Banishing memory and the party of memory is nothing short of the banishment of the love and joy which make our lives and memories worth cherishing and conserving. The conservative celebrates the present order precisely because it is imbued with the traces of Eden which vivify our memories—and, therefore, our true selves—and unite us in love and joy with the other persons and places we encounter.
Reinhold Niebuhr observed the ironies of American history, especially during the height of the Cold War. “Everybody understands,” Niebuhr said, “the obvious meaning of the world struggle in which we are engaged. We are defending freedom against tyranny and are trying to preserve justice against a system which has, demonically, distilled injustice and cruelty out of its original promise of a higher justice.” Yet the irony, which Niebuhr called the “tragic dilemma,” is how liberalism is flush with a hope to banish the ambiguities and evils of human nature by “ascrib[ing] [them] to social institutions or to ignorance or to some other manageable defect in human nature or environment.” Niebuhr deconstructed how the evil of communism and the goodness of liberalism often mirrored each other even though we Americans, at the time, were convinced of the righteousness of our cause. Liberalism held the same exact tenets of communism: that through institutional purgation and proper education all the evils and ills of the world could be amended. The only difference was liberalism asserted its superiority to communism.
In 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson presented his lecture called “The Conservative.” In it, Emerson articulated the first identifiable attempt by an American to understand and define “conservatism.” Conservatism, Emerson argued, was rooted in memory and criticism of the American project. Liberalism, by contrast, was the “party of hope” freed from memory, heritage, and history, and was capable of lifting itself out of the constricting chains which tethered man down in the fallen world, and called him to new horizons.
Emerson, however, astutely recognized a certain irony to the conservative disposition. The conservative lacked the hope of the liberal because his hope was past rather than future. Or so he claimed. Contradictorily or paradoxically, according to Emerson, the conservative also believed society to be in an Edenic state of harmony and goodness which was threatened by radicalism and reformism: “The conservative party in the universe concedes that the radical would talk sufficiently to the purpose, if we were still in the garden of Eden; he legislates for man as he ought to be.” Yet, immediately after this, Emerson noted how the conservative is also aware of mankind’s postlapsarian sickness and, ironically, defends that sickness and leaves for God the business of healing: “The conservative assumes sickness as a necessity.” As such, Emerson said, the conservative refuses to embrace any treatment of that sickness because it is tantamount to pride on the part of an egoistic man.
We may not share the harsh view of conservatism, as defined by Emerson, but I do wish to expand upon what I think Emerson undeniably got right about conservatism: It is the party of memory. With Emerson, then, we can more fully understand—along with Niebuhr—the ironies of conservatism as the party of memory and liberalism as the party of “hope.”
One of the tragedies of post–World War II conservatism is how liberalism hijacked conservatism and banished it to the dark corners of American public life. Isolationism was decried as infantile, or—as in the case of Robert Taft (absurdly, mind you)—held a soft love of Stalinism and the Soviet Union. Restraint against militarization and the emerging war economy was derided as being “soft on communism.”
Yet the argument of restraint against what Dwight D. Eisenhower later called the “Military Industrial Complex” harkened back to Washington, Jefferson, and Lindbergh who feared a militaristic society and a militarized economy would destroy the peaceful aspirations of the American republic. Defense of the status quo of American society was immediately equated with sympathy for segregation, racism, and antediluvian attitudes toward females. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree considering that the same tired arguments are shouted out today. The want to preserve America’s Anglo-Protestant heritage was likewise scoffed at as prejudicial cultural favoritism and a willful neglect of the richness of other peoples and cultures even though we all secretly know that America would never have become America without the English settlers.
With the banishment of the Old Right complete, the so-called “New Right” took over the mantle of liberal hope and optimism in the dark storms of the conflict of the Cold War—simply sprinkling some holy water over it and christening the old liberalism as the new conservatism. Concluding his lecture on the contrast of the memorial pessimism of conservatism with the optimism of liberalism, Emerson noted, “In conclusion, to return from this alternation of partial views, to the high platform of universal and necessary history, it is a happiness for mankind that innovation has got on so far, and has so free a field before it. The boldness of the hope men entertain transcends all former experience. It calms and cheers them with the picture of a simple and equal life of truth and piety.” Emerson’s party of hope, it seems, has become the “conservatism” of today where such self-identifying conservative writers and intellectuals speak of America as “the last best hope” and say that the American experiment is open to all, offering the ability to “transcend all former experience” which creedal immigrants shed in their voyage into the New Eden of America, freed from the shackles and history of the corrupt and decadent Old World in order to then become the New Man known as the “American.”
