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ice-cold-conservative-graphic-600x345Based around a loose alliance of similarly-minded persons, conservatism sought to defend the Platonic good, true, and beautiful in the second half of the twentieth century, believing it necessary to promote a proper anthropology of the human person. More of a way of thinking, a set of guiding principles, or a habit of being than a political philosophy or creed, conservatism generally opposes all systems and ideologies as unworkable, dangerous to liberties of individuals and communities, and, ultimately, inhumane. Conservatives, consequently, tend to make some of society’s best critics while they rarely offer solutions to the specific problems of the day. This has been, for conservatism, an equal source of strength and of weakness.

The Conservative Mind

Most conservatives over the past six decades have accepted Russell Kirk’s 1953 book, The Conservative Mind (Regnery), as the touchstone of the modern movement. A hagiography of sorts, The Conservative Mind identified a number of seemingly disparate figures—from John Adams to Samuel Coleridge, from John Henry Cardinal Newman to Paul Elmer More—all of whom considered the great eighteenth century Anglo-Irish political philosopher, Edmund Burke, an exemplar of ethical living and moral argumentation. Not seeking a coherent story or past, Kirk readily linked such persons as John C. Calhoun and Abraham Lincoln together as rightful heirs to the Burkean tradition. Rather than a stifling consistency, something conservatives often downplayed in human affairs, each of the thinkers appearing in The Conservative Mind promoted some timeless truth; that is, each manifested some thing true and universal across time, history, and space in his own particular life and works. Kirk’s work offered both a title and a community of sorts to a large number of young scholars, all of who generally agreed with his arguments, but who had been working in isolation one from another. Trying to understand the appeal of conservatism in the midst of the Reagan Revolution, Washington Post writer Sidney Blumenthal recognized The Conservative Mind as “crucial in establishing the cause as a valid intellectual enterprise,” providing a “genealogy of conservatism.” Sociologist Robert Nisbet expressed it well when he first encountered Kirk’s work. “As one who has labored, though more modestly, in an adjacent vineyard, I think I can write with full appreciation of your own achievement,” he wrote Kirk. The Conservative Mind “is as penetrating in its insights as it is graceful in expression, and it is impossible for me to conceive a more timely and important piece of scholarship for the education of the American intellectual.” The book offered Kirk the status of celebrity, and the term “conservative” became not only palatable but also intriguing to many Americans and British in the decade following its publication.

