Letter from a Traditional Conservative

by James Matthew Wilson on April 23, 2009 · 49 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Economics & Empire

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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.

{ 44 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Bob Cheeks April 23, 2009 at 4:16 am

James, brilliant essay and downloaded.
If more men grasped the process of being a “traditional conservative” we might not suffer from what EV referred to as “Western deculturation” as least to the degree we do, and we might still have a republic.
Which brings up the question of why do men abandon the familial and social organizations in favor of a central regime? Is this an example of a psychopathology inherent in and resulting from the process of deculturation or is this unique to (late) modernity and an illustration of the domination of society by the instrumentalization of reason?
I’m looking forward to your response and in the meantime hope to blog something along these lines over at PostModernConservative (First Things) and link to this essay in the hope of generating some discussion. Can’t wait to read Mr. Sabin’s erudite comments, this is really good stuff!

avatar Casey Khan April 23, 2009 at 7:35 am

Brilliant.

“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.”

This was a problem I’ve had with the post-Vatican II idea (not necessarily an idea of the Church) of people living the virtuous Catholic life as someone single, meaning someone outside either a sacramental vocation (marriage, holy orders), or outside a religious order of some type (nuns, brothers, monks, etc). The single life, outside some sort of community, makes it much more difficult to make headway in looking for the good.

avatar RJ Snell April 23, 2009 at 8:08 am

Oh, bravo!

I’m especially taken with the riff on the”negative theology” of liberalism, the notion that we cannot know the telos, nor would we want to as it disallows “freedom.”

What’s striking is that the negative theology is not intellectual modesty, as is sometimes claimed, nor even the fear that thick goods become oppressive, but rather that this negative theology is a form of hate, a sin against charity.

I’ve been reading Evagrius and Aquinas on acedia (sloth) of late. Evagrius describes acedia as a failure of hope and a hatred of place, a hatred of the good gifted to us by God and thus a hatred of limits. Aquinas understands sloth as a sin against love, a sorrow over the divine good given to us, ie, a sorrow or sadness about our telos. And in its sadness it,as you say, “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.”

In both accounts, that of Evagrius and Aquinas, there is an inability of meaningful action, for the nexus of the Good, the telos, is not unknown but refused, hated. And so for the liberal action is always revolt against God, always resistance to the Good, always, in Milton’s sense, satanic (the mind is its own place and can make a heaven of hell and hell of heaven . . . better to rule in hell etc etc). The conservative, as Walker Percy taught us, refuses the satanic neither by angelism or beastialism, but by what is proper to us–the human form in its proper, limited, finite, noble place. By the self-mastery of the human willing to live in propriety. And this is a life of love and a civilization of life.

Why does the conservative love their place, their spouse, their family, their neighborhood, their land, their “little platoon,” their county, their region, their state, their country, their cultural inheritance? Because they do not revolt against hope and love. They do not hate.

avatar Empedocles April 23, 2009 at 8:55 am

So which one is right? The liberal or the conservative (I prefer traditionalist, or communitarian)? Is the self an isolated monad, or part embedded in relationships and history? You have wonderfully sketched the opposing positions, I would like to hear your reasons for the truth of one versus the other. (My answer is here: http://apoxonbothyourhouses.blogspot.com/2009/01/two-dogmas-of-liberalism-or-how-to-win.html )

avatar Empedocles April 23, 2009 at 9:08 am

The difference between traditionalists and conservatives was crystallized by Rush Limbaugh when in a recent speech he derided those interested in community, saying that “community” and “commune” are the same thing.

avatar Dan April 23, 2009 at 9:52 am

How are these two definitions mutually exclusive?

“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.”

“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.”

If man is intrinsically a social or political animal; his individuality formed by, tied to, and fulfilled only in community, than the entity strictly concerned is of course still the individual and his freedom is still the primary good after which society and government seek.

This is why I find it hard to treat traditional conservatism seriously. It is either merely a gloss on the liberal thesis or it is an authoritarianism disguised in overalls.

avatar Empedocles April 23, 2009 at 11:32 am

Dan, I think the point is that traditionalists see the community as having an interest in protecting what social scientists call “social capital,” whereas liberals think that the state should be neutral in this regards, only protecting the individuals even if their practices destroy the social capital in a community and the community itself. The issue gets messy when you start to consider what the relation between the state and the community should be. I think that social capital is the Good that James mentions that is pursued and produced by man as a social creature. Should the state step in to stop practices that destroy the social capital of a community? Or should it step aside to leave the community to deal with it. Or should practices that destroy social capital nevertheless be protected by the state on the grounds of individual rights? I would be interested in hearing others’ positions.

avatar Dan April 23, 2009 at 12:31 pm

Empedocles,

You hit it right on the head. The problem is again reduced to liberalism or authoritarianism.

Lets take an example:

There’s a nice local community which has, at the center of its vibrant life, The Hypothetical Church. The Hypothetical Church has Wednesday night fish fries, bingo nights, Vacation Bible School, a food pantry, a basketball court open to the community, etc. It also provides all the intangible benefits of religious belief and practice to the community.

Then, persons dissatisfied with The Hypothetical Church for a variety of reasons involving doctrine, structure, etc. start The True Hypothetical Church. This separation divides the community. There are no longer enough funds to completely stock the food pantry, childhood friends not longer attend the same Vacation Bible School, some people stop going to church at all because of the bitterness of the split. The communities social capital is depleted.

What does the traditional conservative major do? Does he suppress The True Hypothetical Church? Or is he in the end just a good liberal recognizing that the state cannot hope to address these issues and look for ways that he can bring healing without the state apparatus?

avatar James Matthew Wilson April 23, 2009 at 12:35 pm

I greet a very welcome first round of comments, which I shall try to address briefly, recognizing that a brief response is not ideal but merely preferable to none at all:

Dear Bob,

Thanks for the kind words. To your question I can give only a partial answer, because surely any such answer will be partial. Your question entails a consideration of the constitutive properties of the modern age, which are numerous, overlapping, and subject to misunderstanding when one is held up over another.

Surely Tocqueville was right that mobility was a major cause. The constant movement of persons — mobility’s promotion to a normal fact of life rather than an exception and great misfortune– was made necessary by the kind of urbanization that was intended to accomodate the labor demands of industrialization. Over a long period of time, that mobility deprives persons of a sense of community, because everything outside of one’s body begins to appear evanescent and, indeed, does really become so. Only the State appears to remain immoblie and dependable rather than fleeting and fragile. And so one increasingly trusts only the State. It does indeed have an almost irresistable attraction to it; hence so few persons can imagine without dread a community-located, community-centered, community-derived provision for the poor. They cannot imagine such “voluntary” institutions as something other than the very unreliable and unproductive car washes held by so many eratic, hormonal high school kids every Spring.

But there’s more to it than that! The very suggestion that one can “choose” a centralized authority over against a family, or a free association over against a family, is a particularly modern conception. I hope to argue elsewhere on the givenness and naturalness of community, precisely because the conception of community or even society as, properly speaking, “artificial” bespeaks a misapprehension of those things. I won’t elaborate on that now, other than perhaps to say that one sees the notion of community as artificial even in such proto-conservatives as Swift and Burke, and to that extent they are either weak or invalid authorities for contemplating these questions.

Dear Casey and RJ,

You respectively suggest and enact the theological grounding of these and all questions. I felt instinctively the need to offer a future post called something like “The Conscience of a Catholic Conservative,” precisely because, of course, our political vocabulary so immediately derives from and depends upon Christian-Platonist thought. I wish I could offer some further comment as brilliant as those RJ here offers. Instead, I shall just repair to my books when I get home this evening and actively contemplate sloth and acedia with my Western Doctor and Eastern Father.

Dear Empedocles and Dan,

You both offer related and important criticisms. I forgive myself for failing to provide what Empedocles demands; a persuasive sketch rather than a definitive argument seemed a reasonably modest goal. However, it is clear I might have gone farther in the direction Empedocles begs; and, had I done so, I might have clarified points that, Dan, you leap o’er hastily to lump together.

Having read your own argument twice, now, Empedocles, I would conclude it is in many respects a good argument, but has a certain weakness to the extent it seeks to “decenter” the self and deprive it of ontic reality as something other than the node of a network of relationships. This seems a reductive account, but one which is, perhaps, more accurate than the liberal account of the self as “monadic.” It is clear that you are largely correct that the self is entirely constituted by relations; even biologically speaking I am only consequent to my derivative status in relation to a community. That is the source of my physical form, of my moment of origin, and many things else. And yet my self is not reducible to those relations even to the extent of saying, “I am that totality that comprises all relations.” Rather, the particular human life takes on a unity of its own; it has its own story and its own integrity that goes above and beyond either the body or even the memory. Perhaps I misread your argument, but it seems that you underemphasize this unity, much as Aristotle did, and thus leave the individual self necessarily as just a part of that whole called society. Forgive the inadequacy of this treatment, but I want to make a few points in response to those Dan raises and then to leave off for the time being.

If what I have said can be reduced to a “gloss on the liberal thesis,” then every response that does not say “only society” is real or something like it will be merely such a gloss. What your claim suggests then is that either you haven’t read my remarks carefully, or that you simply cannot interpret them outside of a liberal schema that reduces reality to the dualism of the isolated individual and the “collective” (whatever it may be called).

You correctly observe that I use the word “individual” in two different contexts that I claim are conflicting or opposed. Grammatically, it would seem therefore that I have created a land of unlikeness where in fact there is only a liberal mass of individuals. But let’s at least take a small step toward highlighting differentiations that I persist in believing are intelligble in my essay in its present form.

