Sunday, August 23, 2009

Notes Toward A Restoration of Conservatism

Intellectual conservatism as a conscious social philosophy has long been a minority position, and most believers never hope to convert the proletariat or the bourgeoisie en masse; in our current social crisis, true representatives of old European-style bourgeoisie culture are relatively few: rather, there has been a mass proletarianization of society; proletarian "culture" has become the normative culture. As a conservative, I reject the notion of "vox populi, vox Dei" as utter nonsense. Conservatism as I define it is chiefly moral and social, and only derivatively political and economic; and if my definition is adopted (and many individuals, friendly and unfriendly, will be loath to adopt it), then we realize that what society needs is not a new tax code but a conversion.

I speak here not primarily of a conversion to Catholic and Apostolic Christianity (though as a practitioner, I can only but desire it), but of a conversion to humanism. And by humanism, I mean a way of thinking about mankind that recognizes both the limitations and the transcendence of human nature: first, mankind's innate disposition to disobedience and disorder (figured in the book of Genesis by Man's Fall), and second, the latent disposition to enter into communion with the transcendent (not necessarily a religious disposition: men grossly irreligious, indeed blasphemous, have produced works of art, music especially, that seem to transcend all material experience). These axioms should have a consequential effect on the conservative's vision of the good life and of the good society: if these axioms are widely accepted as true, then an ideal of man will begin to emerge. Man, not material or technological progress, will again become the proper study of mankind. The recognition that man's development is not illimitable and that our nature is immutable should encourage an attitude of reverence towards the past, reverence particularly towards the moral wisdom of philosophers, pagan and Christian.

Composed in unequal measure of sin and sanctity, man ought to live in such a way that he is directed towards the Good, the Beautiful, and the True and away from disorder and sin. This is the life of philosophy: and this should be the conservative's goal, first for himself, and then, for others. Is this life possible to the proletariat? Of course, but only when they cease to be a proletariat. And to unmake the proletariat is to move against the immense weight of social momentum. The vast bureaucracy of education and the social services buttress the ennui and lethargy of the proletariat, and even the Church can no longer be relied upon to preach the spiritual ideal that would aid in the de-proletarianization. What then is left to us? Only personal example.

The conservative who wishes to vivify an enervated society must become a man of moral imagination, knowledgeable in the humane and liberal arts: a spiritual aristocrat. That properly is the work of a lifetime, and it must necessarily mean many shortcomings (a conservative cannot afford to be too sanguine about man's prospects for the life of philosophy), but if we can again recover the ideal of a spiritual aristocracy, we might begin to work for the restoration of order in our society. We must abjure the well-intentioned but fallacious populist conservatism: to appeal to the people's better judgment means that the people must become better, and that requires first the work of the aristocracy. Their work would be intellectual but also astutely journalistic, though never condescending to sloganeering; for what "slogans" as we possess, Tradition, Order, Authority, are none too popular with the hoi polloi.

Aristocratic conservatism is not necessarily political; in fact, what we need the least at present are "conservative" politicians; far more urgent is the need for writers, philosophers, historians, theologians, artists who can defend vigorously the "permanent things," men and woman possessed of a moral, indeed a sacramental imagination.

In an ordered society, a spiritual aristocracy would be naturally small, but it would possess an influence greater than the sum of its members. And by influence, I do not mean political power. I have in mind here something like S.T. Coleridge's "clerisy," men and women without political power but possessing moral or spiritual Authority. That, I suggest, is the role that young men and women of the renascent conservative movement should have in mind as our goal: not the achievement of political control but the the dissemination of philosophical ideas and ideals that see their apotheosis in works of the imagination, such as literature and art. The contemporary fascination with the works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien bodes well for the future: these twentieth-century writers have achieved a popularity and widespread appeal that has done much to teach a knowledge of the Good Life. The twenty-first century demands men and women of their ability to renew and develop an artistic and literary tradition that can rival, perhaps, even surpass their achievement.

Finally, we must again discover the necessity of the common life: men must again be taught by example to love and honor the "little platoons": the divinely-ordained micro-communities where man is encouraged in his virtues and dissuaded from his vices: I speak here of the family, the parish, the village-town or neighborhood, all institutions of the common life where little things like manners and customs (not especially little, after all) encourage decency, respect, and charity among kinsmen and neighbors. The real work of dignifying and re-humanizing must finally be accomplished most perfectly in the common life, among intimates. The restoration of the family is the restoration of civilized society. It is, at once, our most daunting and our most immediate task.

What life have you, if you have not life together?
There is not life that is not in community,
And no community not lived in praise of God.
--- T. S. Eliot

1 comment:

  1. What then is left to us? Only personal example.

    This is indeed a powerful statement. Is the aim of good living to serve others, or to convert others, or both if that is the will of God?

    So perhaps genuine humility gives the greatest opportunity for God to be seen? Or does it?

    Was Paul humble or did he "boast" that God worked through his hard work?

    Surely we don't need to delete our God given personality entirely ... unless as the hyper-Calvinists say ... God does everything

    My view is that God seeks a partnership ... from those to whom much has been given much is expected

    With Best Wishes

    Friar Hilarius