Proclaiming conservatism the negation of ideology, as had many Christian Humanists of the United Kingdom and the European continent during the interwar decades, Kirk rejected the reality of a left-right spectrum, believing that in its attempt to conserve the best of the western tradition, conservatism transcended political and ideological differences and battles. He offered six tenets as forming the basis of conservatism: 1) “Belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience, forging an eternal chain of right and duty which links great and obscure, living and dead”; 2) “affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life”; 3) “conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes”; 4) “persuasion that property and freedom are inexorably connected”; 5) “faith in prescription and distrust of ‘sophisters and calculators’”; and 6) “recognition that change and reform are not identical.” Kirk changed these tenets not only through the six following editions of The Conservative Mind but also through various lectures and other works. The Conservative Mind, especially in hindsight, falls better in the category of belle-letters, theology, or cultural criticism than it does in the category of politics and political philosophy. In his definition of conservative, the poetic, literary, and theological superseded the political. As Kirk explained, the conservative author should “recognize the greater importance, in literature as in life, of religion, ethics, and beauty.” After the first reviews began to appear, Kirk grew frustrated with the political analysis offered. Not even sympathetic reviewers had laid “stress enough upon the ethical aspect of” The Conservative Mind. “Politics, I never tire of saying, is the diversion of the quarter-educated, and I do try to transcend pure politics in my book.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, several persons became identified with conservatism: Kirk, Nisbet, Peter Stanlis, Richard Weaver, Daniel Boorstin, Waldemar Gurian, John Lukacs, Thomas Molnar, Austin Warren, Stephen Tonsor, Stanley Parry, Leo Ward, Peter Viereck, Ross Hoffman, Felix Morley, Bernard Iddings Bell, William F. Buckley, Frank Meyer, Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, Donald Davidson, Raymond English, Francis Wilson, John Hallowell, Francis Canavan, Gerhart Niemeyer, Stanton Evans, Ernest van den Haag, Frederick Wilhelmsen, Will Herberg, Willmore Kendall, Robert Frost, W.T. Couch, Max Picard, Eliseo Vivas, George Carey, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, and Ray Bradbury. Though rejecting the label “conservative,” political philosophers Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and Friedrich August von Hayek found themselves promoted by and allied to conservatives as well. In addition to the specific thinkers, a number of schools of thought consciously or otherwise allied to the conservative movement. These included the Southern Agrarians, Catholic Distributists, the Humanists (New/American and Christian), to name a few. In England and in Europe, one might to varying extents identify T.S. Eliot, Quentin Hogg, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Gabriel Marcel, Romano Guardini, Josef Pieper, Bernard Wall, Otto von Habsburg, Nicholas Berdyaev, Erik Kuenhelt-Leddihn, Hans urs von Balthasar, and Wilhelm Roepke. In terms of politics, most scholars include Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan as explicit inheritors of a Kirkian-style conservatism, though each of these figures combined various forms of libertarianism as well. The second and third generations of modern American conservatives included Pat Buchanan, David Schindler, Claes Ryn, Taki, George Nash, George Panichas, Ralph McInerny, Donald Lutz, Ellis Sandoz, M.E. Bradford, Forrest McDonald, Russell and John Hittinger, Hank Edmondson, Walter Nicgorski, Bruce Frohnen, John Willson, Richard Gamble, Mark Kalthoff, Nathan Schlueter, Winston Elliott, Barbara Elliott, Gleaves Whitney, Ingrid and Sam Gregg, Mark Henrie, and Patrick Deneen.

Burke and De Tocqueville

Much of the effort over the past six decades to define, delimit, and shape a conservatism tangible for the modern and post-modern western world has rooted itself in the works and thoughts of Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville. Each received new attention immediately following the allied victory in World War II, and the importance of their respective thought to conservatism has yet to wane. Burke, famously, not only defended American independence and the right of Americans to possess all of the traditional rights of Englishmen but he also offered the first real opposition to the French Revolution and what it unleashed upon the western world, the concept of what would be called “ideology.” In his philosophy, politics, and aesthetics, Burke’s overriding concern was the upholding of the dignity of the humane, whether for the American colonials, the Irish, Asian Indians, or Roman Catholics. In a similar fashion and in the vein of Burke, de Tocqueville too analyzed the western world, especially America and France, with an eye toward the humane. As de Tocqueville perceptively noted in his Democracy in America, no liberty has ever existed anywhere unpurchased by some sacrificial exertion. Equality comes slowly but meaningfully, while liberty appears only from time to time. Still, as de Tocqueville claimed, no matter how natural or God-given a right, a person must somehow claim what is his or hers. Burke and de Tocqueville each sought to pursue Justice in this world through a proper, Aristotelian form of community as natural to the greatest longings of the human person. Flawed man can, according to this view, only attain his highest gifts and ultimate end, in a community. To live outside of community, each argued, a human ceases to be human.

Conservatism, though appealing to Burke and de Tocqueville, also viewed them as carrying on, or perhaps best exemplifying, all that had come before them in the western tradition. Never shy about selectively reading the past, conservatives over the past six decades have identified a lineage of ancestors, dating from the pre-Socratic Heraclitus, philosopher of the Logos, forward. Others in this line of thinkers include Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Cleanthes, Cicero, Livy, Virgil, Seneca, St. John, Marcus Aurelius, St. Augustine, the Venerable Bede, Alcuin, Alfred the Great, Thomas a Becket, St. Francis, St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas Aquinas, Petrarch, Dante, Erasmus, and St. Thomas More. For many conservatives of Kirk’s generation, the West had slowly developed its ideas of the humane—domestically and abroad—but civilization floundered profoundly around the time of Machiavelli. As Kirk believed the situation to be, the Socratic West ended with the writing of The Prince and the acceptance of power over love as the primary motive force in world affairs. Sometime during the Renaissance, according to many conservatives, the world entered a new dark age, an age that resented tradition and, by necessity, men. The Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation attempted to undo the damage of the Renaissance, but failed, leading to the Enlightenment and the secularization of the West. The failures of the French and English Enlightenments led directly to the age of ideologies, a dark age within a dark age but intensely dangerous and brutal as well. Many conservatives saw the so-called “liberalism” of the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries as a mere stage between the humane promoted by Christendom and the terror espoused by the Nazis and the Soviets. As T.S.Eliot put it in one of his choruses:

