Based 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.
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.
[Blog image from: http://potomafever.blogspot.com/2012/02/what-is-conservative.html]