Given that America was the new land settled by people who sought to build a New Jerusalem, but equally settled by human beings who possess the astonishing and beautiful gift of memory, it is unsurprising that America has become a battleground for those who dream of a the New Adam and New Eve against those who piously accept man’s postlapsarian condition and retain a skepticism of the haughty dream of mankind’s self-emancipation from his exilic condition. The party of hope, then, saw the New World as full of boundless opportunities and a pathway to heaven. The party of memory, by contrast, found themselves strangers in a strange land often pining for the shattered monasteries and dwindling incensed candles of Gothic cathedrals amidst the horror and hubris of sinful men thinking themselves the New Adam.
Conservatism must naturally be the party of memory because without memory there is nothing to conserve. The liberal—freed from memory, heritage, and history; freed from old religion, ritual practices, and rote living—naturally has nothing to conserve and only has everything to force into his possession. Perhaps ironically, like Adam and Eve in Milton’s Paradise Lost, the liberal who has freed himself from everything has “the world… all before [him].”
Why, however, is the party of hope so antagonistic to memory? Memory, as St. Augustine explained, is the throne on which the past manifests itself in the present. The past, Augustine rightly articulated, is present memory. So, memory is rooted in the past though, ironically, only exists in the present. This naturally means that memory is an anchor that prevents the hope of the liberal from rocketing to the stars because hope, as Augustine also explained, is tied to the future—the future which is present expectations. To ascend into the future, one must cut ties with the past; otherwise, he risks being dragged back into the world established in the crime of fratricide and usurpation.
The conservative and the liberal, then, do not dwell in the past or the future as the general argumentation often says. Both find themselves, as we all find ourselves, in the only reality that exists: the present (as Augustine well knew and explained). And it is in the present that the cataclysmic battle between the party of memory and the party of hope unfolds.
This struggle intensifies because human beings are their memories. Our very consciousness, and therefore identity, is bound up with the weight of memory on us. Those who resent memory are, in this case, the so-called party of hope of which Emerson speaks, which, in order to assume a new free identity, sheds the chains of memories that mar their current identity. Those who dwell in the garden of memory—good and bad, tearful and joyful—are, in this case, the party of memory of which Emerson speaks.
Augustine, here, is instrumental for us because he understands that memory is tied to the fall, of which the conservative is a child. Some argue against Augustine’s theology of the fall based on the insufficient Latin rendering of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans which led Augustine to conclude that “all sinned in Adam.” Combining the Latin Vulgate, the expulsion of Adam, and the memorial philosophy of Plotinus, Augustine argued that a trace of that Edenic paradise remains in each and every one of us precisely because we all generate from Adam and because the fortunate gift of memory was passed from Adam to us.
Order and the joys of the present life are, for Augustine, realized through the inherited immemorial joy and harmony that Adam and Eve shared in the Garden before the Fall. The extreme joy that we experience in the present reminds us of that perfect and harmonious joy of our prelapsarian condition. The calm that comes from this joy unites us with Adam, through which unity we may participate in the original unity with God that we have since lost but are not incapable of having temporarily restored and experienced as we sojourn through this world. As Mohammad Girma has written on the power of Augustine’s theology of memory, “In order to regenerate the pre-lapsarian ‘happy memory,’ what the human mind needs is illumination as well as the exercise of searching for God. Order and tranquility are restored when the ‘memory lane’ takes one to the original source—Adam—in whom human beings will discover that their destiny and desire is to be with God. According to Augustine, it is through the illuminated mind and vivified memory that humans can meet their truest self.”
Since we are our memories, the party of memory’s emphasis on conservation is nothing more but the rigorous defense against the hubristic dreams of self-emancipation where we shed our very being—our identity, our selfhood—through the Pelagian purgation, and newly assemble ourselves in a chiliastic paradise. The essence of memorial conservatism is love: love of self, love of the world, and love of the memories that the world has bequeathed to us. For in that love we experience the trace of that unfallen joy that calls us to heavenly things: ever greater love and unity through love. What greater hope is there than this? To dwell, and dwell constantly, in the well of love that is our memories, which are ever expanding and ever growing?
The party of hope, ironically, seeks the abolition of the self out of a hatred and revulsion of the self and the memories by which the self is weighed down. The conservative ironically enjoys the present condition of things precisely because it breathes echoes of love and joy to which he aspires. The liberal ironically despises the present condition precisely because it breathes the echoes of love and joy of which he is resentful. We might, here, agree with Niebuhr that the party of hope’s nihilistic revulsion of the self and the present with its promise of a greater future is as good as having “demonically, distilled injustice and cruelty out of its original promise of a higher justice.”
