For any of us interested in the history of post-war American conservatism (and, I assume you must be, or you wouldn’t be reading The Imaginative Conservative), we owe an immense debt to several historical figures and personalities—most immediately to Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, but also to Cicero, St. Augustine and, perhaps, Sir Thomas More.
It’s impossible to imagine a post-war conservatism without the ideas and examples of these men. Every major figure of the 1940s and 1950s looked especially to Burke: Friedrich Hayek, Leo Strauss, Russell Kirk, and Robert Nisbet. Others, not as well known today, include Peter Stanlis, Father Francis Canavan, and Ross Hoffman, all contributed to the Burke revival. To be sure, they each had different understandings of Burke, but, very importantly, they also each respected him. It’s well worth remembering, however, that while Cicero has been a constant in the western tradition, the other pre-twentieth century figures have enjoyed (to put it positively), at best, mixed careers and reputations.
Thomism had, in its various forms, overtaken Augustinianism in the late nineteenth-century Catholic mind, and American Protestants, so deeply indebted to the North African, became, in many ways, too evangelical to appreciate or even remember the great saint. Not until the 1,500th anniversary of his death (1930), did Catholics (Christopher Dawson, Etienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain) embrace St. Augustine and his thought.
Five years later, the pope’s canonization of Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More revived More as well.
Though Burke helped shape British thought in its drive to destroy the remnants of the French Revolution and preserve the Tory Party of the nineteenth century, most scholars of that century considered him at best a utilitarian, when they considered him at all. He had devout followers, but they remained few in number. Not until the very late 1940s did many consider Burke anything more than a lucky prophet. Most thought of him as somewhat mad, especially in his “hysteria” regarding the French Revolution.
De Tocqueville also held little appeal in America after the publication of his two-volume Democracy in America, since he was so critical of American institutions and culture.
Rediscovering Burke and De Tocqueville
With the advent of the Cold War, many in the West sought to find some kind of purpose for ‘the American’. What could he mean? What was his mission? He wasn’t merely an anti-Nazi and an anti-Communist. He had to be pro something.
In this atmosphere, many excellent scholars and thinkers rediscovered Burke and de Tocqueville. Indeed, more than anyone else, they became the touchstones of conservatives and libertarians by the late 1940s. Their works came back into print, and, remarkably, the interest that began in the ‘40s has yet to dissipate, even in this year of Our Lord, 2013. Even the left recognizes that these two must be studied—at least those leftists who still embrace some semblance of the humanities.
The then celebrated historian of the Enlightenment, Peter Gay, probably spoke for many when he rather openly complained in 1961:
“But the prevailing mood in the historical profession, always timidly sensitive to the drift of the times, is conservative. The decline of Whiggism and Marxism has been accompanied by the rise of Toryism and Cosmic Complaining. Consider the adulation and exploitation of Tocqueville, a conservative too important to be left in the hands of conservatives; consider the absurdly inflated reputation of Burke, whose shrewd guesses and useful insights are placed like a figleaf before his malicious incomprehension, confused politics and unashamed ignorance. Consider the brave new words on the lips of philosophical historians: ‘complexity,’ ‘the human condition,’ ‘the crisis of our time.’ All of these things suggest that the assault of Whig cliches has laid us open to an assault by counter-cliches. In discarding the liberal view of history, we have not replaced falsehood with truth, but one inadequate scheme of explanation by another. Conservative ideologues have been much helped, of course, by the effects of the recent researches, which have torn so many holes in the fabric of liberalism. But superior information, while never in itself a Bad Thing, does not insure superior wisdom.”
Gay had already attacked The Conservative Mind in 1953 as nothing more than an ideological statement of the Right.
But, it’s worth considering his words of 1961: “A conservative too important to be left in the hands of conservatives.” To be sure, fifty-two years later, Gay’s statement has the ring of desperation.
Recalling events in 1984, Russell Kirk revealed in a private letter:
“Someone years ago pointed out to me that not long after my Conservative Mind was published, and some similar conservatively-inclined books were published in this land, Alfred Cobban lamented that ‘In America, Burke was being used for political purposes.’ I was struck by the oddity of the remark. Burke, a practical politician, most certainly intended his writings to be used for political purposes, whether in Britain or in America. Cobban seemed to prefer an abstract Burke out of whom dissertation might be quarried.”
A Little Optimism
For most of my life, I’ve been rather optimistic about the fate of the world. In fact, if anything, I’ve been a bit pollyannish. I’ve been so convinced that the human person is dignified and that he or she is free and should be left alone that I’ve been loathe to consider that others feel differently. For those of you have read me at The Imaginative Conservative, though, you might not see me this way. If you see me as pessimistic, I completely understand. I’ve railed against the government more times than any human should probably do in his lifetime (especially under the tyranny of the current administration). And, I’ve done it with the certainty that you (the vast readership of The Imaginative Conservative—courtesy of the brilliance of Winston Elliott) might or might not agree with me. Some certainty.
Last week, I had the great blessing of spending time with some of the people I admire most in this world. For two days, Dedra (my wife) and I, along with two of our favorite students (sister: Brianna and Blaire) researched and dug extensively in the Kirk letters and papers in Mecosta, Michigan. We visited, several times, with Annette and Andrea Kirk Assaf (and her wonderful and vivacious husband, Tony) and with our favorite Brazilians, Alex Catharino and Marcia Xavier de Brito. Alex even shared with us his extensive introduction (in Portuguese—mine is rusty) to Kirk’s biography of T.S. Eliot.
What struck me, though, going through the papers this time was this: Kirk and several allies, especially Peter Stanlis, planned and executed an attack on all of those who would dissent from a conservative take on Burke and de Tocqueville. They did so as gentlemen, but they also did so with immense skill.
Burke, they believed, represented the single best nexus between the classical, medieval, and modern world. Through him, they could present arguments on current problems, but, equally important, they could also lay claim to the humanist heritage found in Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, St. John, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Petrarch, and Thomas More. “The philosophical roots of modern political conservatism extend back over many generations through Burke and the natural law to the Middle Ages and classical antiquity,” Stanlis wrote in a 1994 memoir detailing their friendship. “This meant that in every historical epoch in Western civil society there have always been some conservatives.”
As anticipated, Stanlis admitted, they met a fierce counterattack from an alliance of big-government liberals, Marxists, and Neo-Conservatives of the Irving Kristol variety. “To denigrate the conservative tradition and deny it intellectual respectability,” Stanlis continued, “they claimed that American conservatism is of very recent origins, that it is centered in a mindless religious fundamentalism or jingoistic patriotism, and that it is devoted wholly to defending the status quo, especially the selfish interests of the business community.”
Still, Stanlis assumed, he and Kirk had been victorious in their alliance.
Much of this I will deal with in further writings on Kirk, but let me state: we won. With the labor and foresight of Kirk, Stanlis, Nisbet, Strauss, and others, Burke and de Tocqueville secured important positions in the academy and so did their interpretation of these two men.
This is not, to my mind, a small victory. Indeed, it’s a rather grand one. It’s now up to us not simply to maintain what they so efficaciously secured, but also to build upon it.
So, for today, at least, I’m feeling optimistic.