If liberals conceive of the individual as the sole unit of politics that is a substantially different claim from the traditional conservative’s, which says that human beings are by their nature social, political, and rational. The liberal statement says, plainly, “in all political questions the only unit that may be contemplated is the individual.” The traditional conservative says, to the contrary, “even in looking at the isolated individual we see that his nature and his condition is political, he is intrinsically bound up and constituted by the communities to which he belongs by birth, circumstance, and (in an analogous fashion) choice. This conservative claim does not reduce politics to the individual — it simply says something that is obvious to everyone, that we can see that individuals exist, and makes the further claim that individuals are naturally parts of larger units and wholes. As such, the conservative feels justified in seeing such larger units and wholes as equally important entities in politics. And he affirms that in, say, protecting the integrity of the family, a town’s economy, or, perhaps, the Boy Scouts that he is at one and the same time doing something that accords well with the nature of the human person. To speak of man as a “political animal” means that, among many other things, I have not even understood a single individual if I do not understand the myriad communities, the entities, of which he is a part. According to your schema, one is an “authoritarian” the moment one insists politics is not reducible to the individual and that one insists, further, that even the individual bespeaks by his nature the larger wholes of which he is a part.

So much for liberal and traditional conservative anthropology. You also ignore the difference between the liberal and traditional conservative ethics and politics that derive from their respective teleologies. And so you seem to pretend that two things are not mutually exclusive that all experience shows to be the case. The liberal says the end of the human person is its freedom; to the extent this can be called a “fulfillment,” the telos of the human person is fulfilled in the absence of all binding relations to another. The traditionalist says the telos of the human person — not merely the person’s origin, but his completion — is found in community in a double sense. “In,” in the sense of only in the context of community can the person find happiness (a point on which Casey rightly fastens), and “in” in the sense that life in community is itself a substantial part of the good whose attainment is the purpose of human life. These are indeed mutually exclusive teleologies. By definition, participation in even the most lax and thin of communities constrains the “freedom” of the individual in some way; for, in the act of belonging to that community he surely gives up membership in certain other (though not all other) communities. He submits to a kind of determination, that liberal theory insists is foreign to and repugnant to the autonomous “monadic” self when it has attained its freedom.

You may object, “That’s ridiculous; no one can be absolutely free in the sense of having no relations to another that bind or in some way delimit the individual!” I would agree: it is a bad hypothesis produced by a bad anthropology. It ignores the communal nature of the person — the fact that he is unthinkable, strictly speaking, apart from the communal relations that cause his self to be and to take on a unity of its own. Only an anthropology that recognizes this dependent nature as intrinsic and life long could possibly formulate an attainable vision for what a good and flourishing human life looks like. Unfortunately, many in our time believe that it is “authoritarian” to insist that the dependencies in which persons always share be honored and treated as something irreducible to the individuals who take part in them.

avatar RJ Snell April 23, 2009 at 12:44 pm

Dan, why would we begin to discuss our church split by revolving around the involvement or non-involvement of the state? Suppress by the state or ignore? Those are the only options?

It seems to me that you’re posing the liberal gloss/authoritarian in overalls dichotomy from within the liberal position, then articulating the logical outcomes of the liberal position (which appears to result in a dilemma). If liberalism tends to result in the fundamental choice or suppress or ignore then it seems to me there exists some sort of fatal flaw with the liberal position.

But this doesn’t refute or even respond to the traditionalist, it seems to me, but simply denies the argumentative space by asserting that all debate must accept certain key principles and proceed. But the traditionalist doesn’t accept those principles, nor the options you’ve presented.

In other words, only foolish farmers water their stock from poisoned wells (you’ve committed, I believe, the ad hom fallacy of poisoning the well).

avatar Dan April 23, 2009 at 1:54 pm

James,

Thank you for your most generous response; it was more than my comment deserved. I understand and accept the fundamental traditionalist insight, “that human beings are by their nature social, political, and rational.” That being said I also understand and accept the fundamental Marxist insight that people are what they do. I also understand and accept the insight of the Church that man is created in the image and likeness of God. How we put these insights into practice in political theory is a different question all together.

Conservatism is not merely an anthropological insight alone but, as you admit and embrace, a political ideology, “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.”

You are right to point out the fundamental difference in ethics between liberalism and traditionalism as being rooted in teleology. However I believe you characterization of liberal teleology, “The liberal says the end of the human person is its freedom; to the extent this can be called a “fulfillment,” the telos of the human person is fulfilled in the absence of all binding relations to another.”, is a simplification that leads to a misunderstanding of the liberal position. It would better be stated that the liberal says that the end of the human person requires his or her freedom and only then can he or she be fulfilled. One does a great disservice to religious liberals by claiming that they believe the only aim of man is the choosing and has nothing to do with the choice. Man can, however, only reach fulfillment through free choice.

I agree completely that man can only find meaning and fulfillment in community (Although I will make an exception for hermits who seek the community of the Blessed Trinity). The liberal insight in no way excludes this, one always chooses to live in community unless in despair one exiles oneself from humanity or the world all together (Both messy businesses). One might say the very foundation of community is the fact that individuals participate in it freely choosing to accept its common way of life (The Anabaptists are a key example of the embrace of both visions, the liberal and traditionalist.)

The use of authoritarian was not intended to be pejorative but rather descriptive of one of the choices a traditionalist must make when the rubber of political theory meets the road of politics. Does the individual have human rights that cannot be violated by the state even if they are a threat to the community or does the state serve an authority higher than the rights of a single individual which may be abrogated in the name of the community? This is the question which separates the liberal from the authoritarian.

avatar Dan April 23, 2009 at 2:22 pm

R.J.,

I agree that the discussion of a church split should not begin with the political, however James’ article concluded with a celebration of the political possibilities of traditionalism. I admit that the two possibilities I gave are but the two most extreme they were meant to but begin a conversation and not end it.

The dichotomy I proposed, that traditionalism is ultimately merely a style (I use style with caution here, it is not in any way meant to be dismissive) of liberalism or authoritarianism when the political theory becomes political practice. Liberalism would exclude, from the beginning of the conversation, any thought of suppression. Ultimately in a liberal polity the rights of the individual are sacrosanct. The liberal solution is that there can be no political solution to such a community problem despite its dire consequences for the community. The traditionalist position I imagine is quite different (Suppression being but the most extreme example although employed by some traditionalists since the beginning of time whenever such situations arouse).

The parable was not meant to either refute or respond to the traditionalist but merely to question. It is an invitation to solve the very riddle at the foundation of liberalism, how the state should deal or not deal with conflicting religious claims that destabilize communities. (See Hobbes and Locke)

If I get a Locke and Hobbes style answer to this question I know that traditionalism is merely a style of liberalism. If I don’t then I am dealing with a genuinely different bird.

avatar Kevin April 23, 2009 at 3:44 pm

It is an invitation to solve the very riddle at the foundation of liberalism, how the state should deal or not deal with conflicting religious claims that destabilize communities.

One of the troubles with traditionalism (and I say this as a traditionalist) is that there are some questions it cannot answer; when these questions are asked with sufficient force, traditionalism collapses.

This is why the Enlightenment’s probing of all foundations was able to bring down the anciens régimes of politics and thought with such incredible speed. Traditionalists had no way to explain why old forms should be retained, or why long-cherished beliefs should not be discarded.

If we all (or at least almost all of us) agreed to cooperate in a traditionalist project, we could create a real civilization and a real culture. But traditionalism, of whatever sort, will always involve specifics that cannot be defended, even if the paradigm into which the specifics fit can be defended. For example (and apropos of Dan’s question), if religion is an essential part of traditionalist life, people will have to reach substantive agreement on religious questions before they can build a traditional community.

Even if everyone could be convinced that religion was necessary for community, and therefore for a properly-ordered human life, this would be a far cry from convincing everyone to sign on to the Nicene Creed.

We all agree that there need to be traffic laws, to make a parallel, but there is no canon of pure reason by which driving on the right can be proved to be the best way to live. Traditionalism can no more deal with a serious religious (i.e., ideological) split than we Americans could deal with a principled minority who insisted, in full self-righteousness, in driving on the left.

avatar D.W. Sabin April 23, 2009 at 4:58 pm

Dan,
Obviously, the Prudent Traditional Conservative of The Hypothetical Church gathers up a few of his confreres and some assorted arms, disguise themselves as members of the upstart True Hypothetical Church and march down to the local bar and set it ablaze, leaving a few Bingo cards and Prayer Group Schedules from the True Hypothetical Church scattered about for good effect. Righteously enraged, the ruddy habitues of the now burned bar then march over in a bloodshot frenzy and destroy the True Hypothetical Religion’s church and everything in it. Parched, they then celebrate at an applejack relief center established by the Hypothetical Church. Desperate for proper resolution , the bereft members of the True Hypothetical Church then introduce a measure to the local Zoning board calling for the outlawing of bars as dens of seditious violence . The local Court, presided over by a member of the Hypothetical church then presents a homily on the wages of sin but closes with an admonition : “Has not the bar owner who lost his bar suffered enough?”. The local newspaper, then publishes a screaming front page crying “New True Hypothetical Church Anti-Business. “. Within the frenzied chaos, business booms and it is decided that a continuing skirmish between the churches will be good for business while the simmering antipathy creates many converts on both sides.

It is an unremitting bit of arch comedy to me that, within today’s political farce both liberal and conservative actually think they have a distinct and unique franchise and that furthermore, this franchise is actually useful for anything beyond maintaining the clanking machinery of the One Party State….. through the enormously expensive carnival of said State’s elaborately staged Bait and Switch we romantically refer to as “elections”. The individual…their pursuit of pleasures or property right… are heralded as all important by both sides of the false distinction while the State manages to work in a kind of not-quite-accidental cosa nostra with Big Business to wring any true individual sentience out of the acquiescent post-citizenship populace.

