The Romance of Conservatism

by Ted V. McAllister on November 7, 2009 · 11 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Philosophers & Saints

Moorpark, CAThis is the main body of a lecture I delivered at the ISI Spring Leadership Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana, April 14, 2007.  This conference focused on the work of Russell Kirk.

In one of the great works of imagination, Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton declared that faith is romantic, that materialism is not only dull but produces a boredom that leads to madness. Humans are born romantics and they can never fulfill their better natures without cultivating an imagination that accepts and embraces mystery.

The romantic lives in tension between what is unchanging and what always changes, between Nature and History, between angels and beasts, between spirit and flesh. But even this is not quite accurate, for while we live in tension between, say, time and timelessness, we also live in possession of both.

We are time-bound and we are timeless.  We are spirit and we are flesh.  We have a nature and we are products of culture and history.

Chesterton defined romance as satisfying “the need for that mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar.”  In due course we learn to attach a number of other words to romance:  variety, adventure, imagination, and wonder.

What we do not find in Chesterton is a clear, analytical, dialectical clarification of this word, for there is something about the subject that begs for the allusive, the indirect, the language of the mystic or the poet. To define too analytically would produce a most unromantic book about romance.  And so to understand Chesterton, to discover the meanings and purpose of romance, we must balance our love of logic and analytical distinctions with an imagination that allows the careful play of words to form constellations of associations.

Ultimately, Chesterton or any other imaginative thinker must show us what we recognize in our own experiences.  We must “see” with them somehow.  But seeing in this way requires imagination, and imagination is often atrophied in ages of reductive thinking and thin language.

Understanding a thinker like Russell Kirk requires the patience to allow his words to work on you, to cultivate an imagination that sees things in complex and messy wholes rather than in their easily digestible parts.  Russell Kirk was a romantic.  He was a wise man with the soul of a child, a man comfortable with the familiar while yearning for adventure and surprise.  He was a wanderer with a purpose.

To understand better the romantic Kirk, I draw again on Chesterton (a practice that Kirk employed often—using the words of person “x” to explain the ideas of person “y”).  Chesterton wrote that “we need this life of practical romance:  the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure.  We need to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome.  We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable.”

Now before I attempt to flesh out the meanings Chesterton intends here, I want to note an important characteristic about conservative thought, properly understood.  Conservatives reject—more properly, they fear—simplifications.  Simplifications are usually a result of isolating something, tearing that something from the whole of which it is a part.  Simplification is a form of abstraction.

Conservatives prefer the thing in its complexity, with its integrity, even if the thing apprehended is of such a nature that it is expressed only in metaphoric terms or in a fashion that expresses the necessary tension that keeps the parts together.  The faculty that best apprehends these things is the imagination and often the best form of expression is metaphor or even myth.

The romantic rejects the middle as he demands all extremes—he demands the extremes as they were meant to be, bound together.  He isn’t interested in some artificial safe middle-ground, he doesn’t see things as left and right, as though ideas fit on some line, the center of which might be located.

Reality might be one thing, but this thing is a multiplicity.  The lust to control reality, to give it a simple structure that yields unchanging laws, leads to the negation of human freedom.  The lust for complete freedom produces nihilism.  But choice, in the context of order, is liberty.  (Or, as Chesterton noted, the chief aim of law and order “was to give room for good things to run wild.”)

Order and liberty are distinct things and a philosopher might isolate them conceptually and tout one or the other or he might place them on some continuum from tyranny to freedom and seek the middle ground.  But the romantic, the conservative, will see them bound together so tightly that any liberty that is not ordered liberty is just another word for slavery.

Spiritual slavery, which includes being enslaved to one’s most base desires, to be addicted to the satisfaction of easily attained earthly things, is a result of boredom.  Boredom is the final and most enervating human disease.  It can produce ideological madness, expressed in efforts to remake the world, to deify humans as the authors of their own reality, or it can result in an intense privatism, an indifference to all things public, to all beings outside of one’s pinched world.

