Recently, a friend who is conservative asked me:  “What should be the next great project for conservatism?”  I mulled this for a bit, and then the conversation quickly passed to another topic, but the question stayed with me – not because I arrived at a definitive answer, but because the question itself was so peculiar and so, well,  unconservative.  Were I pressed to answer it, I would say, the next great project for conservatism is to stop talking in terms of great projects.

Mine, however, seems to be the minority view among many contemporary conservatives, who have noted the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the moon landing with calls for a new Great Project:  the journey to Mars.  Prominent among them have been Jody Bottum, who has argued that the natural human impulse to have a Great Project – having been thwarted from returning to space all these years – has instead been redirected toward the new Great Project of remaking the human creature through biotechnology.

Tom Wolfe – conservative America’s consensus favorite novelist – published an essay marking the 40th anniversary of the moon landing in which he called for a renewal of the space program’s earlier ambitions to land a man on Mars and beyond.  He recalls a statement of Wernher von Braun, apparently not written down, in which the very apparent emptiness of space is the justification for our moving heavenward:

It’s been a long time, but I remember him saying something like this: Here on Earth we live on a planet that is in orbit around the Sun. The Sun itself is a star that is on fire and will someday burn up, leaving our solar system uninhabitable. Therefore we must build a bridge to the stars, because as far as we know, we are the only sentient creatures in the entire universe. When do we start building that bridge to the stars? We begin as soon as we are able, and this is that time. We must not fail in this obligation we have to keep alive the only meaningful life we know of.

And, more recently still, at Image magazine’s blog, one author argues that a mission to Mars will affirm what is truly human about us, and quotes scripture to prove it:

The drive that propelled us to the moon and would propel us to Mars is the same drive behind art and mysticism and the Everest climbers and the Pyramid builders. It is a spiritual drive that is as proper to humanity as its own flesh.

When the Psalmist makes this prayer, he points out a central truth to exploration: the more we know of the universe, the more we learn to appreciate the uniqueness of the human person:

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him?

Perhaps as we trek into space, we will learn to appreciate the human person, too. We will learn to love the “human”—something useful to know for humanitarians who defend human rights. What better counter to the humanitarian argument.

This remarkable consensus (even “conservative” consensus) – that we must go to space to be or remain truly human – to my mind represents in crystalline perfection the problem of the Great Project:  it is a masterful, and enormously profligate, distraction from the difficult fact that we have too often failed at making a good home on the earth, and are strenuously devoted to any effort to divert ourselves from the necessary effort to achieve that homely but elusive feat.   Incapable of even being “stickers” on the planet we are blessed to inhabit – that, in its creation, was declared to be “good” – we become the ultimate “boomers,” transients without a home in the universe, without a place that we are insuffiently capable of generating enough loyalty to care about.  What commendations of this Great Project intend to achieve is a kind of collective enthusiasm of otherwise indifferent and fractured individuals who are incapable of forging a human communitythat lives well and responsibly in a place together.

We have seen this story before – let me quote it:

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ 5The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’8So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

What I have always found remarkable about this Biblical passage at Genesis 11 is that the people of Shinar decide to build a tower lest “we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”  While many readers of this passage assume that God’s punishment leads to their scattering, we are told that they are aware that already they have in the most important ways ceased to speak the same language, and that they are incapable of staying together as a community.  To hold them together, they elect to embark on a Great Project that – to achieve that goal – must be so great to assail the gates of Heaven itself.  They have ceased to be able to live as a human community, and instead seek its ersatz replacement by means of a group project, a distraction from the centrifigul trajectory of their anomie.

I take issue with every one of the above reasons offered for a mission to Mars.  Contra Jody, the urge to refashion the human creature through biotechnology is not due to the absence of the distraction of space travel, but is born of the same impulse:  our inability to accept our condition as created human creatures on this earth created for us.  Indeed, it has been argued by many fans of both space travel and biotechnology that any eventual efforts to colonize space will require forms of genetic “splicing” from other species that can survive extraordinary conditions of space (see, for example, Princeton’s Lee Silver’s book Remaking Eden).  Such a fundamental alteration of the human genetic code for the purpose of living beyond earth complicates Peter Lawler’s customarily sanguine claims that wherever we happen to live,  “it won’t change fundamentally who we are.”  Maybe, except for our our silicon skin or carbon-breathing gills, not to mention Freeman Dyson’s musings that eventually we’ll just be sentient floating clouds.  If one can really say “we.”

Apparent evidence of an empty universe is not justification to travel and colonize elsewhere, but remarkable justification of the uniqueness of our planetary situation and all the more reason to live well on this place for the billions of years that remain (for the planet, if not for us, given our current course).  Frankly, I find Tom Wolfe’s endorsement of von Braun’s justification of space travel due to humanity’s being “the only sentient creatures in the entire universe” to be a tad too atheist and heretical – as if all meaning would be extinguished without humanity to appreciate the created universe.

Finally, our humanity is not affirmed by our strenuous efforts to be elsewhere.  This last argument is really the topper – in order to love other humans, we have to leave earth.  Here we have, nearly word for word, the same argument put forth by the men of Shinar for building the tower to heaven.  How little we have learned over so many millenia.  But even somewhat attentive students should have learned by now that what makes us and will keep us human is and will be our capacity to forge a life together in human communities.  This has and will continue to prove to be a far more difficult task than landing a man on Mars.   That particular Great Project is simply another iteration of many others like it that seek to distract us from our inability to live well on our planet.  It proposes that we become the creatures that invade earth in the film “Independence Day” – scavengers who have decimated their own planet and roam the heavens in search of new inputs of raw materials.  We are destined to be creatures lost in the cosmos incapable of governing our appetites until the last star collapses on itself.

I close with a better set of thoughts on this matter from the pen of Wendell Berry.  In response to the common refrain that “if we can put a man on the moon, we can certainly do X,” he has written that this sentiment “construes the flight to the moon as an historic event of a complete and coherent significance, when in fact it is a fragmentary event of very uncertain significance.  Americans have gone to the moon as they came to the frontiers of the New World: with their minds very much upon getting there, very little upon what might be involved in staying there.  I mean that, because our history of waste and destruction here,  we have no assurance that we can survive in America, much less on the moon [or Mars].  And until we can bring into balance the processes of growth and decay, the white man’s settlement on this continent will remain an incomplete event.”

(“Discipline and Hope,” A Continuous Harmony, 94-5)

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  1. An alternative to the “emptiness” of “space”: the “heavens” are “full.” So argued C.S. Lewis. Pretty hard to imagine that when your view of nature has been emptied of all life, save the bumping of atoms. But I agree we should stay put and get our house in order, and have said so, notwithstanding all those who think that striking out for the territory is permissible because it’s human nature to do so. My own experience in acting according to my nature hasn’t been all that impressive.

  2. It seems to me that our specie has been “striking out for the territory” since those days when we were habitually chucking spears at one another.
    You got your X per cent that pack up the old Conestoga and head down Route 66 looking for …, land, wealth, a new life, the new tomorrow, happiness, ect., ect. There seems to be a myriad of reasons for leaving the old homestead, the old “place”.
    And you have X per cent who stay home usually because they “have” or can get what they want or need or desire and so they busy themselves with expanding, enriching, strengthening, ect., their holdings.
    There’s a ‘family’ quotient in all this and you guys and Wendell have been doing a fine job of explicating it. But, is there something intrinsically wrong with ‘headin’ down that highway?’ Or, for that matter blasting off into Outer Space, as we said when we were kids? I don’t think so….Jesus is portable.
    But, that doesn’t mean I don’t miss my kids and grandbabies and continue to think that there’s ‘something’ wrong with this modern picture.

  3. G. K. Chesterton, in Manalive, has his protagonist Innocent Smith embark on a trip around the world, the purpose of which is not exploration so much as it is for him to really understand and appreciate and love the place he calls home. The following quote from Innocent Smith’s defense of his behavior is apropos:

    “‘I mean,’ he said with increasing vehemence, ‘that if there be a house for me in heaven it will either have a green lamp-post and a hedge, or something quite as positive and personal as a green lamp-post and a hedge. I mean that God bade me love one spot and serve it, and do all things however wild in praise of it, so that this one spot might be a witness against all the infinities and the sophistries, that Paradise is somewhere and not anywhere, is something and not anything. And I would not be so very much surprised if the house in heaven had a real green lamp-post after all.’”

    If GKC is ever canonized, can he be the patron saint of FPR?

  4. TS Eliot said much the same thing in Little Gidding:

    We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time.

  5. On the basis of GKC’s defining Catholicism thus–“a thick steak, a pint of stout, and a fine cigar”–I would have him canonized.

    Here’s Stegner in The Big Rock Candy Mountain coming to terms with his father’s “boomer” mentality:

    Why remain in one dull plot of earth when Heaven was reachable, was touchable, was just over there? The whole race was like the fir tree in the fairy tale which wanted to be cut down and dressed up with lights and bangles and colored paper, and see the world and be a Christmas tree.

    And, in the same book, his coming to terms with his mother’s “sticker” mentality:

    She wanted to be part of something, an essential atom in a street, a town, a state; she would have loved to get herself expressed in all the pleasant, secure details of a deeply lived-in house.

  6. A propos of C.S. Lewis, the first thing I thought of when I read Wolfe’s quotation of von Braun was Professor Weston’s justification to Oyarsa for exploiting Malacandra in Out of the Silent Planet.

  7. It might also be helpful to point out that the Psalmist was saying almost the opposite of what that article suggests. He wasn’t “appreciat[ing] the uniqueness of the human person”, rather, he was realizing that we are basically as nothing compared with the glory of the rest of Creation. “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” only means “Why are we so special, that God should pay attention to us?”

  8. I’m just wondering, has there ever been a paradise that we haven’t lost? God knows I’ve found a way to spoil just about all the ones I knew in some misguided attempt to make them better.

    I’ll argue with G.K. A good steak, a pint of stout and a fine cigar is more than Catholicism. It is heaven on earth. And last time I checked, they weren’t serving any of those on the grand International Space Station.

  9. I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with building the pyramids if that’s what you do. Certainly excess production should be put to some common building endeavor lest the population turn to gluttony of every sort. A town make make great beer, or be famous for its bakeries, or its theater, or that it produces strait timber and all this is conservative.

    Otherwise gluttony is what you are bound to get. Oh wait, that’s where we are now.

    I’m not sure there’s a litmus test against projects, but projects need to be connected with the substance of the community that sets to doing them. As long as those projects aren’t of the utopia fallacy and give purpose to people’s lives instead of submit their lives to a purpose.

    I read a theory about the making of the pyramids that they were projects not of slaves, but of farmers in periods of great plenty. They were make-work in the off-season to keep idle hands from dark deeds and all that.

    That seems conservative to me.

  10. Vitruvius thought that what set man apart from animals was not only his reason, but the way he walked upright and contemplated the starry firmament. Lost in the wonder of the cosmos, we see how small we are before the divine. And yet, the stars call us upward to the contemplation of that divine. We are earthly creatures, but that is not the whole picture- the Cross is made of intersecting lines, vertical as well as horizontal. Our impulses towards the transcedent can be corrupted, of course, but ultimately the impulse to explore the stars is a natural one. Correctly directed (not escapist or arrogant), such exploration is awe before all Creation.

  11. That’s the phrase I’ve been waiting to read for some time. “Correctly directed (not escapist or arrogant), such exploration is awe before all Creation.”

    Is that a direct quote or a paraphrase?

  12. If the choice of great national projects is between a trip to Mars and another series of wars I’ll take the former. I’d prefer neither, of course.

  13. It’s pretty much my own riffing off of Vitruvius’ original idea, (which is mostly just the first sentence of my post) and the thought of one of my professors, Karsten Harries, who was the first one to point out to me that particular reading of the symbolism of the cross.

  14. It is a symptom of the restlessness of the American spirit, believing that the grass is always greener on the other side, even when, in this case, there isn’t grass on the other side at all. It is one more effort to throw off place and local attachments, to throw off all the things that bind us somewhere, so that we can be forever mobile, space-hopping from place to place as our desires become even more outsized. Perfected man, his aging slowed down, living a lonely life eternal among the stars, going wherever he wants, whenever he wants, moving as his desires dictate with no duties, obligations, or responsibilities. He can destroy this planet because there is always one more out there. It is pure American restlessness, because we have yet to learn that rest, in a place, is what fulfills live. As Caleb likes to say, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” The G.K.C. quote from Manalive and the point about Prof. Weston are spot on.

    Article in the Politico today that perfectly captures this destructive spirit:

  15. Certainly there is a ruinous aspect to the wanderlust that infects the interest in space exploration. But all great projects pose such risks and I accede this is part of the conservative objection to them.

    However, while not wanting to abandon all hope of consistency within my conservative opinion, I cannot hold to an abstracted conservative philosophy that fails to recognize that there is something potentially therapeutic and wholesome in the “correctly directed” common and particular work. By common I mean that all contribute, and by particular that it seems a substantially unique and identifiable interest to the community.

  16. As a long-time reader of science fiction, the best projections of human colonization of Mars are bleak, sad, and hugely expensive (read wasteful): sort of like living in a dangerous, nasty, and budget-busting cave. The exceptions are those stories which project a kind of ruthless, capitalist exploitation of the place… where the effort pays for itself by the ruin of “the new place.” We should stay home, and put our wealth and work into repairing our own places.

  17. Exactly. If we want a project, we might start by raising our kinds and trying to like a sustainable life.

  18. Besides the current Mars talk, another example that people have become enamored with ‘grand’ projects is David Brooks’ notion of national greatness conservatism. Fellow Neo-Cons followed suit and after 9/11 put forward the project of democratizing the Middle East.

    I wonder if the desire to undertake grand projects is the result of Michael Novak’s “empty shrine.” Proponents of Liberal Democracy argue that the shrine (society’s governing ideal) must be empty because we live in a pluralistic society. But if the desire to worship or at least submit oneself to an ideal is natural, then we shouldn’t be surprised to see the shrine filled with all sort of extravagant projects.

  19. This afternoon I go off to observe, applaud, and maybe teach a few placekickers and punters on our college football team. That’s my definition of a Great Project. Excellent essay, Patrick Deneen!

  20. Actually, an intervention might be of use, whereupon the crowing Conservatives assemble in basement rooms of the local parish house on alternate Wednesdays in order to sit namelessly in a circle before getting up and cheerily announcing “Hello, my name is Henry and I’m a Conservativiholic.”

    Not that all conservative ethos is rotgut, just the type generally practiced in this nation …a place where popular conservatism is reduced to paranoid screaming about whatever bugaboo the central organizing committee is fixated upon today. Oddly enough, the new American Conservative has achieved nigh unto the impossible, they’ve out-Bolshied the Bolshevik.

  21. Cathedrals actually popped into my mind as well.

    I think this question might help to illuminate the issue: Why do we all (or at least most of us, I suspect) regard the tower of Babel as bad, and a cathedral as good? I mean, I’m not trying to be cute, the basic difference seems obvious — I’m just wondering if reflecting upon this difference might illuminate the matter at hand. Would interest in the celestial realm still exist, in a sane society? If so, how would it manifest itself? If travel into outer space is inherently bad because it reflects a refusal to stay put, then do we also disapprove of travel to, say, Europe?

    For full disclosure — chirpy futurist-PR blather about moon-colonies and the like does indeed make me want to retch. But I think both Mr. Cheeks & David have worthwhile points.

    Aspiration per se is not evil, and trying to figure out how noble aspiration might be distinguished from foolish hubris strikes me as a very worthwhile question for us.

  22. Cathedrals were erected in homage to God; the Tower of Babel was constructed so that humans could be like God, to ascend to heaven and “make a name for ourselves.”

    I am not sure what a pious and humble journey to Mars would look like, but I’m pretty sure it would not be the first thing on our agenda of things to do to demonstrate due homage.

    Aspiration is fine, but Augustine stated it truly and correctly when he noted that human restlessness is only to be ceased when we rest with God, and any other effort to either overcome or sate our restlessness ought at least to be suspected as being motivated by the libido dominandi.

    Is the stated aspiration to journey to Mars (even if promoted by self-declared conservatives) all that different than that similar ambition of human mastery as articulated centuries ago by John Milton in “Prolusions”?:

    “When the cycle of universal knowledge has been completed, still the spirit will be restless in our dark imprisonment here, and it will rove about until the bounds of creation itself no longer limit the divine magnificence of its quest…. Truly [man] will seem to have the stars under his control and dominion, land and sea at his command, and the winds and storms submissive to his will. Mother Nature herself has surrendered to him. It is as if some god had abdicated the government of the world and committed its justice, laws, and administration to him as ruler.”

  23. Pat, this comment is top shelf.
    How is ‘restlessness’ related to the Greek awareness that man, at least the philosopher-man, is a being who ‘quests, searches, seeks…”
    Is there a differentiation of ‘questing, ect” and ‘restlessness?’
    And, is this intrinsic ‘questing’ obviated by the Logos?
    Voegelin argued that “…the gospel held out its promise, not to Christians, but to the poor in spirit, this is, to minds inquiring..”

  24. Dr. Deneen,

    I agree 110% vis-a-vis what is represented in talk about Mars missions. At *best* it’s jingoism, at worst overtly Faustian.

