What we held back in 2010 we still hold today: “The Imaginative Conservative” is not meant to be one voice, but many voices forming one voice. The ideologue and the conformist, we equally despise. We want excellence, argument, inquiry. We wish to provide, above all, a safe haven for reason and reasoned passion: We wish to be a virtual monastery.
We all need safe havens—refuges, ports, shelters—in the turbulent storms of existence. Our safe havens need not be literal and tangible and physical. Sometimes, they need merely exist, perhaps in the mind or the heart or the soul or in some corner of cyberspace. Sometimes, though, they are quite real and quite solid, such as the monasteries of Lindesfarne and Monte Cassino. Sometimes, they are both, residing in the soul as well as in an office in Houston, or residing in the mind and in a fourth-floor office in Delp Hall, Hillsdale College.
When Winston Elliott and I co-founded The Imaginative Conservative ten years ago today, we thought it would be merely a little corner of cyberspace in which a few close friends—mostly of like thought, but not conformist—might gather and argue out loud. What shocked us immediately was how many people wanted to watch us in the throes of rational debate! As the months ticked off, Winston would email me the numbers of those joining us every day. From 100s to 1000s to 10000+ we climbed and climbed. Friends began casually to mention The Imaginative Conservative at conferences, gatherings, and symposia, and many wanted to know what The Imaginative Conservative thought about this or that or even that. Honestly, it was more than a bit overwhelming… and two to three bits exciting! Even after ten years, it still is.
What we held back in 2010 we still hold today: The Imaginative Conservative was never meant to be one voice, but many voices forming one voice. We sought not conformity, but discussion. We sought passion, but only when tempered by reason. The ideologue and the conformist, we equally despised. What place in justice calls for equality? None beyond that which resides in the sight of the Lord and in the sight of the law. We didn’t want equality beyond this. We wanted excellence, argument, inquiry.
Frankly, we wanted—and still want—more questions than answers.
We wanted to talk not just to those around us, but to Socrates, to Plato, to Cicero, to Livy, to Augustine, to Thomas More, to Edmund Burke, and to Willa Cather. We wanted (and want) our little platoon to belong to the Cosmopolis, the republic of letters, a city of all good women and men across time, past, present, and future. We desperately want to introduce our children to Aristotle, and Aristotle to our children. As the greatest of the Roman republicans explained:
This animal—provident, perceptive, versatile, sharp, capable of memory and filled with reason and judgment—which we call a human being, was endowed by the supreme god with a grand status at the time of its creation. It alone of all types and varieties of animate creatures has a share in reason and thought, which all others lack. What is there, not just in humans, but in all heaven and earth, more divine than reason? When it has matured and come to perfection, it is properly named wisdom. And therefore, since there is nothing better than reason, and it is found both in humans and in god, reasons forms the first bond between human and god.
It also, of course, by implication, joins all human being together—past, present, and future—under the one supreme God. Though born a century too early, had he been the first of the Christians rather than the last of the pagans, Aristotle would have recognized Jesus Christ as the Word Incarnate, the divine embodiment of Reason (Logos) in the realm of humanity.
Whatever his failings, Cicero understood the beauty and the fragility of a republic.
Before our own time, the customs of our ancestors produced excellent men, and eminent men preserved our ancient customs and the institutions of their forefathers. But though the republic, when it came to us, was like a beautiful painting, whose colours, however, were already fading with age, our own time not only has neglected to freshen it by renewing the original colours, but has not even taken the trouble to preserve its configuration and, so to speak, its general outlines. For what is now left of the ‘ancient customs’ one which he said ‘the commonwealth of Rome’ was ‘founded firm’? They have been, as we see, so completely buried in oblivion that they are not only no longer practiced, but are already unknown. And what shall I say of the men? For the loss of our customs is due to our lack of men, and for this great evil we must not only give an account, but must even defend ourselves in every way possible, as if we were accused of capital crime. For it is through our own faults, not by any accident, that we retain only the form of the commonwealth, but have long since lost its substance.
Dear reader of The Imaginative Conservative, cannot we say the same of 2020 AD as Cicero said of 44 BC? Is America in the twenty-first century any healthier (or less diseased) than Rome in the first century of the pre-Christian era? Sadly, no.
At the very end of the Second World War, T.S. Eliot followed the lead of Cicero, calling for a new republic of letters for his century. “The first responsibility of the man of letters is, of course, his responsibility towards his art, the same, which neither time nor circumstance can abate or modify, that other artists have: that is, he must do his best with the medium in which he works. He differs from other artists, in that his medium is his language.”
