The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 15, 2018

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West, The
Mark C. Henrie - 05/25/11

Conservatism is distinguished from other modern political movements in that it is primarily defensive rather than progressive. The conservative seeks to hold fast to that which is good—and experienced as such—whereas other political movements, tendencies, and ideologies reach for a posited good, one that is not yet possessed. Characteristically, the imagined goods of progressive ideologies are conceived to be “universal” values (such as liberty, equality, and fraternity), whereas the goods and values defended by conservatives are more readily understood as particulars. There does not appear to be a single substance knowable as Tradition, but rather many historical traditions, great and small, each making its claim for conservation on its own particular terms. As a result, there may be a Socialist International or a Communist International—one may even speak of a Liberal International—but there has never been a Conservative International.

There is, however, a “quasi-universal” that conservatives of many nations, and American conservatives among them, have understood themselves to be conserving: the West. Obviously, the very word indicates that this good or value is not universal—it excludes, at least, the East. On the other hand, insofar as the term denotes a civilization transcending in space any particular Western state, transcending in time the history of any particular Western nation, and transcending in intellectual scope or catholicity any particular Western philosophy or theoretical doctrine, “the West” appears to stretch toward a kind of universality. To speak of the West is to speak of something cosmopolitan, and yet not deracinated. If it is not an eternal essence, then perhaps at least it is something sempiternal. The defense of the West is close to the heart of what it means to be a conservative in the modern world—yet the definition of the West is also a deep source of conflict among conservatives of various sorts.

As a practical matter, and for evident geopolitical reasons, “the West” has been a term most often employed with respect to matters of international conflict. By invoking loyalty to the West as a whole, one may make “one’s own” the political concerns of other peoples who are not immediately evidently one’s own. In other words, the West is a basis or rationale for “natural” alliance in time of war. Thus, the British during the First World War were eager for that conflict to be seen by their potential allies as one pitting the liberal and civilized traditions of Western Europe against invading hordes from the East, “the Hun.” In this way, isolationist America and unenthusiastic Commonwealth countries could be brought into the conflict as allies in the common defense of (Western) civilization itself—rather than in the defense of British imperial interests. The inclusion of the Soviet Union among the Allies of the Second World War obstructed recourse to the language of the West, but even still, both Churchill and de Gaulle in their wartime speeches spoke of the defense of “liberal and Christian civilization,” a good short description of the meaning of the West. With the Nazi defeat and the advent of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the defense of the West could once more serve as the basis for the NATO alliance against the totalitarianism of the East Bloc.

It was in the context of the Cold War that the West became an especially important concept for American conservatives. Given that context, the term carried in the first instance both geostrategic and economic connotations—mirroring the fact that our communist adversaries understood economics to be at the “base” of all political, cultural, and spiritual life. Thus, despite its cultural dissimilarity, Japan could be understood to stand among the Western nations, since it was a free-market democracy and a U.S. ally, while Spain under Franco might be understood to stand outside the West, since it was not (yet) a NATO member, nor a democracy.

Yet throughout the Cold War period, conservative thinkers worked to reach a deeper level of analysis of the crisis of the twentieth century. Many, following Eric Voegelin, concluded that Soviet communism was an extreme instance of “Gnostic revolt”—in effect, a characteristic heresy within the Western experience, rather than something arising from outside the West. If the “armed doctrine” threatening the West was itself a bastard child of the West’s own traditions, however, then the defense of the West began not on the tense military frontier dividing the two Germanies; rather, the defense of the West must begin with an effort to educate Western publics about the orthodox strains of the Western heritage. But what exactly were the “orthodox” traditions of the West?

That last question became urgent after the fall of communism in 1989–91. No longer facing an Eastern Bloc, the contours and boundaries of the West were thrown into doubt. Just as the various strains of American conservatism found themselves in growing tension absent the unifying “glue” of communism, so the various strains of the Western tradition jostled for preeminence in our civilizational self-understanding. The standard nineteenth-century accounts of Western civilization understood the West to have four roots. Athens stood emblematically as the source of the West’s philosophical traditions. Jerusalem was the source of the West’s religious traditions. Rome was the source of the West’s legal traditions. And Germany—the German forests, in which had dwelt the Gothic tribes—was the source of the peculiarly Western spirit of liberty and contract. In such an account, the West was merely an alternative term for “Western Christendom.” Christianity, after all, had absorbed ancient philosophy; the Church had displaced the Roman empire as a universal jurisdiction; and the Goths were converted. In such an account, Christianity is the primary “marker” of the West, and so Rome, the eternal city, might be understood as the main taproot among the other, lesser roots. Such an account had, and continues to have, a particular appeal for traditionalist conservatives: the West they seek to defend is Christendom.

The first challenge to this standard nineteenth-century account of the West occurred during the First World War: for the purposes of that war, Germany had to be located outside the West, and so a rich literature on the Gothic dimensions of the Western experience was lost. As a result, we would in time no longer be able to understand what Montesquieu, for example, meant when he praised England for having retained its Gothic constitution; Western liberty would have to be extracted from other and perhaps less adequate sources.

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