A romantic is never bored, for he occupies a world full of mystery and surprise, a reality understood in complex forms, in traditions, in liturgies, in myths, in complex social fabrics that bind humans together in community and that bind communities together across time.  To inhabit such a reality is to see in all simple things the wonder of the universe, to see patterns, to feel connections, to relish in the particular, because in the particular one witnesses, but does not possess, the universal.

But if boredom is the source of the problem, what produces boredom? Kirk argued that the lust for power or control disconnected reason from imagination and made reason a servant of the human desire to control.  Such an abstracted reason focused on instrumental knowledge, on the power to alter the natural world and, in due course, to alter the human.  In order for abstract reason to produce a new earth, a new civilization oriented around satisfying human desires, it has to be radically reductive.

The most obvious reductionists of our time, and probably the most dangerous, are the libertarians.  Kirk emphasized their “metaphysical madness” because they have made such a god out of freedom that they have lost all contact with the ground of their existence and the metaphysical source of their freedom.  They preach individualism and personal freedom, and while some libertarians might personally connect freedom with larger ends or purposes, their public concerns are to extend to as many humans as possible the maximum freedom of choice that doesn’t materially harm others.

Kirk was a warm friend of freedom, but he was no friend of freedom set free from its context.  Freedom with a capital “F” was unattractive to him because it was abstract, cold, uncontained, and without a larger purpose.  Liberties (plural) were more to his liking.

A liberty, as Kirk used the word, emerged in a particular historical context to address particular human needs.  Liberties were always part of duties, obligations, and even more important, expectations.  Liberties that emerge from a long experience, from habits and cultural forms, are part of a much larger moral economy that is reasonably suited to a people.  Liberties, understood this way, are not abstract, not disconnected, not due people as a result of some abstract human dignity.  They are particular expressions of a particular people.

By contrast, Freedom is a universalist claim, a claim about the human understood abstractly rather than historically.  Freedom leads to imperialism—a la George Bush.  Freedom is simple, clear—it is a moral slogan that substitutes for the moral imagination.

But what is the moral imagination?  Kirk’s great book on the subject is Eliot and His Age, wherein he defined it this way:  “the power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events.  The higher form of this power is exercised in poetry and art.”  Well, I’m not sure how well that explains it.  Kirk referred constantly to a historical imagination and a literary imagination.  Indeed, imagination looms much larger in his work than reason.

Whatever the imagination is, it isn’t always good.  Borrowing from Irving Babbitt, Kirk warned about the idyllic imagination—associated most closely with Rousseau and which “terminates in disillusion and boredom.”  What all of these forms of imagination have in common, it seems to me, is the capacity to capture something complete rather than in part, to apperceive rather than perceive, to express a synthetic whole that includes ends as well as means.

The moral imagination recognizes that humans have a law that is peculiar to their nature and that the needs for human flourishing are not satisfied by temporal things alone.  Human desire reaches toward something outside of time, some norm or universal expression.  But because humans are temporal beings with eternal longings, they must live according to both natures.

The moral imagination integrates personal mortal experience, individual spiritual longing, and the developed moral understanding of the ages, into some poetic or mythic expression of the complex moral universe that humans alone occupy.  The moral imagination creates works that bear the peculiar shape or color of a specific culture but which reach out to the shared human condition.  They are cultural products and they are spiritual products—humans can only escape the limits of their own culture and time by employing the idioms and artifacts of their culture.

The moral imagination helps to express the highest human aims and to identify basic moral and even political principles, but it cannot issue slogans, programs, or ideologies.  The moral imagination never loses the balance or tension of spiritual beings living in time, but neither does it eliminate the mystery that ultimately shrouds the most basic truths of our existence.  In some ways, the moral imagination gives us knowledge of the mysteries that define us rather than resolve those mysteries.

For Kirk, we moderns can choose to live in cosmic mystery—and engage in the romantic journey of the soul that the mystery provides—or we can deny the mystery, cut ourselves off from the truths available through imagination, and occupy an existence narrowly and simply defined by abstract reason.

Because abstract reason is disconnected from imagination, it does not understand beauty.  Efficiency, of one sort or another, becomes its master.  The drive to simplify is part of this desire for the most efficient means of organizing our lives.  Defending equality simply or freedom simply is much easier to do than to talk of ordered liberty or of spiritual equality.  The tyranny of efficiency means that the human goods found in our aesthetic nature, our spiritual need for beauty, are sacrificed.

