Debating Conservatism: An Old Mistake in The New Inquiry

by Susannah Black on November 11, 2011 · 62 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

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Late last week, The New Inquiry published an email exchange between Daniel Larison of The American Conservative and political theorist Corey Robin. Larison had taken issue with Robin’s argument that conservatism’s reflex is essentially “to defend power and privilege against movements demanding freedom and equality,” and the resulting back-and-forth is an entertaining read.

They were sniping courteously along, and then Robin suddenly was trying to argue that the center of conservatism isn’t the Tory focus on procedural good order. “I don’t think it’s lawfulness per se that is seen as the keystone benefit,” he wrote. Rather,

[w]hat conservatives value about the order they defend is that it is one in which excellence rules. The rule of the better over the worse is critical, I think, to the conservative imagination. That is the law conservatives value above all else, and indeed, they have proven themselves to be quite hostile to laws that undermine that rule. The law that conservatives value is a kind of natural law in which the best rise to the top, through struggle and adversity, and prove their mettle (“Redefining the Right Wing,” The New Inquiry, November 3, 2011).

Now, this seems to be to be getting it just exactly wrong. It was liberal reformers– throughout the nineteenth century, and earlier– who were keen to institute meritocracy in the civil services of various European governments. The struggle for existence is an essentially liberal way of conceiving civil society: that’s why laissez-faire capitalists, arch-liberals all, tended to be such fans of the eugenics movement.

Conservatives, by contrast, see social solidarity as the normal state of things, and the dynamism or creative destruction that the liberal order fosters, and in which natural law promotes the rule of the “best,” is really quite alien to the conservative mind. Those conservatives who are defenders of aristocracy do so not on the basis that the aristocrats are better than others, but on the basis that aristocrats fill a social role that someone’s got to fill, just as someone’s got to bake the bread and someone’s got to write for the feuilletons, and it might as well be this lot as anyone else.

Robin can be forgiven for getting this wrong. In a recent First Things article, James Nuechterlein articulates just the kind of meritocratic 19th century liberal view that Robin sees as the heart of conservatism. “Conservatives,” writes Nuechterlein,

in their usual muddling way…generally suppose that, assuming free and fair competition (a large assumption), the prevailing distribution of economic rewards, however unequal, is “natural”– reward corresponds to effort– and therefore just. Efforts at redistribution by the government, in this view, have no basis in justice (society ought not to be in the business of coercing charity) and typically serve only to hamper economic efficiency and to restrict personal liberty (The Public Square, First Things, April 2011).

Well. You can call this what you want– it sounds like Gradgrind to me– but it is not conservatism: not anything that anyone before 1900 or so would recognize as conservatism, anyway. The real conservative argument for aristocracy lies somewhere entirely different. G.K. Chesterton, no friend to aristocracy, got this right: in What’s Wrong with the World, his criticism of Edwardian social thought, he makes an unusual case for what might be called the democratic roots of European aristocracy. Democracy, the sense of equality and comradeship among men, he defines as the normal condition of humans: “The common conception,” Chesterton writes, “among the dregs of Darwinian culture is that men have slowly worked their way out of inequality into a state of comparative equality. The truth is, I fancy, almost exactly the opposite.”

Despite this normality of the equality of comradeship between men, there are times when for functional reasons, hierarchy pops up: these are times of emergency, when quick action is called for. Chesterton writes,

If a camp is surprised by night somebody must give the order to fire; there is no time to vote it…If an army actually consisted of nothing but Hannibals and Napoleons, it would still be better in the case of a surprise that they should not all give orders together. Nay, it would be better if the stupidest of them all gave the orders. Thus, we see that merely military subordination, so far from resting on the inequality of men, actually rests on the equality of men. Discipline does not involve the Carlylean notion that somebody is always right when everybody is wrong, and that we must discover and crown that somebody. On the contrary, discipline means that in certain frightfully rapid circumstances, one can trust anybody so long as he is not everybody…The military spirit means, if anything, obeying the weakest and stupidest man, obeying him merely because he is a man, and not a thousand men. Submission to a weak man is discipline. Submission to a strong man is only servility.

And in truth, Carlyle’s hero-worship could only have taken root in a society like Victorian England where the intelligentsia were already liberalized and thereby secularized, where the worship of the God who became a Jewish toddler no longer shaped political ideas. The older idea, the idea of submission to– well, to anybody, in a pinch– is, Chesterton claims, the healthy and democratic origin of the sanest kind of social distinctions in Europe. “Now it can be easily shown,” he writes,

that the thing we call aristocracy in Europe is not in its origin and spirit an aristocracy at all. It is not a system of spiritual degrees and distinctions like, for example, the caste system of India, or even like the old Greek distinction between free men and slaves. It is simply the remains of a military organization… Now in an army nobody ever dreams of supposing that difference of rank represents a difference of moral reality… No one ever says, in reporting a mess-room conversation, “Lieutenant Jones was very witty, but was naturally inferior to Captain Smith.” The essence of an army is the idea of official inequality, founded on unofficial equality. The Colonel is not obeyed because he is the best man, but because he is the Colonel. Such was probably the spirit of the system of dukes and counts when it first arose out of the military spirit and military necessities of
Rome.

Chesterton is not arguing in favor of aristocracy, but he is arguing that aristocracy in the old European sense is more democratic than what Robin seems to think conservatives mean by aristocracy; that is, a plutocracy that may be the natural result of free economic competition. This plutocracy is what Chesterton cannot bear: better the blustering bossiness of a baron than the poisonous power of the plutocrat. He acidly notes that a good deal of modern propaganda (and this was before Ayn Rand!) has gone into justifying the rule of the economically fit: “there has arisen,” he writes,

in modern life a literary fashion devoting itself to the romance of business, to great demigods of greed and to fairyland of finance. This popular philosophy is utterly despotic and anti-democratic…The essential argument is “Specialists must be despots; men must be specialists… We must have commercial civilization; therefore we must destroy democracy” (What’s Wrong With the World, 1912, p. 126-134).

This is the kind of defense of what he calls aristocracy that Robin claims conservatives mount. It was certainly the ideal promoted by Jefferson: America was in part founded on this ugly vision of a natural aristocracy. It is, however, most characteristic not of traditionalist conservatism, (rooted as that is in the Christian doctrine of the spiritual equality of man) but of the monstrosity of Nietzscheanism. Nietzsche was many things–including a madman– but he was no conservative. He was instead the evil twin called up by the individualism and focus on competition that Locke advocated. He was the monster, which the dreams of reason must produce. And the thing about evil twins is that they share all the genetic material of the original. Nietzche’s phenotype was reactionary and aristocratic, but his genotype– like that of Ayn Rand; like that of the modern neoconservative apologists for capitalism– was completely liberal.

Look, of course economic outcomes are, quite often, related to the energy and intelligence with which one pursues one’s business. That’s all over the book of Proverbs, not to mention a present reality in our lives. But does this fact exhaust our social and political obligations to each other? Is it the only thing we need to know about economics, and once we know it, can we just kind of kick back, as a society, and not worry about how this general principle has played out in people’s lives? I don’t think we can. For one thing, leveling the playing field is not something that can be addressed, as Nuechterlein tries to do, with a parenthetical aside. When he writes that the market, “assuming free and fair competition (a large assumption),” leads to just outcomes, he is compressing all of the variety of human experience into those parentheses. If we don’t have a society where everyone’s childhood is identical, then we can’t, even by the premises of market liberalism, assume a “just” outcome. Are neo-conservatives really so committed to depending on the mechanism of market competition as the one engine of justice, that they are willing to put themselves in the position of calling for standardized childhoods to ensure just economic outcomes? Because that’s where neo-conservative logic must lead– unless neo-conservatism is, as Robin suspects, all just a blind for perpetuating existing economic inequities into the next generation.