But it seems that something has happened that has never happened before:
though we know not just when, or why, or how, or where.
Men have left GOD not for other gods, they say, but for no god; and this has never happened before
That men both deny gods and worship gods, professing first Reason,
And then Money, and Power, and what they call Life, or Race, or Dialectic.
The Church disowned, the tower overthrown, the bells upturned, what have we to do
But stand with empty hands and palms turned upwards
In an age which advances progressively backwards?”

In sum, Eliot asserted in 1936, “If you will not have God (and he is a jealous God), you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.” Such was the bleak view from the few remaining and stubborn islands of civilization in the 1930s. It was this view, then, that many carried with them as they watched the U.S. government intern Americans of Japanese descent during WWII and the atomic annihilation of two Japanese cities in 1945. These horrors, perhaps more than any other events of the day, shaped conservatism, proving to a whole generation that the “colossal” in government, unions, and corporations would never allow for the humane.

From the perspective of many in the post-war era, Burke, Adam Smith, and Alexis de Tocqueville represented the culmination of the highest of western thought, with everything coming after them merely a rearguard action, a rout at best. In this way, the conservatives of the twentieth century assumed that Burke, Smith, and de Tocqueville represented the West, coming at the end of an era, or, perhaps, an epoch, in the way that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle came at the end of classical Greece, or Cicero at the end of republican Rome, or St. Augustine at the end of imperial Rome, or Sir Thomas More coming at the end of the English Catholic spring. For whatever reason, the greats of the Western tradition seem to have come at the end of an era. In the twentieth century, prior to the 1950s, those carrying on the conservative tradition were Irving Babbitt, a scholar of French literature at Harvard, Paul Elmer More, a classicist at Princeton, Albert Jay Nock, a quasi-anarchist and proponent of the liberal arts, Christopher Dawson, an English convert to Roman Catholicism, and T.S. Eliot, the Missourian turned Englishman and perhaps the greatest poet of the age.

What to Conserve?

Though conservatism never achieved, nor wanted to achieve, coherence or conformity, it is possible for the modern scholar, with some trepidation, to define it broadly through a set of principles to which most conservatives adhered. The most important question a conservative must ask is: “what is to be conserved?” Numerous traditions, of course, promoted the destruction or degradation of the human person. Institutions such as slavery, for example, must be abolished. The conservative, then, must prudently and justly judge what is to be maintained, what is to be rejected, and what is to be reformed within any society. Opposing all systems and ideologies, the conservative is always and everywhere a dogmatist in the proper sense of the term. The true dogmatist promotes a series of “good little truths” without reifying all knowledge as absolute or absolutist, recognizing the importance and humility of partial understanding of things. One man, finite but finite in a manner different from every other finite man, sees A, B, and D. Another sees C and E. Yet, another—the poetic mind—sees the connection from and between D and E. Perhaps, no one has yet discovered G, but every one easily sees F. This is simply the life of a finite person (or people) at any one point in history.

The first principle, then, of the conservative is the preciousness of each individual human person, each an unrepeatable center of dignity and freedom. Though deeply flawed or, in religious terms, fallen, each man carries some unique thing or things into the world, each born in a certain time and place, each bearing the unique image of the Infinite mind and soul of the Creator. To the modern mind, this sounds as though it must be Jewish or Christian. But, the ancient Stoics, such as Zeno and Seneca, embraced a universal Creator, the Logos, as well. From this observation, a man best knows his own place within Justice. “I may assume that the awful Author of our being is the Author of our place in the order of existence,—and that, having disposed and marshalled us by a divine tactic, not according to our will, but according to His, He has in and by that disposition virtually subjected us to act the part which belongs to the place assigned us,” Burke explained in 1791. “We have obligations to mankind at large, which are not in consequence of any special voluntary pact. They arise from the relation of man to man, and the relation of man to God, which relations are not matters of choice.”