Whether you’re reading the fine poetic and thoughtful words of David Deavel or Steve Klugewicz or Barbara Elliott or Joseph Pearce or Eva Brann or Christine Norvell or Father Dwight Longenecker, you’re finding us at our attempted best, trying like mad (reasonably) to live up to Cicero, Eliot, and, of course, God.
And, as much as we at The Imaginative Conservative love literature and the arts and culture, we also knew and know that history and experience remain the great laboratories of human existence. If we cannot look to the past for answers, we can really look nowhere. As our great patron, Russell Kirk, once explained:
To seek for truths in history… distinctly is not to indulge in dreamy visions of unborn ages, or to predict the inevitability of some political domination. Rather, the truths of history, the real meanings, are to be discovered in what history can teach us about the framework of the Logos, if you will: about the significance of human existence: about the splendor and the misery of our condition. In this inquiry, there must be joined with the historical discipline certain insights of philosophy and psychology. For historical consciousness necessarily is entwined with the mystery of personal consciousness.
There have been several questions, though, that continue to taunt if not downright plague us as we celebrate our 10th birthday. First, are we living in a decline or a rebirth? And, second, intimately related to the first, is our job at The Imaginative Conservative to preserve or to advance?
From the beginning of our existence, we have known that, to the best of our ability, we must try to do both. Our inspiration—and this is not meant to sound pretentious, just honest—came from the two greatest institutions of the Middle Ages, the monastery and the university. The one protected the best behind thick walls and even denser prayer. The other promoted the best through inquiry and scholarship. At the beginning of the Middle Ages, though, the monastery was indispensable to the very survival of classical civilization in the West. As Christopher Dawson explained: “Ninety-nine out of a hundred monasteries could be burnt and the monks killed or driven out, and yet the whole tradition could be reconstituted from the one survivor, and the desolate sites could be re-peopled by fresh supplies of monks who would take up again the broken tradition, following the same rule, singing the same liturgy, reading the same books and thinking the same thoughts as their predecessors.” Those books were everything from Platonic dialogues to Holy Scripture, and every breath of every monk preserved the best of the past for those who would never know them and sadly, almost certainly not praise them for their innumerable sacrifices over a thousand years. Sacrifice there was… in abundance. St. Vedast exclaimed:
The Northmen cease not to slay and carry into captivity the Christian people, to destroy the churches and to burn the towns. Everywhere there is nothing but dead bodies—clergy and laymen, nobles and common people, women and children. There is no road or place where the ground is not covered with corpses. We live in distress and anguish before this spectacle of the destruction of the Christian people.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 793 recorded:
In this year dire portents appeared over Northumbria and sorely frightened the people. They consisted of immense whirlwinds and flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine immediately followed those signs, and a little after that in the same year, on 8 June, the ravages of heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarnes, with plunder and slaughter.
As he attempted to rally the British people against the insanities of the French Revolution—in many ways, worse than the invasions of the Vikings, as the Vikings had at least been men, not ideologues bent on the destruction of reason—the greatest of Anglo-Irish statesmen, Edmund Burke, stated with unabashed profundity: “The awful Author of our being is the Author of our place in the order of existence,—and that, having disposed and marshalled us by a divine tactic, not according to our will, but according to His, He has in and by that disposition virtually subjected us to act the part which belongs to the place assigned us. We have obligations to mankind at large, which are not in consequence of any special voluntary pact. They arise from the relation of man to man, and the relation of man to God, which relations are not matters of choice.”
And that brings us to 2020, ten years after the founding of The Imaginative Conservative. Through story and a proper education (my students hunger for such stories, I’m happy to report; I think the need for them is built into us), we can both preserve and advance. History and literature, as explored here over the past decade, should force us to recognize that good and evil are parts of life, and that the war we wage—each generation wages—is eternal and will end only when the Creator ends it. Our job, in each generation, is to fight the good fight and remind the next generation what they are inheriting; to make them appreciate what has been given to them (which is, for all of us, everything).
Thank you for joining us at The Imaginative Conservative for ten years now. Thank you for helping us both preserve and advance. Thank you for letting us create a safe haven for reason and passion (reasoned passion), a virtual monastery. May we always defend like Socrates and Cicero and Thomas More. May we always preserve like the monks of Lindesfarne. May we always see the world through the eyes of Russell Kirk, Christopher Dawson, and T.S. Eliot. May we always cherish the humanity and the divinity of the Second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.