One of my favorite Kirk essays, “The Uninteresting Future,” (and the companion essay, “Class, Manners, Beauty, and the Shape of Modern Society,” both found in The Intemperate Professor and other Cultural Splenetics) concerns the importance of architecture in cultivating human goods, human happiness, and romance.  In this essay, Kirk lamented the “ghastly monotony” of so much modern architecture. In the twentieth century we found ourselves in look-alike houses and in due course, we would have think-alike people.  We found ourselves in planned cities—cities built on a scale that swamped human community, turning people into indistinct atoms bouncing about a boring but colossal city-scape.

But why should we worry about our man-made environment so? And now, we are back to very basic fundamentals.  Ultimately, all of these questions revolve around Kirk’s understanding of human nature—our nature as seen through the moral imagination.  But we are in a bit of a problem given the reductive way we use the term human nature.

To suggest the nature of something is to suggest its fixed qualities, its unchanging characteristics.  This understanding tends toward a fixed and universalistic characterization of the human.  Add to this tendency the modern obsession to shave away all complicating factors to find the simple, irreducible thing, and we moderns tend to talk about humans as “good” or “fallen” or as possessing “natural rights” or by nature “free beings” or some other such characteristic.  But Kirk could only refer to human nature by keeping all the complicating factors attached.

To highlight some characteristics for our purposes, Kirk stressed that humans belong to a particular place and time.  This is true of all humans—all humans are cultural beings and so are bound by this cultural inheritance.  Humans flourish when they develop affection and attachments to the people, institutions, habits and ways of their immediate environment.  Any healthy society will, therefore, produce a vibrant communal life that is rich with memories of the dead, that is concentrated on the rich attachments of everyday life.

Large and homogenous cities disconnect people, failing to provide them with adequate opportunities to belong to those immediately around them and these cities distance people from the tangible expressions of forbearers.  The modern city, with its efficient architecture, produces busy workers, people devoted to privates lives, but no tangible associations with things greater than themselves.  In other words, a bland and efficient architecture atrophies the very imagination that helps people to find their ancestors, to think ahead to posterity and to recognize their moral obligations before a creator.

So, for Kirk, any hope of coming to understand the complex mystery of universal norms is found in rich and particular cultural forms.  Humans can never understand these truths abstractly and therefore they must be attached to the particular forms that aid them in seeing and expressing what we cannot understand fully.

In the end, Kirk’s understanding of conservatism depends on an aesthetic shaped from the sorts of experiences and cultural habits almost impossible to cultivate in modern America. Indeed, one of the unasked questions in Kirk’s works, and a most pressing one for people who want to think of themselves as romantic conservatives, is whether Americans, born to equality of conditions, can really be romantics.  If so, how?

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Bob Cheeks November 7, 2009 at 9:53 am

Bravo!
This is a brilliant paper and I have copied and downloaded it for future reference.
To be a member of the FPR and not to be a “Romantic-Conservative” is to miss the point of this website and raises the question of how can a person described by Dr. McAllister as consumed in “the lust to control reality” even consider himself ‘human’ when in fact he exists in a derailed immanentized reality?
Kirk, I think, pointed to the ‘romantic conservative’ as his embodiment of Plato’s daimonios aner, the spiritual man, where in conjunction with St. Paul acknowledged that human thought (nous), seeking God is moved by God as the object of that knowledge. This “dynamics of existential knowledge” is the commingling of classical Greek thought and the revelation of St. Paul and signals the foundation of reason and revelation.
Voegelin pointed out that Plato’s noetic core is the same as Paul’s though “in the gospel, its spiritual dynamics has radically changed through the experience of an extraordinary divine irruption in the existence of Jesus.” The gospel of Jesus Christ defines the transcendent pole of existence.
I would argue that the ‘romantic-conservative’ also exists in the tension defined by the poles of immanence and transcendence. By accepting the right order of existence he has defeated the disorders of his age.

avatar D.W. Sabin November 7, 2009 at 6:08 pm

No matter how much it pains me to do so, in that Briar Patch kind of way, I defer to and second Cheeks….except for, well..never mind, it aint material.

