christopher dawson imaginative conservative

Christopher Dawson

Apropos of the title of this online journal, I think it appropriate to offer a few Russell Kirk-inspired refections as to what it means to be an “imaginative conservative.” In his essay, “The Cultural Conservative”, found in Politics of Prudence , Russell Kirk explains what it is to be an imaginative conservative, particularly in relation to conservatives of other stripes. Kirk remarks that “in practical politics, what we call the conservative movement…is a coalition of several interests and bodies of opinion. It is only in their opposition to the Leviathan that the several factions join forces. Among these factions…the most imaginative is the body of persons called “cultural conservatives” or “traditionalists.” Thus, according to Kirk, an imaginative conservative (or, at any rate, the most imaginative ones) is a cultural conservatives.

But what does it mean to be an imaginative, that is, cultural conservative?

A cultural conservative, according to Kirk, is “a person who endeavors to preserve the customs, institutions, the learning, the mores of a society, as distinguished from men and women whose immediate interest is the practical political activity of a conservative cast.” The aims of a cultural conservative are therefore broader than mere politics and encompass the most fundamental and transcendent aspects aspects of human life. Kirk does not explicitly make the point, but one can reasonably infer from his remarks that the cultural conservative’s aims are not only of a higher order, but are foundational to those of the political conservative. Political conservatives are persons engaged in the immediate, pressing concerns of the day. But, like all of us, they are the product of a particular civilization and culture, such that their framing of political problems as well as their solutions are shaped by their historical and cultural context. Thus, to the extent the cultural conservative is able influence the culture in which the political conservative lives, moves and has his being, his efforts will have a fundamental and more enduring impact, even if imperceptibly gradual, on the sphere of life in which the political conservative operates. As George Washington, perceptively observes in his Farewell Address, “of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports.”

But what should be the focus of the imaginative/cultural conservative’s efforts, especially in light of the fact that the foundation of western and American civilization continues to erode? While the obvious answer is that the cultural conservative strives to shore up the collapsing edifice of our culture, Kirk clarifies precisely where this renewal must begin. According to Kirk, the “cultural” conservative (i.e. the imaginative conservative) should primarily begin by preserving “the cult,” which Kirk defines as the “attempt of a people to commune with a transcendent power.” If Kirk is right that the keystone of a culture is its religion, then the culture conservative must be concerned, most of all, with the preservation of religion.

Unfortunately Kirk does not elaborate in this article on his contention that the lifeblood of culture is religion. The article does, however, point to Christopher Dawson in support of this point, and Kirk’s own work, Roots of the American Order, illustrates religion’s essential role in the development of a culture, American culture in particular. As Roots makes clear, “all the aspects of any civilization arise out of a people’s religion: its politics, its economics, its arts, its sciences, even its simple crafts are the by-products of religions insights and a religious cult.” Kirk also states in Roots, that a culture depends on order, order in the individual soul and in society. While law is necessary condition of this order it is not sufficient. A system of morality is also necessary, and as Roots as a whole demonstrates, at least with respect to American culture, an indispensable source of that morality is religion.

The growth and maintenance of a culture depends on order, for culture, as Dawson defines it (borrowing from the sociologists of his day), is “any social way of life which possesses a permanent institutional or organized form.” Persons cannot live in an organized community and share a way of life without some order. In fact, the order itself by which persons live in community is, arguably, a definitive aspect of a culture.

A society’s laws cannot, however, be the only source of this order. While Nazi Germany had laws that established order at least for a time, this was merely political and social order imposed through force and power and, as a result, was unable to establish itself (thankfully) as an enduring order from which a culture could emerge. A social contract to live according to an agreed upon set of laws may also establish order for a while, but the laws that give flesh to this contract will not have a lasting legitimate authority without these prescriptions taking root in individuals’ hearts, and thus, serving as a moral code by which individuals order their lives. For, as Plato’s story of Gyges shows, without inner order the only reason to follow the laws is to avoid the inconvenience of getting caught. As soon as one believes he has chanced upon his magic ring, he will be the first to flout the law. We would not be surprised, then, to find that the culture of a society of Gyges would not be long for this world. Thus, as Kirk rightly states in Roots, a culture depends not only on political and social order, but also on the inner order of the soul, which is the effect not of laws alone, but of possessing, internalizing and thus living by a moral code.

But even if culture depends on order and order on morality, is it not possible for morality to exist without religion? Take Plato, for example, who seems to expound a morality promoting order in the individual’s soul. Plato’s morality, however, if not derived from, was at least coincident with a metaphysics that was independent of, if not at odds with, his culture’s traditional religion. Is it not possible, then to live by a moral code that provides the order of a thriving culture which does not also depend on religion? If so, then while morality is necessary for culture, religion is not.

