Letter from a Traditional Conservative

By James Matthew Wilson for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC


Devon, PA.  Upon reading an essay of Patrick Deneen’s, a close and dear relative recently wrote me, protesting the uselessness of the terms “liberal” and “conservative.”  They are simplifying terms, and inadequate to the complexity of American political questions.  One should judge each individual “issue” on its own merits and not according to a schema.  I was quick to respond with a more thorough analysis of those terms than perhaps the occasion merited or than any poor relative of mine deserves.  Having labored away on either side of Sunday Mass, and anxious to let no thrifty labor fall fallow, I thought it might be appropriate to share my thoughts in the more formal context of FPR. 

 What follows may be, to some readers’ mind, the last thing a traditionalist conservative needs to hear: another theoretically conceived statement of principles.  I readily concede the world would be richer were I to plant a single carrot seed; at the same time, one is always grateful for the challenge of articulating in a rarefied form what it is one believes, and I am Scholastic enough to believe that the path to knowledge is paved with careful definitions.  And so:

 Well, you see it does matter to establish the meaning of those terms, because what most Americans lack is a sense of the range of available political visions and, consequently, they find themselves trapped is a vision that is not simply narrow but — I would argue — so narrow as to exclude the truth.

 You are right that most people do not know of what they speak when they deploy the two major terms of our political lexicon; as those terms are used, they have no permanent content, but rather serve as euphemisms for Republican or Democrat.  But a few things are worth establishing to correct this eviseration of meaning.

 Contemporary American-style conservatism and liberalism are merely two faces of that intelligible beast, (Eighteenth Century) Classical Liberalism.  Its vision says the substantive unit or entity in politics is strictly the individual, and the freedom of the individual is the primary good after which society and government seek.  Since, therefore, the term “society” indicates nothing more than a numerical aggregate of the individuals in a given area, then the only purpose of government must be to defend the potentially infinite number of “private” interests of these loosely gathered individual freedom-maximizers.

 American-style liberals and conservatives simply emphasize two distinct elements intrinsic to this vision: one insists that the “right” to unlimited wealth accumulation follows naturally from the freedom of the individual and that this right is only expressible if certain other freedoms are limited so that the literal place of the market can be stable and reliable (and therefore a relatively predictable place in which wealth — the value of a dollar — can be relied upon); the other insists that the individual’s freedom consists primarily in self-fashioning and that the self can only enjoy this free play — its individuality — if it can know that society is stable, “equal,” and reliable enough that the products of the individual’s free play (the self made by the pure, autonomous will of the individual) will not have any material consequences.  The apparent differences in these positions arise specifically because their different advocates assume, but do not discuss, the first principle of individual equal freedom and attend only to particular questions in isolation from each other.  The advocate of “free markets” applies his first principle to certain questions and these prompt him to withhold its application in others; the same must be said for the “civil libertarian.”  Were either to apply his first principle in equal measure to everything, he would appear not merely as a libertarian but as a libertine anarchist — a libidinous monster convinced that the mad must be set free from the asylum, the murderer from his prison, and the self from the cage of society.

 Neither of these visions is “conservative” in any true sense.  They are both simply expressions of the basic tenets of bourgeois classical liberalism.  Generally, when someone says, “I’m conservative on some issues and liberal on others,” what he really means is that he is just a more consistent classical liberal than American-style conservatives and liberals, i.e. he has traced out more fully the consequences of the individual as the sole entity in politics and the individual’s protected freedom as its end.

 The Bush and Obama administrations have proven this model consistent in spades.  For, if the individual is the sole entity in society, he will always feel weak, relatively powerless, isolated, and alienated from the means to secure the future for himself.  Therefore, the liberal individual will trust no one but the State to secure his freedom, for only the State is large enough to do such a thing, and only the State is “real” enough to do it, since the liberal individual sees any other kind of supra-individual entity as an illegitimate one whose exercise of authority will always appear to him as oppression (e.g. the authority of a church, of a social class, of a sex, of an elite association or club, and finally even of the family).  The most liberal phrase of indignation is always, “What gives so-and-so the right to tell me what to do?!”  As such, it only makes sense that the “weak individuals” with interests in business would seek (as they have regularly since the Nineteenth Century) to harness the state to advance their unlimited wealth production and accumulation.  And, in an inevitable reaction, the “weak individuals” whose sense of freedom is bound up more in the free play of consumption and self-fashioning now turn to ask the State for the securing of their material equality and the administered stabilization of every aspect of their lives (except those few little places where “self-fashioning” needs to be most free, i.e. on the level of taste, consumer goods, and sterile copulation).