The second principle of the conservative is the necessity of communities. Communities might be immensely small, such as a family unit, medium sized, such as a college, or they might be large, such as a polis. At any moment in life, an individual belongs to a number of communities, some overlapping in intent and purpose and some not. Women and men of good will also belong to a community of the civilized that transcends any particular moment in time. Cicero named the transcendent city the “cosmopolis” while St. Augustine labeled it a “City of God.” For the conservatives of the second half of the twentieth century, such as Dawson, Eliot, and Kirk, all who seek truth in an academic and scholarly fashion belong to a Republic of Letters bound by neither space nor time. The citizens of this Republic of Letters have a duty to maintain, through the virtues of fortitude and charity, the few truths that have been revealed in this world. Whether the truth be immediately applicable to the problems of an individual society or not, the citizen of the Republic of Letters bears the responsibility of carrying on and preserving the truths for the future, even if that future be 2,500 years distant.

The third principle of the conservative is the need to preserve and defend liberal education. Properly understood, all real education is liberal and is neither civic nor vocational. A liberal education introduces each student to the Great Conversation that began when the Creator spoke the universe into existence and will end when the Creator so ends it. By engaging the minds and ideas of the past, the student becomes liberated from the things of this world, of the immediate moment, problem, or generation. A liberal education thus inspires. “A crassly modern education, over weighted with economics, may educate us to be good clerks; only a curriculum in the broad humanities can educate us to be good human beings,” Peter Viereck wrote in the late 1940s. “By harmonizing head and heart, Apollo and Dionysus, the Athenian classics train the complete man rather than the fragmentary man.”

The fourth principle of the conservative is the recognition that the most important knowledge is poetic knowledge. In 1978, Kirk wrote “Images are representations of mysteries, necessarily; for mere words are tools that break in the hand, and it has not pleased God that man should be saved by logic, abstract reason, alone.” Such images, he continued, “can raise us on high, as did Dante’s high dream; also it can draw us down to the abyss. . . . It is imagery, rather than some narrowly deductive and inductive process, which gives us great poetry and scientific insights. . . . And it is true of great philosophy, before Plato and since him, that the enduring philosopher sees things in images initially.” Owen Barfield, one of the most important of twentieth-century thinkers, explored similar themes in his 1928 book, Poetic Diction: “Our sophistication, like Odin’s, has cost us an eye; and now it is the language of poets, in so far as they create true metaphors, which must restore this unity conceptually, after it has been lost from perception. Thus, the ‘before-unapprehended’ relationship of which Shelley spoke, are in a sense ‘forgotten’ relationships. For though they were never yet apprehended, they were at one time seen. And imagination can see them again.” Through such Stoic and Christian insights, the person can recognize truth dogmatically, rather than systematically. These ideas also allow us to know our place in the order of existence: for each person is “an allegory,” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to his former student, famed poet W.H. Auden, “each embodying in a particular tale and clothed in the garments of time and place, universal truth and everlasting life.”

The fifth principle conservatives uphold is an embracing of the classical and Christian virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude, faith, hope, and charity. Plato wrote of the first four, the classical virtues, in his dialogue, the Symposium. Jewish culture adopted these in the deuterocanonical Book of Wisdom, and St. Paul added the latter three in his first letter to the peoples of Corinth. These virtues, along with allied ones, form the strongest character of a person and, thus, serve as the surest guide to order in the soul and in the commonwealth. The conservative, therefore, never views history as progressive, but, instead, as revelatory. That is, history reveals when and where the virtues have become manifest and where the vices have predominated. With human nature as a constant, man neither becomes better nor worse, he merely restrains or not, creates or not, embraces the virtues or not. In his highest capacity, man embraces the greatest virtue, love, a willingness to surrender oneself for the good of another.