A fine essay, one of the best here of recent note. McAllister, this one’s a homer.

My libertarian sentiments, and they are many, are tempered by an avowed romantic streak, fusty old varmint that I is. It remains interesting to me how Plato banished the poets from his ideal polity… Because, of course, as ole Ed Abbey asserted :”Only the half mad are wholly alive”. Can there be such a mad thing as a poetic libertarian? “Don’t Tread on Me” seems a fine anthem for any poet.

Perhaps this is why I enjoy this electronic porch to such an intemperate extent, it is a veritable carnival of eccentrics, battering away at one another and hopefully….at the end of the day, agreeing, disagreeing but above all else, looking to reinvigorate that marvelous human possibility of community, gainful community…a community of people enriched with a life engaging both hand and mind.

avatar rufus November 8, 2009 at 2:35 pm

I’ll agree with the praise about this essay.

I wonder if these roots and connections aren’t easier to absorb in the European context, where you have someone like Chateaubriand who is both the father of French Romanticism and one of the founders of French conservatism. So much of his thinking comes spending his youth embedded in a creedal/honor culture, and experiencing the destruction of that culture by systematizers trying to immanentize the eschaton. Quite often I’ll read something here and be reminded of something Chateaubriand or Musset, or even de Maistre wrote.

Another thing that comes to mind is J.G.Ballard’s repeated warnings that the future might well be endless boredom punctuated by meaningless violence.

avatar John Médaille November 9, 2009 at 12:21 am

All the great errors are reductionist. The problem with reductionists is not that what they say is false, rather it is that they are always very nearly true, and the near truth is always more dangerous than the completely false. A complete error is easy to spot; the nearly true is much harder to disprove. The big errors are not so much about being wrong as about allowing a small truth to displace a greater truth. Conservatism is about seeing all truths in their proper relation and hierarchy.

As for Orthodoxy, it is a remarkable work. The postmodern critic Slavoj Zizek has adopted it as a postmodern work, and he may be right. When one picks up a book with a title like that, one might expect something that begins with “first principles” and procedes on the basis of ratiocination. But Chesterton’s writes of a journey from Hanwell to home, from madness to sanity, and the story of Orthodoxy is primarily a narrative. On the one hand, this surprises us; on the other it shouldn’t, since so many of us subscribe to a faith that begins with a biography, four of them in fact, about the same person. And that biography itself resides within a book that is mostly a collection of stories.

Or perhaps, romances.

avatar Micah November 9, 2009 at 3:52 pm

This site just floors me sometimes. It’s amazing to see reality addressed so directly. I’m a typical example of the boring life in the boring city, so the question of “If so, how?” burns with immediacy. How do I cultivate this moral imagination, or at least give my children a chance for that? Maybe there are no solutions, but just to ask the question is like a gulp of fresh air in the middle of a smoke filled room.

avatar Justin November 10, 2009 at 12:05 pm

First, excellent post. I especially enjoyed the mention of complex forms found in tradition and liturgy. As one drawn to classical styles of worship, I appreciate the comment and I do find in those modes a sense of being a part of something much older and ancient than myself, or my immediate experience and history. They cause the imagination to flourish in ways not otherwise found in the daily walk of life.

Second, @Micah, I echo your lament. The question plagues my mind daily, thanks to the illuminating (and imaginative) writing here on the Porch and elsewhere in my studies to find the social path less traveled – in my opinion, the better path. There are times when I feel as though stuck in a web impossible to escape-that being our very boring, unromantic, cold and efficient culture. If only to step out for a moment, but sometimes I fear that it is inevitable for us to remain in this world colored gray.

avatar John Willson November 10, 2009 at 5:37 pm

Ted,
It amazes me that someone so relentlessly, purposefully, decidedly, insistently analytical as you can also be lyrical. I’m not a romantic. Romantics so often become Emerson’s “transparent eyeball.” I was around Russell so many times at his most romantic that I hear his voice and his spirit in what you are saying, and I love Chesterton’s “The Everlasting Man” so much that I forgive him, and Russell, and you. Imagination does not require romanticism. Compare Walt Whitman with Robert Frost. Only romantics (and progressives) can admire the former; only conservatives can understand the latter. Russell, by the way, was never, ever, sentimental, which is another problem for romantics. Gosh, how you can soar!

avatar Rob G November 10, 2009 at 9:19 pm

“…whether Americans, born to equality of conditions, can really be romantics. If so, how?”

