In a moment when the forces of ideology seem to threaten to overwhelm the voice of sanity and civility, Eva Brann’s imaginative conservatism offers another way—a way rooted in, as she has put it, “talking, reading, writing, listening”…
As I have written elsewhere in these pages, Eva Brann is a national treasure. The longest-serving tutor at St. John’s College (where I received a master’s degree) Ms. Brann has engaged the Great Books of the Western canon in a way that few others can claim, and hence embodies the true philosopher—a lover, and therefore a seeker, of wisdom—in a way that few others do. Though I never had the opportunity to have her as a tutor in class, she nevertheless serves as a teacher to me, and no doubt many others, through her books and other writings.
As the disorders of our political moment indicate, wisdom is sorely lacking across our culture. Nearly every day, we are subjected to breathless news reports designed to stoke the fires of outrage; nearly every moment we are bombarded with those who seek to divert our attention toward some ephemeral issue of the moment. Navigating such a moment requires wisdom, and wisdom requires careful reflection on the nature of things. Yet, where can it be found?
In her essay entitled “Reflections on Imaginative Conservatism,” originally published by The Imaginative Conservative and included in her book Then and Now: The World’s Center and the Soul’s Demesne, Ms. Brann elucidates her particular manner of engaging the world. In a moment when ideological certainties have usurped both ends of the political spectrum, Ms. Brann takes a more tentative, and, yes, more philosophical tack.
It is important to point out that her conservatism is not, in the first place, political. Rather, it consists in what she calls a “temperamental disposition,” a way of imaginatively addressing oneself to the structure of things. Political positions flow from prudential application of this disposition, but political applications are secondary to a larger appreciation of what is.
This disposition is further clarified in her distinction between “questioning” and “question-asking”: whereas “questioning” is “secular inquisition, sneakily hostile inquiry” whose “intention is to skewer an object and barbecue it,” its contrary “question-asking” is “the central non-technique of reflection,” which “affirms, at least as a starting point, the matter asked after.”
Question-asking, then, begins with the givenness of reality, and an appreciation of its complexity. It is rooted in a humility, yet possessed with a confidence in the ability of human reason to ascertain the nature of things. “The conservative is always in the middle of things,” she says, “betwixt and between, interestedly engaged in the world’s paradoxes and oppositions.” This is the very opposite of ideology, which, wholly uninterested in paradox, begins with outrage at the world as given, and presumes that remaking reality is a simple task involving nothing more than the application of abstract principles.
The Book of Proverbs tells us that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). In other words, wisdom begins in humility, the recognition that one is not the source of one’s own being.
Through her many books and essays, Ms. Brann ably demonstrates this principle in action, thoughtfully engaging great books, questioning various aspects of reality, and always seeking to understand with humility.
In this, Ms. Brann is a kind of embodiment of the spirit of St. John’s College, a spirit from which I have greatly benefitted in my personal, intellectual, and spiritual development, and for which I am immensely grateful.
In a moment when the forces of ideology seem to threaten to overwhelm the voice of sanity and civility, Ms. Brann’s imaginative conservatism offers another way—a way rooted in, as she has put it, “talking, reading, writing, listening.” Talking amongst friends, careful reading of and writing about great books, and—perhaps most important of all—engaged listening to others: these activities lie at the heart of a civilized society—no community can exist without them.
By quietly and humbly keeping these activities alive, Ms. Brann provides a model by which our broken culture may hope for renewal. In this way, she truly lives up to the title “national treasure.”
Happy birthday, Ms. Brann!
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a picture of Eva Brann, courtesy of St. John’s College, “We Deduce: How Can Math Be Pleasurable?“