We don’t really want to be a gang of Victorian Manchester-school plutocrats, do we? Saying “The cream rises to the top, what?” while elevating our gouty feet on a stepstool and plunging our faces into a tub of goose-liver pate? And, surely, we don’t want to be the modern version either: the fit, well-manicured, childless, tech-savvy Forex trader who looks at the mother of three, surviving on welfare, and says “Well, she’s got to just go to some adult education program, doesn’t she? She doesn’t even know Excel.”

These are not the people I want to be, at least. Not because I don’t believe in the ability of people to improve their lives. Not because I want to promote passivity or helplessness. But because I don’t think that competition in a marketplace is the best model for society as a whole. And anyone who does think so ought to examine his conservative credentials very carefully, to make sure that they weren’t secretly signed by some nineteenth-century Whig or other, whose well-brushed coat and knowledge of the classics gave him a superficially conservative veneer.

Susannah Black is a freelance writer. After getting her BA in English literature from Amherst College, she went on to earn an MA in early modern European history from Boston University. She is an organizational team member at ResPublica America and an avid schooner sailor. Born and raised in Manhattan, she is now taking her stand in central Queens. She blogs at radiofreethulcandra.wordpress.com

{ 62 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar John Médaille November 11, 2011 at 3:14 am

Somebody say “Amen!” So much of what passes for “conservatism” is the dreariest and meanest of liberalism.

avatar JA November 11, 2011 at 4:25 am

Great article and thoroughly enjoyed, but I was a bit puzzled by the Nietzsche bit. Could you flush that out some more? His individualism certainly makes sense, but I don’t see the competitiveness or liberalism in his thought; in fact, he tended to despise liberals.

avatar Jason November 11, 2011 at 8:42 am

It seems, maybe, we need a new word for what you call “conservative.” For a word to be useful, you have to use in a way that common fluent speakers of the language understand it. If the definition of the word has drifted over time, or been hijacked, that’s a pity, but you can’t say, no, this word actually means the opposite of what everyone commonly thinks it does. “Conservative” in the common vernacular means pretty much exactly what Corey Robin says in the first paragraph you quote. If you say to the average person with a bachelor’s degree, “I’m a conservative,” that person will assume these things and you don’t have the opportunity to explain every time, “no, no, I mean I’m a conservative by a definition of that word that passed out of common usage 100-or-so years ago.” Better to find a different word that hits closer to the mark, but demands an explanation. I propose “Bohemian Tory.”

avatar Russell Arben Fox November 11, 2011 at 8:45 am

There is much in this essay I would take issue with (like JA, I’m puzzled by your reading of Nietzsche; his individualism is anything but “liberal” by any definition I know of), but for getting Chesterton’s hatred of the business class right, and for a line like this one–”better the blustering bossiness of a baron than the poisonous power of the plutocrat”–I’ll forgiven anything. Great work, Susannah.

avatar Joseph Stromberg November 11, 2011 at 10:03 am

A nice essay.

Apropos of the Chesterton quotes, here is Hannah Arendt: “Generally speaking, one-man rule is praised in antiquity only for household matters or for warfare…”

William F. Buckley, Jr, in his early writing, used to ridicule liberals for uncritically worshiping a process (democracy) and its outcomes. Decades later, we begin to see that similar problems arise from uncritically worshiping that other process (“the” market).

avatar Mark A. Signorelli November 11, 2011 at 11:48 am

This is one of the most inaccurate and ill-informed articles I’ve read at this site. Of course conservatism has always defended the “rule of the better over the worse,” and if Mr. Robin thinks that’s a bad thing, the worse for his own politics. Aristotle famously claimed that “Hellenes should rule barbarians.” Edmund Burke vehemently attacked the composition of the French National Assembly, because he believed lawyers and “country clowns” had unworthily usurped power in that body; he maintained that the path from obscurity to prominence should be difficult and uncommon, and warned that leveling policies always ended up exalting the “worse” over the “better.” James Fitzjames Stephen explicitly attacked liberal egalitarianism, declaring that the unwillingness of subordinates to obey their superiors was the essence of wickedness. How the author can claim that such opinions are alien to the historical development of conservatism is beyond me. And Chesterton, as much as I love him, was a self-proclaimed liberal, so he obviously will not serve as any sort of representative voice of conservatism.

What is wrong with contemporary liberalism is not that it seeks to elevate the “better” over the “worse;” its that it has no sensible standards by which to distinguish the “better” from the “worse.” Its because its system of “meritocracy” routinely advances the shameless, the sycophantic, the conformist, and the cynical over those who do possess real merit. And contemporary conservatism, by promoting the fantasy that the market is an adequate judge of moral worth (and therefore of desserts), has simply made itself complicit in this enterprise.

The answer, though, is not to abandon the search for standards, according to which we can prefer the “better” over the “worse” in the arts, in education, and in government. The answer is to search more strenuously for rational standards. That’s what an authentic conservatism can offer the modern world. But to deny that conservatism came into the world in order to wage explicit battle with the corrosive egalitarianism of modernity is just wildly false.

avatar Paul Grenier November 11, 2011 at 12:45 pm

I admire so much how beautifully this was written that I can barely focus on the secondary point that I happen to agree with all of this. At least I think I do. The line about the Forex trader is priceless.

In Part V of What’s Wrong with the World, Chesterton writes:
“For the plain truth to be told pretty sharply to the Tory is this, that if he wants the family to remain, if he wants to be strong enough to resist the rending forces of our essentially savage commerce, he must make some very big sacrifices and try to equalize property.”

If Chesterton were alive today, I imagine he’d be encouraging the kids on Wall Street as regards their redistributive ethic, while chewing them out for casually ‘hooking up’ (free market dating patterns?) back on campus. Or something like that.

A bit of a non-sequitur, but the Marxist (and atheist) philosopher Slavoj Zizek takes exactly that same line, both about wealth and about ‘free’ sex. Apparently it is not just a religious thing. It’s about having a bit of intelligence, and enough courage to say in public an unpopular (or non-career-advancing) truth.

avatar C R Wiley November 11, 2011 at 1:02 pm

“We don’t really want to be a gang of Victorian Manchester-school plutocrats, do we? Saying “The cream rises to the top, what?” while elevating our gouty feet on a stepstool and plunging our faces into a tub of goose-liver pate?” :) — nice.

avatar Anymouse November 11, 2011 at 1:54 pm

“The answer, though, is not to abandon the search for standards, according to which we can prefer the “better” over the “worse” in the arts, in education, and in government. The answer is to search more strenuously for rational standards. That’s what an authentic conservatism can offer the modern world. But to deny that conservatism came into the world in order to wage explicit battle with the corrosive egalitarianism of modernity is just wildly false.”
I agree. The task for conservatism is to advocate for genuine standards, and oppose egalitarianism. That does not mean opposition to kindness or mercy, but it does mean an appreciation for the aristocratic and a rejection of the autonomous urban middle class as a fountain of good standards.

avatar andrew November 11, 2011 at 5:31 pm

there’s no question that excellence should rule. but excellence that rules unjustly is not true excellence. true excellence rules by serving. it “rises to the top” via humility.

echoing st. paul, love is the most excellent way.

avatar Matt November 11, 2011 at 6:12 pm

For me, what the author is saying about Nietzscheanism is illustrated by a quote from Phillip Blond’s “Rise of the Red Tories” that took me a while to wrap my head around:

Civic conservatism “requires a considered rejection of social mobility, meritocracy and the statist and neoliberal language of opportunity, education and choice. Why? Because this language says that unless you are in the golden circle of the top 10 to 15 per cent of top-rate taxpayers you are essentially insecure, unsuccessful and without merit or value. The Tories should leave this bankrupt ideology to New Labour and embrace instead an organic communitarianism that graces every level of society with merit, security, wealth and worth.”