Finally, the conservative tends to distrust all large organizations and concentrations of power—corporate, educational, labor, bureaucratic, and political—as hostile to the dignity of the individual person. While rejecting an abstract and atomized individualism, conservatism does demand a non-conformist society of talented and eccentric persons, each contributing his or her particular gifts and talents to the various communities to which the person belongs. A person understands himself best through community, conforming to the Natural Law but not necessarily to man’s law. In this way, the conservative seeks long-term change through the slow and deliberate art of literature, religion, education, and culture. Politics, at best, sustains a community, protecting it from immediate disorders, but rarely can it do more than restrain the evil within man. When politics attempts to shape, it almost always fails, creating distortions in human persons and communities. While this is true of all large power structures, such corruption empirically seems particularly dangerous in political organizations and bodies.

Conservatism’s Future

Though the classical liberals/libertarians and the Kirkian-style traditionalists often allied with one another in the 1950s and 1960s, they went separate ways, for the most part, after a dispute within the activist political organization Young Americans for Freedom (formed at William F. Buckley’s home in Sharon, Connecticut, in 1960) over the state of the American draft and after the formation of the Libertarian Party in the early 1970s. Additionally, with the rise of the leftish counter-culture of the 1960s and the attempt by the Yippies and SDS to take over the Democratic party in 1968, many war hawks and nationalists departed their party, rebranding themselves as “neo-Conservatives.” Though they held little in common with the traditionalists of the Kirk variety, they secured themselves in a number of important federal positions in several presidential administrations over the next forty years. In significant contrast to the mainstream of conservatism, the neo-conservatives defined nearly everything through the lens of politics and American exceptionalism. Generally advocates of American empire, they have unceasingly supported extensive growth in government at home and abroad.

The current state of conservatism is rich, as a younger generation begins to assert its influence: The Imaginative Conservative (Winston Elliott), The American Conservative (Dan McCarthy), Chronicles (Scott Richert), Ignatius Press (Carl Olson and Mark Brumley), New Oxford Review (Pieter Vree), Second Spring (Stratford Caldecott), Front Porch Republic (Patrick Deneen), and University Bookman (Gerald Russello) have offered new understandings of traditional conservatism. Outside of traditional conservatism, the best exponents of classical liberalism are James Otteson (Yeshiva University), Larry Reed (FEE), and Steve Horwitz (St. Lawrence University). Of a non-violent anarchism, one can turn to Aeon Skoble (Bridgewater State) and Robert Higgs (Independent Institute). And, of Straussianism and neo-conservatism, the best are R.J. Pestritto (School of Statesmanship, Hillsdale College) and Steven Hayward (PowerLine).

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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27 replies to this post
  1. Thanks, Anonymous. There's still a ton of work to do on this topic, but it's necessary, I think, to start again at first principles and move outward. In my heart of hearts, I hope conservatives and libertarians can reunite in a way they've not done since the 1950s. I pray this won't become another Babel, though.

  2. Thanks for the overview, Brad. I’ve gotten in debates with traditionalist conservatives, classical liberals, and libertarians, and was often disconcerted with the dogmatism I experiences. There is a whole lot here that any of these can agree with. I wish we’d focus more on our commonalities, much like Catholics and Protestants have done in standing up against the rabid 21st Century secularism.

    One question. I notice that the idea or concept of “liberty” isn’t addressed in your piece. Is that purposeful? Would you consider “liberty” an ideology, and thus something that should be negated? In a sense, everything you’re writing about here assumes liberty, but the concept is not self-evident, nor is it the natural order of things. I’m pretty fond of the liberties the American experiment has afforded me and my family, and we need to defend those liberties against the ever encroaching state. I would be very interested in your thoughts on this. Thanks.

  3. I think this is wildly optimistic. Kirk's brand of conservatism hasn't held sway in conservative circles for some time, and Kirk himself is rarely invoked. Contemporary conservatism, "neo" or not, is indistinguishable from liberalism, beginning with its insistence on radical forms of economic liberalism. What it seeks to conserve are the values of the Enlightenment, especially its radical individualism and abstract "freedom," which is indistinguishable from license. It is likely to draw more from Locke than from Burke. I hope you are right, but I fear you are wrong.