We have a fiat currency, a televised and now twittered vicarious agora and institutions of “learning” whose chief preoccupation seems to be a campaign of leveling rather than promoting excellence and the actual joyful rigors of learning. Socratic discourse now thought too “divisive” (No! somebody shoulda said sumpthin!), so the discursive species is taught to check boxes to confirm their readiness to join the ranks of the graduated and one wonders why the newspapers…our vital 4th estate are tanking as the readership descends to an average 8th grade literacy level that finds it’s own rewards in a Service Economy, so named because it sounds better than slavery. Finally, any notion of the importance of the individual vote is lost in the electoral college circus….another low hanging fruit of best intentions gone wanting. If the electoral college caint produce, the judiciary will sanction the vote in order to “put an unfortunate incident behind us and protect the security of the State”. At the very peak of the “Salute and Protect the Freedoms of the American” farrago, we have an individual citizen that is now almost fully subsumed by an artificial construct of myth, diversion and a kind of lust that is oddly overstuffed with ennui like a deep-fried Thanksgiving Turducky (My pardons here to New Orleanians for sullying their fine cuisine). Even the individuals home, their castle is seductively changed into a cookie jar and through a program of debt as commodity, said castle is stormed and plundered. Properly “protected”, the individual is gnawed by a fear that is best demonstrated by the formation of what is our newest and largest Bureaucracy, a gargantuan Department of Homeland Security fittingly ensconced in a former Mental Hospital. Mobility, that great and abiding object of our pursuit of happiness now not only commands an increasing percentage of our daily life in a frenzied need to drive miles to work or shop, it is at the root of an aborning suspicion that this era of heady travel is about to come to an end, adding more foreboding. In the nick of time, we get that lovely monument to the State edifice of man punching his own nose: The Humvee and The Magnanimous State even gives a fine little tax deduction so as to help litter the roads with these ridiculous doomsday chariots on banned steroids. Cripes, if only they would come with a 50 caliber as standard equipment, then the traffic jam to work might get even more fun. Meanwhile, we torture some crazed insurgents in a fine little camp located on the southern shores of an Island Nation we revile for their “human rights Abuses”. This is done as part of a brilliantly cockeyed campaign to trash a secular country in the Middle East and pitch it headlong back several centuries while killing no small number of the citizenry who originally wanted nothing more than to immigrate here and buy a University of Michigan Sweatshirt. A company once run by the Vice President then builds showers for the soldiers that either confuse hot and cold water or better yet, electrocute the infantry. Fed up, the populace elects somebody who promises “change ” and delivers , because we go from bad to worse.

Irony is most rich where there is a bit of a wrinkle in the Reality Continuum. We have built a Tower of Babel of Irony and still…we hold onto these convenient expressions of something that does not exist beyond a thin veneer of caricature.

In one of those wry bits of rabbit hole, we find that the individual is only as good as his community and his community is only as good as the individual but then we attempt a social paradigm that imposes a distinction …almost a competition between the two while subverting proper conditions for both. Little wonder then that the spectacle of sex would be such a frenzied thing when the Establishment is a College of Mental Onanists.

All in all, there is just enough plausible deniability to go around that the murderous satire sustains. The people, reduced to a kind of Spectacle Postpriandal Dyspepsia retreats to the sordid corners of the modern Liberal vs. Conservative debate, happy that they can drown out their fear and gastric upset with some simple-minded jeering. Their politicians remain just happy to be alive and doing lunch at the myriad little private dining rooms deep in the bowels of K Street.

The Federal Reserve, pillar of all things fiduciary reduces their interest rate to ZERO. For their part, the banks put accounting to work as an instrument of optimism.

The funny thing about the future and telos is that the future usually doesn’t wait for telos and it comes breaking down the door, armed with all the hypocrisy a society that worships irony can muster.

avatar Dan April 23, 2009 at 5:05 pm

Kevin,

I appreciate your comment and am glad to see there are traditionalists who see how problematic the position can be. My problem with Traditionalism is that as intriguing as it is on a theoretical level any attempt to implement it on practical level results into its transformation into something else.

If it were to take the form of a triumphalist rejection of decadence and human rights it can quickly devolve into a form of fascism. (Remember Fascism is grounded in both a rejection of liberalism as well as Marxism and a return to tradition). The alternative is for it to exist as a “Benedict option”/anarchism in which Traditionalists withdrawal from the wider culture and begin to build their own alternative. This is of course only possible under liberalism (Remember that the Anabaptists and Old Believers were not treated kindly by their traditionalist sovereigns)

Traditionalists as far as I can tell exist in an uneasy halfway house between the two finding both logical conclusions problematic. Hopefully they will follow the second option in which they will need to make allies with liberals.

It’s never a good idea to bite the hand that feeds you.

avatar seanf April 23, 2009 at 5:11 pm

A remarkable essay, well written and competently argued. But it is rather easy to conflate the American Left and the Right, especially when you happen to disagree with both of them. And, as always, reality departs quite considerably from the theory in practice.

Two quick points:

– I doubt very much that you can mount a defense of your “traditional conservative” philosophy without resorting to religious belief in some form. Without taking a position on whether that is an actual defect, you must concede that there are limits to your rationality. Certainly many of us whose terminal degrees are in the sciences, not the humanities, will tend to devalue such an approach. Not because we misunderstand it, but because an acquaintance with the nuts and bolts of Creation tends to make any claims of acquaintance with a Creator seem insufferably arrogant.

– It does not take much more than a tenuous grasp on reality to see the very different normative positions staked out on major national issues by the current representatives of the American Right and Left. One may argue, as you have, that these positions are merely two sides of the same coin and share a common philosophical heritage imperfectly understood by both sides.

Regardless, equating the two in practice and eliding their differences, especially in light of recent events, strikes me as rather inappropriate.

avatar James Matthew Wilson April 23, 2009 at 5:23 pm

We waited. We anticipated. And he came. And he delivered.

avatar Empedocles April 23, 2009 at 6:11 pm

James,
I wasn’t faulting your terrific piece for not going further than it did. I just thought it would be fun to discuss which side was right here in the comments.
The post that I linked to wasn’t really claiming that the self is the sum of all our relations, or just a part of society, but that it is the sum of our functional/teleological aspects (some of which might conflict in cases of weakness of the will). These do indeed exist outside of society, but can not fulfill their telos without society anymore than fish can us their shark evading instinct if they live their life in a tank. Since teleology is at root history, we are our history.
You say that according to liberalism, freedom is the end of the human person. We should remind ourselves that liberalism arose from the rejection of the Aristotelian apparatus of physics: ends, functions, and virtues. In its place came atomism and so the self was reconceived as a kind of atom possessing various forces (desires). So the monadic/liberal self has no telos, instead it is subject to various laws of nature. Modern philosophy saw itself as trying to unveil the laws of moral nature the way Newton had of physical, to understand he place of value in a universe of mere fact. For Locke these laws were written in the structure of the universe by God, for Kant they were the laws of reason. As I’ve mentioned before, teleology is once again respectable in philosophy thanks to the work of Ruth Millikan (and others) and it is only a matter of time before someone writes a new Nicomachean Ethics.
As for the role of the state, my guess it will be the role of the state to protect and promote social capital and be wary of the ways that state intervention can undermine it. As for the church example, as Robert Putnam has demonstrated, diversity destroys social capital (for an explanation of why this is see here: http://apoxonbothyourhouses.blogspot.com/2009/02/why-diversity-destroys-social-capital.html ). With the Puritans, whenever a group was unhappy with the teachings of the church they left (or were exiled) and started a new colony, thus social capital was protected. Each new congregation became its own town. We see that today as people move to be among those one has the most in common. I think that the state has no role to play in the church example as people will naturally sort themselves to be among those one shares the most with. However, we need the right for those who so separate to form new political bodies to govern their affairs. Where they don’t sort themselves in this way, both can end up dying out: there are now more Mormons than Congregationalists and Unitarians in Massachusetts.

avatar Carl Scott April 23, 2009 at 6:17 pm

Ah…the pox on both houses move! Hey, there’s good stuff here, but..for all the references to Tocqueville, precious little awareness of the socio-ideological dynamics of common opinion in the democratic era, and of the leftist tilt that is central to understanding it.

And traditionalist conservatives and/or front porch republicans are going to win (anything) in America by denouncing liberalism tout court? They’re going to deny that they have to deal with the way liberalism is entwined into our very culture here? They’re going to get up in public and say, “Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were for the birds?”

I’ll add, less fundamentally: They’re going to succeed in Red rural America by repeating liberal slurs against Bush from 2003?

Face it, the Borg you fear is far more empowered by the Democrats. And Democrats are helped not a small amount by intellectuals who feel better about themselves casting curses both ways. No amount of cleverness, and there is much above, can hide that elementary fact. A winning Republican coalition in this day and age would be far more likely to have a serious seat at the bargaining table for organized front-porcher partisans than would a Democrat one.

Time to think more often about how to win something, instead of how to analyze something. I much prefer program-exploring posts like D. Larison’s of a few weeks ago to this tired stuff.

avatar Carl Scott April 23, 2009 at 6:22 pm

Okay, “tired stuff” is unnecessarily mean.

avatar Josh Cooney April 23, 2009 at 6:33 pm

“A winning Republican coalition in this day and age would be far more likely to have a serious seat at the bargaining table for organized front-porcher partisans than would a Democrat one.”