The liberal idea that society creates free and fair competition in which the outcomes are just (to use Neuchterlein’s words), in other words a meritocracy, leads to a form of self-assertion and disregard for those who are less successful that could be characterized as Nietzschean. Russell Arben Fox is right in his comment that the original impulse of liberalism is in the opposite direction, that of equality, but the author is also correct that the end result might not be equality at all.

Mar A. Signorelli might be right that there is more of a sense of hierarchy in traditional conservatism than the author lets on. But I think the point is that even so, this rule of superior over inferior saw both as part of a larger whole and both had mutual responsibilities to the other. Here I am thinking of Disraeli’s One Nation Conservatism, for example. The author’s point is still true that this sense of obligation is missing in the hierarchy of liberalism, precisely because of the notion that it emerges from free and fair competition.

Here is where I think you could make a strong criticism of mainstream American conservatism similar to that of Robin. It has a veneer of traditional conservatism, but the incorporation of certain elements of liberalism undermines the sense of social obligation and the communitarian element of social life. I think there is a “compassionate conservative” strand of American conservatism that is healthier, and turns to liberalism’s universal impulses, but I would need to elaborate that point another day.

avatar D.W. Sabin November 11, 2011 at 6:36 pm

In a world of gate-keepers, there are a lot of gates.

The principle defect in today’s Conservatism is that it worries too much about its liberal bonafides. Conversely, so too do the liberals worry about their popular pretensions of cultural conservatism.

Debate is replaced by polling data. Critical thought is shouldered aside by daft consensus and the idea that one might actually respect another in disagreement is consigned to oblivion.

This is to be expected when the seat of government becomes remote. Your country becomes someone else’s. Your local infrastructure and economy is the first to go.

avatar Stephen November 12, 2011 at 2:57 pm

I have to agree with Mr. Signorelli on this article. Making Chesterton, of all people, the chief spokesman for conservatism is utterly bizarre. He’s excellent, but his thought was too eclectic and quirky to fit into any movement or ideology. American conservatism traces its roots through Buckley, Kirk and Burke. Although it has taken a different turn with Reagan and then Limbaugh as the main sources of inspiration for self-identified “conservatives,” what this article describes as “conservatism” is something almost entirely alien to America. There are indeed other varieties of conservatism that we might prefer, but even then, Chesterton is not a representative of conservatism. The defense he offered for aristocracy is not any historical sense, “conservative,” which may or may not be a bad thing.

avatar JA November 12, 2011 at 3:45 pm

Stephen,

You are quite correct that this tradition is alien to Americans because conservatism is largely (though not completely) alien to Americans. The three mainstream writers you cited were, in fact, liberals, which, by the definitions laid out in the article, precludes them from having that honorific title, conservative.

Perhaps you would like to proffer an alternative definition?

avatar Anymouse November 12, 2011 at 5:21 pm

If Russell Kirk was not a conservative then I believe the word conservative is meaningless. I also believe the definition of conservatism used in this article is wrong.

I suppose people with my beliefs can just start calling ourselves traditionalists.

I agree that conservatism is largely alien to America, but I contend that it is equally alien to views which condemn inequality without trying to understand it or reject any concept of aristocracy automatically.

avatar Susannah Black November 12, 2011 at 6:58 pm

Wow, I can’t believe no-one got mad at me for the Jefferson thing.

Paul: I actually got into a little bloggy debate a while back with Kenneth Spence at the Acton institute on whether GKC would approve of OWS. Totally agree with you.

Jason, Mark, and Stephen: I guess I should stop pulling a Humpty Dumpty (“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean– neither more nor less”). Look, Mark, of course I know that there is a huge conservative tradition, which you can see in the classical period, which remains throughout, and which pops up again bigtime after the French Revolution, where conservatism is specifically about the rule of the best and opposition to what it’s afraid is mob rule. I ran into a perfect quote earlier today from Edmond de Goncourt: “Society is dying of universal suffrage…Through it, the ignorance of the vile multitude governs.” Obviously that tradition exists.

But two things. One, Mark, you said yourself: at least one kind of conservatism “came into the world in order to wage explicit battle with the corrosive egalitarianism of modernity.” I think there’s a reason that you jumped from Aristotle to Burke: Burke was reacting against a fragmenting society, not representing an unfragmented one.

The second thing is this: it’s not that this conservative tradition doesn’t exist, it’s that another one exists as well. And yeah, maybe conservative is the wrong word for it, but it’s there.

This second strain, whatever you want to call it, is what is represented in two traditions from the Austro-Hungarian Empire that are randomly lodged in my brain. The first I read about (don’t make fun) in a very schlocky and wonderful novel called The Morning Gift, by Eva Ibbotson (please don’t even google this book if you have a Y chromosome): Franz Joseph, and presumably the other Austro-Hungarian emperors as well, used to ritually wash the feet of twelve old men from, I think, a local poorhouse or somewhere like that, every Maundy Thursday.

The second tradition I can’t find a reference for, but the Austrian historian Frederic Morton told it to me (in a restaurant on east 88th Street), and I believe him. Plus I think I did read it somewhere else also. It was something like this: when an emperor died, one of the corpse-bearers had to knock on the door to the crypt where he was going to be buried. The priest on the other side of the door would say, “Who’s there?” and the bearer would say, like, “His Royal and Imperial Highness, Francis I, Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary, Margrave of Moravia,” etc, and the priest would say something like, “Never heard of him.” And this exchange would go on, until finally the bearer introduced the corpse as “Francis, a sinner,” at which point the priest would open the door and admit the corpse for burial.

There is that element in European conservatism. It’s not the only element, but it is there. And, yes, Matt, you’ve got it exactly right (down to the Phillip Blond reference!): this kind of spiritual egalitarianism is what made a society work where, though different people had different roles, and there was a strong sense of hierarchy, still, people from all walks of life were “part of a larger whole and had mutual responsibilities to each other.” What’s horrible about modern conservatism is that it thinks that, once the market has had it’s sorting effect, people _don’t_ have any further responsibilities towards each other. That’s what drives me so batty that, apparently, I use terms in incomprehensible ways.

avatar Susannah Black November 12, 2011 at 7:15 pm

Also, Matt, who the heck are you, and do you write anywhere?

avatar JA November 12, 2011 at 7:17 pm

Anymouse,

I’ll have to appeal to Alasdair MacIntyre’s reading of Edmund Burke and, by extension, Kirk:

“Moreover when a tradition is in good order it is always partially constituted by an argument about the goods and the pursuit of which gives to that tradition its particular point and purpose.

So when an institution – a university, say, or a farm, or a hospital – is the bearer of tradition of practice or practices, its common life will be partly, but in a centrally important way, constituted by a continuous argument as to what a university is and ought to be or what good farming is or what good medicine is. Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict. Indeed when a tradition becomes Burkean, it is always dying or dead.

A living tradition then is an historically extended, socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition.”

Conservatism–at least as it is being stipulated in this article–is not simply trying to preserve the past or a belief in liberalism plus some really important premodern ideals that must be shored up in a Burkean/Kirkean sense, but something wholly foreign to us in this day and age, something that preceded the enlightenment.

avatar WilloughbyChase November 12, 2011 at 9:06 pm

Brava Ms. Black! You have accurately identified the liberal streaks in America’s right wing and sought to extricate them from conservatism. Some have urged you to use a more accurate name than “conservatism” and advocated for “toryism” or “red toryism”. May I propose “federalism”? It rings true with your characterization of Jefferson’s “ugly vision.” It fits with a Front Porch Republic and one of hierarchies that don’t pretend to put the best at top. It needs a Christian foundation and a notion of the spiritual equality of man. It could serve as a better label than conservatism to recall our country to one of strong local government strongly enforcing virtue and a federation of states.

avatar Rob G November 13, 2011 at 12:20 am

To my mind the chief element which signifies liberalism is its anthropology: is man in his nature basically good or not? (which of course is really a theological question, but that can be set aside for the moment.) The liberal, following Rousseau, will always tend to deny, or at very least downplay, original sin. The conservative, on the other hand, denies that man is improveable in his nature. This is what makes liberals vulnerable to the myth of progress, and why neo-cons are really just Right-liberals who have their own, different “myth of progress.”

