The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 15, 2018

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Hart, Jeffrey
Mark C. Henrie - 12/14/11

Furthermore, claiming that “the average American is a modernist in his bones,” Hart argued that American conservatism must work out a “modern” relationship to “tradition.” But, he continued, to be modern is to be conscious of a break with tradition. To be modern is to be conscious of one’s own novelty. How can one be a “traditionalist” while breaking with tradition? Hart gave no clear answer, though he seemed to believe that elements of a tradition could be appropriated by American conservatives eclectically and creatively.

This ambivalence between traditionalism and modernism has remained a perplexing problem for Hart. In an important essay, “Johnson, Boswell, and Modernity,” published in his Acts of Recovery (1989), Hart observed that Boswell and Johnson each experienced a heady feeling of nearly limitless possibility when they arrived in London; each could sense an immense freedom for self-creation open to them in the metropolis. This is the modern experience. But while Boswell abandoned himself to a parade of impersonations, of improvised “selves,” Johnson intransigently defended a single and fixed—but self-created—role for himself in “the great system of society.” If we seek a model for how a critical traditionalist can come to terms with the modern condition, Hart points us ultimately to Dr. Johnson.

Further Reading
  • Hart, Jeffrey. “The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to a Modern American Conservatism.” In The New Right Papers, edited by Robert W. Whitaker, 36–47. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982.
  • ———. Political Writers of Eighteenth-Century England. New York: Knopf, 1964.
  • ———. Smiling through the Cultural Catastrophe: Toward the Revival of Higher Education. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001.
  • ———. Viscount Bolingbroke: Tory Humanist. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965.
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