Wrong, dead wrong.

avatar Bob Cheeks April 23, 2009 at 8:13 pm

“When you give the people the right to vote themselves largesse, it’s all over now Baby Blue!”
Sabin, my eyes are bleeding, I can’t get no relief. Dude, I hope you’re teaching at least at the masters level…this stuff’s way too good. Hey, I think you’re a frustrated apparatchik! Yeah, that’s it!
probably some college president!
Can’t you guys see we’ve gotta press the restart button, we’re all done in, it’s over! Time to recapture reality, we crapped out at Roosevelt and that damned Philipino thing, or was it Lincoln and the compact betrayal…shoulda kept the Articles,

avatar Michael April 23, 2009 at 8:35 pm

Exellent.

avatar RJ Snell April 23, 2009 at 10:45 pm

Dan,

Thank you for your helpful follow-up posts.

The posing of the question in terms of “style” is an interesting one; I would pose the basic insight of the traditionalist as not style but “source.” In my earlier response I argued that you had not granted argumentative space to the traditionalist but had posed the question in light of an overly limited set of options, and while your subsequent posts have expanded this, I think the style question does the same sort of limitation.

In the example of the churches, you pose the questions in terms of state action (as if all political action is state action!) and thus disallow other sources of political action rooted in civic society with its principles of subsidiarity and prudence. I would articulate the missing source as that of prudence (in Aristotle’s sense). Unlike Locke and Hobbes who address the theologico-political problem in terms of an abstraction (Hobbes accepts the geometrical method as legitimate in political questions, which I think reveals him to be poorly-schooled, again Aristotle, and Locke, who I don’t know as well, seems to accept a kind of rights-abstraction as the guiding principle), there is a source in prudential political experience which admits of no certainty but accepts the inherited experience of local communities and the wise of those communities in such matters.

In my judgment, a guiding principle of conservatives is the Aristotelian insight that one does not ask for geometrical proofs in politics, and thus abstractions such as provided by Hobbes and Locke are not as helpful as they might seem to be. This isn’t then left or right thought with a certain stylistic intonation, but rather the acceptance of wisdom from a source rejected by liberalism.

As an example, Descartes articulates that the best city is that planned by a single architect since it has the most rational coherence. This is the source of many horrors.

So the church: I don’t know. How could I? Is it in my home town? Who are the people involved? What year is it? What is the history of the church? What would be the wise thing to do in this place in this time in this way in this amount and etc etc. How long can we tolerate the tragic nonesense of the situation before we need to do something to solve it (I think of Lincoln waiting, waiting, waiting before the proclamation, rejecting the cries of NOW from the abolitionists–a nice essay somewhere by Fornieri on this).

Now it might be that you object that I’ve conflated the example (the split church) with your basic question, which is the theologico-political problem, and I suspect you’ll find my answer naive: why must there be a theoretical answer to that problem rather than a prudential one? Spinoza, Descartes, Locke, Hobbes, Rawls give theoretical (by which I mean universal-leaning) answers and spawned the dichotomies of your earlier posts, which have not been solutions. Rawls is a good example of the horror of the “geometrical” in politics, for in the blindness of the original position and the veil of ignorance, prudence is made impossible.

avatar James Matthew Wilson April 23, 2009 at 11:11 pm

I wish to refrain as long as possible before offering any substantial response or reflection to the often fine comments slowly accumulating here. Imagine that these words were merely intended for a relative of mine; it causes me, among other things, not to worry overmuch about whether they might be “tired,” since I confess my own exhaustion. I just wanted the yawn to be as articulate as possible.

Believe it or not, this comment will not address the many substantial questions of principle and (a disturbing variety of) prudence. Rather, I just wished to say to Empedocles: you have made me aware of and interested in Milliken, as my research librarian could tell you. If you have not sought to synthesize what you’ve gained from her with dear Alasdair MacIntyre, I would suggest you do so soon.

Even my freshmen students sense the ground beginning to shift beneath their intellectual feet as they read those openning pages of “After Virtue.”

Again, all the other flack, fancy, and fun will have to wait.

avatar Dan April 24, 2009 at 8:50 am

Empedocles,

It’s this sort of thought out of traditionalist circles that causes me leap into the arms of liberalism,

“As for the role of the state, my guess it will be the role of the state to protect and promote social capital and be wary of the ways that state intervention can undermine it. As for the church example, as Robert Putnam has demonstrated, diversity destroys social capital (for an explanation of why this is see here: http://apoxonbothyourhouses.blogspot.com/2009/02/why-diversity-destroys-social-capital.html ). With the Puritans, whenever a group was unhappy with the teachings of the church they left (or were exiled) and started a new colony, thus social capital was protected. Each new congregation became its own town. We see that today as people move to be among those one has the most in common. I think that the state has no role to play in the church example as people will naturally sort themselves to be among those one shares the most with. However, we need the right for those who so separate to form new political bodies to govern their affairs. Where they don’t sort themselves in this way, both can end up dying out: there are now more Mormons than Congregationalists and Unitarians in Massachusetts.”

Your absolutely right that the traditionalist would see the role of the state as one to protect and promote social capital without undermining it. I also believe Putnam is right that diversity destroys social capital. If we follow this logic to the end I think your Puritan example is a good one of what a traditionalist polity might look like (Not the only but a good one).

Here’s the rub. What if the dissenters for whatever reason can’t or wont leave? What happens when they say the only way we are leaving is if you take me out the door feet first? That they won’t leave their home, business, and uproot their family into the unknown so that social capital can be preserved.

If, as James has said, “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.” These individuals have no interests or rights outside the polity. If that is true, and if they are undermining the organic whole that birthed them should they not be removed like any other cancer? In the quickest and most final way to make sure the disease does not spread?

If this idea makes you as uncomfortable as it makes me than you believe in the rights and interests of individuals apart from the community. You may even be a liberal.

avatar Dan April 24, 2009 at 9:54 am

R.J.,

There’s some really good stuff here.

Traditionalism as being intimately tied to “Source” is certainly a completely valid and very fruitful way of looking at it. The source or ground of traditionalism being, as you stated, “prudential political experience which admits of no certainty but accepts the inherited experience of local communities and the wise of those communities in such matters.”

This definition certainly emphasizes the localism, decentralism, and particularity found in traditionalism (All of which are among its most compelling points for me). However I don’t believe it to be the full picture as it is devoid of all ethical content. On what ground can a traditionalist make a critique of any political decision if it were the result of the prudential experience of local communities and the wise of those communities. What if this local experience and the wise found that liberalism had enriched the community? What if they decided that female circumcision, slavery, infanticide, etc. were part of the community’s heritage and the wise saw these institutions as essential to the life of the community? If you are willing to say that is fine, that it takes as they say, different strokes to row the world then I see no problem with such a position (At least logically).

This however is not what I see most traditionalists arguing for. I see them making ethical arguments all the time, transcendent ones, such as the one we are discussing, the hilarious condemnation of “Cheese Sauce” (There are quite a few communities where cheese sauce is just alright with them), etc. Traditionalists come from all over the country, many different communities, and many different religions and yet they argue a surprisingly similar position. They can’t be arguing from a “Source” such as the one you posited. There is something else aside from the “Source” that is going on, in my view one of the options I’ve outlined.

Sorry if there was a confusion of definitions but political action for me is always state action or action to motivate the state to act (Anti-war demonstration etc.) Giving soup to the hungry is not political action but social, and a work of mercy.

Rawls may not be the best guide but he did give us a compelling reason not to eat each other alive which is better than the prudential political experience which admitted of no certainty but accepted the inherited experience of local Aztecs and Aztec high priests in such matters.

avatar RJ Snell April 24, 2009 at 12:09 pm

Dan,

You very accurately pose the question that all forms of virtue ethics must face, and do it very helpfully.

I must be brief, but I don’t think you’ve given full weight to prudence as its understood in the Aristotelian and/or Thomistic traditions, which do not see prudence as merely clever instrumental reasoning, as amoral techniques by which we accomplish what we want most efficiently. So I wouldn’t grant that prudence “is devoid of all ethical content.” That is true of cunning or instrumental reason, perhaps, but prudence is understood as a virtue and as a form of moral knowing of the natural law. (especially for Thomism)

This doesn’t change the sense that prudence is source. While prudence is positioned, and thus made moral rather than amoral, in the natural law, I don’t think the natural law is known but by exercises of prudence; in other words, I tend to think of natural law as known via performance and by the operations of deliberation rather than known as first principles from which one deduces. That prudence is a source of knowledge doesn’t mean it can’t have an ontological grounding or positioning. The distinction btw the order of being and order of knowledge is a complementary one. It isn’t technique, but a real source of moral wisdom.

So I’ll stick with my claim that you’re not allowing the traditionalist their own space but insist they approach the question as a liberal (and a quandary ethics decisionist perspective at that). If one simply says that prudence is ehtically empty, just technique, then my claim has been, and is, that you are disallowing a real source and forcing liberalism as the only possible starting point. And this poisons the well.

Now, the what ifs: yes, what if liberalism worked,what if female circumcision benefited a society, what if human sacrifice worked? Those are in fact what-ifs, aren’t they? Do they contribute to the activity of the soul in conformity with virtue in a complete life and with necessary external goods (Aristotle, NE I)? Prudentially I would say no, but prudentially not in a utilitarian sense, prudentially in a sense of the human life. Should the what ifs come to pass, should human sacrifice actually contribute to the good of the human life in a non-utilitarian way, then I’m in a real bind. But I’m not too worried.

Rawls: I won’t grant that Rawls gives us a reason to not eat each other. He’s quite willing to “eat” the youngest and most dependent among us.

avatar Dan April 24, 2009 at 1:03 pm

R.J.,

Eureka!