As far as egalitarianism goes, of course a true conservatism stands opposed to it; as not a few writers have pointed out, egalitarianism itself is a product of the rosey Rousseauian view of man that conservatives deny. Besides the Burke/Kirk stream (don’t know that I’d include Buckley in there) in this regard one can look at the Southern stream which runs from the Agrarians through Weaver to Bradford and right up today in folks like Marion Montgomery and some (not all) of the guys at Chronicles.

It is wise to note that a certain social Darwinist element attached itself to the conservatism of the Gilded Age, and is unfortunately still with us. But as I never tire of telling Leftist friends and correspondents, this element is a sort of parasite on the thing, and is not really in the DNA, so to speak, of American conservatism. (It may be in the DNA of the GOP, but that’s another issue.) As far as I can tell neither the Kirk stream nor the Southern conservatives have any time for Gilded Age capitalism or its progeny.

avatar Anymouse November 13, 2011 at 3:20 am

“Conservatism–at least as it is being stipulated in this article–is not simply trying to preserve the past or a belief in liberalism plus some really important premodern ideals that must be shored up in a Burkean/Kirkean sense, but something wholly foreign to us in this day and age, something that preceded the enlightenment.”
I do believe in this sense of conservatism, but I contend that Kirk believed in it as much as this author.

“As far as I can tell neither the Kirk stream nor the Southern conservatives have any time for Gilded Age capitalism or its progeny.”
From my understanding this sums things up.

avatar JA November 13, 2011 at 6:18 am

Anymouse,

And she also wrote this in her comment above:

“. . . at least one kind of conservatism “came into the world in order to wage explicit battle with the corrosive egalitarianism of modernity.” I think there’s a reason that you jumped from Aristotle to Burke: Burke was reacting against a fragmenting society, not representing an unfragmented one.”

Kirk, like Burke, is part of a conservatism that emerged post liberalism and even praised certain aspects of it. And this tradition is not the the one that Susannah Black was discussing in her article, which is clear in the next paragraph of her comment:

“The second thing is this: it’s not that [the Burkean] conservative tradition doesn’t exist, it’s that another one exists as well. And yeah, maybe conservative is the wrong word for it, but it’s there.”

This other one that exists, which “conservative” may not be the right word for, was the subject of the article above–the more ancient tradition, not the one that made peace with certain aspects of liberalism. It is a tradition rooted in Aristotle, Roman Catholic or Orthodox Christianity, and the spirit of equality common to early Germanic peoples.

So while Burke and Kirk are conservatives of a sort, they emerge as a compromise in a society already “fragmented” society in their acceptance of at least some liberal elements–and their view of tradition is decidedly different than premodern peoples, as I argued earlier.

avatar Susannah Black November 13, 2011 at 12:41 pm

JA–

Where do you see it in Aristotle? I’d’ve put its origins in Corinthians 12:

“The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”…But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.”

I don’t actually know that it’s theologically legitimate to cross-apply this from the Church to society as a whole, or to the state, but I do know that our reflex that it is _impossibly_ inappropriate to do so is shaped far more by American church-and-state rhetoric than by anything else.

avatar JA November 13, 2011 at 6:08 pm

Susannah Black,

Perhaps rather than Aristotle, I should have more broadly claimed the larger Neo-Plantonic and Aristotelian heritage very active in Christian theology. But to answer your question, the Aristotelian and Neoplantonist strains don’t contribute in terms of an egalitarian spirit per se, but they do provide the language and conceptual moral frameworks that are part of premodern conservative life. In the West, these influences are most apparent in the theologies of Augustine and most of the Scholastics, especially Aquinas.

And it’s very legitimate to make that cross-application. The separation between the secular and the religious is a largely early modern phenomenon with its nascent origins in the Protestant Reformation and its full emergence with the end of the ancien regime when the office of the King, the last remaining figure that connected the religious and the secular, was abolished and, in the words of Tocqueville, ” a new kind of religion . . . without God, without ritual, and without life after death, but one which nevertheless . . . flooded the earth with its soldiers, apostles, and martyrs” sprang up.

In fact, there is a whole academic literature on the topic of how the theological not only never left Western moral and political thought–only being sublimated– but that it is in many ways still animating it. If anyone is interested, I could point out the relevant literature.

avatar Susannah Black November 14, 2011 at 1:51 pm

JA–
I’d love a bibliography; also anything else you can throw my way about kings as sacred/secular figures. I’m so interested, but just as I was writing all this, I got to the bit in 1 Samuel where Samuel really rips into the Israelites for their desire for a king other than God. Any literature you know of on the topic, I’d love.

Do you write about this stuff somewhere?

avatar JA November 14, 2011 at 7:02 pm

Unfortunately, I’m not writing anywhere at the moment; although, I do anticipate publishing in a few years once I ascend to PhD candidacy in my program.

I’m not sure if this is what you are looking for, which seems to more biblically oriented than what I was suggesting. Below I list the book, the author, and an annotation. This is hardly exhaustive or an unbiased sample, but it should be a good introduction.

After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre

This isn’t about theology and politics per se, but MacIntyre, an Analytic philosopher, covers the moral and social dimensions of the shift from premodern virtue ethics (i.e. Aristotelian ethics) to modern attempts to formulate ethics. He argues that the moral pathologies of today are the result of a historical process whereby modern ethical approaches failed to meet rigorous criteria. He posits our choice as between Nietzsche and Aristotle. This is one of the most important books in moral philosophy of the last century.

Sovereignty: God, State, and Self by Jean Bethke Elshtain

This may be the most relevant to your interests. Elshtain, a political theorist, considers modern understandings of sovereignty in regard to the state and individual as derivative of certain late scholastic that abandoned Neoplatonic and Aristotelian metaphysics for nominalism/voluntarism.

The Theological Origins of Modernity by Michael Allen Gillespie

Gillespie, a political theorist and philosopher, covers the same general trends as Elshtain, but his focus is not on sovereignty in particular, but broader.

The Myth of Religious Violence by William Cavanaugh

Cavanaugh, a theologian and political theorist, takes on the myth of the origin of the state. He argues that the so-called wars of religion were about the birth pangs of the modern state in the wake of the collapse of Christendom, rather than a series of conflagrations resulting from religious difference. He covers how the concept of religion divorced from the secular was constructed and how this construction created a vacuum of the sacred in secular life, which was then met by sacralizing the state as an idol. Many of his themes are developed in an essay that precedes the book, which you can read here: http://www.jesusradicals.com/wp-content/uploads/wars-of-religion-and-the-rise-of-the-state.pdf?referer=http%3A%2F%2Fworks.bepress.com%2Fwilliam_cavanaugh%2F42%2F

Earthly Powers: Religion and Politics in Europe from the Enlightenment to the Great War by Michael Burleigh

Burleigh is a historian who covers the sacralization of politics and ideology in the time period specified.

avatar Rob G November 14, 2011 at 7:33 pm

“So while Burke and Kirk are conservatives of a sort, they emerge as a compromise in a society already ‘fragmented’ society in their acceptance of at least some liberal elements–and their view of tradition is decidedly different than premodern peoples, as I argued earlier.”