  4. Thanks for this essay. It was very thought-provoking. I had a few reflections, questions, etc.:

    1) I wonder if a different conservative view of the Renaissance might be possible. Lots of scholars have rejected most characteristic features of Burckhardt's view of the period. Indeed, a good number of Italian humanists could be considered religious thinkers:

    2) I am curious about how conservatives who are Roman Catholics can reconcile their ecclesiological perspective with a "distrust" of all large organizations.

    3) When it is stated that conservatives recognize "poetic knowledge" as "the most important knowledge," is this a reference to the power of poetic images? That makes a great deal of sense. But I'm not so sure about the claim if it is referring to poetry's importance to the discovery of truth. Poetry is certainly a part of human knowledge, but a significant number of the great thinkers in the West did not think of poetry that way. For instance, Thomas Aquinas calls poetry the least of all disciplines (infima doctrina). He might be wrong about this, but I just wonder if we want to exclude those who privilege theoretical philosophy.

    Thanks again for helping us think through this important problem.

  5. This is a very nice, thoughtful piece. It is refreshing to read a discussion from a non-ideological point of view about what it is that we as conservatives wish to conserve. Furthermore, to raise the issue of traditions that have been destructive goes right to the intellectual heart of the matter: Are we as conservatives compelled to support and defend all inherited institutions? Or if not, then what are the criteria for ordering the polis? What are the institutions and principles that we must wholeheartedly defend and why?

    Something that I have found disconcerting during this election season is the degree to which the Left has tried to position itself where they can attack the Right/Republicans/"Tea Partiers" as the true radicals undermining our institutions. While it is easy for those of us on the Right to critique the present administration, I think that we have been weak when it comes to clarifying which institutions must be strengthened and which need to be reformed or even abolished. On the Left, writer and media "personality" Chris Hayes (MSNBC and The Nation magazine) has received many accolades for his new book analyzing our failing institutions, "Twilight of the Elites." Although I have not had a chance to read it, I have heard Hayes go on about the right wing attack on authority, an interesting tack coming from the Left, but honestly, it does look sometimes like we on the Right are simply looking to tear things down, rather than working to strengthen those institutions which reflect and support healthy and sustainable human communities, the ordered soul and the ordered republic.

    Essays like this one are an important step in fostering discussion and helping to clarify our understanding of what a sound, social order looks like. We need to find ways to sustain the little humanizing platoons in which we live most fully. I'm reminded of Robert Nisbet's quest "to protect, reinforce, and nurture where necessary the varied groups and associations which form the true building blocks of the social order." The Democrats will attack us as the destroyers of what they have built up, but we, following Nisbet, might find success distinguishing ourselves from those "monists" on the Left who are intent on creating that dangerous, bloodless abstraction, "the national family". (By the way, it is significant, I think, that Hayes's analysis of the breakdown in authority is titled "Twilight of the Elites," yet there are no citations or listings in the index that suggest that Hayes is aware of Nisbet's 1975 conservative classic on the erosion of the political community, "Twilight of Authority".)

  6. The third principle on liberal education reminded me of a passage "The Trivium" by Sister Miriam Joseph:

    The utilitarian and servile arts enable one to be a servant- of another person, of the state, of a corporation, of a business- and to earn a living. The liberal arts, in contrast, teach one how to live; they train the faculties and bring them to perfection; they enable a person to rise above his material environment to live an intellectual, a rational, and therefore a free life in engaging truth. "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free" (Jn 8:32).

  7. Thanks for this, Brad.

    My question has to do with the Burkean/Kirkian suspicion of ideology and rational over-reach: I get that Burke was responding to Enlightenment rationalism, spurred on by the violence it was causing in the French Revolution. But does it make sense in response to be suspicious of all attempts at political theory? I frequently feel that Burke is throwing out God-given reason itself with the rationalist bathwater, and yet he, Kirk, and anyone who wants to make any distinctions at all must rely on reason, and yes, on theory.

    So I don't yet see how to reconcile the suspicion of reason with the all-to-necessary exercise of it. For instance, how does one know what is prudent, or practically rational, without a good deal of theorizing about (among many other things) the nature of justice and its application in the world?

    Just a few thoughts. Thank you for providing a forum for thinking about these important issues.

