Counterfeiting Conservatism

by Patrick J. Deneen on March 22, 2010 · 16 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Politics & Power,Short

An article of that title, authored by yours truly, has now become available to non-subscribers at the American Conservative website. This does not relieve you of your civic duty to subscribe.

In this article, I argue that American conservatism has become an “ism” by dint of the fact that conservatism has always been in a certain sense defined by what it has opposed. It has taken its cue from various forms of progressivism – liberalism, libertarianism, capitalism, communism, cosmopolitanism – and has tended to occupy space that has been vacated by a left-ward moving opponent. Thus, even where conservatism has remained more “conservative” than its opponent on the Left, over time (particularly in the U.S.) it has become more liberal.

I implicitly take to task the current stance of many “conservatives” who lay the blame of our current woes at the feet of “Progressivism” (i.e., Glenn Beck and his smarter West Coast Straussian counterparts). By way of a backdrop, I’ve argued elsewhere that there is far less difference between the stance of conservative liberals (Lockeans) and Progressives than they might suppose. In the article itself, I note that critics of Progressivism more often than not actually have ended up supporting Progressive positions, among them an emphasis upon Nation over locality (defined by the Lockean philosophy of the Declaration), a dedication to spreading democracy (and free markets) throughout the world (hence, a similarly homogenizing spirit as one finds in Progressivism), a devotion to progress (now defined as scientific progress, albeit stopping only short of scientific progress of human nature itself), and an embrace of civil religion (I note that the “Pledge of Allegiance” was originally written by Progressives in order to solidify national devotion to the abstract idea of America).

I conclude by suggesting that modern conservatism has betrayed what should be its fundamentally Augustinian devotions, and has instead embraced the twin heresies of Manicheanism and Gnosticism.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Brandon March 22, 2010 at 9:23 pm

I am an enthusiastic subscriber to the American Conservative, find it to be the only conservative magazine I can fully respect. I read your article with great interest, Mr. Deneen. How would you recommend conveying these truths (ie, has instead embraced the twin heresies of Manicheanism and Gnosticism) to those who stubbornly cling to Republican party orthodoxy and claim conservatism yet are philosophically far off from this true position?

avatar D.W. Sabin March 23, 2010 at 10:23 am

…conservatives occupying the land progressives move on from…this is a very vivid way to put it. The Feel-Good Totalitarian Edifice of American Political Entertainment continues in its War Train . On one of the morning cable news networks, they are shilling some kind of upcoming “Political Roundtable/ Town Hall” in that hotbed of the Co-mingled political parties, Florida. Apparently, Jeb Bush, Mayor Bloomberg, The Reverend Al Sharpton and “grammy award winning entertainer” John Legend will convene to review the state of public education. Ho Ho Ho.

avatar Tom March 23, 2010 at 10:40 am

Can it truly be said that conservatism as an ‘ism’ originated with Burke? While a conservative disposition is certainly present in his writings, he never wrote a systematic philosophy of conservatism.

avatar Bob Cheeks March 23, 2010 at 11:40 am

Enjoyed the article.

“I conclude by suggesting that modern conservatism has betrayed what should be its fundamentally Augustinian devotions, and has instead embraced the twin heresies of Manicheanism and Gnosticism.”

I thought the followers of Mani were gnostics? What’ the difference between Manicheanism and Gnosticism? And, how has modern conservatism “embraced” the gnostic disorder?

avatar Wessexman March 23, 2010 at 6:59 pm

We have to be careful about the word gnosis Bob, it simply means knowledge and is a key part of all valid, orthodox traditions whereas Gnosticism as a particular heresy is quite different. It grew up out of certain elements in the early centuries of the Christian era including Christianity and perhaps Manicheanism. But the latter is more properly a heresy of Zoroastrianism with some Judaic and Christian influences, it is not really in the same group as the Gnostics.

We also have to make sure we do not repudiate the idea of the esoteric, which is a valid part of all orthodox traditions when we criticise Gnosticism.

Tom.

I don’t think you can talk about a systematic philosophy of conservatism as you could Marxism or Lockeanism. However I agree Burke was less systematic than say Robert Nisbet. Personally I think that while Burke is important the conservative and traditonalist tradition in the West goes back long before him and its important to understand and read its roots and other parts which include John Adams, the federalists and antifederalists, Samuel Johnson, Blackstone, The Augustan Tories, The Cambridge Platonists, Halifax, Milton, Clarendon, Shakespeare, Coke, Hooker, Forteseque, Chaucer, Meister Eckhart, Dante, the Schoolmen, Bede, the Church fathers, the Stoics, the Neoplatonists and middle Platonists, Aristotle and Plato(and I’d throw in the Pythagoreans as well.).