If the Kirk sort of conservatism appears as a compromise, it is because it realizes that one cannot simply leapfrog backwards to pre-modern understandings of things, under the assumption that the Enlightenment was universally bad. There is, no doubt, a worm at the heart of modernism, and conservatives are often not cognizant enough of its presence. But this does not mean that all aspects of modernism are equally and irreparably tainted.

This is, I think, one of the things Kirk realized: we must play with the cards dealt us, and certain of the cards we now have are problematic due to modernism. But given the fact that this is our current “hand,” it is impossible simply to throw those cards away and request different ones.

avatar JA November 14, 2011 at 9:33 pm

Rob G,

You are right to suggest that one must begin within the historical, cultural, social, linguistic, political, geographical, etc., circumstances into which one is born into–MacIntyre covers this to a great extent–but it doesn’t follow that the precise route that Kirk takes in doing so is the one he should–that is the criticism that both I and Susannah Black make above. My claim, in reference to MacIntyre, was that the construal of tradition be Burke and, by extension, Kirk is problematical because it posits such as something that must be preserved in the wake of classical liberalism. Well, as MacIntyre notes, when a tradition gets to this point, it is already ” dying or dead.” So while there may be plenty of honorable qualities and arguments within Burke and Kirk, the manner in which they address the problem neither (a) properly diagnoses the moral, theological, and philosophical sources of the problem (for this, see the books in my last post), but rather, end up accepting much of it unwittingly, nor (b) does it provide an adequate or proper response in light of the moral, theological, and ethical problems. Instead, there are appeals to the importance of tradition and its role in a healthy society. This is necessary, but inadequate.(Perhaps I am wrong on this point, as I am reading Kirk’s understanding of tradition in light of Burke’s. If Kirk does not adopt it wholesale, but acknowledges these problems, I would retract this argument, at least partly.)

Susannah Black, too, finds the Burkean/Kirkean construal of conservatism as ‘rule by one’s betters’ problematical. She is looking to a more honorable and ancient tradition of spiritual egalitarianism. This distinction is made in her combox. Personally, I think that she is right in her appraisal of Burke and appeal to Chesterton as probably the best popular writer to both come the closest to diagnosing the problems and articulating a vision of conservatism that addresses them.

But if you really want to get into the weeds of it, I would suggest you read three of those books above: “After Virtue,” “Sovereignty: God, State, and Self,” and “The Myth of Religious Violence.” Those should give you an idea of how deep the hole we are in is and how inadequate a response that Kirk is in light of this.

avatar Andrew McInnes November 14, 2011 at 9:44 pm

Thank you Ms Black for the enjoyable article, and thank you to all for the interesting and spirited discussion. My comment is not directed at anyone in particular, but at the general swath of this conversation.

Linguistic drift is one of the most formidable opponents in the quest for precise terminology. This is especially true when dealing with living traditions of relative antiquity. ‘Conservatism’ is one such living tradition, think of its present state what you will.

It’s a difficulty which is not insurmountable. It does not necessitate the total abandonment of the old terms for want of them meaning what they ‘should’ mean. Rather, it’s a game of picking one’s battles to the end of furthering one’s argument.

To that end, and speaking for myself, I call myself a Red Tory, as I am neither a conservative, nor a traditionalist of any recent note. I’m very far therefrom, as a matter of fact; I have more in common with Tories from the 18th Century than Tories from later epochs. For example, I support such modernly unthinkable notions as a State church, empowered Monarchy, and silver money. In the 18th Century I would be an establishment Tory, as these are positions which would have been considered normal.

In the modern age, I am very much outside of what is deemed ‘conservative’ or ‘traditional’. I do not even quality as a ‘reactionary’, because all things considered I’m not advocating a return to some fanciful golden age, but merely espousing virtues of a dead age. Regardless, the average Tory today would back away in horror from me, for fear of their (Liberal) credentials becoming compromised by the ravings of a heretic.

But yet, if one looks back far enough in time, I would become increasingly palatable, until at last I would be relatively indistinguishable from the masses of antediluvial Tories who rise up from the dust of history. Then, and only then, do I become a conservative and a traditionalist.

The moral of my personal story is that it’s perfectly possible to be so conservative in one’s ethics, so as to become a radical. This is perfectly in keeping with the philosophical traditions which G K Chesterton, as well as the Roman Catholic Church, pass down to us vis a vis Distributism. These are not and never have been conservative ethics by definition, because they have never been implemented on such a scale necessary to be considered establishment. These are also not Liberal notions, because they arise from a philosophic line which is utterly un-Liberal, including individuals from Thomas Hobbes to Adam Smith.

Chesterton was a radical, despite himself. I, too, am a radical, despite myself. The rejection of so much cultural, societal, political, economic, and philosophic development over so broad a swath of history can only bring one to being a radical.

Hence, why I am a Red Tory. I’m a Tory because I can be nothing else, but I’m also Red because I am a radical. Others of conservative mind can call themselves Tories as well, but the caveat there is that Toryism comes hand-in-hand with Monarchism; an implication which Republic-supporters might not enjoy.

Regardless, it is possible indeed to reclaim conservatism from Liberal influences, but it must be done honestly. One can call one’s self conservative – meaning of the premodern flavour – so long as one call one’s self a radical conservative. One is a radical conservative, because one is so conservative as to reject much, if not all, of what is today called Conservatism.

avatar Rob G November 14, 2011 at 10:13 pm

Actually, I’ve read Cavanaugh, and parts of McIntyre. My point isn’t so much that the Kirk stream is “adequate,” as it is that it is helpful as far as it goes, and despite certain caveats. Personally, I myself find myself more in line with the Agrarian/Weaver thread that finds its greatest living exemplar in Marion Montgomery, whom I’ve come to view as indispensable. To me the Kirk stream is most helpful when it parallels/overlaps this other stream, so to speak, which it does fairly often, I’d say.

As far as Chesterton goes, I must say that while I greatly appreciate his thought, his style doesn’t do much for me — a little goes a long way, and as a result I don’t read him often.

avatar JA November 14, 2011 at 11:07 pm

Andrew McInnes and Susannah Black,

Since you are both associated with Red Toryism, you could also check out some of the writings by John Milbank on politics. I haven’t read them (yet) myself, but he is very involved with that movement and touches on these topics.

avatar Fr. Cassian Sibley November 15, 2011 at 5:42 pm

Thank you for a beautifully written article that precisely captures my own sense of frustration in trying to explain to others how I can – and indeed, must – continue to identify myself with conservativism (in that I am not a member of the political left, with which I am almost entirely unsympathetic), while nevertheless being incapable of identifying with anything much that passes for conservatism in the American political landscape. For me, too, Chesterton is the modern writer that most clearly speaks to my own apparently confused muddle of unrepresented political ideals (although Solzhenitsyn, too, I believe, bears ample witness to this tradition as well). It remains the case, however, that terminologically speaking this tradition is difficult to simply convey to others, in that all of the other terms have either mutated in meaning or are much too narrow in scope. In terms of economic policies, one can speak of distributism, but in terms of a comprehensive political vision, this is too narrow a term; and while subsidiarity gets at my own visceral reaction to a centralized state bureaucracy, it also will not serve by virtue of its narrow scope. The term Tory, while perhaps serviceable in some contexts, has a peculiarly English freight that I, at least, am not interested in carrying about with me in an American context. I have, at times, tossed about the phrase “un-Wiggish Conservative” – but this is simply to take refuge in a content-less negative definition. In short, making do with other terms makes it difficult for many of us to convey our political beliefs – almost as though a New-Speak conspiracy had successfully rendered an entire 90 degree sweep of the political quadrant entirely unnameable – but clearly you are articulating the version of conservatism that I find most congenial and, indeed, most “excellent.” If you succeed in carrying the day and rescuing this term from the infidels, I shall be most grateful.

avatar JA November 15, 2011 at 9:07 pm

Solzhenitsyn should definitely be considered along with Chesterton. Certainly, we must hear from a representative of the Eastern Church along with the West.

