The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

January 16, 2018

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.

Indeed, in more than one area conservatives have lost the capacity to articulate these deeper connections because of the exigencies of electoral politics, and thus have allowed themselves to fall into their own pernicious forms of incoherence. For many older conservatives especially, formed out of the great and admirable battle against communism during the Cold War, certain alien orthodoxies were introduced that were incompatible with the deepest stores and sources of conservatism. Conservatism became identified with a defense of classical liberalism, with libertarian and libertine economics, with an expansionist Wilsonian foreign policy; in response to the rise of “multi-culturalism” it articulated a defense of Enlightenment universalism (rather than a true defense of multiculturalism); to defend the role of religion in the public sphere it began speaking in the language of utilitarianism, pointing to the usefulness of religion for a liberal democratic order; to argue against Roe vs. Wade it adopted the language of RIGHTS, a theory that originated in a theory of self-ownership. Can there be any wonder that conservatism seems all but routed today, given how readily it curried favor by accommodating itself to the very corrosive modern orthodoxies of what it originally arose to combat?

Perhaps it is the moment for a younger generation of conservatives, less shaped and less beholden to the political exigencies of the past half-century, who can begin a process of recovery of the great storehouse—and the great strength—of conservatism, those very underarticulated commitments of so many of our students today. I could provide a long list of particulars, but let me afford one example that seems to most conservatives a tremendous obstacle among a younger generation—and seems to me to be an area of great promise. It is the remarkable rise of a commitment to the environment, that hallmark of “Left” politics for so many years, yet, to my mind, a deeply conservative commitment that we are allowing to go underarticulated and thus by default permit our students to believe to be the very antithesis of conservative.

After all, we need only point out that the root of the very word “conservative” is “conserve” and “conservation,” meaning “to maintain” or “to keep.” In clinging to their own incoherent orthodoxies, conservatives have ceded this concept to the Left and thereby lost the ability to articulate the deepest sources of conservatism. Instead, we should wrest the many noble and praiseworthy commitments of our young people back to their true origin, insisting on the right definition of things. We would do well to insist on the rejection of the word “environment”—which, after all, places human beings at the center of something that surrounds US—but rather articulate that our commitments lie with NATURE. Nature implies and requires the recognition of a CREATED ORDER of which we are a part. Nature is closely related to culture—those forms and ways of life that arise from the human effort to live alongside nature, at once using and preserving the natural world—and thus rejecting the tendency of the language of environmentalism to fall easily into a deracinated and abstract understanding of the human relationship to the natural world. Nature is at once particular—manifested in many particularities (desert and forest, plain and mountain, ocean and river . . . ) while also always a universal whole—pointing out that we always perceive the universal through the particular. NATURE has a temporal dimension, implying the centrality of generations among living things, of the centrality of fecundity and the inevitability of death, and keeps close to mind our relationship to the past and to the future. Only a time when we have so thoroughly rejected the place and centrality of nature would allow us to become as presentist as we have become, oblivious to the past and negligent of the future. A fuller embrace of the spectrum of time, and a reflection of our place in that spectrum, allows for a respectful consideration of the requirements of obligation and duty, of gratitude and fidelity, of memorial to generations past who sought to convey their own best efforts to live alongside nature, and our duty to leave the world as a good and fruitful place for our children. Putting in the forefront conservatism’s deep commitments to the natural order allows us to present arguments and teachings on behalf of governance of appetite, of self-control of our instincts and impulses, of a culture that necessarily prohibits—and understands such self-governance to be a profound form of liberty. And all of this—pointing to a created order, expanding our temporal sense, fostering the liberty of self-governance, inculcating a reverence for the world and for life, points ultimately to our deepest religious longings and aspirations, exemplifying that God is at once demanding and loving, He giveth and taketh, and that it is our nature to seek to understand and ultimately to love and worship Him.

So long as conservatives deride these inchoate and underarticulated longings of our students, conservatism will not be a lived experience, a worldview and a way of life, but a political agenda—another “ism” that is forced and unnatural. The future of conservatism, if it has one, lies—as always—in its past, and not in the prospect of electoral victories (those may come, but will not truly be won if they are sought for winning alone). It must attend to its greatest strength—its great storehouse of those fundamental commitments that have arisen from our civilization—seek to recollect for our young people what most of us have forgotten and increasingly many of us have never known. I don’t promise that it will be an easy path out of the wilderness, but it is the only path, and it is a good and true path.

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