This makes things much much clearer! We are then not merely considering prudence as I understood you to previously mean the term but as you so clearly stated, “prudence is understood as a virtue and as a form of moral knowing of the natural law. (especially for Thomism)”

But then we have to consider the natural law. It would be fair, without getting bogged down to much in the nuances, to say that the natural law is valid everywhere? (i.e. Not contingent on any, “political experience which admits of no certainty but accepts the inherited experience of local communities and the wise of those communities in such matters.”) This is not to say that you would be wrong in saying that, “I tend to think of natural law as known via performance and by the operations of deliberation rather than known as first principles from which one deduces.”

So political theory is formed through the exercise of prudence as understood as BOTH a virtue (Practiced and instilled only in community)and as a form of knowing of the natural law (Abstract moral law grounded in nature/creation and valid everywhere). This understanding opens us up to common ground with liberalism in the form of natural rights.

James would then appear mistaken when stating when believing that traditionalism excludes the liberal notion that, “the freedom of the individual is the primary good after which society and government seek.”

Is this not in fact the position that the School of Salamanca came to in their reformulation of natural law?

Rawls: You are of course correct in the formal sense but if the each other was limited to the commenters he could make the case.

avatar RJ Snell April 24, 2009 at 1:40 pm

Dan,

So this is why I try not to ever comment meaningfully on these things–one get’s caught into the conversation (luckily I’m using it to avoid grading final exams just now).

I’m unwilling to embrace the conclusion you’ve made given my understanding of the natural law. There are some understandings of the natural law (Tracey Rowland calls this Whig Thomism as opposed to her/my Augustinian-Thomism) which believe the natural law is universally true and universally known, or at least in principle. On this reading the natural law is commensurate and in fact a precursor or even cause of liberalism, and i think this is the reading you’re giving of the natural law. But it isn’t my own reading.

I accept that the natural law is universally true (an ontological claim–it in fact operates always and everywhere) but I don’t accept that it is universally known–this is my order of being/order of knowledge distinction in the previous post. Only communities/persons of prudent deliberation and action–virtuous communities–know the natural law. Thus slaveholding, human sacrificing communities don’t know and are imprudent for the same reasons, they do not conduce to the good appropriate to humans. Something can be self-evident in itself and not be known.

In that sense prudence is, as you say, both virtue and moral knowledge, but NOT knowledge as an abstract political theory of natural rights. The JC Murray school of natural law might read natural law and natural rights as meaning something very similar or at least NL supports NR, but I don’t grant this. (for an analogous debate, see the debate on the Immanent Frame blog btw Jamie Smith and Nick Wolterstorff on Wolt.’s book _Justice_.)

The natural law isn’t a cousin of natural rights in my reading, and in fact could exist in some resistance to natural rights (MacIntyre on natural rights and witches, perhaps?) So I won’t grant the “common ground with liberalism in the form of natural rights” or the argument that James was wrong.

(I hate to argue and dash, but I think this is my last post on this for now–grading awaits. We did move towards at least understanding what was at stake, and thanks.)

avatar D.W. Sabin April 24, 2009 at 3:41 pm

A few “geometrical proofs” present in politics:
1. The People are Easily fooled and Bigger Lies are generally more readily swallowed than small ones.
2. Obfuscation is the most politic method of political action and party politics is the best friend obfuscation ever had.
3. The more a government sings paeans to democracy, the more it’s citizens are advised to distrust it.
4. A Standing Army begs both war and destruction while manufacturing enemies with cheerful alacrity.
5. Erect a Monumental core in your seat of government and soon, one will possess a monumental government whose myth-making ability is second only to it’s production of outright lies.
6. A Bureaucracy cannot grow in the face of reason because it demands a suspension of belief in everything but the great good of the Bureaucracy. The Bureaucracy is the chief vehicle of Government in it’s age-old assault on reason.
7. The more a Government promotes State Religion/s, the more one will find religious devotions spilling over into and confusing themselves with the sordidly secular realm of government to the detriment of both. Governments then state that they are doing what they do in defense of the religious traditions involved while in reality, they are doing nothing of the kind. Religion, invested in government, cannot then reveal its misplaced confidence in government. Amorality cloaks the contract and immorality breeds like flies. The more religious a government professes to be, the more irreligious it is. It is Religions duty to be a moral example and check on government, not a cheerleader for it. Religion in fact, is a vital component of the Separation of Powers.
8. A government that say’s it’s chief aim is to protect it’s citizens knows that it has been up to no good and that her citizens damned well should worry. Enemies become the best friends these governments have.
9. When the Separation of Powers in a Republic is eroded, you can be quite confident that power-politics is about to destroy the Republic and the people will be the last to recognize it
10. When a government says it wants to avoid “playing politics”, one can be quite confident that it is already doing so and intends to ramp up the effort.

avatar Dan April 25, 2009 at 9:22 am

R.J.,

Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in!
We are a bit caught as you say but at the same time I’m thankful that you’ve been willing to step into the quick sand. Your comments have been most helpful.

I understand your unwillingness to accept my conclusions concerning natural law. They would, as you have rightly pointed out, lead to the traditionalism as a gloss of liberalism possibility which you have rejected from the beginning of our conversation. As a liberal I myself must admit that it is not the only reading but I do believe it is the most compelling one.

I find your reading problematic in its circularity. My early definition, as you have pointed out, as a place for common ground depends on a particular reading of natural law (I think your Whig Thomism label is accurate as a description if not historically as I believe this interpretation goes back at least another three hundred years). If we accept your reading we must alter the definition:

“Traditionalist political theory is formed through the exercise of prudence as understood as BOTH a virtue (Practiced and instilled only in community) and as a form of knowing of the natural law (Abstract moral law grounded in nature/creation and valid everywhere). This knowing can only be reached through and subsists in virtuous communities.”

Now Augustine, if I am remembering correctly, believes virtue to be a habit that reinforces, fulfills, etc. our nature. Now if natural law is, as you have said, unknowable outside of virtuous communities, the definition, in practice if not in theory comes back to what it was before natural law was brought into the equation, namely, “political experience which admits of no certainty but accepts the inherited experience of local communities and the wise of those communities in such matters.”

There is no need to bring natural law into these matters if it can only be known through, “political experience which admits of no certainty but accepts the inherited experience of local communities and wise of those communities in such matters.” Thus our Aztec quandary returns. There is no meaningful way in which you could claim to the Aztec that human sacrifice was wrong except to say that the experience of your homeland and the consensus of the wiser there is that it is wrong. The best you could do in fact is to invite the Aztec to live in your community and see if his understanding is reshaped.

And with the Aztec comes what I outlined as the authoritarian option is reopened.

I still maintain a traditionalist must be, in the end,

A liberal (The common ground possible that I outlined earlier; Whig Thomism if you like)

An Authoritarian (Ultimately embracing something similar to what Eco describes as Ur-Facism)

An Anarchist (Freely submitting to an Ordnung of some kind but able to leave into a wider liberal society)

The last option I believe is the most interesting and promising for the traditionalist but also the most unpolitical in the traditional sense.

I’d be interested in hearing which strains the readers of FPR are most interested in. I’m most interested in a combination of 1. & 3.

avatar Empedocles April 25, 2009 at 9:43 am

I think your categories are overly broad. Does it make you an authoritarian to be against, say, unlimited immigration? After all, you are thereby limiting the rights of individual movement. Are you authoritarian to be for English only education? Why isn’t that an infringement of rights? Traditionalism, as are most positions, is a mixture of the categories you mention. Do all positions except extreme Libertarianism fall under authoritarianism for you?

avatar James Matthew Wilson April 25, 2009 at 11:09 am

I hesitate to step back into this ring, since it has clearly seen a steady and interesting hum of activity without me. I hesitate doubly because, having tried to abstain from reading further comments until this morning, I find I cannot keep up fully with the argument Dan and R.J. set forth and so cannot offer the systematic reply that would really be required. At best, I can make a few fragmentary comments and hope they find acceptance as offerings of good will.

To take on the briefer, no less substantial criticisms of my essay briefly:

Carl Scott and others inform me that the pose of a “pox on both their houses” approach is too easy and too imprudent, failing; further, it masks real differences between the governing political parties in our country. Thus, I am told at once that I have failed to appreciate the great good a “seat at the Republican table” might offer a traditional conservative, even as I am also told I have failed to appreciate the real improvements offered by the Obamanation. I am even told not to “bite the hand that feeds me,” but it is the more abstract hand of liberalism rather than the left and right ones of the major parties.

I would reply, first, that I did not know in writing this essay that the standard to which it should aspire was of a politic or prudent bit of rhetoric. I burdened my mind with nothing more than in writing the truth in a way that would be compelling for a mind already disposed toward the Good.

It is clear that the so-called “fusionism” between traditional conservatives and neoconservatives of the last thirty years has had only one good effect: it has made the Republican party a regular if inconsistent opponent of abortion, which is a vast improvement on its previous flirtations with population control and odd offshoots of “eugenics.” The Republican Party has done some good things in this regard; I can now imagine the end of abortion in the United States in our lifetimes — however dimly. But in exchange for that absolute moral good, it should be noted “prudentially” that state capitalism marches onward and continues to destroy real communities in our country (indeed most Americans can no longer imagine what it would be like to live in community rather than as a free-floating subject of the State), and that our entire economy’s structure drives us to, and is driven by, foreign intervention and entanglements that are often morally objectionable and almost always are conducive to making stable, autarchic, and contented families and communities a pipe dream rather than the normal condition on which most persons in history have been able to rely.

But I will take a seat at the Republican table, if I may have it. Indeed, I’m looking forward to taking one in the same room with Justice Allito next week.

I am told by a “scientist” of some kind two things: a) it is impossible to justify traditionalism without religious belief of some kind; and b) that, to a “scientist,” religious belief is implausible because familiarity with the “nuts and bolts” of biological life make the notion of creation seem “arrogant.”

