shouldn't have posted such comments himself.

In any case, Burton didn't quote me in order to memorialize Sobran, he quoted me in order to continue his long-standing war on me for my bad character (my bad character consisting of my deplorable tendency to criticize conservatives whom I don't agree with and don't admire). Which, since Burton selectively quoted me, obviously opened the door for me to reply by posting my entire comment. Which Burton then reproves me for!

There's a word for Steve Burton's behavior: passive aggression. And it's behavior which he continued in private e-mails to me, which I finally had to cut off.

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