 Of course, one sees that these two things are no more mutually exclusive in practice than they are at the theoretical level of definition.  Bush’s expansion of government introduced the State into nearly every aspect of our lives (to the extent that it had not already been so introduced), even as it sought not to “deregulate” business (which it never did) but rather to enhance certain targeted areas for the unlimited wealth accumulation of certain individuals.  Why, one pauses to ask, to we hear complaints against “deregulation” from self-described liberals, but none against “corporate welfare”?  Similarly, Obama has shown that he’s on board with protecting unlimited wealth accumulation (he needs the easy, single trough to water his hobby horses), and that he is more flexible than Bush in securing that wealth, because he sees that American dominance by diplomacy has been at least as effective as the use of force, so long as one can always use force in the breach.  He is more flexible in the use of State authority as well — if that is possible, given what Bush did.

We are at last on the verge of seeing what administered society in its most radical form might look like; the State really will be the manager to whom every question of our survival and moral life may be referred.  So, our two presidents illustrate in fact what Classical Liberalism always announces in theory: the end of liberalism is the free, isolated individual; and the State’s duty in simply “protecting the private interests” of those individuals gradually but inexorably makes it the sole real or efficacious entity in social life, whose interest in “securing our freedom” gradually leads to its involving itself in every dimension of our lives except for those which are most trivial.  It only wishes to look into our souls in such cases where our souls might actually do something of consequence.

 Traditional conservatism steps radically outside this theory.  It rejects its fundamentals and its consequences.  Man is intrinsically a social or political animal; his individual identity is formed by, tied to, and fulfilled only in, community.  To speak, therefore, of the “interests of the individual” as if they stood in tension with those of “State” or “society” literally makes no sense; it creates separate entities and interests to describe what in fact is something organic.  Community is organic because it has distinguishable parts, but none of those parts is in any meaningful sense separable from the whole (it would no longer be itself were it not part of something bigger than itself).  It is organic also in that all of its parts have not only a present unity, but they exist for the same end: the good life for man, who is himself capable of seeking the Good.  Thus, the first argument of this position is to reject the “going” anthropology of the last two-and-a-quarter centuries.

 Liberal politics takes for granted that the individual is the sole identifiable and legitimate entity in society and that no one can pronounce on the end or purpose of the individual except the individual (because, as truly individual, we are all mutually un-intelligible to one another, and cannot speak to, with, or for, each other).  Therefore, liberalism always sets some conception of “freedom” as its end, because by that term it can describe an empty space cleared for the free play of the individual, rather than an image of what the individual might, or ought to, look like.

 But traditional conservatism insists that we not only reject the anthropology that reduces man to an isolated individual, rather than recognizes him as a person whose very individuality only comes into being in community, but that we also reject this “negative theology” of the end of human life.  If we are social animals because we are born into community, we are also — indeed primarily — social animals because we reach our telos, our final cause, our fulfillment, only in a certain kind of shared life.  We inherit relationships to some communities, we develop other relationships within other communities, and these relationships, which both allow us to do some things and limit us and prevent us from doing others, gradually give shape to our personalities.  Thus the human being becomes, through these communities and communal relationships, more fully a person.  The State has a role in protecting relationships and communities, and even in exemplifying one instance of a kind of communal institution, but its role is necessarily limited precisely because it is clear that it is the overabundance of varied, limited, and imperfect communities and associations that form a complex web or network that can fulfill man’s social nature.  An overly comprehensive State undermines or frustrates man’s political nature by making its practical condition threadbare.

If society and community is in part a fulfillment of our natures, that is to say, if it is part of the happiness that we wish to have; if it is part of the good life for man; it is also a necessary means even to discovering what that good life looks like.  More strongly: our social nature makes us dependent upon community for us to discover an image of the good life and indeed to look into the face of the Good itself.  The isolated individual is not strictly speaking incapable of discovering the good, but is de facto, since by definition he deprives himself of, or rejects as “irrational” and “oppressive,” the generations of shared experience offered him as a gift and obligation from the past, and therefore ends up trying to “fashion himself” from scratch, rather than “correcting and conserving” what he has inherited like so much cultural property — like, to specify the image, a stable homestead with farmland cultivated over generations.

 Furthermore, the isolated individual cannot make much headway looking for the Good, because he will always shrink it to something particular to his own self.  He will reject as a possible vision of goodness anything that he cannot understand as “good for me,” where the “me” is reducible to the temporally bounded, bodily self’s experience of pleasure.  Many things that are indeed “good for me” do not appear as such if I deny my social nature and can think of myself and my good as restricted to my individuality and freedom.  Liberals like to preach against “selfishness” or “egoism,” because they simply cannot fathom a good for the person that is something more, or something other, than a person’s good qua individual.  We lose the ability, under such circumstances, to think of our personalities living on beyond our one, truly individuated element, our bodies; as such, we cannot conceive of our good as extending beyond our corporeal life, and thus, things like “courage” and “self-mastery” begin to look unreal and contrary to one’s personal good.  When one truly understands one’s social nature, however, such  virtues become  naturally desirable; one wishes not just to benefit from the past in the present, but to live on in the memory of others in the future and, thereby, to give shape to the future.  The end of one’s present life, therefore, comes to be part of what future generations know and lives meaningfully on in them.