Oh, my. With the first point, I am entirely in agreement. If one contends that it is possible to make any claim without some kind of theology operative at the foundation of the claim, one has simply not thought very hard about the basis of the claim. If one says, “An argument is invalid because it depends upon a theology,” then one has simply failed to understand that all questions are fundamentally theological. That it is possible for a thinker to be so superficial as to refuse this fact, I do not doubt; but let’s call superficiality what it is — superficiality and not “reason.” One must not ask, “To think theologically or not?”, because one is already thinking theologically. Rather, self examination requires enough probity to discover what theological grounding lies at the foot of my assumptions, and self-criticism requires asking whether it is the right one.

With the second, I can only protest that I am unsure of which nuts-and-bolts exclude the possibility of creation. For nature — all things — to be created, all that is required is that they should come from nothing, that each and every thing, including time, once was not. The contents of “that which is,” of reality, can’t speak meaningfully to whether they were created, but only, possibly and analogously, to the intelligence that gave them one form and one order rather than another. Since I spent my entire childhood around rather prestigious neuroscientists, most of whom were devout Christians, it has never occurred to me to see “science” and “religion” in meaningful opposition. It has occurred to me that one could see such an option if one has either a crude, perhaps arrogant, understanding of scientific reasoning or a bad — usually materialist — conception of what God “must be,” and therefore a bad theology.

Now, whelmed though I am by Dan and RJ’s comments, I want to essay just a few little claims; fortunately, I am relieved of any sustained argument precisely because RJ has said most of what I would want to say and has said it better than I could.

Dan’s comments became better grounded and more nuanced as he went along, and so it is tempting to pass over the indefensible historical claim that “fascism” was a return to tradition. That’s a good way to scare the kids and make them good liberals, but it is also, at best, false. Fascism is, among other things, the attempt to sacralize the State as the voice of a single national race. Its entire raison d’etre is not to return to tradition but to make its sovereignty absolute; it has precisely the same intellectual origins as liberalism, and shares this common origin because it is in fact one advanced form of liberalism: a form that says simply the freedom of the individual can only be surely attained if every last decision and thought of the individual is administered by a centralized, single, representative state. Fascism, like liberalism in its more moderate form, ultimately obliterates the individual it pretends to save.

A similar easy comment to target is one whose absurdity appears almost grammatically. I am told that the “Benedict option” of dropping out of society in protest is only possible in a liberal society. I am reasonably sure that the Benedictines were not fleeing from liberal society when they first submitted to the life of work and prayer. But, of course, let me just say that this phrase, which derives from the end of MacIntyre’s “After Virtue” has been misunderstood; it is doubtful MacIntyre there recommended anything like the unworldly moves of certain Protestant sects. The Christian religious and monastic orders — of whom the Benedictines are prototypical — did not view themselves as leaving society, but as leaving the “world” insofar as that term could be understood as the life confined to pleasures of the flesh. They were “orders” after all. Orders of what? Orders within or of society. As such they are, in a sense, far more worldly that the Protestant sects to which Dan refers.

But there are greater confusions than historical ones buried in Dan’s comment. It is clear that he cannot imagine a society that is not liberal society, i.e. a society held together by the laws of a managerial state ordered exclusively to procedural norms rather than to some telos of the common good. My essay challenged this view, and tried to get readers like himself to reimagine what community and society are. They are not reducible to the territory or bodies ruled by a state. Following naturally from this misconception, Dan also expresses a narrow vision of political action, which causes him to reduce all questions pertaining to the human good to questions of “Who decides?” It is natural that he should presume all formations other than those of liberalism are “authoritarian” because the only question that orders his thinking is that of sovereignty — and if that is the case, then any political form that is truly political will be authoritarian. As I said in the essay, liberalism is the most totalitarian of all.

Because he reduces all questions of the good and prudence to those of sovereignty, Dan rushes to identify natural law with natural rights, since “rights” here means simply principles or goods on which no one can decide anything besides the individual, and he insists — despite my best efforts to show this a mistaken lens — that to speak of society as organic is to leave the individual without “resource” against the dark force of the “collective.” But, I repeat, this bifurcation makes no sense.

In the “Hypothetical Church” example, Dan does not even address the question of what is the good of the various persons involved. He only asks “Who decides” what to do with the schismatics. But the procedures of how one might settle this or myriad questions could vary fruitfully from place to place and time to time, as RJ contends. The fundamental question, however, isn’t merely “who decides” but what are the goods at stake in this scenario? If the True Hypothetical Church were a “Heavens Gate” cult, then it would patently be in the interest of the individual and common good to control or eliminate that church as quickly as possible by means of whatever authority was available. The good of the human person isn’t reducible to the free exercise of his will, nor are the relevant questions about that good reducible to those of sovereignty and decision — much though liberalism tries to convince us otherwise.

You see, my essay wasn’t for a specific procedure of government authority, it was to argue that liberalism is malign because it tries to foreclose the questions that matter most for human beings in any society: What does a good life look like? How do we attain it? Since man is a political animal, these primarily ethical questions are political questions as well and have partially political answers. Dan clearly cares about these questions, and especially his later comments show an enviable engagement with them, but he cannot make productive statements about them simply because, again, he reduces them to matters of sovereignty.

As such, Dan’s claim that liberalism is not purely concerned with the freedom of the individual but with the freedom of the individual to pursue the good uncoerced seems patently false. Procedural liberalism by its nature forecloses the possibility of asking questions about and forming a shared vision of the Good in the public realm. As such, Dan’s statement tries to add what is a private question in liberal theory (“What is good?”) to what is the sole public or political thesis in that theory — “The purpose of the state is to free the individual from everything outside his individuality.” The assertion itself has a contradiction tearing at its seams — as, of course, does liberal theory in general: any good, including the purported liberal good of freedom, ultimately must coerce some individuals at some time. As my essay on “Leviathan” last week argued, and as my essay on James Kalb, which is due to appear soon, will argue, liberal theory isn’t merely destructive because it doesn’t pursue goods that I recognize; it is destructive because it is incoherent. And it is incoherent because it tries to substitute questions of procedure and sovereignty for questions of the nature of the good life for man.

Finally, Dan insists that natural law and prudence, as RJ discusses them, leave no way of adjudicating between human-sacrificing Aztecs and other, less ghoulish societies. He thinks that Rawls, like Kant, provided us universalizable maxims that are known by all at all times and that, therefore, these two worthies solve a problem that Thomism and natural law do not. Once again, he tries to insert a theory of procedure and sovereignty in place of one of ethics, of questions about the Good. But the weakness of this substitution is more glaring in an exclusively ethical context like this one than it is in the messier political context of the “True Hypothetical Church.”

What Dan wants is a non-human, independent judge to stand outside the historical Aztec and hypothetical “humane” societies and to show that there is a binding natural law imperative that insists one must decide in favor of the latter and that this decision is binding. Not to rehearse a tired argument (this is just MacIntyre vs. Rawls c. 1980), but the only such non-human judge is God, and God, in this sense, doesn’t provide a practical model for moral judgment. Far from looking down from the ether, each of us lives in a society with specific conditions that more-or-less allow us to see the Good. An Aztec who could witness the practices of his society and those of the more humane one may well decide that the latter clearly make possible the achievement of the Good, and a good life, whereas the slaughter of innocents does not. But there is no guarantee that this will happen, simply because one cannot expect someone to know more of the truth than he knows, even as one is capable of trying to reveal it to him.

The impotence of Rawls in this case seems obvious. What you are really saying is that if we could get Aztecs to think like Rawlsians, then they would no longer disembowel folks to serve their livers to the sun god. Fair enough; they might well, though, as RJ suggests, plenty of Rawlsians really use their transcendental ethical perspective as a means to assert the sovereignty of the individual will rather than its universally binding obligations, and so they do not reach the conclusions one might hope, e.g. that abortion is murder. What the traditional conservative argues is that the arrival at a Rawlsian ethics would in fact not be the product of trying to disembody and universalize one’s ethical thought, but would be the arrival at a particular morality after having undergone a particular and embodied journey called a tradition. As such, choosing between two competing claims about goods involves the very concrete activity of deliberating between the present, available options and seeing which one more likely would lead toward the form of the good life for man. To make such a decision, one must have a clear image of what such a happy life could look like, and this is not helped by independently conceived, universal maxims that do not take the particular character of that life as their starting point.

Hence, Empedocles urged me — rightly — to say, as it were, “Who’s right?” Liberals or traditional conservatives? But I don’t see this as a debatable choice. If one examines liberalism closely, one sees that liberals engage in the kinds of questions about the good that traditional conservatives foreground, but that liberalism a) misunderstands the Good, b) tries to conceal the political nature of the inquiry by making it universal rather than prudential, and c) tries to foreclose the prospect of meaningfully discovering the Good and conforming to it by reducing politics to procedural questions rather than substantive ones, and by therefore putting substantive questions exclusively into that most private of private spheres, the skull of the individual.

avatar Dan April 25, 2009 at 11:28 am

Empedocles,

My goal in offering these categories is to be in fact as broad as possible. I believe, as you do, that traditionalism can embrace any one of these categories, however it is the belief of the author of the piece and R.J. that traditionalism is to its very core in opposition to liberalism.

What I mean by liberalism is merely the belief in the natural rights of man are, as James has stated, “the primary good after which society and government seek.” If a state or community were to violate those rights they would be in a very real sense illegitimate.

Libertarianism is but one of a variety of styles of liberalism. It is one interpretation of what those natural rights are. Despite their differences Barack Obama, John McCain, Bob Barr, Ron Paul, Ralph Nader, and Cynthia McKinney are all liberals. They all believe that that natural rights of individuals are the primary good after which society and government seek.