As for terminology, I generally prefer David Bentley Hart’s neologism–Anarcho-Monarchism. It is only half serious of course, but that’s the fun of it.

http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2010/11/anarcho-monarchism

avatar JA November 15, 2011 at 9:47 pm

Oh, and if you look at the comments of that Hart article, you will find our very own John Medaille on the subject!

avatar Rob G November 16, 2011 at 8:51 am

W/r/t Kirk, I recall a conversation I had a few months back with a friend who responded to an email I had sent around to some folks giving the list of top ten conservative books as noted by Kirk in (I think) ‘The Politics of Prudence.’ The earliest book on the list is Burke’s ‘Reflections,’ and my friend, who doesn’t like Kirk much, asked why he drew the line at Burke instead of going back further to conservatism’s earlier roots.

The response, I’d say, is that Kirk, while fully acknowledging and depending on that earlier tradition, is consciously limiting his scope to the development of a specifically American manifestation of the conservative tradition (although in ‘The Roots of American Order’ and ‘America’s British Culture’ Kirk does move back further to examine the antecedents of this tradition in Greek, Roman, medieval and English history.) Thus it seems to me incorrect to call Kirk’s project “inadequate” while perhaps misunderstanding what he was after.

avatar JA November 16, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Rob G, perhaps you are right, but I think it depends upon Kirk’s conceptualization of tradition, as Susannah Black noted in her distinction. If it is Burkean, than it doesn’t escape the critique.

But this raises a new question: why did he start with Burke if he wanted to track Conservatism in America? The type of Old Whiggish line that Burke towed is quite foreign to this country, no?

avatar Rob G November 16, 2011 at 1:45 pm

“The type of Old Whiggish line that Burke towed is quite foreign to this country, no?”

Not according to Kirk. He sees John Adams, for example, as a sort of “American Burke.” I haven’t read all of Kirk’s writings on Burke, but my inclination is that he didn’t view Burke as your typical Old Whig. And he argues that the “conservative” element present in the American founding has tended to be overlooked because of the attention paid to the influence of Locke, Paine, etc.

It’s been awhile since I read his chapter on Burke in The Conservative Mind — this gives me a good reason to revisit it!

avatar Rob G November 16, 2011 at 1:57 pm

I’d say that Kirk’s conceptualization of tradition as touching upon America and its founding is Burkean, but that his understanding of it in the wider sense is more in line with the Agrarians and Weaver, if that makes sense. I don’t thinks he sees these streams as conflicting, but as complementary.

I have a friend who did his doctoral dissertation on Kirk and is a great admirer of Weaver. I’ll have to ask him about this issue.

avatar JA November 16, 2011 at 5:36 pm

Can you elaborate on and define what you mean by agrarian and Weaver’s conservatism?

avatar Stephen November 16, 2011 at 7:07 pm

Ultimately, I think that the only truly reliable understanding of what it means to be “conservative” has to do more with attitudes than ideas. The core of it, I would submit, is a certain attitude towards time: a healthy skepticism towards the new and the novel; likewise, an inclination to look for wisdom in the past. Of course, this entails that what is conservative at one point is highly contextual. If taken to 17th century England, a 20th century American conservative would probably agree more with that time’s liberals than the conservatives.

In a similar vein, I would submit that the true opposite of “conservative” is not “liberal,” but rather “progressive”: a tendency to believe that newer is better, and that the past was no wiser than the future will be.

This allows us to understand how Dostoevsky, Burke, the Southern Agrarians, etc. can all rightly be called “conservative” thinkers. The tenets of their ideologies have huge differences, but their outlook towards time is the same.

avatar JA November 16, 2011 at 7:46 pm

Stephen,

That posture is the Burkean one. It begs the question to reassert it that way, i.e., assuming the same historicism that Burke had to assume in order to assert tradition against progress. If that is the case, then only with Burke can we say that conservatism was even invented because it is only with the French Revolution and the dawn of the Romantic era in the late 18th/early 19th centuries that a narrative of progress and historical awareness was even realized. Whether this can rightly be called conservatism is the matter in question. Perhaps it cannot, but if that is the case, then what Susannah Black is calling conservative isn’t conservative–although she and I would still maintain that it is something better than conservatism.

While I hate to sound like a Nietzschean, methinks this matter can only be resolved with a genealogy of conservatism, i.e., a historical mapping of the concept of “conservatism” from its birth to the present age. When was it first used? What did it mean then? How has it changed? If there is no continuity between Black’s understanding to the present day, then we are talking about two different things.

avatar Stephen November 16, 2011 at 9:49 pm

JA: I mostly agree with the summary you gave in your last comment, but would add a few modifications. First, that the belief in “progress” really began with the Enlightenment, even though our notion now is generally more Romantic in framework. Second, rather than saying that conservatism BEGAN with Burke, I would say that conservatism was first given a clear and compelling articulation by Burke. It had earlier manifestations in Enlightenment times (and perhaps earlier—Robert Filmer comes to mind).

A good Nietzsche-esque genealogy would indeed be useful. I see a lot of merit in the views that Black is advocating; I just can’t see how they can be construed to be characteristic of conservative thought, and certainly not ESSENTIAL to conservative thought.

avatar JA November 16, 2011 at 10:17 pm

Rob G,

Thinking about this some more, the following question is raised in my mind: why does “conservatism” (or whatever we want to call it) need be retrieved from the early American tradition of Madison and Adams? You seem to suggest that it has to come from our past and be rooted in our experiences, but this is question-begging a Burkean definition of conservatism while trying to demonstrate in favor of one. As Andrew McInnes put it, “I am very much outside of what is deemed ‘conservative’ or ‘traditional’. I do not even quality as a ‘reactionary’, because all things considered I’m not advocating a return to some fanciful golden age, but merely espousing virtues of a dead age.” If this is what is meant by conservatism than what Susannah Black, the Red Tories, and most of the writers on FPR draw upon is not Burkean “conservatism,” with its desire to moderate the drumbeat of progress, but a restoration of past virtues in the present context. It is not apparent that these views have to be found in the recent American tradition, which has always been liberal. Again, to argue that they should already assumes the Burkeanism to be right that you are advocating.

Further, the world of Adams and Madison is dead and gone. Even on Burkean terms, to favor that past over another another is only to do so because it is more proximate. The 19th and 20th centuries have seen the transformation of America to such an extent that the way the world is thought about in the 18th century is now foreign and anachronistic–even unintelligible to all but people who actually study the past in detail. The marketization, massification, technologization, industrialization, genderization, sexualization, historicization, and militarization of these centuries has utterly transformed the original federated colonies of the American Republic, based upon an odd mixture of classical and Enlightenment principles, into the postmodern procedural empire of today.

Personally–and I know that most of the writers here think the same–appealing largely to the American tradition without considering the Christianity of Roman Catholicism and/or Eastern Orthodoxy, Aristotle, or the German spirit of egalitarianism is intensely problematic and suspect. Now, that may not be “Conservatism,” as I wrote in my last post, but I think it is preferable to a tradition that makes a compromise with liberalism–that has already been tried and liberalism won out to our detriment.

