So, you’re attracted to imaginative conservatism, and you’re wondering how such a school of thought came about. The roots, to be sure, are planted firmly in the first half of the twentieth century as a number of diverse thinkers strove to fight populism and progressivism (left and right, gentle and severe) in all their myriad forms. While there are thousands of books yet to be written and devoured, here are ten that helped shape the movement.
Irving Babbitt might not be the best-remembered conservative, but he was a critical figure in the movement. Along with Paul Elmer More, Babbitt founded imaginative conservatism. His 1919 book, Romanticism and Rousseau, while not the easiest of reads, completely deconstructed the essence and the appearances of his great bête noire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. As Babbitt explains (correctly or not), the Romanticism of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries took its inspiration from Rousseau’s flights of fancy. Later conservatives, such as Barfield, Dawson, and Kirk, while respecting Babbitt, took issue with him over this, but they still gave him all due respect and pride of position.
Willa Cather’s greatest book—and, in some ways, given the subtle twist on the last page, the most deceptive—is her 1927 novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop. Ostensibly following the life of Archbishop Lamy as a young evangelist, the novel explores the most important questions of the human condition.
If one placed Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction next to any one of Babbitt’s books, there might well be a matter/anti-matter explosion. Barfield is, unlike Babbitt, nothing if not utterly romantic. Barfield’s romanticism, though, is tied more deeply to the thought of Edmund Burke than to that of Rousseau. Originally written as his undergraduate Oxford capstone paper, Poetic Diction has never been out of print since it first appeared in 1928. However young Barfield was when he wrote it, Poetic Diction has all the earmarks—such as they are—of genius. He is original in his thought and engaging in his writing. His theory is that imagination is not just fancy, but actually comprises real, true, and objective things.
Paul Elmer More wrote Pages from an Oxford Diary on his deathbed. Truly. And it shows. In it, the great imaginative conservative reconsiders his life in light of his journey toward Christian orthodoxy. Though he never quite reached it, he apologized to God for having taken so many wrong turns in the world. The last two pages of the book might, quite simply, be one of the greatest notes to God ever penned—at least since the Martyrdom of Perpetua.
Dedicated to the British people in the midst of war, Christopher Dawson’s 1942 The Judgment of the Nations is everything a history book should be but rarely is. With lively prose and ceaselessly innovative ideas, Dawson considers the role of Providence in history and produces a twentieth-century version of St. Augustine’s City of God. Modern evils and totalitarianisms, he notes, are the results of the shallowness of liberalism and the wickedness of progressivism, each conspiring to make men nothing but cogs in a grinding machine.
One of Dawson’s rivals for most imaginative British conservative was the greatest Christian apologist of the last century, C.S. Lewis. The two, not surprisingly, knew one another but were not friends. Regardless, Lewis is at his absolute best in Mere Christianity (1952). Indeed, the book is so good and so earnest and so honest that even devout Roman Catholics teach it as a form of catechism to their children. It is, at base, an examination of the Natural Law, a sort of sequel or companion to his more philosophical book, The Abolition of Man. To be fair, one should read both. To be really fair, one should read all of Lewis. If you need Lewis’s philosophy and theology in its most digestible form, read That Hideous Strength.
Though he would (and did) hate the label conservative and often mocked conservatives while cynically accepting money from their few institutions, in The New Science of Politics (1952), Eric Voegelin brilliantly traces the route of the ancient Christian heresy of Gnosticism to its modern forms as found, especially, in the fascist and communist varieties of modern progressivism. Much like Dawson, though in a less theological manner, Voegelin laments the corruption of ancient symbols and the modern machine that grinds and destroys all that it surveys. Voegelin is the only person on this list who was not an imaginative conservative, but he was an important—if often unwilling—ally.
In the same year, 1952, T.S. Eliot’s publisher compiled his Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950. While it’s not comprehensive, it is brilliant. It includes Eliot’s Dantesque trilogy of The Waste Land, Ash Wednesday, and The Four Quartets, and it also includes Eliot’s best play, Murder in the Cathedral. The greatest poet of our age, Eliot was truly conservative and truly imaginative.
In the spring of 1953, Russell Kirk published his dissertation-turned-magnum-opus, The Conservative Mind. It is, as it turns out, a romantic sequel to the works of Irving Babbitt. Looking at the world through twenty-nine different historical figures—from Edmund Burke and John Adams through the then still living T.S. Eliot—Kirk arrives at six tenets of conservatism, each of which shifts according to the time and place of a particular issue. For Kirk, conservatism reaches toward the transcendent but always is rooted in the particular. What connects the divine to the mundane? Imagination.
Though it took him at least twelve years to write, J.R.R. Tolkien finally published The Lord of the Rings in 1954 and 1955. In terms of his politics, Tolkien was a conservative. In terms of his artistry, he was absolutely imaginative—in the best sense. He understood language and the human condition—though he wrote of Elves and Hobbits—as well as anyone since Dante, Virgil, and Homer. Indeed, The Lord of the Rings is best thought of as the greatest epic of the modern world, rivaled only by The Divine Comedy, The Aeneid, The Iliad, and The Odyssey of previous vast eras of Western civilization.
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The featured image is courtesy of Unsplash.