  8. Mike, very eager to see you in October. Thanks for commenting here No, I would consider liberty, by its very nature, to be anti-ideological. To believe in liberty is to believe in humility, I think, as it automatically assumes we cannot predict the future or the choices that persons will make. Especially, in a Hayekian sense, thinking about history as the sum of billions upon billions of decisions made by every single human person at every single moment of his/her life. In this sense, liberty demands an anti-ideological understanding of the world and humanity. I didn't mean to leave it out, as much as I wanted to associate it with a fundamental aspect of being fully human.

  9. John, I'm not generally seen as optimistic, but I'll take this as a good thing. When I was first asked to write this piece, I was asked to focus ONLY on a Kirkian type of conservatism and not on Straussianism or Hayekianism. Regardless, I think it's a fair definition. Additionally, I think it could be argued that Burke was even more liberal (in tthe Enlightenment sense) than was, say, Adam Smith. In one of his last writings, Burke called for almost complete separation of politics and economics. Anyway, I appreciate the comment. While I'm personally happy with the term "libertarian," I'm not with liberal, and I never have been. I do think, though, that those 18th and 19th century classical liberal ideas did inevitably work themselves into conservatism.

  10. Thanks, anonymous. My home internet connection is completely dead (I'm doing this through cell). As soon as I have a good connection, I'll check this out. Much appreciated.

  11. Dearest Matt, what a great response, not surprisingly. One of the highlights of my life has been the discussion of these things with you–though that was back when you were a student. Now, blessedly, you're a colleague. How great is that!!!! 1) My understanding of the Renaissance has come from Dawson, Kirk, and a few other metahistorians (so, it probably is not as accurate as it should be)

  12. 2) No matter how big the RC Church is, it's equally as decentralized and almost always has been. So, in a sense, it's the perfect conservative/republican organization. It has universal principles, but it also allows for local manfestation of those principles. Additionally, almost all conservatives who are also Roman Catholic fully admit the need for the layfolks to be as active as possible. As a devout Catholic (and layman) said to me recently. When it comes to scandal in the Church, the clergy will never clean up its mess, the laity will and must take charge to clean, maintain, and preserve. I agree with him completely.

  13. Matt, sorry about the typos. Google is not letting me edit these comments. Arghh!!! Anyway, I think Barfield is using "poetic" as synonymous with intuition, reasoning, Logos, etc.

  14. Thanks, Dwight. Burke employ reason (as in the Sublime and the Beautiful) as the old western way of thinking. Not as rationalization or rationality (that is, as non utilitarian), but as intuition or insight, as images being placed in the soul (the light that lighteth every man). His argument against the French radicals was specifically against the corruption of the word reason into rationality. For what it's worth, I think both Kirk and Strauss get Burke wrong, as they tend to focus almost exclusively on Burke's last writings.

  15. Glenn, I wish I had answers to this, but I don't–at least not from a conservative perspective. When it comes to most institutions, I'm as libertarian as they come. Most (not all) existing institutions, to my mind, have been almost completely corrupted. I can't help but think about Russell Kirk in this matter. While he loved his father, he idealized his grandfather. I think we're in a similar position. Our fathers have corrupted almost everything, and it's time to turn back, perhaps, to our great grandfathers for answers.

  16. I do find it interesting that you do not mention the "Postmodern" conservatives, such as Lawler and Poulos, in your summary of current conservatism.

  17. Excellent article Brad! Thanks!

    But I have a few questions! Like:
    1.What about claims that Burke and Kirk were classical liberals, I have heard this from people all across the political spectrum. Is it true?

    2.What about the monarchists? Where do they fit into this whole thing? I have always got the feeling that they would be unwelcome guests at the conservative table, for many reasons, namely their absolute rejection of the "enlightenment" and it's values. For example the people here at the orthosphere seems like they make strong allies, but I get the feeling they'd be rejected.

    3.Last but not least, what are your thoughts on the other 'founding father' of conservatism, Joseph de Maistre. Where does he fit into all of this? (It would be helpful to know seeing as how I just bought a book authored by the man himself).