Perhaps the existence of this tension is why many of us American conservatives who have that romantic, or at least imaginative, streak in us tend to be Anglophiles of one sort or another. It’s as if we need to, in a sense, go “elsewhere” for our inspiration. The British conservatives we admire — Burke, Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien, Scruton, etc. — manage to pull the rational and the imaginative together in a way that is attractive, but at the same time also “workable.” And although neither Kirk nor Eliot were Brits, they were able to bring this off as well, to the point where people who aren’t very familiar with them often think they’re Englishmen.

Yet when it comes to American writers/thinkers who bring these strands together one could mention folks such as Flannery O’Connor, Marion Montgomery, Wendell Berry, Mark Helprin, and Anthony Esolen — strongly imaginative yet also highly rational, even tough-minded.

And note that none of these, whether English or American, is an egalitarian. I wouldn’t want to make too strong a case for it, but might one say, based on these observations and on what Ted has written here, that egalitarianism is the death of romance?

avatar Ted V. McAllister November 10, 2009 at 10:47 pm

John,
I’m showing my softer side, perhaps.

I considered devoting a good bit of space to work out the competing meanings and definitions of “romanticism,” but I decided that I wanted to try to understand Kirk on his own terms. I found it a powerful experience. Nonetheless, I do not think there is any hint of sentimentalism in my essay, and, moreover, I conclude with doubts (or hints of doubts) about a conservative project that rests so heavily on non-American sources.

Rob–you are correct. There is no meaningful romanticism (using any standard definition) that is also egalitarian.

To both of you, the use of the romantic label is helpful in a number of ways, even if it introduces some confusion. We live in an age where the simplifiers have largely won the language game and where no meaningful understanding of a moral imagination is possible. But people can still imagine that “romance” is possible. It is one of the few openings to a cluster of ideas otherwise utterly unbelievable in a utilitarian age.

Meanwhile, the kind of comments this essay has provoked have given me great hope–the kind of hope I’ve not felt in a some time.

avatar dvm November 16, 2009 at 9:54 am

I really appreciated the explanation of liberty vs freedom. It has given me something (positive) to think about this evening. Thank you.

avatar Owen Jones December 27, 2009 at 8:13 am

Ted,

I appreciate the fact that ISI is still exposing undergrads to an alternative universe, so to speak. Thanks. But I think “modern” Western romanticism needs to be put into a larger context. Romanticism in the West is one of many reactions to the trend toward a kind of cold intellectualism or humanism. Arguably, this intellectual coldness stems from “Scholasticism” in theology and philosophy. It has both left and right variants. Who would say, for example, that Rousseau is not the perfect romanticist who blames civilization for all the world’s problems? I think the “problem,” so to speak, runs deeper. The life of the intellect had been separated from the life of contemplation. In Western religious/political history, the contemplative life has been largely expunged, by force. This is why we see so much interest today in Asian forms of contemplation, yoga, Buddhist meditation, etc., not to mention drug use. All of this is quackery of course, but it is evidence that the intellect is not designed to be focused just on objects. So I think we would do better by introducing students (and ourselves) to the contemplative, meditative, and prayer traditions, of which a large body of empirical literature is extant, mostly in Greek, but a lot has been translated into English in recent years. I stress the word empirical because it was never a romantic movement. It is based on observation and experience in the best tradition of positive science. There is little or no institutional support for any recovery of traditional or classical contemplative theory and practice, but a lot of people are picking up books and actually reading them, and some are actually putting the advice into practice. Probably the best source for this is the Philokalia, which is a compilation of ancient Greek and Syriac texts on hesychasm by St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain in the latter 19th Century. One does not need a romantic movement to resist the intellectual coldness of the cultural environment. Nor does one necessarily need an attachment to place or custom in order to ground one’s resistance. There is a need, in fact, to revive the tradition of the peripatetic contemplative.

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