I suppose the question can be posited the way that MacIntyre frames it: Nietzsche or Aristotle? Liberalism, as part of a post-Enlightenment development, tried to provide an alternative to the Church, to piety, and to virtue. The entire mess from the Enlightenment, through the Romantic era, and up to the present day has been the displacement of one formulation after another of an ethos and ethic that can function as an alternative to the classical. It was Nietzsche who realized this project was bound to fail based upon the terms it assumed (though Hobbes and Hume got close at times). The only alternative to this realization is an Aristotelian approach to ethics and virtue that recognizes a natural moral order.

avatar JA November 16, 2011 at 10:40 pm

Stephen,

Thanks, but on your point, while certainly, the concept of scientific progress existed before the Romantic period, but my understanding is that progress as a philosophical concept originated first in the writings of the French Revolution by Turgot and Condorcet, building on Rousseau, who provided the framework by postulating that man emerges from a pre-human state of nature and becomes human through the process of coming into society. Further, the French Revolution demonstrated that an entire vocabulary and social order can be replaced overnight, which brought Europe to a conceptualization of philosophical and social development that is progressive, as opposed to the Enlightenment view that truth was something static and accessible upon reflection by all reasoning creatures.

This distinction can be referenced in how the existence of social order was justified in each period. For the Enlightenment thinkers, a social contract, i.e., an agreement to come into society from the state of nature, is necessary. Such a thing is by nature static and difficult, if impossible, to amend. In contrast, the 19th century saw society as justified based upon its progressive development–hence, Mill could justify colonialism on the idea that non-Euro-Atlantic societal orders were not progressive and thereby illegitimate.

Further, Filmer is an example of someone who is not “conservative” under the definition that I prefer to reference. As an advocate for the Divine Right of Kings, he is appealing to an early modern innovation based upon a voluntaristic conceptualization of sovereignty and novel applications of Roman law, not an Augustinian or Thomist understanding of political order.

avatar Rob G November 17, 2011 at 11:04 am

~~why does “conservatism” (or whatever we want to call it) need be retrieved from the early American tradition of Madison and Adams?~~

Perhaps I’m misunderstanding the question, but the answer to me seems obvious: because that is the political tradition we have been bequeathed, that is the hand we have been dealt. It seems no more possible to me to purge entirely all negative effects of the Enlightenment from American political culture, than it is to purge, say, all negative Origenist influence from Christian theology. It’s now in the mix; we don’t necessarily have to compromise with it, but we do unfortunately have to live with it.

“Personally–and I know that most of the writers here think the same–appealing largely to the American tradition without considering the Christianity of Roman Catholicism and/or Eastern Orthodoxy, Aristotle, or the German spirit of egalitarianism is intensely problematic and suspect.”

I wholehearted agree — and so does Kirk. That he tended to focus on the American manifestation does not mean that he in any way limited his appeal to that, as is evidenced by his examinations of, for instance, Roman politics and English common law.

The Southern stream of American conservatism, expressed in a reactionary mode by the Agrarians, then articulated philosophically by their heir Richard Weaver, is very much the sort of conservatism you are advocating. That Kirk was strongly sympathetic to it (in fact, one might say that the only reason that he didn’t wholly identify himself with it is that he wasn’t a Southerner) demonstrates that he wasn’t a Burkean pure and simple. It’s also notable that these Southern conservatives themselves thought very highly of Burke, without (they felt) compromising their inherent mistrust of modernism.

avatar Anymouse November 17, 2011 at 2:09 pm

“That Kirk was strongly sympathetic to it (in fact, one might say that the only reason that he didn’t wholly identify himself with it is that he wasn’t a Southerner) demonstrates that he wasn’t a Burkean pure and simple.”
I agree. I do think the agrarians may have compromised with modern innovations in some areas but those were accidental compromises, and should not be considered to reflect the essence of their thought. Even to the extent which they admired Jefferson it was his support for agriculture, not his biblical liberalism. Anyone sympathetic to that position cannot be considered to be purely Old Whig.

avatar Rob G November 17, 2011 at 6:08 pm

“Even to the extent which they admired Jefferson it was his support for agriculture, not his biblical liberalism.”

Right. The South in general was quite comfortable with the agrarian democratic side of Jefferson’s thought. The freethinking liberal side, not so much. They rightly saw somewhat of a disconnect there in TJ’s thought.

avatar JonF November 19, 2011 at 6:40 pm

Re: I think there’s a reason that you jumped from Aristotle to Burke: Burke was reacting against a fragmenting society, not representing an unfragmented one.”

It may be difficut to see at this distance, but Aristotle’s society was falling apart too. Several generations of ugly wafare was ringing down the curtain on the world of the old Greek polis, and Philip II and Alexander were waiting in the wings to inaugurate a very different order of things.

Re: The South in general was quite comfortable with the agrarian democratic side of Jefferson’s thought.

Originally, yes. But sometime after after the opening of the Black Belt lands and the beginning of the Cotton Boom, the South became a society of globalizing plutocrats too, with the big planters playing the same role that the industrialists and financiers did in the North. Calhoun’s South was not Jefferson’s and Washington’s, and Davis’ and Lee’s CSA absolutely was not.

avatar AML November 20, 2011 at 2:01 pm

For more on Habsburg funeral rituals see: http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2011/07/exequies-of-archduke-otto-of-austria.html

From the recent funeral of Archduke Otto (who happened to be a friend of Russell Kirk’s)

The herold taps three time on the gate with his rod.

Capuchin friar: “Who begs entrance?”

Herold: “Otto of Austria, once Crown Prince of Autria-Hungary, Prince Royal of Hungary and Bohemia, of Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia, Lodomeria and Illyria; Grand Duke of Tuscany and Cracow, Duke of Lorraine, Salzburg, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola and Bucovina; Grand Prince of Transylvania, Margrave of Moravia; Duke of Upper and Lower Silesia, Modena, Piacenza and Guastalla, of Auschwitz, Zator, Teschen, Friuli, Ragusa and Zara; Princely Count of Habsburg and Tyrol, Kyburg, Görz and Gradisca; Prince of Trent and Brixen; Margrave of Upper and Lower Lusatia and in Istria; Count of Hohenems, Feldkirch, Bregenz and Sonnenberg, etc.; Lord of Triest, Cattaro and in the Windic march; Grand Voivode of the Voivodeship of Serbia; etc. etc.”

Capuchin friar: “We know him not.”

The herold knocks again.

Capuchin friar: “Who begs entrance?”

Herold: “Dr. Otto von Habsburg, President and Honorary President of the Paneuropean Union, Member and Father of the House of the European Parliament, honorary doctor of numerous universities and honorary citizen of many municiplaities in central Europe, member of venerable Academies and Institutes, bearer of high and highest state and Church decorations, orders and honours, which were granted to him in recognition of his decade-long struggle for the freedom of peoples, for what is right and just.”

Capuchin friar: “We know him not.”

The herold knocks for the third time.

Capuchin friar: “Who begs entrance?”

Herold: “Otto, a mortal, sinful man.”

avatar Susannah Black November 20, 2011 at 4:43 pm

Chiming in:

Rob G:  “…egalitarianism itself is a product of the rosey Rousseauian view of man that conservatives deny.”  Well, it can be, but a different kind of egalitarianism can also be born out of a belief in humans as creatures made in the image of God who have fallen into original sin.  A healthy pessimism about the likelihood of our behaving well balanced with a healthy vision of the tremendous value of the least among us.

“…because that is the political tradition we have been bequeathed, that is the hand we have been dealt”– well, but is it?  We absolutely have to play the hand we’re dealt– I’m no utopian, and I don’t want to erase any history.  And we have to communicate in language and ideas that make some kind of sense to those we’re speaking with– that’s why Mark and Stephen and Jason’s initial points were so valuable.  

But I wasn’t raised a Lockean any more than I was raised a Christian. The political assumptions they were handing out in East Coast colleges and prep schools in the 1990s were (when they weren’t Marxist) Wilsonian and progressivist.  And a whole lot of people I know now have a living-constitution understanding of how government ought to work, and a postmodern/multicultural understanding of the kind of things it ought to do.  When I learned the classical liberal “conservative” tradition of the founders, it seemed almost as alien to me as any absolutist extravagence of Filmer, let alone any older, genuinely pre-modern ideas.  

