The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 21, 2017

The Treasonous Clerk: Art and Beauty against the Politicized Aesthetic, Part II
James Matthew Wilson - 10/12/09
Edmund Burke

This is Part II of a seven-part essay on "Art and Beauty against the Politicized Aesthetic." You can read Part I here.

In the Anglo-American tradition, conservative thought was born of beauty, particularly literary beauty. By this, I do not refer to Dr. Johnson and Dean Swift, who, along with many other great men of letters of the eighteenth century, were Tories—a detail that may explain the function of satire in that or any period, but does not in itself forge a necessary link between the Tory cause and literature. Rather, I refer to that moment when Tory thought was transformed and diluted into a new compound called conservatism: that moment, in the furnace of the French Revolution, when Edmund Burke set down his Reflections.

The ideologues of the age attacked Burke’s arguments directly and indirectly, countering his claims, but above all deprecating the very style by which he set them forth. What he said was beautiful, they granted, but such beauty concealed a thousand vices, as Burke himself confessed. Mary Wollstonecraft above all would reply that Burke’s argument against the Revolution and the demolition of French state, custom, tradition, religion, and society was founded on sensibility: on appeals to the sublime and the beautiful, rather than to reason. In her acerbic first volley, Wollstonecraft condescends, or rather con-ascends to the ether of which she believes Burke’s arguments to be compounded. She informs Burke that

it is natural to conclude, that all your pretty flights arise from your pampered sensibility; and that, vain of this fancied preeminence of organs, you foster every emotion till the fumes, mounting to your brain, dispel the sober suggestions of reason. It is not in this view surprising, that when you should argue you become impassioned, and that reflection inflames your imagination, instead of enlightening your understanding.

With this call for sobriety, she invites them to quit “now the flowers of rhetoric[;] let us, Sir, reason together.” If reasoning entails the presentation of arguments, Wollstonecraft has already carried the day, not because Burke’s Reflections lacks for clear, specific—indeed up to that time unsurpassed factual—argument, but because Wollstonecraft has already denied their identity as such. Whatever their content, Burke’s remarks may be swept aside as pretty flowers and stage theatrics, so that only her voice remains. It does not matter that she proceeds to declaim a theory of liberty that Burke had already dismissed as impractical abstraction, and “political metaphysics” as unreal and irrelevant in their thin ugliness as she claims his words are in beauty. Burke had called the revolutionaries rationalistic barbarians; Wollstonecraft accuses Burke of being a sentimental poet puffed with sensibility. His appeals to beauty, and the exaggerated beauty of his prose, Wollstonecraft takes as damning proof that what he says cannot be true.

Mary Wollstonecraft

We could say much in support of Wollstonecraft’s more specific arguments, though it seems that her pretending her arguments were rational while Burke’s were not (hers founded on reason while his are founded on the preening unrealities of the aesthetic) is at once the central and weakest claim in her Vindication of the Rights of Men. She accuses Burke of beautifully defending forms of gratuitous beauty—the vanities of estate, throne, and court—while ignoring the plight of the expropriated peasantry; Burke, who gives us the prototypical defense of an organic culture and society flourishing under the same conditions as would an oak tree, may seem in fact to be defending pleasure gardens rather than hamlets plotted with the rolling, irregular lines of peasant freeholds, small productive farms producing the necessities of country and the materials of familial and communal happiness.

Wollstonecraft may have been right. If we could truly identify Burke’s defense of polity—as founded on an organic culture finding its way through historical challenges by a deep fidelity to tradition—with the interests of a narrow Whig oligarchy whose ascent was secured in 1688, then he has passed off as the common good a mere class interest. I am not sure such an identity is as obvious as she suggests; more probably, Burke’s theory of state and constitution provides us a familial theory of the pre-modern society more reflective of actual Western practice than was, say, Aristotle’s Politics reflective of the Greek polis. He tells us how societies work and must work, while Wollstonecraft and her liberal contemporaries fumed rationalizing theories whose application brought about a politics of alienation and destruction. But, if the argument I hope to provide fully in the third part of this essay holds water, we might more correctly say that Burke did not ignore reason in favor of beauty, but that he attended only to one form, or part of the form, of the wounded macrocosmic beauty of European society. That, in ignoring the deformations of a society produced by enclosures, urbanization, and the ensuing expropriation of the great agricultural masses—deformations to which Wollstonecraft nobly draws our attention—Burke was inadequately attentive to the beauty of social and political forms, rather than overly so and to the exclusion of reason.