It is by remembering the roots of conservatism in this positive, traditionalist foundation can balance conservatism’s reactionary tendencies with a positve, eternal philosophy. I do think Patrick limits Western conservatism a little by making it only Augustinian, in my mind it contains these other elements, particularly important are the Platonic ones, which together with the Augustinian inheritance creates the vibrant tradition of traditionalism and conservatism that we are heirs to. It is this whole which makes our tradition so vital and powerful and which is perhaps best represented in the last century by Russell Kirk and TS Elliot and in some ways the Perennialists, although they are less overtly political. It is always a shame when a conservative writers abandons a key pillar of this tradition.

avatar Bob Cheeks March 23, 2010 at 8:07 pm

Thanks Wessexman, are you familiar with Stefan Rossbach, who teaches or used to teach as a Lecturer of Politics and Int’l Relations at Univ. of Kent at Canterbury? His “Gnostic Wars” is must reading.
The problem of a proper definition for Gnosticism may be the result of the incompatibility in symbols though the relationship of myth to philosophy goes beyond symbols to experience and to what Dr. Rossbach refers to as “lines-of-meaning.”
I’d also add a pneumatic factor related to the evil incorporated in either ancient or modern Gnosticism.
My question re: Mani’s heresy and gnosticism in general was related to some differentiation Patrick was aware of that I wasn’t.
My current interests are related to the question of “contemporary gnosticism” for a paper I’m doing. So if you have any pertinent sources, feel free to pass them along.

avatar Wessexman March 23, 2010 at 8:48 pm

I haven’t read that work Bob but I was a little put off by its description:

“This is a highly original, philosophically and historically informed account of the Cold War, revealing a surprising underlying spiritual dimension. Stefan Rossbach argues convincingly that, throughout history, breakdowns in order have led to interpretations of humanity which declare the absence of meaning and order a permanent feature of cosmic existence. Such interpretations can be understood as Gnostic spirituality -often expressed in the belief that beyond this world there is a pre-cosmic world of light in which humans are meant to exist. Moving from Plato and St. Augustine through Machiavelli to Kennan, and to recent experiences of the Cold War, Stefan Rossbach shows how revivals of Gnosticism have paradoxically inspired concrete political attempts at restructuring throughout the ages. This is an important historical analysis of human conceptions of social, political and spiritual ‘order’ with profound implications for our understanding of contemporary international relations. ”

It seems to attempt to link the very distinct and metaphysically dubious Gnosticism to any idea of universals, gnosis or esoterism including Plato’s. This is extremely mistaken, all orthodox religions contain, and must contain, elements of esoterism and gnosis and the idea of universals is certainly not directly comparable to the vision of Gnosticism. You see similar mistakes even in those who should perhaps know better like Micheal Oakeshott; the idea that the very presense of any element of gnosis or the esoteric is a negative thing. Whereas any study of comparative religions shows that these are at heart of the orthodox faiths from Daoism and Shintoism to Islam and Christianity.

That book seems motivated by certain modernist prejudices like individualism, egalitarianism and a narrow empirical-rationalist dislike of any esoteric, Intellectual or mystical knowlefge; as far as I can make out from the reviews. Whereas in reality all valid religions are built around a hierarchic idea of knowledge and salvation, there are truths and concepts that you simply cannot expect most people to grasp and need in their lives, most can only achieve salvation and not sanctification, and either trying to make all men saints of ignoring sanctification completely is dangerous; the rememberance and working out of these higher truths is necessary for forming the religion as a holistic tradition. These truths are rarely hidden in the sense of which Gnosticism talks of hidden “gnosis” however, even those which require Intellect or mystical knowledge, they are simply only available to those who allow themselves to be open to them.

When it comes to religious and metaphysical debates I’d always recommend Frithjof Schuon, Rene Guenon, Ananda Coomsraswarmy and other Perennialists thinkers whose knowledge in these areas is almost unmatched in the modern world. Here’s some general resources on them:

http://worldwisdom.com/public/home.aspx
http://religioperennis.org/

Here’s an interesting article by Frithjof Schuon on Christian Gnosis:

http://www.worldwisdom.com/public/viewpdf/default.aspx?article-title=Christian_Gnosis_by_Frithjof_Schuon.pdf

avatar Patrick J. Deneen March 23, 2010 at 9:35 pm

Bob,
I was alluding to these various heresies in non-technical and doubtless idiosyncratic ways. In referring to Manicheanism, I was highlighting that aspect that divided the world between Good and Evil. That aspect of Gnosticism to which I was specifically referring was its hatred of the material and created world. I was thinking in particular of the ways that Jason Peters develops its connection to contemporary economic practices, which you can learn more about here.