  18. Oops, sorry guys, I forgot to add point number four:

    4.Have you checked out/are you planning on checking out the new book "Liberty, the God That Failed: Policing the Sacred and Constructing the Myths of the Secular State, from Locke to Obama" by Christopher A. Ferrara? He is an orthodox Catholic, and president of the American Catholic Lawyers Association. He argues against…well you can see it in the title. I plan on buying the book, I have friends who have said very good things about it. I have checked out parts of the book too, and (at least) some of his arguments are quite compelling! I would very much like to hear your thoughts on the matter!

  19. Where are Joseph de Maistre, Juan Donoso Cortés, and the rest of the Catholics defending pre-modern ethics and polity ? I don't understand how the Enlightenment could have possibly "worked itself into conservatism" without thereby proving that "conservatism" as such failed, either. And Thomas à Becket and Jacques Maritain on the same list ? Really ? For a non-ideology, it sure seems to have most of the telltale features of an ideology — overreaching, selectivity, retroactive adoption of heroes into the pantheon, ignoring inconvenient persons and facts, etc.

    Here is something that always has bothered me whenever I see these lists of "conservatives through the ages" : Everybody on the list from the modern period (minus the Austrians) seems to be a middle-class English-speaking republican or a middle-class German-speaking republican or one of their adepts (i.e., a liberal). I am not complaining about "dead white European males"; on the contrary, I am complaining that the dead white European males' wills not being executed by the more recently dead and incidentally liberal (in the rigorously classical sense) members of that group. Those from more than five hundred years ago — namely the ancient Mediterranean philosophers and the Church Fathers and Doctors — are just included in the genealogy of "conservatives" because… well, they just are. Never mind that the fully-embodied synthesis of their beliefs that was the realist worldview of the mediaevals is precisely what Smith and Tocqueville and Adams no longer believed, even hated. How then can modern conservatism coherently be said to have an ancient heritage if it embraces at once the ancient and mediaeval worlds as well as the Enlightenment, which has roughly the same relationship to the pre-modern world as Cain had with Abel ?

  20. Cont'd…

    Contemporary conservatism in the Anglosphere seems to systematically avoid history from roughly 0 AD until the Early Modern Period (c. 1517 AD). What happened in Europe with Rome and Liberalism in the XIXth and early XXth century again ? It seems like the English-speaking Catholic "conservatives" have never heard of the Risorgimento or the Carlists or the French counter-revolutionaries and Pontifical Zouaves. And could they ever give an easy answer as to why Pius IX would have wanted to reconvene the Vatican Council in Germany to define the temporal power of the papacy as a dogma ? Where did Piux IX get such an idea in the first place if he was actually busy esoterically musing about the dynamics of "freedom" as asserted and believed in by the citizens of Northern European merchant republics (and how such freedom is ultimately consonant with the deepest and fullest understanding of the Christian life and City) ? Doesn't the adoption of Maritainiste Christian democratism or some other type of post-war fusion of the intellectual status quo of humanism and democracy with a conventionalized Christianity sort of make all of the efforts of the XIXth century Popes and their predecessors to maintain Christendom irrelevant ? I mean, is there really space in Christendom for hero-worship of Thomas Jefferson, or does that seem to be historically very strange to others, too ?

    I think John Médaille nailed it. The pre-modern and the Enlightenment are two separate and antithetical courses. It seems that any "conservatism" is relative to what is being conserved, and the genealogy included in this essay (minus the ancients and Church Doctors who are clearly spurious relatives penciled in to lend undeserved prestige to the line) is not one of men concerned with the conservation of the legacy of the human race but of the project wherein it was rejected. We are in a state and period of outright rebellion from the true ancient traditions, from the natural law, and from the organic unity of the virtues and the sciences with revealed truths and philosophy. It seems to me that whoever first had the very strange idea that the place to look for solutions to this crisis was in the works of its masterminds (the deist propagandist-scribes of WASP commercial republicanism) must have been one or more of three things: (i) poorly educated, (ii) practicing cognitive dissonance, or (iii) up to something. The good Dr Birzer, surely well intentioned, is perhaps not discriminating enough, as it seems that he has taken off running with that idea on the poor advice of others.

    – François du Tremblay

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