Conservatives must turn to the Western Tradition in order to abandon their cynicism and regain a proper sense of pessimism, which they can then use to challenge the optimism of the liberal worldview…
Why have modern American conservatives gained the reputation of being anti-intellectual? The answer to this question is surely multi-faceted and complex, but ultimately the culprit lies in a distortion of the conservative worldview, namely a distortion of a proper sense of pessimism. Liberalism, by its very nature, is optimistic and utopian. As Immanuel Kant says, “If only freedom is granted, enlightenment is almost surely to follow.” The Enlightenment promised man a future free from servitude, ignorance, and tradition. It offered a future where every man could think for himself, decide his own fate, and find meaning through his own individual acts of will. This utopian vision is accepted by almost every part of the modern society—Marxists, progressives, classical liberals, and even many self-proclaimed conservatives—because optimism has become a fundamental feature of the American worldview.
The traditional worldview has always rejected such wide-eyed optimism as being out of line with reality. It is true that the church is optimistic at its core because of its transcendent, metaphysical view of things, but it is not particularly optimistic about this life. Instead of looking forward to a utopia, the conservative has always looked backward to a tradition. A tradition is constituted by the customary ways our people have learned to do things. Tradition embodies manners, habits, political institutions, religious beliefs, ethics, and all of the other forms of interaction and social relations among people. The function of tradition is precisely to provide a stable point of reference for the individual. Tradition not only frees us from the burden of having to reinvent the wheel every few years, but it also provides a framework in which the individual can flourish by placing the life of the individual in a larger context in which it acquires meaning.
If any one trait marks clearly our contemporary cultural milieu, it is the penchant for questioning all authority. To be sure, it was not our society that first questioned tradition, nor was it the Enlightenment thinkers. When Socrates questioned the poets, he was, in fact, questioning the very foundation of the Ancient Greek tradition—Homer. His justification for doing so was that poets don’t know what they are talking about most of the time, and by extension when people “learn” from the poets, they are then unable to give an account of either themselves or their actions. This, in essence, is one of the criticisms made of all tradition: It is the blind leading the blind, a sort of intellectual laziness masquerading as faith and piety.
The question is, was Socrates right to question and demand reason from the poets? Are we correct in wanting to question all authority and seek out limitless personal freedom and license so that we can endlessly explore our own whims? Well, yes, but only in a limited sense. As a philosopher, it is both necessary and useful to question tradition. If Socrates sought the absolute, objective truth, he couldn’t have done other than question the poets. Similarly, the intellectual leaders of today also have the right, perhaps the duty, to inquire into the nature of our tradition and authority. This is the precise motivation behind academic freedom in this country. But the citizen is not a philosopher, nor could a city of philosophers ever function (let alone be desired). To constantly question tradition means to destroy the very foundations we stand on. When we use our cumulative intellectual resources to discredit the past and undermine tradition, we are like a man who stands tall in order to find a better angle so he can cut off his own legs. This is the post-modern predicament in which we currently find ourselves. We tell ourselves that we are intellectually courageous, that we boldly question what others were afraid to. But is it tradition that is blind? Or are we blind to the fact that there has never been an egalitarian utopia that existed on earth? Are we blind to the many previous civilizations that once stood proud but that are now merely tourists’ ruins and footnotes in history textbooks?
The traditional view of progress was that if it came at all, it came slowly. People who lived before the Enlightenment didn’t think that all change was bad or that political progress didn’t happen; they were merely cautious about trying to construct rationally a plan for society, and then implement it. Part of the traditional mindset (regardless of the specific tradition) is that culture is fragile and hard-earned. Human societies do not fall haphazardly into culture. The reverse side of this is that when you have something stable, even if it is flawed, there is an appropriate level of caution to be had when making changes. By extension, there is an appropriate level of suspicion to be had at new ideas about the way things should be done.
This leads us back to the original question: Why is is that modern conservatives have the reputation of being anti-intellectual? Why are they hostile to both university professors and “public intellectuals”? I assert that what manifests itself as anti-intellectualism is merely a perverted sense of pessimism inherent in all legitimate traditional culture and conservative modes of thinking. This sense of pessimism has been warped by America’s spirit of classical liberalism and hopeful optimism. With the writing of the Constitution, America was born out of the ideals of classical liberalism. The Constitution offered all men the pursuit of happiness through freedom. On to this legal framework provided by the constitution is grafted the optimistic individualism of America’s first truly original poet-philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In the introduction to his book Nature, Emerson writes, “Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchers of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generation beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?” Almost everything Emerson wrote throughout his life can be seen as an attempt to make clear this original relation that we all share with God and the universe. He argues that we don’t need traditional religion because what God spoke in the past God speaks now. All we have to do is listen to our innermost self and we will find a source of truth surpassing the stale maxims of our forefathers. If only we would learn to rely on our self, and not on authority or custom or tradition, then we would find our happiness and ultimately our destiny.
