Western Civilization is undeniably in decline and indeed its very existence is in doubt. Yet these thoughts ought not to drag conservatives down into a morass of defeatism. Though the hour is late, a remnant must run to the barricades and shield itself and whatever is left of Western Civilization from the barbarians at the gates.
Conservative intellectuals tend to be a dismal sort. By natural disposition we are pessimistic people. We cannot really be blamed for this, when one considers the history of mankind and particularly the sorry history of human governance. From starting unnecessary wars, to enslaving whole peoples, to reducing the masses to poverty through excessive taxation, man, when clothed with the right to rule others, has shown himself to be a tyrant-in-waiting.
Moreover, we conservatives realize that human nature is intrinsically inclined to do evil, that utopias are unachievable and their pursuit dangerous, and that we are apt, over time, to lose our moorings to the commandments of God and His laws of nature. We thus tend to hold out little hope for the future.
As justification for our inherent pessimism we need only to look at the peculiar and sorry times in which we live: an era in which the Founding Fathers are considered “dead white men,” but in which the Constitution they made is held to be living; a time in which political compromise is valued as a priority but commitment to principle is reviled as naïve, quixotic; an age in which any kind of perverse speech or lifestyle is celebrated in the name of freedom, but in which free enterprise is stifled in the names of equality and compassion; a time in which information reigns supreme, but in which logical thinking is scarce; an era in which we have attained the greatest technological know-how but in which we have the least understanding of beauty, goodness, and truth.
Added to all this is our conservative tendency to revel in the nobility of lost causes. This in itself is not a bad thing at all—quite the opposite in fact. As T.S. Eliot said:
We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that anything will triumph.
J.R.R. Tolkien agreed with Eliot’s sentiments: “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic,” Tolkien wrote, “so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’— though it contains (and in legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”
But we have not taken Tolkien’s and Eliot’s words to heart. We mistakenly look for permanent victories, political and cultural, and when they do not come, we despair. We seem not to realize that it is not permanent victories that we should seek but rather the preservation of “the permanent things,” which is victory enough.
Keeping alive the flame, however, does not mean hiding its light. After all, a flame that is not open to the air will be snuffed out. Like Isaiah we are under the Divine injunction to be “a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind.” This means that conservative thinkers should not talk exclusively amongst themselves, as we are prone to do. (One might recall that perennial philosophical question: “If an intellectual presents a paper at an academic conference, does it make a sound?”) Instead, we need to shine forth the light of truth, goodness, and beauty through the best available means that can reach the masses; today that means the internet, and specifically online journals like The Imaginative Conservative.
As Sam Gamgee says in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: “There’s some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.”
In fighting our worthy battle, American conservatives can position their forces on the ramparts of certain premises: that the Founding Fathers, despite their flaws, still have much to teach us today; that the Constitution is actually dead, in the sense that its actual written words need to be taken seriously; that free enterprise is inextricably linked to political freedom and ordered liberty; that inquiry, to be free, must be grounded in reason and must be directed to the ascertainment of truth; and that information and technology are not goods in themselves unless they serve the good and the beautiful.
Yes, our enemy is strong, but we must remember that temporary victories are indeed possible if we keep sharp our Kirkian Sword of Imagination. As the composer Richard Wagner said, “Imagination creates reality.” Who, for example, would have thought that Ronald Reagan’s vision of the early 1980s of American victory over communism would become a reality less than a decade later? Of course, since the collapse of “the Evil Empire,” new terrors have arisen in the world— abroad and at home—to threaten Western Civilization, but we conservatives should have expected that.
This should not be interpreted to mean I advocate engaging in crusades to right wrongs across the globe; to the contrary, we should heed the sage advice of John Quincy Adams and not “go abroad looking for monsters to destroy.” Yet there indeed are dragons in the world, and some are rising in the East, and they may find us soon enough. The most fearsome ones, however, are already amongst us, inhabiting our very souls, twisting them toward evil, falsehood, and ugliness, and causing them to decay. But we can take comfort in Chesterton’s assurance that such dragons can be killed.
Western Civilization is undeniably in decline and indeed its very existence is in doubt. Yet these thoughts ought not to drag us down into a morass of defeatism. Sadly, though, some conservatives are indeed calling for retreat. They say that the hour is too late, that a remnant must run to the barricades and shield itself and whatever is left of Western Civilization from the barbarians at the gates. Like Tolkien’s King Theoden, they seek a Helm’s Deep in a desperate attempt to preserve the world of men from the hour of the Orc. But I call on conservatives to refuse to cede the current hour to darkness, and I join with the Aragorn of Tolkien and Peter Jackson in declaring:
A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends, and break all bonds of fellowship; but it is not this day! An hour of woe, and shattered shields, when the Age of Men comes crashing down; but it is not this day! This day we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good earth, I bid you stand, Men of the West!”
This essay originally appeared in The Imaginative Conservative in December 2013.
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