 If man’s nature is as a social or political animal, then that nature can only be fulfilled under fragile, particular circumstances.  Thus, traditional conservatives strongly argue for the importance of various communal institutions and associations beyond or in addition to the State, knowing that these are our means not merely of loving, but of living and of knowing, as well.  They argue strongly against the literally endless freedom of liberalism, which of its nature requires perpetual mobility, perpetual invention and re-invention, in order to secure the individuality of the individual (thus, in our culture, we sometimes stop doing something simply because it used to be done, e.g. wearing neckties to work or marrying for life).  They emphasize instead a physical stability — that of towns, homesteads, and households — which makes it possible for communal ties to build at their inevitable slow rate.  They defend self-government as the only kind of freedom fit for man: that is, not autonomy in the sense of freedom from outside intervention, but in the sense of self-mastery, which is a necessary prerequisite for the person to seek the Good.  How could one seek the destination, the telos, of one’s life without at least a hard-won mastery over the messy complex being that is one’s life?  Hence, the common association of the good man and good society with the well-captained ship.  Defending these things is the specific and limited vocation of institutional politics (as opposed to the wider political life which is, in itself, simply man’s shared life in society), for the conservative believes that the State cannot of itself build community though it might help in the building, and, again, that the State is just one form of the myriad communities even a single person needs to live a shared life that seeks the Good.

 The liberal vision sees man as an originally free individual animal seeking further freedom.  The traditional conservative sees that all things seek their particular goods, and that all these goods culminate in the Good itself.  Hence, the particular and fragile dignity of man.  He can, of course, settle upon any number of lesser goods, including the lowest of all, mere survival.  But in addition to being just a good-seeking animal, he is one who discovers a particular kind of good in a shared life; hence the classical definition of him as a social animal (meaning he is intrinsically communal and thus depends upon community to begin and continue life) and as a political animal (meaning that part of his purpose, his telos, is to live as a peculiarly self-communicating creature for whom the presence and company of others is essential to his achieving happiness).  But this communal nature does not fully describe his finality, is not merely his end.  He can seek not simply goods, as can other species, but can seek, by virtue of his abstracting intellect, the Good itself.  Hence the further classical definition of man as a rational animal — an animal whose intellect allows him to discover the Good beyond any particular and immanent goods.

 This rational capacity is one that modern persons cannot fully reject, though they attempt to do so.  We all sense within ourselves the apparently undetermined and therefore potentially infinite nature of our intellects.  I can think of one thing, then another, and another in a series ad infinitum.  I see that my eyes and my will can fasten upon this good, and the next good, and the next, in no less an apparently endless series.  Naturally, because the mind is discursive in its reasoning, what I can think of, and what I can perceive as good, will have a certain tentativeness and incompletion to them, e.g. even when I think about a little wooden triangle, I can only reason about one abstract part of it at a time.  As such, there will inevitably be various and partial perceptions of any good, any thing, by different persons.   Hence our almost total dependence upon the inherited reasoning of others (tradition) through the whole course of our lives, including especially those moments where we think something new.  For the “new” is to make explicit what was present in potential but could not, for any number of reasons, previously be made manifest.  And hence, also, the inevitability of competing accounts of this good and that good in light of our various and imperfect perceptions of the Good.  And yet our minds do have an end, which is that Good that is also Truth and Beauty.  Most persons at most times have a sense that there is a place where all thinking ends precisely because thought has become complete — not through endless intellectual accumulation, primarily, but through an eventual simplification, where the mind knows that Good that is the simple foundation of everything.

 Liberalism in part arose from a very easy attempt to forego the problems inherent to possessing reason.  The apparently infinite and undetermined potential of the mind was taken to be just that.  On such an account, there’s no point is debating what the end of reason is precisely because reason has no end; it is infinite and, insofar as it is infinite, “godlike.”  But if the intellect has no end toward which it is struggling, it must be unique among all other real things, since they all clearly have observable ends for which they exist (we have no trouble telling when a garden hose is fulfilling its telos).  Very well, says the liberal, that uniqueness is yet another godlike aspect of man; his infinite reason may even be the end of all things.  Since man is his own end precisely because his intellect is endless, we introduce a problem.  We are saying that man is the Good, is his own Good at least, and yet we define that good in a different way than we define all others.  Everything else that is good, we define by what it does — by its attainment of some purpose.  But, it would seem, we (the liberals) are saying that the Good for man is understood primarily as an absence — an absence of purpose or determination that, when determined or made to serve some purpose, seems to lose its free and distinctive character.

