The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

September 20, 2018

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The Future of Conservatism: Hopeful Possibilities
Patrick Deneen - 12/29/08
new leaf

This is part one of a symposium on contemporary conservatism hosted by ISI at Yale in November, 2008.

I will seek to make an uncharacteristically optimistic argument today, though we have rightly been reminded today at how daunting the task awaits in achieving a revival of our culture. Still, as I look around this room today [gorgeous], adorned by a beautiful stained glass portrayal of the basic elements of a liberal education [a Beaux-Art portrayal of the arts and sciences as young women embodying such qualities as Faith, Hope, Love; Inspiration, Revelation; Color, Form, Symmetry; Truth, Beauty, Light. . . . . and so on. . . . ], and the bronze friezes lined above the room of such figures as Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, Milton, we should recall that for all the damage that has been done by our culture, there are tremendous advantages on the side of conservatism. After all, we have Western Civilization—which is not to be confused with fusionism, wedge strategies, or Karl Rove.

Still, I don’t underestimate the challenge. The task is daunting, first and most obviously because the universities are today configured, for the most part, as the very antithesis of an embodiment of conservation of this past. Viewing themselves as agents of progress and social justice, the universities are predominantly an obstacle to the deep and transformative encounter with the ideas and words of the figures portrayed around this room. Yet, still this room exists: the buildings of the university are often like a palimpsest, an ancient document whose original words could not be thoroughly erased in spite of the effort to obscure and write over the ancient wisdom. This is as true in the world of ideas as it is in the buildings that adorn our campuses. The very monolithic strength of the modern university also constitutes its greatest weakness—its self-assurance in its progressivity makes it blinkered to its own philosophical presuppositions, and largely incapable of articulating the grounds for its own commitments. Indeed, its commitment to progress inclines the modern university to a neglect of the past and its own sources, and thus results in a set of intellectual commitments that are, more often than not, half-baked and half-cocked if not outright incoherent. We are surrounded by Kantians who ardently defend human dignity without a clue of where such a concept of dignity arises; with secularists who argue for a separation of Church and State without knowing the origin for that view; with multiculturalists who haven’t stopped to think about the nature of culture; and so on.

All of these—and I could mention many more—were originally “conservative” concepts that became unmoored from their traditional and (most often) religious origins. The unmooring served an important tactical purpose, which was to unlink those concepts from the constraining religious sources from which they originated. But this very tactic also destabilized these concepts, lending to them a high degree of incoherence and, increasingly, a great degree of indefensibility, leading philosophers like Richard Rorty to endorse liberalism just because it’s there. This very weakness presents a distinct opportunity.

Our students—young people—are overbrimming with a long list of commitments that they have absorbed from a culture that no longer can provide an explanation for those very commitments. They swim in a vast sea of unexamined assumptions, and their professors are so enamored of their liberation from the past that they are unaccustomed, or themselves increasingly unable, to provide an explanation. Indeed, more deeply they are unwilling to do so even if they could, because to do so would be to acknowledge the deepest sources of their commitments in the abhorrent religious and philosophical traditions of the West (This is why, for instance, European leaders so resisted even the mere mention of the Christian sources of Europe in the European Constitution . . . ). They bank on a high degree of incuriosity and placid self-satisfaction in the contemporary university, qualities they may possess in great quantities and which our modern universities aim to teach, but which is not necessarily the hallmark of the youth.

Now, a great part of the challenge is the absence of “conservative” professors who can help articulate the original sources of our commitments. Even those “conservatives” that still populate most campuses, have become so dedicated to and distracted by electoral and narrowing policy concerns that they believe conservatism originated with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, or if they have a longer view, with Barry Goldwater’s candidacy in 1964. Conservatism’s great strength—its capacity to attain full awareness of the origins and sources of its intellectual commitments—has been ill-served by the very political success, and now failure, of the recent Republican Party. I have now been privy to innumerable meetings of “conservative” intellectuals in which the discussion revolves around how to achieve electoral victory rather than the revival of our culture. We have become blinkered to our own resources.

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