Emerson’s vision has overtaken America. Optimistic individualism is the American creed, embodied in such (now vacuous) phrases as “Be yourself!” and “Follow your heart!” We have, for the most part, lost the sense of being stewards of Western Civilization. Instead, we are told that we are autonomous individuals striving to create meaning for ourselves through either economic prosperity or self-expression. Both of these trends—the drive for unending economic prosperity and limitless self-expression—are celebrated by large sectors of our society. But in other sectors, particularly conservative sectors of society, they have created a backlash. People realize that economic growth is not the same as happiness or flourishing and that the life of self-expression is not the same as a value-filled life. The backlash is then directed at those segments of our society that tend to promote these new ideals, most noticeably academia and the intellectual sphere, which have been unduly shaped by notions of self-expression and cultural materialism. Ultimately, what should have been a backlash against the overly optimistic vision of the American Dream, originally found in Emerson, became a reaction against those who most recently have tried to further this vision. Unfortunately, refusing to engage with ideas one opposes does not defeat them, or even create a healthy insulation therefrom. It merely makes one inefficient at combating them.
It is worth noting that this reaction against the intellectual sphere is not wholly without merit. What often passes for intellectual debate these days is merely progressive political activism disguised as theoretical truth. But dropping out of the conversation is no answer. The solution is to articulate conservative principles and engage with ideas from that point of view. With this in mind, it is only appropriate to do exactly this here. So, what exactly is this pessimism that we have lost?
1) Traditionally, there was a skepticism concerning the endless growth of both economy and society. Society and civilization were not taken as givens, but as rewards won through hard work and maintained through the transmission of ideals and ethical traits. The economy, much like a man’s stomach, does not need to always grow. Money is not an end in itself, and the economy cannot be the end of all political action.
2) In a conservatively-structured society, there is an implicit suspicion regarding the new and the exciting. This is not, contrary to popular belief, because conservatives are opposed to change at all costs, but rather because history has shown us that civilization is frail. Many formerly mighty cultures are now completely dead. This could happen to us, and if we don’t remind ourselves of this unpleasant fact, we won’t have any way of combating the decline when we see it.
3) A normal society shows a healthy respect for the traditions and institutions of previous generations. This is not to be confused with blind obedience to either the law or customs. But even when an institution has problems, it works and has worked in the past. It has been time-tested and shown its virility by its continuing survival. The practical result of this is that we need to be slow to promote change and to exercise cautious when we act. A good theory does not necessarily make a good institution. And the traditions of our forefathers, whatever their flaws may be, worked in a real community of living human beings.
4) As an extension of the point made above, a respect for the traditions and institutions and of previous generations entails a respect for both authority and expertise. A society cannot function if it is assumes that all claims to authority and expertise are merely masked ploys for power. It must be realized that some people know more than others. And the opinions of those who know more are of more value than the opinions of those who do not. This point is completely lost in our society today, which is becoming increasingly amenable to the idea that all opinions are equal, that everyone should have an opinion about everything, and that direct action, as opposed to methodical legislative action, is an acceptable form of change.
5) Every traditional society that has existed has based its culture, in part, on a rejection of purely materialist conceptions of life. This sort of materialism, contrary to a healthy pessimism, leads to hedonism, meaninglessness, and ultimately nihilism. Most often, the pessimism spoken of here is the negative side of a religious or spiritual belief, which says that there is something better. This life is hard, and the possibilities for human communities are relatively small compared to that which this life can only mirror—whether that other be God, the Platonic Forms, some higher realm, or whatever. A proper pessimism is simply a reminder that we cannot ask from the part what only the whole can give.
By reclaiming our pessimism we can begin to abandon some of our cynicism, especially the cynicism regarding intellectuals and intellectual pursuits. Many of the worst aspects of contemporary culture stem directly from our latent optimism. But things do not have to be like this. If we aren’t careful about learning from and maintaining our unique Western Tradition, the blind will end up leading the blind. We need to be the stewards of our own history and culture and not the curators of mummified beliefs that we neither believe in nor understand.
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