I begin with this observation regarding the partial justice of Wollstonecraft’s criticisms of Burke—itself a digression from the theme of this essay—in hopes of hinting that a worthy defense of art and beauty will be one which succeeds in articulating the importance of those things in their own right, but which also demonstrates the organic relation, indeed the metaphysical identity, between the beauty that the fine arts make present to us and the questions of the Good to which ethics, politics, and theology always refer. Burke was in principle aware of this—but Wollstonecraft suggests he may have ignored matters that his own theory of government condemned. My particular interest here is to show that the appreciation of this identity quite specifically characterizes the aboriginal expression of conservative thought and has been its constant refrain during the past two centuries—so much so that conservatism, insofar as it may be deemed a movement, has been primarily an artistic and critical rather than institutional-political one. The perceptions of reason and the perceptions of beauty may be distinct in faculty, but they are one in end; this is the foremost insight that bucked conservatism into existence and the perennial blindness that has defined liberalism from the eighteenth century to the present. It is the insight that led to the word “culture” becoming a ubiquitous category of modern political debate—even as the prevalence of this word has, historically, been the chief means by which conservative thought has persisted doggedly at the margins during the long rise of the liberal state and administered society to the domination it “enjoys” today.

Let us, then, take the lachrymose and florid exchange between Burke and Wollstonecraft of two centuries past as the moment in which the idea of “conservatism” was born. We see that, by nature of the occasion and the subject, it was a political birth. But, in view of the defense Burke made of an “artificial” social order founded on the forms of natural beauty and, further, the arguments he made for ethical truth as a reality discovered by means of dramatic action (theater) rather than dispassionate, “metaphysical” logic, we may justly say that Burke’s position assumed an identity between all true thought, good politics, and the beautiful. Moreover, Wollstonecraft’s response was founded primarily on the competing assumption that a politics founded on beauty is not natural but artificial—in the sense of “false”—and so, like the fine arts, is of limited function and value. Very well, she suggests, that the beauty of art appeal to the sensibility, but when it seeks to impose itself beyond that circumscribed field, some kind of mystification occurs. Reason’s sovereignty is violated by sensibility’s dreams. The tradition Burke initiated therefore affirms the claims of the beautiful on our quotidian lives, while the liberal tradition whose provocations precede it, stirred it to life, and which nonetheless was still coming into being years after Burke’s death, would try to dismiss conservatism as a “mere aestheticism,” a literary affectation utterly superfluous were it not for its all-too-aesthetic appeals to the legitimacy of past or threatened social and political forms.

Misguided though the dismissal Wollstonecraft attempted may have been, it confirms the association between the political and beauty that Burke himself has articulated, and it inadvertently prophesied the form the conservative tradition would take in its major exponents in the coming two centuries. Conservatism has been, from its beginnings, something of a literary movement. That has been the basis on which it has been alternately ignored, absorbed, or attacked. The conservatism of the later Wordsworth and Coleridge would be attacked by the younger literati of their day, but their ideas would by and large be absorbed into the liberal intellectual culture of subsequent generations. Taken straight, the critique of modern society Wordsworth and Coleridge offer is a damning indictment of industrialization, urbanization, rationalism, and the soul-killing leveling of mass society. It was not taken straight, however; it was cut with saccharine, and their chatter about the “secret ministry of frost” preaching to the privileged dwellers in the countryside would flow smoothly with the liberal and industrial drift of English society in particular and Western society more generally. Almost from the beginning, that is, conservatism from Burke to Coleridge could be attacked and dismissed, but it could also be absorbed, patronized, and thus marginalized within the society that it tried to stand athwart.

William Wordsworth

Shelley’s “To Wordsworth” offers an admiring valediction, praising the older poet’s past achievement while denying the political implications of that achievement by calling them a betrayal of it. Wordsworth had honored “poverty,” “truth and liberty,” but his more profound grasp of these things Shelley writes off as a desertion and a death-in-life. William Hazlitt, the exemplary English liberal, would perform a similar job of “absorb and dismiss” on Coleridge and Sir Walter Scott, admiring and appropriating their “cultural beauty,” vertiginous ambition, and eloquence while deprecating the political visions that inspired them. His essay on Coleridge, for instance, paints a picture of an imaginative mind wholly admirable but hobbling down a spiral staircase descending into the past:

Mr. Coleridge has a “mind reflecting ages past;” his voice is like the echo of the congregated roar of the “dark rearward and abyss” of thought. He who has seen a mouldering tower by the side of a chrystal lake, hid by the mist, but glittering in the wave below, may conceive the dim, gleaming, uncertain intelligence of his eye: he who has marked the evening clouds uprolled (a world of vapours), has seen the picture of his mind, unearthly, unsubstantial, with gorgeous tints and ever-varying forms . . . Our author’s mind is (as he himself might express it) tangential.

He can paint the beauty of such a mind safely only once it has been relegated to the museum.

Wollstonecraft’s husband, the utilitarian William Godwin, would level a more sustained attack on Edmund Burke in his novel Caleb Williams. There, a Burke-like nobleman is the paradigm of sensibility, morality, and aristocratic beauty—but persecutes and hunts the title character to the point of death with an irrational monomania. Godwin’s admiration for Burke seeps through the cracks of this otherwise unblemished and monotonous attack on the abuses endemic to aristocratic society. Indeed, the writings of Hazlitt and Godwin collectively express a fear within the Anglophone liberal Protestant tradition that Diderot had also contemplated from within French Enlightenment liberalism: the world to which liberals were committed politically would be one true to Wollstonecraft’s words, building a Chinese wall between sensibility and reason, truth and beauty. That is, the world they fought to bring into being would prove one no longer worth imagining, no longer capable of giving aesthetic pleasure or of eliciting our love. Liberalism was a hortus siccus, incapable of life of its own; its fiercest advocates reflexively drank and sought to contain the fructifying waters of conservation and reaction that Burke, Wordsworth, and others came to represent. In this respect, conservatism in the post-Revolutionary world might better be described not as a literary movement but as the continued source of literary achievement in a world committed to rationalizing such things to extinction.

We might reasonably attribute the multiple instantiations of conservatism during the past two centuries to the occasional student or citizen who reads this absorbed, appropriated body of conservative thought and somehow sees—most likely, by a combination of good fortune, alienation from meritocratic tastes, and a predisposition to the noble and venerable—its complete form, its radical (as in, to the roots) meaning. So it was with the Oxford movement, rediscovering the ancient Church through the curious provocation of Wordsworth’s poems. So it would be a century later, as agrarians, traditionalists, and orthodox Christians from John Crowe Ransom, Caroline Gordon, William Faulkner, and Allen Tate, to W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Edith Sitwell, Christopher Dawson, and Graham Greene—from Cleanth Brooks, Richard Weaver, and M. E. Bradford to Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley—discovered the dry powder of conservatism tucked away in the base of the heaving, plodding windmill of modern liberal society. Such discovery comes as an explosion. But, because conservative thought survived primarily as literary rather than political gunpowder, its blast echoed only occasionally beyond the ivory tower, literary salon, or front porch.

Allen Tate

In the twentieth century, it was dismissed as summarily as Burke’s appeals were by Wollstonecraft. The southern agrarians, who were all men of letters, were dismissed as literary dreamers with only the silk of nostalgic dreaming tying them to the land. This dismissal sometimes seems accurate. John Crowe Ransom stood out as the ostensible leader of the Southern Agrarians when they published their symposium, I’ll Take My Stand, in 1930; by 1945, he was singing the praises of Criticism, Inc., and the efficiency of the modern division of labor from his editorial office at Kenyon College. But for every such case we may name others that testify to the sincerity and supra-literary or lived justification of conservative principles (Andrew Lytle, Ransom’s friend, for instance, or Wendell Berry, his apotheosis). Buckley, Kirk, and, curiously, the conservative radio announcer Alan Keyes have all seen their arguments defanged with the faint petting of being called “eloquent.” There seems to be no occasion on which being praised as “well spoken” does not serve merely to excuse one’s auditor from listening.

Only with the rise of Ronald Reagan did conservatism seem to stand up entirely from the writing desk to stretch its legs on the soapbox or in the corridors of state. This would prove an ironic victory, as Reagan effected two transformations. He translated conservative sentiment to practical politics—primarily by unfolding the rhetoric of conservatism as a veil over what in fact was a pursuit of most of the same old liberal statist goals first essayed in the age of the French Revolution. So truly was this form of “literary” or rhetorical conservatism a veil lightly worn that few seemed to notice when Reagan changed its needlework: suddenly the expansive optimism and destructive Jacobinism of Thomas Paine and, for that matter, Mary Wollstonecraft was issuing from the mouths of the leaders of the “conservative” revolution. How could the age of chivalry be dead if it was always Morning in America? How could a fidelity to “little platoons” be maintained in an age of far-flung bases and routine U.S. adventures abroad? Indeed, we may productively debate whether Reagan’s policies were intelligibly conservative; some of them clearly were and some of them were only compatible with liberalism through prudence or the ambiguity that necessarily accompanies these much-used, little-understood, terms. But there can be no question that rhetorically he changed the substance of conservatism—and we can hardly take that as a mere semantic curiosity given the primarily literary character of the conservative tradition. So long without power, if we do not at least have words, we have only tears. And true conservatives cry today for the invasions wrought in their name.

Despite this perversion of conservative rhetoric as its apparent expositors seized real political power, Reagan and the success of politicians like him gives us at least some grounds for hope. For it confirmed what conservatives from Burke to Tate to Kirk always believed: there is a salutary populism, a potentially wide practical political appeal, to conservative thought that belies what, for the better part of two centuries, was taken as its merely literary, merely intellectual, vaguely aristocratic, pretensions. As G. K. Chesterton so often suggested, the “common sense” of the average person does not amount to the reductive materialist rationalism of Thomas Paine, but rather bespeaks a natural and general desire to live in a society whose ends transcend either individual material comfort or the uprooting and restructuring of society to conform to the bureaucratic logic of power, efficiency, and predictability. As Burke’s Reflections propounded, political forms are prudent, limited, but ordered to the perfection of man, and man is ordered to an “eternal society,” the divinization of eternal life in God. However much greed the decade of Reagan’s leadership showed forth, it also suggested that two centuries of liberal statism and utilitarian rationalism had failed to kill the love or desire for the Good Itself native to the human person. But we must turn to a related pretension—the swift and almost complete transformation of conservatism into a mere party-political movement, which withered and twisted its deeply rooted vines and branches. We must begin again to contemplate the foundations not of the conservative tradition but of culture in the forms and works of the beautiful.

Click here to continue to Part III of this essay.

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