Banishing memory and the party of memory is nothing short of the banishment of the love and joy which make our lives and memories worth cherishing and conserving. What Emerson got right about conservatism is that it is the party of memory and in that memory we are reminded of the Edenic love and joy that Adam and Eve once dwelled in. What Emerson got wrong, however, is that the conservative does not celebrate the sickness of the postlapsarian state or believe that we are still in the Edenic realm holding fast against prideful rebellion (i.e. “reform”) that threatens to burst down the gates of paradise and overwhelm us with satanic forces. Rather, the conservative celebrates the present order precisely because it is imbued with the traces of Eden which vivify our memories—and, therefore, our true selves—and unite us in love and joy with the other persons and places we encounter in everyday life.
This brings us to what the party of memory sees at the heart of the memorial conservatism: beauty. The party of memory sees sacred things, sacramental things, in other persons and things that dot the landscape of our world. To gaze upon the beautiful is to be moved by the governing passion of love and the defensive attachment that love causes. As Edmund Burke wrote, “the beautiful is founded on mere positive pleasure, and excites in the soul that feeling which is called love.”
Beautiful things, Burke argued, rouse our spirit to action aimed at preserving the beautiful which sparks love and joy deep in our souls. The beautiful calls us to defend it because there is “[a]n appearance of delicacy, and even fragility, is almost essential to it.” In the delicacy of beauty, the thin, ordering prism of beauty—memory—becomes that realm which directs our gaze to the beautiful and overwhelms us with fondness. Moreover, as Burke said, “Beauty in distress is much the most affecting beauty.”
The prejudicial defense of beauty by the conservative is precisely due to the delicacy and distressing nature that beauty exudes. Something that is fragile and in danger calls us to defend it with zeal and passion, whereas something large, overburdensome, and stout leads us to walk on by without much consideration of its actual health. The criticism leveled against the so-called party of hope by the party of memory is that the ecstatic hatred of the present and dream of purgatorial transformation into the Emersonian idealist destroys something beautiful which cannot be recovered once destroyed. In the act of progress, which is always tied to an act of destruction, we lose relationality with beautiful things, and this loss prevents the possibility for future generations to dwell in the same love and joy that we experience and that our ancestors experienced when pilgrimaging to plains of Canterbury or looking on the frescos of the Sistine Chapel or being humbled by the winds of Mount Athos.
When, however, the party of hope destroys all good and beautiful things with promise of better things, the party of memory rightly becomes outraged by the ushering in of an ugliness that had not existed even in our post-exilic history. This false promise which the party of hope thrives on, then, unintentionally creates an atmosphere of resentment. Thus, it isn’t surprising that the party of hope has devolved into the party of resentment, having “distilled injustice and cruelty out of its original promise.” Having already severed himself from memorial beauty by clinging to his hopeful nihilism, the despondent idealist turned resentful revolutionary now seeks to spread his misery to others. If he cannot transcend himself, which he hates, and if he cannot enjoy the good things that others have enjoyed in past ages, then no one can.
This is how reform descends into revolution and revolution into tyranny. And in the conflagration of our beautiful—though imperfect—world, the party of memory weeps and sings for “what was lost” and dreads “what was won.” It may be true that all physical things decay and become “boundless and bare,” but memory always remains. Memory is the one true colossus that doesn’t decay—especially as it exists in the mind of God. And in that memory the members of the party of memory unite and, even if momentarily, rise into that heavenly love and joy which still exists for us today, if only we know where to look and listen.
Having destroyed the great monuments of the past, the party of hope turns to wage war against memory itself. Because, as we’ve said, memorial lionization stops “progress” and “hope” in its tracks. But the party of memory carries on, wounded and maimed, perhaps, but still enjoying a love and joy that allow us to be our truest selves and heal us from the howling hatred of the party of hope and its destructive fires.
To rephrase Emerson, we might say that the boldness of the memory men entertain transcends all former experience. It calms and cheers them with the picture of a simple and equal life of truth and piety. And this hope flowered on what tree? It was not imported from the stock of some celestial plant, but grew here on the wild stem of memory. And there is no greater hope than what is found in memory. For the memory of that love and joy of the past actualized in the present is what we journey to in the future.
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The featured image is a detail from The Garden of Eden with the Creation of Eve (c. 1630) by Jan Brueghel the Younger (1601–1678) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened slightly for clarity.