What remains of traditional conservatism? Should we concede defeat and see the great conservative figures of the past as women and men of beauty who had their say but who are now relegated to some obscure museum of lost humanist causes? No! To my mind, these voices have never been more needed and more relevant.
What remains of traditional conservatism, one might legitimately ask? After all, we have just experienced twelve extraordinary months—extraordinary by any measure—and we’re still in shock. We’re also not out of danger yet, of course, as many of the things that threatened civilization so directly in 2020 remain, even if not as blatantly as they once did. In politics, we witnessed a nearly overwhelming wave of populism—always with its authoritarian and cult of personality leanings—on the left and on the right. In the wider culture, we saw reckless bravado, the tearing down of sacred (and, often, quite innocent) monuments, and the torching of tradition. Unrest would be too tepid a word to describe the massive protest movements throughout the nation, and violence seemed to permeate the urban centers of the country (and still does in parts). In our communities, we viewed the arrival of a soft despotism—democratic, to be sure, but despotism nonetheless—enforced at every level of American society. Thanks to a virus—whether created by God or by man remains to be seen—governments, corporations, businesses, and schools reached into the minutiae of our lives in ways that had once been acceptable only during war, weaving an intricate web of control over us all.
As just noted, many of these horrors remain, and, even where they’ve partially dissipated, their effects linger and will continue to do so for some time. And whatever the motivations of those involved in all of these things—on whatever part of the political and cultural spectrum they might place themselves—traditional conservatism took a severe beating. Much of traditional conservatism had nothing to say, and some of it merely conceded defeat and withdrew from the conversation.
I don’t mean to suggest there were no conservative voices. There were (and are), and they were (and are) often quite good (e.g., Tom Woods, The Imaginative Conservative, The American Conservative, National Review, Hillsdale College, and others), but the forces of chaos attempted to drown them out. After all, trying to explain the virtues of Christopher Columbus, for example, to a mob that sees everything through the radical and ahistorical lens of race, class, and gender is going to be painful for all involved. Where is the nuance, the subtlety, and hard search for truth? Where is the conversation? Not surprisingly, we lost the street debates on Columbus as the statues came tumbling down.
So again one must ask, what remains of traditional conservatism? Should we concede defeat and let the voices of Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, Willa Cather, Christopher Dawson, Ray Bradbury, Russell Kirk, C.S. Lewis, and Robert Nisbet be merely voices from our past? Should we see them as women and men of beauty who had their say but are now relegated to some obscure museum of lost humanist causes? Were they merely authors of books that will never seem quite as wholesome in a digital era? Mossbacks, reactionaries, dreamers?
To my mind, these voices have never been more needed and more relevant. A humanist but certainly no conservative, George Orwell once famously remarked, “we have now sunk to a depth at which the re-statement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.”
In this fine Orwellian tradition, it is worth remembering three things, each of which reminds us what it means to conserve our most cherished traditions—that is, to be a traditional conservative—even in a time of chaos.
First and foremost, we must remember that every single person is an unrepeatable center of dignity and freedom, each a moral and ethical agent, endowed with free will, and born in a certain time and certain place, never to be repeated. Life matters, and it is a precious gift every single time it appears. That is, each person is a unique reflection of the Infinite, a bearer of the Imago Dei, and a Temple of the Holy Spirit. No matter how much corruption a person puts on during this lifetime, he or she remains precious, at least at the heart of things. For even the most corrupt human being has within him the spark of divine grace, no matter how close to being smothered that spark is. “In Him, we move and live and have our being,” the Stoics and St. Paul assured us.
Second, as moral and ethical agents, we can always return (and we must and we should return) to the certainties of the seven virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, faith, hope, and love. While prudence (the ability to discern good from evil) is the first of the virtues, love (the ability to give oneself to another) is the virtue which ties all things together, seeking and striving to create a worldly community of justice (the ability to give each person his/her due). Through temperance (the ability to use the created good for the Good), we are reminded of our duty to see things through, no matter the danger and the cost (fortitude). Finally, through faith (the ability to see things unseen), we have hope (the ability to know that we matter).
Third, armed with the belief that every person matters and that each person is a moral and ethical agent, here to pursue a life of virtue, we recognize that the individual is only a true person within community. It is in relationships that we practice our charity and our justice, and it is in community that we attenuate our faults and cultivate our excellences. It is, for the true conservative, always better to strive for more communities—communities that overlap, communities that compete, communities that work together in harmony—rather than fewer communities. Indeed, fewer things could be more dangerous to the concerns of the traditional conservative than the populist desire (left and right) for a single, national community in which all persons and all ideas and all social norms are subordinate to the whole.
What remains of conservatism? In terms of hopes and aspirations, everything. In terms of the will to make it happen? That remains to be seen.
Regardless, conservatism is far from being dead.
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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.