For me, there is one reason keep wrestling with Locke as filtered through the American tradition, and his name is Hadley Arkes; he was my professor; he introduced me to the idea of natural law; and I feel a purely personal (not, haha, political) obligation to keep engaged with the First Things-style tradition out of a sort of filial respect for him.  Which is, I know, a terribly medieval reason to continue an argument.

Fr. Sibley: If you do end up coming up with helpful terminology… let us know; we all need it!

AM: Please, McInnes.  Not “Ms. Black.”  You know better than that.  “Miss Black.”

AML– Thanks for that; I always good to have a better reference than “this thing my friend told me over appetizers.”  And I love the update, so to speak: presumably the secondary CV that the herald gives in the funeral is not traditional, but it’s dead-on to the way that a modern might try to pull rank to curry favor with God: list your accomplishments, your honorary degrees, all the genuinely helpful social justice work you’ve done.  The fact that the liturgy was expanded to show that this is also not how we get access to grace is in the best sense  “the restoration of past virtues in the present context.”

avatar JA November 20, 2011 at 10:15 pm

Miss Black makes good points in her last post. I would add that as someone espousing virtues of a bygone age, I find I gain more traction with most of those who I work with, precisely because the Marxist critiques of capitalism and the state are similar enough to those that of a premodern disposition lodge. This is not only true today, but it was also in Marx’s. Lest we forget, the American right did not embrace libertarianism and the market until the 20th century.

On another note, it seems that conservativism first came into use in the late 18th/early 19th centuries in reaction to the French Revolution. Burke is the most obvious example–and the most problematical, as has been said. There was also a Continental strain that was counter-Enlightenment. However, this strain did not survive. It seems that if conservatism means, in the Burkean sense, a deference toward the preservation of tradition, I think it best to use a different term. Those of a premodern bent do not seek a cease fire with liberalism, grasping stubbornly onto a few traditions as they are slowly wrenched free–that only leads to a slow erosion of virtue as the market and individualism subsume every inch of human life. Rather, the response is Christian discipline, Aristotelian virtue, deference to the Church over the state, and local and modest living. Sadly, I fear that there are too few who understand this. Too many have accepted a comfortable right-liberalism with the rank individualism, divorce between the public and private realms of life, and bourgeois complacency that that implies.

avatar JA November 21, 2011 at 1:22 am

My apologies, the above should read: “On another note, it seems that the term “conservative” first came into use in the late 18th/early 19th centuries in reaction to the French Revolution.”

I should proofread these.

avatar Matt November 21, 2011 at 1:58 am

Susannah: “Also, Matt, who the heck are you, and do you write anywhere?”

I’m a professor of Catholic moral theology. If by do you write anywhere you mean a blog, then no, I don’t see how anyone has time to keep up such a thing!

Andrew McInnes: “I have more in common with Tories from the 18th Century than Tories from later epochs.”

What can that even mean? Wistfully reminiscing on bygone days is not politics; politics is the life of the polis. The fact that your politics is defined by such an idiosyncratic set of beliefs divorced from the actual life of any existing community shows you are probably more influenced by liberalism than you realize.

avatar Anymouse November 21, 2011 at 2:52 am

JA has made an excellent point. I do agree that any truce with liberalism is to be rejected.

avatar Susannah Black November 21, 2011 at 10:15 am

JA: So should I proofread: rereading my last post it looks like I gave personal illustrative anecdotes without making my actual point, which should have been this: a main purpose of delving into the genealogy of American conservatism has got to be that we want to be able to comminicate accurately. That’s why the issue of getting the proper terms is important as well.

But quite often– if we’re talking with people who’ve been reading James Howard Kunstler, for example, and who sympathize with many of the traditionalist conservative ideas about place and limits– the issue of the problematic, liberal-corrupted heritage of American conservatism is not an issue at all.

The point of all our talk has got eventually to be communication of fruitful ideas that promote the flourishing of the particular people we’re speaking with. Political discussion is social, specific, and personal, if it matters at all; and I don’t think that’s just the same as being private. And if the people we’re speaking with are progressives or radicals, the question of the lineage of American conservatism becomes less pressing. We need to look at the interpersonal hand we’re dealt in each conversation, before we look at the historical hand we’ve been dealt as “American conservatives.”

avatar Rob G November 21, 2011 at 11:55 am

“a different kind of egalitarianism can also be born out of a belief in humans as creatures made in the image of God who have fallen into original sin.”

Absolutely, which is why I said above that aside from the obvious theological/philosophical areas where liberalism and conservatism differ, the key difference is their anthropology.

“Too many have accepted a comfortable right-liberalism with the rank individualism, divorce between the public and private realms of life, and bourgeois complacency that that implies.”

Correct, and Kirk stood against this understanding of conservatism, hence his oft-noted differences with both libertarianism and neo-conservatism. Don’t make an enemy out of someone who may have been possibly just (in your estimation) a less-than-perfect ally.

avatar JA November 21, 2011 at 4:30 pm

Rob G,

Please note that I do not refer to Kirk in the post you cited, but Burke. The latter is the target of my criticism, not the former, as I am not clear on Kirk’s ideas to the extent necessary to evaluate them.

Miss Black,

You are quite right, of course, on the use of the term in interpersonal conversation in order to communicate ideas. My occupation, however, strives for technical and historical precision and clarity, which is the angle I was coming at it from.

On another note, I hope you found something useful in list of books I posted.

avatar Rob G November 21, 2011 at 7:53 pm

JA,

Yes, I understand that. My point is that one need not be a right-liberal to be a Burkean. Note that both Kirk and Peter Stanlis argued that Burke, contrary to received opinion, was a true friend of Natural Law ideas. To my mind the real right-liberals in today’s conservative world are the neo-conservatives and the mainstream cons who’ve been influenced by neo-conservatism and libertarianism, the latter of which has also affected not a few so-called “paleos.”

avatar John Haas November 22, 2011 at 12:34 am

Get it right now, folks.

avatar Rob G November 22, 2011 at 12:13 pm

Went back to Kirk’s ‘The Conservative Mind’ last night and re- read his section on Burke. Well worth a look, esp. the subsection which discusses Burke and religion.

avatar JA November 25, 2011 at 6:22 am

Rob G,

I won’t pass judgment on Kirk, since his position is less clear to me, but Burke is too problematical. As a whig, he was a liberal. Further, his formulation of tradition as something that must be preserved against the march of history is a wholesale adoption of a liberal mythology. To repeat MacIntyre’s point, “Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict. Indeed when a tradition becomes Burkean, it is always dying or dead. A living tradition then is an historically extended, socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition.” Thus, Burkean traditions are destined to fail because they are already recognized as stale and obsolete. It is a position of one yelling “Slow down. Don’t go so fast.” But it doesn’t provide a positive alternative to modernity, only a compromise. Again, we are living the effects of that compromise. It is untenable. Liberalism, modernity, the market, and “progress” will win. At best, Burkean conservatism merely delays it.

To recover an honorable, virtuous, and just society will require not a compromise, but a recovery of what has been lost. The absolute grip of the absolute state over the public realm must be loosened and room must be made for the Church to speak. People must renounce their right to their own “truths” constructed from traditions half remembered and their own limited judgments and instead submit themselves to the traditions of the Christian community. “Values” must be replaced by “Virtue.” John Locke and Nietzsche must give way to Augustine and Aristotle.

None of this can be accomplished through a Burkeanism that stubbornly holds onto the past and naught much else.

avatar Rob G November 25, 2011 at 2:36 pm

“None of this can be accomplished through a Burkeanism that stubbornly holds onto the past and naught much else.”

That’s not the Burkeanism that I know, I’m glad to say. Really, you should read Kirk and Stanlis on Burke.

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