 And so the liberal’s anthropology of the infinite individual intellect resolves into a political program.  The purpose of politics is to clear as totally as possible a space for the individual intellect to act freely.  Everything that says it exists for this-or-that end is a form of oppression, because it seems to make the intellect finite.  The State’s task, therefore, is reduced to protecting the individual person from becoming anything in particular.  What does the purpose of man’s life then look like?  The good life for man becomes just the continuous, further clear-cutting of space for him to be free to fashion himself in any which way he likes.  His infinite intellect therefore does have an end or direction: the individual man’s self, which that intellect’s purpose becomes to craft and shape.  But, again, the intellect’s infinity necessitates that man does not seek to make himself a certain kind of being, a good man; he makes himself good only insofar as he is able to make himself freely (not “free,” as if this were a substantive end, but the making itself must be a procedure done and redone endlessly and “freely”).  So the liberals of the left and right assume.

 What sounds at first like a bit of human modesty, and which often still tries to play itself off as such (“We see that men disagree about the Good, and therefore conclude there is no Good, but only the infinite freedom of man’s unique intellect”), in fact is the only totalitarian way of thinking ever conceived (if one wants to take that word seriously).  For man becomes a god unto himself, and, in order to protect a space for his free movement, he helps or simply resigns himself to a State whose task is to dissolve, overturn, or condemn all those bonds and practices that might impose themselves upon and give shape to a human being.  Everything ultimately falls prey as an impediment to the one good the liberal can acknowledge: the free play of the individual.

 Contrary to early critics of liberalism, of course, the end of this destruction is never anarchy but an ever more appropriative government, which takes it upon itself to remove all authorities (besides itself) that would put themselves above the individual and in the way of his freedom.  We have seen in our time that even the expressed disapproval of immorality, the making of moral judgments of any kind, has been deemed a form of oppression that the State is sometimes willing to intervene to stop.  And so the freedom of the individual is secured by ensuring an “equal freedom,” a cloistering of the individual within himself and his isolation from any significant contact with any authority save the State.  And so man becomes a “little god” who can buy what he likes and copulate how he likes, he can even make money however he likes, so long as the State believes it does not affect anyone else — so long as it does not impose upon the “equal freedom” of another.

 What sounds at first a bit of rational modesty (“We can’t know the Good, and indeed believe there isn’t one”) ends up promoting to the Highest Good something we all know from experience is not anything like the highest good in the world: the autonomy of the individual.  No one thinks the good of his fellow man’s individually is especially good; there are myriad “self-fashioning” beings whom he finds repugnant.  But he defends their imperfections and perversions merely so he may preserve his little temple of freedom.  This is not “rational modesty” at all, because it is neither modest nor rational.  It is not modest, because it subordinates everything — past, present, future, family, society, culture, and the Good itself, — to the individual’s self-fashioning.  It is not modestly rational, because it ultimately insists that freedom precludes authoritative judgments on the relative merits of this or that particular good.  And it is strictly speaking not rational, since reason’s end is the Good — is, therefore, not infinite precisely because it does stop somewhere and fails in its operation to the extent that it falls short of its end — or, more typically nowadays, flees radically from any account of the Good because such an account suggests the mind is determined toward an end and therefore is not, in only that very modern sense, free.

 Traditional conservatism, in contrast, calls into question nearly everything that modern persons generally take for granted.  The American “liberal/conservative” divide is a sham, as you observe, but not for the reasons you observe.  It is not that it over-simplifies the complex particular positions of individuals, but because it tries to make substantive differences apparent when, really, there are not any.

 Thus, I defend the use and definition of the word “conservative” — as in “traditional conservative” — precisely because it opens up a horizon that most Americans would prefer to have shut — or at least think they would.  It opens up the possibility of thinking productively about what it means to be human, what it means to be rational and to be capable of seeking what is good and the Good itself; above all, in a political context, it blows open the doors on the nature of politics and the kinds of polities we should have if we wish to flourish.  It exposes the superficiality of liberal thought, the totalitarian ambitions of liberal freedom, and the dehumanization at the heart of liberal “individualist” anthropology (for liberal man is always a beast or a god, and usually both).  Moreover, it is important because it doesn’t make pretenses of merely or even primarily being a political program that takes such-and-such a stand on the “issues of our day.”  The men of our day have little business talking about “issues,” when theycannot even understand the selves from which they hold forth.  But traditional conservatism’s significance and truth are available to all people and find their importance in helping persons to live well by judging well in light of the search for the Good, rather than in the acquisition of political power in the machinery of a modern State that is intrinsically, and at once and in the same actions, a murder machine and a liberator of oppression.

 All the best, etc.

  • Share: