Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Some More Thoughts About Conservatism

I spent about four or five years trying to be a conservative, before eventually deciding that there was no such thing as conservatism. Even that didn't really stop me, though. I still tend to think of myself as a conservative and I muse over the term and what meaning it can be said to have. (Here are some of my conclusions.)

One of the many philosophers and writers I've dipped into as a part of this quest is Michael Oakeshott, the English political philosopher who died in 1990. I have only read a few of his essays, along with a bit of background reading about him, so I may be egregiously wrong in my interpretation of his views. But if I am wrong about Oakeshott, I think what I say here could apply to a certain strand of conservatism anyway.

Oakeshott seems to have been one of those conservatives who are rather hostile to the very idea of politics, to the idea of social improvement as a project, preferring to accept and enjoy the world as it is. An article on Oakeshott in First Things magazine, by Elizabeth Corey, is titled "A Disposition of Delight" and quotes Walter Bagehot's words: "The way to keep up old customs, is to enjoy old customs; the way to be satisfied with the present state of things, is to enjoy that state of things". He delighted in (and recommended for human flourishing) activities that were ends in themselves, like friendship and poetry and fishing, rather than in purposeful, goal-driven activities like politics and money-making and status-seeking.

It is easy to see how this Epicurean conservatism conflicts with another sort of conservatism, one that emphasises work, acquisition, deferred gratification, and the pursuit of excellence. (It seems to be an irony that the kind of politicans and ideologues who are always telling us that schemes to improve man and society usually backfire-- "out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing can be built"-- are very often the favoured politicians of business tycoons who are constantly seeking to "change the landscape" of their industries. Why should a profound conservatism in politics go with a kind of furious radicalism in business?)

I think there may be a paradoxical phenomenon whereby a society supposedly devoted to leisure becomes, in fact, more and more occupied by work, and by leisure as work-- struggling to pull off a dinner party like the ones on Come Dine with Me, or putting in long hours at the gym so you can saunter along the beach in style, or constantly striving to achieve the best answer to the question How Clean is Your House?

But that's just my impression, and maybe those people enjoy the treadmill and the dinner party preparations and the dusting as much as Oakeshott enjoyed his poetry.

Today I have been thinking of Oakeshott's philosophy of enjoying what is there to be enjoyed, and seeking to extricate ourselves from perpetual preoccupation with plans and projects. (I hope I am not getting him wrong.) It is a constant theme in my own thoughts, and one of the reasons Groundhog Day is my favourite film of all time. The culmination of the film comes when Billy Murray's character decides to accept the situation he is caught in and to make the most of it. ("But standing here amongst the people of Punxatawney, and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn't think of any better fate than a long and lustrous winter." Best movie line ever.)

But what approach should Christians take? Christ's parable of the lilies of the valley and his warning that that "sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof" both seem to point us in the direction of a life lived in the present, without anxiety for the future or preoccupation with either future or past ("let the dead bury their own dead"). However, we also have his uncompromising injunction, "Be thou perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect"-- so there seems no room for conservative anti-perfectionism, at least on the individual level. It seems we are encouraged to strive, but to strive within the moment we are given.

So I think this conservative acceptance of the given-- "whatever is, is right", as Alexander Pope put it-- cannot be the Christian attitude towards at least one element in our world, i.e., our own selves.

I anticipate the objection that I am hopelessly muddled, anyway, because I am confusing the good of the State, or of the community, with the individual or with voluntary associations. A conservative might well believe that the State, or the nation-- the institutions that we can't dispense with, that are all-embracing and compulsory-- should not be committed to projects or grandiose aims, while individual human beings and the voluntary associations they form (companies, clubs, societies) may well be so committed. The State is the roof over our heads, the walls around us; its only goal should be to keep us sheltered and warm and safe, so the business of life can go on inside it.

This may be all very well, but I don't think it is as simple as that. I think a political philosophy focused so much on the rejection of social goals can't help spilling over into an attitude of bullish self-assertion. The protest that "The government has no right to tell me what to do with my life!" becomes "Nobody has any right to tell me what to do with my life!". Eventually, in the same way that every obscene rap song becomes a heroic stand for freedom of speech, any "lifestyle" choice becomes widely celebrated because it defies some norm-- whether that "lifestyle choice" is getting your body tattooed all over, or declaring that you are a woman despite having a man's body, or risking life and limb on extreme sports or feats of endurance. "Didactic" becomes a term of condemnation in the criticism of books and films. (I leave it to the reader to decide whether I am exaggerating or whether this is a fair description.) And the interesting thing is that this is a worldview helped along by both liberals and conservatives.

Edward Feser puts this all down to Immanuel Kant,

...we must in his view be “autonomous” if we are to be truly free – not lawless, to be sure, but not “heteronomous” either, not bound by a law external to us. Rather, we must be “self-legislators,” bound only by a law that is somehow of our own making. Kant also famously describes us as “ends in ourselves,” and holds that a truly moral community is one whose members strive to create a “kingdom of ends,” an order in which all are treated as self-legislating ends in themselves.

These ideas have been enormously influential. They inform the egalitarian liberalism of John Rawls, the libertarianism of Robert Nozick, and even the conservatism of Roger Scruton. As Kraynak emphasizes, they have also permeated contemporary Catholic and Protestant thought. Modern people of all political and religious persuasions have come to see “respect for persons,” “human rights,” “human dignity,””freedom,” and the like – rather than, say, submission to the natural law or to the will of God – as the fundamental categories in terms of which to address moral and political issues. To this extent, “We are all Kantians now.”

But from a traditional Christian point of view, and from a Thomistic point of view, there is something more than a little blasphemous in all of this...In no sense are we the source of the nature that determines our ends, including the end of reason itself; God alone is that."

I cannot claim to be able to analyze a philosophical system, let alone several philosophical systems. I am making a more modest claim; that the whole atmosphere, value-system and rhetoric of libertarianism (and of classical liberalism, and of lifestyle liberalism, and of radicalism, and perhaps-- unless I do not misunderstand it-- of Oakeshottian conservatism) has seeped into our mental and cultural lives to the extent that "doing your own thing" has become a good in itself.

I agree that my train of thought in this post has been rather confused, but maybe that's what happens when you write about conservatism (or maybe I'm just confused). A belief in living in the present moment, a distrust of projects of social improvement, and an orientation towards activities that are done for their own sake-- these are different subjects. But for me, they are all of them symptomatic of a particuar kind of quietistic conservatism-- the conservatism of the right-wing hippie, maybe-- which I find partly attractive (in its rejection of a consumerist and careerist and ideologically manipulated life) but one which I don't think is ultimately compatible with the sense of mission, and of duty to his fellow man, that should animate a Christian.

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