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Sparkling comment from an unconventional Tory; The Pursuit of Virtue and Other Tory Notions, by George F. Will. New York: Simon & Schuster. 397 pp. $15.50.

By Alan L. Miller / April 21, 1982



Cynics could once dismiss the fame of William F. Buckley Jr. by saying it was entirely understandable, he was the singular exception to his breed, a thoughtful conservative. But one seldom hears this facile claim any more now that George F. Will has won renown as a public philosopher.

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The ubiquitous Mr. Will's syndicated column appears in 360 newspapers. And for seven years he has been a biweekly contributor to Newsweek, where his elegant essays have earned him an international following and a Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary. In his spare time, he serves as a political analyst for two television networks.

Will's prose pulsates with a rhythmic cadence that combines logic and literary allusion in concise proportion.

His convictions are clearly conservative, yet he prefers to be called a Tory: ''I trace the pedigree of my philosophy to Burke, Newman, Disraeli and others who were more skeptical, even pessimistic, about the modern world than most people who call themselves conservatives.'' And he believes, like Burke, that ''Manners are more important than the law'' because the pursuit of virtue among the citizens of a democracy is essential to ordered liberty.

Thus his columns are ''meditations on various principles'' in the style of Samuel Johnson and G. K. Chesterton. Whether his topic is politics, religion, or parenthood, Will's writings confirm conventional values that transcend cultural trends.

Accordingly, he castigates the current fashion of debunking heroes, concluding: ''One of the least attractive aspects of the present is the absence of affection and respect for the people who struggled with the problems of the recent past. There is something awfully small about someone who cannot admit that anyone else is exceptionally large. As has been said, if no man is a hero to his valet, that is not because no men are heroes, but because all valets are valets.''

Will's defense of Thomas Cranmer's lyric 16th-century prose in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer indicts those 20th-century reformers who revised the liturgical language: ''It's hard to suppress the suspicion that ecclesiastical egalitarians are scoring ideological, not theological points. They probably are vaguely put off by language that is not as immediately and universally comprehensible as a Pepsi jingle. . . . So the revisionists are, in a sense, right: Cranmer's Prayer Book is out of place here. Perhaps Christianity's many revisers are . . . bringing Christianity into conformity with the spirit of the age. But I thought it was supposed to work the other way.''

Yet the author's lacerations of liberal excesses shouldn't be mistaken for an ideological mind-set. He is suspicious of supply-side economics and finds ''the Adam Smith necktie lovelier than his philosophy.'' Will warns conservatives against the ''sterile practice'' of denouncing big government when the problem is bad policy that weakens federal authority to balance competing values. He scores Sen. Strom Thurmond for practicing ''the politics of Pickett's Charge (with Pickett's results) against the Senate's finest acts, the civil rights laws.'' Will caustically concedes, ''The reward for (Thurmond's) failure has been seniority.''

A section of the book is dominated by the author's antipathy toward communism and what Will considers ''the West's reflex of flinching from the awful facts of the totalitarian challenge.'' His perceptions of Josef Stalin and Alger Hiss are especially devastating.

Yet some of the more memorable essays extol the simpler joys of life, as witness his celebration of church bells, baseball, childhood memories, and charities that assist the poor. The profiles of Pope John II, Harold Macmillan, Hubert Humphrey, John Wayne, and Joe Louis are particularly poignant. And Will's meditation ''On Turning 40'' is a masterpiece.

This sparkling collection of columns is a treasure to be discovered--and savored--by anyone who appreciates erudition and the English language.