For your specific questions there is no single answer that liberalism could give. The primary question that the liberal would be faced with in each of these issues would be one that would ask do these policies in any way violate the rights and dignity of the human persons involved.

The first question regarding unlimited immigration (or for that matter any immigration at all) would have to be framed in this way:

Do men and women have the right to live and work anywhere they please?

Likewise, the second question regarding English only education (or for that matter any mandated language of instruction in any classroom) would have to be framed in this way:

Do men and women have the right to pursue instruction in the language of their choice?

My personal answer to both questions would be that men and women do indeed have such rights. I realize however that this is not the only position a liberal could take.

An authoritarian would not examine such issues in such a way. Their arguments would be based on what is good for the polity. Since individuals have no interests or rights outside the polity. This is why Socrates drank the hemlock. He realized that the, “political experience which admits of no certainty but accepts the inherited experience of local communities and wise of those communities in such matters.” had found him guilty. Socrates found his being and fulfillment in the community and accepted their judgment. One may find an interesting liberal counter example in the words of Christ on the cross, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.”

avatar Dan April 25, 2009 at 1:17 pm

James,

I must thank you again for a most thoughtful and engaging response and am glad to hear that you also believe R.J. to have been a most able representative of your school.

First on questions historical:

I was reluctant to employ the term fascism in this argument for the obvious reason that it has taken on a pejorative meaning apart from its historic and theoretical. I cannot fault you for dismissing it as merely, “a good way to scare the kids and make them good liberals.” But let me allow Il Duce to speak for himself,

“In the Fascist conception of history, man is man only by virtue of the spiritual process to which he contributes as a member of the family, the social group, the nation, and in function of history to which all nations bring their contribution. Hence the great value of tradition in records, in language, in customs, in the rules of social life. Outside history man is a nonentity. Fascism is therefore opposed to all individualistic abstractions based on eighteenth century materialism; and it is opposed to all Jacobinistic utopias and innovations. It does not believe in the possibility of “happiness” on earth as conceived by the economistic literature of the XVIIIth century, and it therefore rejects the theological notion that at some future time the human family will secure a final settlement of all its difficulties. This notion runs counter to experience which teaches that life is in continual flux and in process of evolution. In politics Fascism aims at realism; in practice it desires to deal only with those problems which are the spontaneous product of historic conditions and which find or suggest their own solutions. Only by entering in to the process of reality and taking possession of the forces at work within it, can man act on man and on nature.”

http://www.worldfuturefund.org/wffmaster/Reading/Germany/mussolini.htm

I find his observations to be little different than those of the traditionalists. This is, I am sure you will agree at least a cause for concern, perhaps the makings of a good essay. Fascism in no way attempts to save the individual and is self consciously attempting to undo the damage it sees liberalism has done.

You are correct to point out the original Benedictines endeavors were not, of course, within a liberal society. But you are wrong to say that the Benedictines were merely an order in society. The were an order of the Catholic Church, and as such enjoyed its protection. As the Church’s temporal reign waned the Benedictines had their share of troubles. This is why I believe the Anabaptists are a better example for comparison in our age.

I can readily imagine a non-liberal society having spent time in both monastic communities of both the east and west and among old order Amish and Mennonites. They work but they work in a larger liberal political context. I’m sorry if you find my definition of political to narrow but I don’t believe you will find a political science department in the country that adheres to yours. This is due, in part, to the influence of liberalism over the centuries but I am a man trapped in the language of my time which I am afraid I cannot escape, not that any of us can. I have tried to frame my arguments not merely as a “who decides” which is an important question in all community life but also in terms of what can be decided.

I don’t believe all political forms apart from liberalism are authoritarian and have offered anarchism as a non-authoritarian form apart from liberalism. I have no problem at all with considerations of the good in politics. What I have a problem with is a discussion of the good that refuses to recognize the natural rights of human persons. The idea that one cannot have a discussion of the good in politics while recognizing human rights I find disturbing (In an ethical way), I also find it to be authoritarian (In a merely descriptive way).

The statement that liberalism is the most totalitarian of all does a great disservice to both Stalinism and the Killing Fields of Cambodia. Does not justice always involve giving one ones due?

More later, I’ve kept a lady waiting long enough!

avatar Guy April 27, 2009 at 10:13 am

Fascinating discussion.

It seems to me that Dan’s church schism example, and his question of what the state does in that circumstance, can be characterized more simply as: what does the body holding a monopoly on coercive power do when the community divides (or even when any single individual disagrees with and does not wish to be bound by the community)? Is coercive power employed to enforce community values (whether by exiling dissidents or by forcing dissidents to conform) or does the state stand by and let individuals or groups diverge if the community cannot persuade them not to?

And if the state does not intervene, is this not in practice very similar to liberalism? Freedom does imply, after all, the freedom to bind oneself to a community, to choose to follow certain strictures of behaviour, and so forth. This perhaps gets at the point that what is being advocated under “traditionalism” is not a different way of organizing society in practice but a different way of talking about society – one that does not dismiss conceptions of a common good or the value of community.

The glaring danger in coercing any kind of community compliance is of course that communities very frequently make mistakes about what the common good is – the Aztec example has been used, and misogynistic gender stereotypes would be another. Values that were once widely considered good and proper are now regarded as abhorrent (e.g. slavery) – is there a plausible reason to believe our sensitivities will not continue to evolve?

The strength of liberalism as a state philosophy, it seems to me, is that it does not need to be right. In a sense, its strength is precisely that it has no conception of the Good. It’s weakness is then maybe that it forgets that it has no conception of the Good, and begins to imagine that freedom is an end (i.e., the Good) and not merely a means (an environment that allows communities and individuals to fashion and attempt to realize their own ideas of the Good life).

Of course, my believing that “being right” about what the Good is is all but impossible is a product of my own liberalism.

avatar Dan April 27, 2009 at 10:32 am

James,

I think this is the heart of it,

“Because he reduces all questions of the good and prudence to those of sovereignty, Dan rushes to identify natural law with natural rights, since “rights” here means simply principles or goods on which no one can decide anything besides the individual, and he insists — despite my best efforts to show this a mistaken lens — that to speak of society as organic is to leave the individual without “resource” against the dark force of the “collective.” But, I repeat, this bifurcation makes no sense.”

I don’t really know where to begin with this other than to assume you are arguing with someone else (Perhaps the demonic liberalism of your initial piece?). At no time did I make any attempt to reduce the good to sovereignty. I never said that society was not organic, in fact I admitted that this was a keen observation of the traditionalists and one that I accept. I never said that to do so would leave the individual without recourse against and collective. By putting the words recourse and collective in quotation marks I can only assume that you are attempting to match them to words (as well as arguments) that I have in fact never used. I only have a problem with viewing society as organic if that view is used to dismiss fundamental human rights. Answering a sustained argument against an option I do not hold and have not advocated is a rabbit hole I don’t see as a productive one to go down.

The real question is what harm did human rights ever do to anyone? In what way have them limited the traditionalists political options in pursuit of the good? Lets take two specific and widely held and uncontroversial examples of human rights as examples:

Freedom of Religion

Freedom of Speech

In what ways do these reflect a totalitarian system?

avatar James Matthew Wilson April 27, 2009 at 11:09 am

Dear Dan,

You provided two further substantive responses to my essay and the discussion between Saturday and this morning, and I’m going to offer very short responses to them for not only pragmatic reasons but because, as your last comment makes clear, much of your argument seeks to establish positions on questions that I have hoped to address more richly in future FPR essays.

One would expect that the objections to a very impressive political speech, including to the one you quote of Mussolini’s, will be located in the details rather than the broader questions. What I would object to, as a traditionalist, in this speech is a sentence very much to the point of our discussion: “In the Fascist conception of history, man is man only by virtue of the spiritual process to which he contributes as a member of the family, the social group, the nation, and in function of history to which all nations bring their contribution.”

It is very clear both grammatically and historically that what Mussolini intends by “man is only man” under certain conditions is that he means man is only man to the extent he “contributes” or submerges himself in larger wholes at the expense of himself. As T.S. Eliot might have said, “This is a morality of sorts, and perhaps a better one than that offered by liberals.” But it is not a good one. And it clearly does not comport well with the account of the human person my essay provided. My contention has been that you refuse to see that, that you persist in viewing reality according to the dichotomy of the individual and the society/collective. If you do not in fact view things that way — if, indeed, your comment above show as much and I have misread in my haste — then we are settled on this point and in basic agreement.

My intention was not to misrepresent your position, but to interpret it. I believe that the position you occupy does reduce the good to questions of procedural sovereignty, even if that is not what you believe it does. In a word, I believe such a reduction follows from the beliefs you set forth.

You quote Mussolini, however, to justify the definition of fascism as a “return to tradition.” One cannot accept that a political program is a return to tradition simply because its advocates make that claim on particularly rhetorically histrionic occasions. I don’t think it necessary to debunk fascist pretensions of somehow being “traditional,” since it is clear in their actions they were not, since it is clear in their ideology they were not, and since even fascism’s contemporaries could see this with no difficulty. Tocqueville, interestingly, prophesied the rise of movements like fascism as one where an attempt to restore the conditions prior to equality and modern state-centralization would be made specifically through an even more centralized state. What he intends in his speculation is that such a “restoration” of tradition would in fact be the propping of of incidental details of a past society with its central, most salient characteristics absent. Pretentions of a return to tradition, again, tradition do not make.