I defer to your deeper knowledge of the philosophical and theological relationship between the two, which, to quote the great Lawler quoting someone else, is above my pay grade.

avatar Bob Cheeks March 23, 2010 at 9:52 pm

Thanks Patrick, sadly, if I had “deeper knowledge” I’d be teaching at some elite east coast university. As it is I’ll probably be standing in a Obama sponsored food line soon enough.
Wessexman, I’ll read…I did a quick read and it appears we have much to discuss (I’m a Voegelinian)..and check your kindly provided links..I’m running into a psychological block of some sort regarding actually writing anything coherent..maybe a life crisis thingy..gee, maybe I can become a Democrat…Arbennnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn!
I’ll be in touch in the morning!

avatar Wessexman March 23, 2010 at 11:42 pm

Well I’ve heard of Voegelin obviously, I mentioned Oakeshott and I think he gets his criticism of Gnosticism from Voegelin, but I’m hardly that up on him. From his wiki it does seem he is referring to a bit of a different kind of gnosis to what I am, he mentions that it is an unreflective knowledge. But I still reiterate the fact that there is still a hierarchic nature to truth. I’m approaching this from the metaphysical basis of a belief in an infinite and absolute God who has created this relative existence, which reflects God, and who has granted us both the individual Intellect, or logos, to apprehend his truth and the collective Intellection of distinct revelations, and their continuance in the orthodox religious traditions, from the Plains Indian religion to Zoroastrianism to Christianity to Daoism, to guide us and aid to our apprehension of this truth. If you reject this, and I believe Voegelin was not religious, then we can’t really have the discussion on this level although of course we could discuss the idea of gnosis and esoterism at the political, cultural and sociological level.

avatar Wessexman March 24, 2010 at 12:00 am

When I say a hierarchic nature to truth I’m of course referring to truth as it appears in our relative existence and how humans approach it. Hierarchic truths may be a better way of putting it.

avatar Bob Cheeks March 24, 2010 at 4:56 am

“…I believe Voegelin was not religious.”

In my opinion, Voegelin was not “religious” but he was a believer. For example, he wrote in his essay, “The Gospel and Culture,”:
“Hence, Christianity is not an alternative to philosophy, it is philosophy itself in a state of perfection: the history of the Logos comes to its fulfillment through the incarnation of the Word in Christ.”

Voegelin’s critique of the Christian faith was centered on the idea of the collapse of the Christ experience (e.g. as explicated within personal experience in the Gospels;) and the rise of “dogmatism” within the church. Again, EV writes:
“It is the guilt of Christian thinkers and church leaders of having allowed the dogma to separate in the public consciousness of Western civilization from the experience of “the mystery” on which its truth depends.”

Voegelin was a mystical philosopher who explicated the intimate relationship between noesis (in openness toward the ground) and revelation and the idea of the metaxical or in-between existence where man dwells in a tension of existence between the poles of immanence and transcendence.

FPR bloggers, Caleb Stegall and D.W. Sabin are fellow Voegelinians. And, I’m a practicing Catholo-Methodist.

With that said, my interests are in analyzing various contemporary outbursts of gnosticism. Consequently, I have to determine “what” it is I’m looking for, and “how, when, and where” these outbursts have occurred. So if you have any suggestions, ideas, or input feel free to comment. Also, you should know I take criticism well and I’m immune to insult and derision, having “commented” here at FPR since its inception.

avatar Wessexman March 24, 2010 at 7:25 am

As a Christian Platonist and a follower of the Perennialism of the likes of the metaphysician Frithjof Schuon I’m very much in favour of genuine mysticism. I do not know enough about Voegelin to pass judgment on his mysticism, however I maintain a genuine mystic requires a genuine, orthodox tradition(in general.) to draw upon; unless he has respect for traditional Christianity, presuming he is from a Christian background(he may be Jewish or perhaps something else.), and draws his mystical foundation from this tradtion, then I have problems considering him as true mystic. Even mystics rely on a particular revelation and its continuation in time or in other words its tradition.

To be honest I’m unsure what a Catholo-methodist is. I tend to consider myself a high-church Anglican(though one increasing leaning towards Eastern or Oriental Orthodox Christianity, what with my increasing knowledge of the impact of Calvinism on the contemporary CoE and its current liberalism.) and traditional Christian, the only Protestantism I have much time for is certain types of Anglicanism and traditional, evangelical Lutheranism. Otherwise I consider them generally hereticaly and negative, although probably better than nothing.

Again I must reiterate the idea of a hierarchic experience of the divine. Most people can only hope to be saved and not be saints or mystics. Going from you desription of Voegelin it is hard to see how he can be a proper mystic if he completely objects to any hierarchic idea of knowledge and virtue although he does seem to differentiate between what he calls Gnosticism and real completative higher truth.

avatar Mark Perkins March 25, 2010 at 9:59 am

Very good article. Something you did not mention is the populist bent to American conservatism, though you implied as much by calling William Jennings Bryan “arguably” a conservative. While populism might (and I emphasize might) be preferable to a centralized bureaucratic state, it is highly susceptible to nationalism, “leveling,” and the dismissal of culture and even civilization. In Bryan’s “conservatism” the spectre of Sarah Palin looms.

Re: Voegelin and religion, I was always under the impression (a very second-hand and possibly mistaken impression) that he was once a Lutheran but towards the end of his life began referring to himself as a pre-Pauline Christian? Whatever that means… Having only read Science, Politics, & Gnosticism, I can’t comment for myself.

avatar Jeremy Beer March 25, 2010 at 4:03 pm

Mark Perkins — I share your misgivings about populism, a reading articulated with great force by John Lukacs, of course.

avatar Rico June 26, 2010 at 10:43 pm

Geez , you guys are really smart.
Can you name the people who grow your food ?

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