Kirk’s article does not argue the point, but cites Christopher Dawson, et alia as sufficient proof that religion is essential to culture. Looking to Dawson, not surprisingly we find him saying “first, Religion, then Society, then Art, and finally Philosophy.” Dawson does not mean by this that culture progresses beyond religion, culminating in philosophy without religion. Indeed, Dawson concludes that “the great religions are the foundations on which the great civilizations rest,” and that “a society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture.” Thus, if Dawson is correct that a society that loses its religion loses its culture, then it is likely that he would also answer, in response to our question above, that a purely philosophical morality is not sufficient to provide the order necessary to sustain a culture.

Dawson’s basic argument is that history shows that culture has never existed without religion and, as a result, no culture ever will. Admittedly, this is an oversimplification that not only ignores the nuance of Dawson’s argument, but exposes it to the familiar Humean objection that just because we have witnessed repetitively the impact of one billiard ball causing another to move, does not mean we shall always experience this same connection. In several places, however, Dawson does express his conclusion in a more restrained fashion. He concludes not that we have apodictic certainty that culture can never exist without religion, but that the historical evidence reveals there is no good reason to believe that a culture will ever materialize, thrive or be sustained without religion. But even if Dawson did believe that it is simply impossible for culture to exist without religion, his argument is still persuasive, so long as the key premise from which he moves from the historical fact that culture has never existed without religion to his conclusion that it is impossible for it to do so is based on an insight into the very essential nature of man (assuming, of course, one thinks such insights are possible). For if the reason history shows that culture has never existed without religion is that man is by nature a religious animal, then assuming man has a stable nature, it is impossible that there should ever be a culture that does not arise out of and is not sustained by its religion.

In the course of making his argument, Dawson also addresses, to a certain extent, the specific question as to whether a purely philosophical morality could provide the basis of and/or sustain a culture. He cites, for example, Kant, whose ethical system is “a direct survival of the intensive moral culture of Protestantism” as well as the liberal movement of the eighteen century which “seems simply to carry on, in a generalized and abstract form, the religious and ethical teachings of the previously dominant religion.” Even the expressly areligious and anti-religious movements of modernity, “Democracy, Socialism and Nationalism,” which include Marxism and its political manifestations, as well as Nazism and Fascism, are substitutes for religion and cannot escape the religious impulse inherent in man. Democracy, for instance, appeals to the “sacredness of the People,” Socialism to the “sacredness of Labor,” and Nationalism to the “sacredness of the Fatherland.” While these movements are not based on “transcendent religious values or sanctions” and are therefore “religious emotion divorced from religious belief,” they demonstrate that man cannot escape his religious nature because even while eschewing religion, man must consecrate his earthly ideologies and elevate them as a substitute for genuine religion.

Far from proving that culture can survive without religion, Dawson argues that these modern movements rely on the “inherent social capital of religious feeling,” which will eventually dissipate “if no new creative religious power arises to take their place.” While a society and its culture may linger on for a long while because the process of religious decay is a slow one, “when the process of secularization is completed, the process of social dissolution is consummated and the culture comes to an end.”

Further, although Dawson does not explicitly argue the point, even apart from the fact that a purely philosophical morality arises from or out of a conflict with the predominate religion of a culture, a philosophical articulation of a moral system that either derives from or is justified by a transcendent metaphysics is arguably a religion. In so far as it provides a social cohesion, which Dawson and Kirk both observe is an essential characteristic of religion, it would satisfy Kirk’s definition of religion as “an attempt of a people to commune with the transcendent.” Thus, any such morality rooted in a transcendent order would qualify as a religion and would not, therefore, disprove Dawson and Kirk’s conviction that culture cannot survive without religion. Yet, the historical reality is that such moralities either do not provide a basis for an enduring culture or they are absorbed into a culture through its religion. Dawson cites the integration of Confucian ethics into Chinese religion and culture as an example of this phenomenon, but the adoption of Plato’s philosophy by Christianity through the neo-platonists arguably illustrates this point just as well.

If Dawson and Kirk are right, then, that culture can neither thrive nor survive without religion, then a cultural conservative, which Kirk claims is the most imaginative of conservatives, must fight to preserve the religious foundations of his culture. While the cultural conservative need not surrender on the political front, perhaps, as Kirk says, “the politics of this country…[should]…be much more concerned with the reinvigoration of culture than with economic [or other] issues. And whether or not modern people are given a Sign from on high, those men and women who are urgently concerned for the moral order, and for the survival of a high culture, need to repair the culture’s source – the religious perception of what we are or ought to be, here below.” If, then, we are indeed “imaginative conservatives” we must courageously strive to revitalize the religious dimension of our society and culture both through our conversation in this journal as well as in our daily lives.

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