I would like to take up your question about the nature of politics elsewhere (I tearfully grant you that political science departments would not generally accept my definition of politics — but I could provide a list of political theorists in such departments who would). I would also like to address your support of rights. “Human rights” as a concept does grave harm in the way all “moral fictions” do. It attempts to prop up an already existent consensus about certain goods by putting a bad — indeed incoherent — argument beneath. Jacques Maritain, co-author of the UN Declaration of Human Rights once wrote something along the lines of “We’re all agreed what these rights are, but don’t ask any of us why we believe in them.” What was thought to be a productive practical consensus has in fact does great harm once the theory (theories) of rights was extended beyond conclusions on which everyone already agreed and took on a life of its own.

The two freedoms you mention, incidentally, are only good under certain very specific conditions, and are freedoms that are good in respect to certain ends — the Good — toward which human beings ought to move if they wish to be good men who have lived good lives. Independent of those ends, they are pernicious. And speaking of them as “rights” generally robs them of the coherence that only a purpose/telos can give them, precisely because it sets them free from any such purpose. Most discussion on “rights” ends up focusing not on the contents of the word (what are rights and what aren’t) but on the procedural sovereignty that a right per se grants to the one who possesses it. It therefore ratifies the individualistic anthropology of liberalism without shedding much light on the form of a good human life.

But this is not really my argument, it is MacIntyre’s. As someone has already observed, no small portion of my claims derive from his work, even though I hope they are not derivative of that work as would the voice of a parrot be purely derivative of his master’s.

avatar Dan April 27, 2009 at 1:48 pm

James,

Another very engaging response. I look forward very much to reading your future essays concerning these issues.

I would point out in regards to the Duce’s statement that it is the most ideologically complete statement we have of Fascism from his book “Fascism: Doctrine and Institutions.” It is not merely a speech given to give a certain impression but a sustained presentation of a much misunderstood ideology.

You object to his position because, “It is very clear both grammatically and historically that what Mussolini intends by “man is only man” under certain conditions is that he means man is only man to the extent he “contributes” or submerges himself in larger wholes at the expense of himself.”

Yet it seems that this position is exactly what you argued for when you stated, “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).”

Under this understanding man could only be man to the extent, “he “contributes” or submerges himself in larger wholes at the expense of himself.” How could he find meaning in any action otherwise according to the thinking of the traditionalist?

Now it could be legitimately argued that the fascists did not practice what they preached, or that they had the wrong idea about what the tradition was, but the ideological insight on which they built their political program seems identical to the traditionalists.

Many traditionalists had great sympathy for fascism, G.K. Chesterton in particular comes to mind. This is why fascism is such an essential question for the traditionalist. Why should this path be rejected? In what ways does this not represent an authentic return to tradition? I think you are right in your reading of Tocqueville and that he would be essential to such a discussion, but then again so would Chesterton and Pound.

I believe human rights to be no more and no less a moral fiction than the good. Maritain’s observation is of course correct. But could not the inverse be said of tradition? These are areas that have to be developed in both and are not a reason to dismiss either.

Your analysis of the two rights I mentioned seems to exclude certain possibilities in relation to the good.

For instance, what if any realization of the good in the realm of spirituality requires an individual to freely choose his faith? What if his faith is in fact inauthentic no matter what its content if it is not freely chosen?

What if man has a moral duty to speak his conscience? What if we have a moral duty to listen to all authentic expressions of conscience, by virtue of our shared experience as human beings, neighbors, and children of God, even if we know the content of that expression to be in opposition to the good?

These are of course what ifs but feel they both strike a cord with traditionalist ethics involving both religion and speech which would find not opposition within liberalism but may run afoul of a traditionalist who views these rights as merely moral fictions.

I don’t see how a traditionalist could be anything but a parrot, isn’t that an essential part of the exercise ;)

avatar Dan April 27, 2009 at 1:52 pm

Guy,

Excellent observation,

“The strength of liberalism as a state philosophy, it seems to me, is that it does not need to be right. In a sense, its strength is precisely that it has no conception of the Good. It’s weakness is then maybe that it forgets that it has no conception of the Good, and begins to imagine that freedom is an end (i.e., the Good) and not merely a means (an environment that allows communities and individuals to fashion and attempt to realize their own ideas of the Good life).”

I would add however, that liberalism merely recognizes that some goods must be chosen freely in order to be a part of the authentic good. It’s a question of limits to what elements of the good can be realized institutionally.

avatar James Matthew Wilson April 27, 2009 at 4:14 pm

Dear Dan,

First of all, I agree with you that Guy has provided an excellent description of the attraction of liberalism. Why it is a flawed or deceptive attraction my Kalb essay (due to appear the second week of May on First Principles) will at least begin to consider.

Second, regarding fascism and traditionalism: I confess I find it hard to believe that you cannot distinguish between fascist claims that man is effectively nothing until he loses himself in the collective of the state, and the basically Aristotelian understanding that man, as a political animal, fulfills his telos through life in community. At the very least, man as political animal is a distinguishable concept from man as essential subject of the state. But further, to say man is a political animal presumes that the individual man has some kind of ontological reality that already exist and that is ultimately fulfilled in social life, whereas fascism’s particularly Nietzschean themes strongly suggest that man prior to a deliberate subordination to the state is not really man. Aristotle would say he is either an unfulfilled or frustrated man, but Nietzsche and fascism would suggest he was somehow sub-human. Interestingly, Hannah Arendt’s account of man as political animal distorts Aristotle by reading this Nietzchean theme into him; you are not alone (indeed are in good company), therefore, in your inability to make this distinction.

As a side note, far from denying the attraction of many wise traditionalists for certain strains of fascism, I think it was a very defensible attraction. Chesterton is a great example, for he could see much good in communism, liberalism, and fascism alike. Such modern ideologies were to him much what heresies are to any Christian: exagerated and severed expressions of partial truths that, insofar as they express the truth, are good. The only ideology he saw as patently indefensible was capitalism; it clearly aimed at no good whatsoever, he said.

Your final reflection on rights leads exactly where I want to head with the promised essay: you are certainly correct that we can point to at least one good that is unattainable if, in some restricted sense, it is coerced: the Christian assent of faith.

But here we find intimation of one historical blindness of liberalism. It universalizes the Christian requirement for freedom of conscience regarding religious belief while it does not universalize the good that makes such freedom an instrumental good. My contension with your account of this freedom, and the rights theory you use to describe it, is that it treats the freedom either as something necessary apart from any good or as a good in itself. I would say that such freedom only becomes intelligible in light of a specific vision of the good life for man — union with God. Your references to the Aztecs in an earlier comment suggests that, perhaps, in some other religions, such a sense of freedom of conscience as an instrumental good may neither be relevant nor even desirable. But liberalism and rights cut us free of a vision of the good toward the attainment of which freedom of conscience is an instrumental good, and therefore has led practically (and leads logically) to the view that certain acts are coercive and therefore a violation of rights, when indeed they would not be coercion in relation to the conditions that make the free assent of faith possible. To give one classic example, school prayer is not coercion, and yet liberalism has led to its being forbidden because it is not the Good to be made possible, but the “right” to be protected, that becomes the end of the liberal order.

I refer you again in closing to MacIntyre. For you betray the roots of your argument in what he terms “emotivism” when you say that rights are no more or less a moral fiction than the Good. Belief in rights is always a kind of voluntarism: a condition we approve but cannot defend we finally defend by asserting the reality of a “non-natural property” called rights. Thus, our defense ultimately reduces to an assertion of will: Rights are real!

When one speaks of the Good, at least in the ethical and political questions that have dogged this long line of comments, one is always speaking of a reality rooted in human experience and discernable by the reason. We all know that some people live better lives than others. Within a few generations, the human mind can put together a pretty clear image of what the good life for man is, and can evaluate individual instantiations of human life against that general teleological vision. It would take a fuller examination of the Good in general to show how it also is so verifiable (i.e. consideration of how a good garden hose, a good watch, a good life, and a good meal all have something real in common despite their having nothing in common as things). But I’m going to resign from this article, realizing that I have another to write before Thursday, certain that it has been a pleasure receiving, reading, and replying to all these queries, though less certain how productive has been of persuading anyone.

avatar Dan April 27, 2009 at 6:14 pm

James,

I very much look forward to your upcoming essay on Kalb.

I agree with you that one doesn’t necessarily need to read Aristotle through a Nietzschen lens however, I believe Arendt’s reading has merit. I realize that the traditionalism advocated by yourself and others at FPR in not Fascistic (In the Hegelian state worshiping totalitarian sense) but believe it is a distinct temptation to the traditionalist (Liberals must struggle with their own horrific temptations some of while you summarized nicely in your essay). This is but one direction a traditionalist could take in the leap of theory to practice.

While I would stop short of saying traditionalist attraction to fascism is defensible I would say it is understandable. It should be a goal of the traditionalist movement to distance itself from this form of barbarism and find common ground with the liberals on this at least.

I will say that the genius of liberalism is precisely what you see as its blindness and am happy to see that we share common ground on religious liberty even if for you it is the exception and for me the rule.

I am afraid that I failed to make myself clear on the question of moral fictions. What I was trying to say was that in fact rights are just as real as the good and that neither are fictions.

I look forward to your next piece and will not rejoin the debate until you have a chance to make your case further.

If I remember correctly it was Chesterton that said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.” You have certainly not presented your case poorly and I am now more inclined to take seriously, if not agree, with the traditionalist position. You have picked a formidable dragon to slay, and Rome wasn’t built in a day.

This conversation has also motivated me to take up a New Years resolution anew:

http://www.danhugger.blogspot.com

avatar Empedocles April 28, 2009 at 9:23 am

We have reached the essence of the debate: what is the status of rights? I agree with McIntyre that rights are not written into the structure of the cosmos like E=MC2, nor are they a priori logical rules, but what they are is a topic that will hopefully be part of the continuing discussion on future posts here.

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