    I also agree that spaceflight should hardly be the first thing on our list of priorities — I’m hoping I didn’t convey otherwise. On following the links to the articles by Bottum, Ramos, etc, I get a better sense of the specific views you’re responding to… uh, just to make clear, it’s a grand-daddy of understatements to say I don’t share them. Bottum’s argument is downright embarrassing. Yes, that’s right — astronauts must be sent to Mars, lest a dystopic world of human genetic engineering (like in, oh, say, GATTACA) become a grim reality. Wow.

    My own view is that Americans currently inhabit a milieu of post-civilizational, neopagan barbarism, and hence when people — particularly conservatives — say “We need a mission to Mars,” I don’t have the slightest idea WTH “we” refers to. Who’s “we” — New Age Wiccans? Journalists? Stockholders in Walt Disney? Lindsey Lohan? Abortionists?

    Part of my interest is that by picking out the kernel of good in a misdirected drive, maybe one can find how to correct and thus rightly channel it. Kind of like how (I would argue, anyhow) the best way to keep boys from growing up to become neocons would be to teach them chivalry and Just War doctrine. If those ideals governed America, then the American “military” would be so different in scale, character, and purpose from what exists today as to be unrecognizable.

    I’m thinking that an analogy might apply to exploration as well.

    Toward the end of The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis suggests some sort of alternative view of science & technology, one which is more reverential toward Creation and which reflects respect for the harmonies of natural order. I can’t imagine what such an alternative approach would look like in practice — neither could Lewis, as I recall. All he can do is hint that maybe Goethe’s view of science would be a place to start.

    Maybe one of the fundamental problems with big projects is that the space program — and the crusade for democracy — are attempts to build monuments, so to speak, on behalf of a civilizational foundation which is hollow?

    In other words, in terms of things on our agenda, building a community & civilization — an essentially religious activity — necessarily must come prior to building monuments to that civilization. People living in a decayed culture who call for big projects are demanding the fruits even as the tree itself is messily and painfully dying.

    Spiritual and cultural illness drive Americans to seek fulfillment via idolatorous endeavors. But if American society were less spiritually and culturally ill, perhaps the endeavors would not be idolatorous? So long as an artist or technician or what-have-you has some sort of rooted faith, there’s no danger of him worshipping the works of his own hands.

    To re-emphasize, though — what I’m talking about is a question of principle, not current practice. It will be generations before this continent sees anything approaching a spiritually sane, national civilization, if ever.

  25. Yes I think Patrick is right. I am convinced that the motive for space travel could never really be pious or humble. It is by definition proud. We want to put ourselves in the heavens, in the throne of God. We want to know everything, control everything, go everywhere, we want nothing closed to us, we want to unlock all the secrets of nature. But there is a reason God answered Job with riddles. Is it not right that the rhetoric surrounding space travel ( ex. mankind reaching into the stars) has at its root the same spirit that motivated Adam&Eve to reach for the apple in the garden? The vision of man master of the universe is inherently a godless vision. Maybe it could be possible for pious space travel, but certainly the way it is discussed today disallows such an event.

  26. We are, to be sure, standing at the edge of mankind’s greatest wilderness exploration yet…the one where he has beat the underbrush and flushed his quarry stem to stern and must now check his restlessness and cogitate upon what it really means to be a being in repose.

    Nobody has yet to attempt a penetration of this wilderness, let alone any nascent exploration of it because this noisome consumer-pagan “civilization…a technological jungle but a spiritual desert….of ours is still in the grips of a world-class Repose-ophobic fit.

    Needless to say, our old steady friend Tribalism will most likely insure that we’ll kill each other off before we find the amazing liberty of repose.

  27. I can still agree with Patrick in part, but I also think that it’s good to name grade schools after Presidents. Build bridges across rivers. Paint the Sistine Chapel. Writing books is good. And even going to Mars. Or at least all these things can be.

    We could get cynical (we should not confuse conservativism with a liver complaint) about this website. How terribly unconservative is the web? Yet attempts are made here to reflect a conservative ethos. Its success is evident by the meaningful participation of those who comment on it.

    Would it be better for us to meet at the Bird and Baby for some adult beverages? Absolutely. But we make do with what we have. We live where and when we are.

    Honoring the natural order of things is good. Training children is good. Common projects which promote the common good are good. Building a rocket ship has the potential to be a sacred act, it matters how you go about it.

    Instead of bemoaning the lost pseudo-culture of America, all that is required is to exist within it as messengers. To incarnate in our homes, our schools, our jobs, our websites and our trips to the moon, the virtues, the history, the traditions, that we hold.

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