I have just finished reading Lionel Trilling’s 1940 Partisan Review essay “Elements That Are Wanted.” More than sixty years after its publication, it remains a galvanizing read, though perhaps now in a different way. For a thorough account of the piece, and its important impact at the time, see this fine essay by long time First Things friend and contributor, Gertrude Himmelfarb. Since Ms. Himmelfarb has done the hard work of summarizing and contextualizing Trilling’s essay, my account will be brief. Suffice it to say that in the piece, Trilling commends to his leftist readers certain central elements of T.S. Eliot’s (markedly conservative) political thought. Trilling expounds what he calls Eliot’s “moral Platonism” which recognizes a moral / social ideal, but contents itself with what is possible for actual, living men and women, here and now. By contrast, Trilling argues that the left is afflicted with a sickly case of contemptus mundi – hatred of the world. Its Utopian willingness to break actual eggs in the creation of an eschatalogical omelet is, he thinks, animated by a deep-seated “disgust with humanity as it is and a perfect faith in humanity as it is to be.”
Readers of First Things will, no doubt, find themselves in agreement with this little bit of Trilling’s analysis, and will feel encouraged that so eminent a liberal thinker has perceived the wisdom of Eliot’s conservative outlook. And rightly so. But there is also, in Trilling’s piece, a challenge that we on the right would do well to take up. No conservative needs to read Trilling to see that Eliot had something to teach mid-century high-brow leftists. But we could read Trilling in order to see what a genuine, honest, self-critical thinker can look like, even while maintaining a principled allegiance to one movement or another. Trilling was a man of the left, but he was honest enough, and he cared enough about the intellectual rectitude of his movement, to acknowledge when an infamously conservative thinker like Eliot supplied something his own tribe lacked. Liberals, he saw, were wrong about something, and conservatives were right. As an earnest liberal intellectual, Trilling publicized this embarrassing fact in the most prestigious organ of American liberal thought.
Where, and I ask this with all sincerity, would one see this on the American right? Which journals, which thinkers, would trot out an essay by Herbert Marcuse, Peter Singer or Paul Krugman, and say “Look – this person is right, and we conservatives are wrong. Let’s take a hard look at some of our most basic intellectual commitments.”? It’s hard, for me at least, to answer this question with any speed or certainty. It seems, rather, that conservative discourse is calibrated mainly towards the winning of elections. In this bolshevik reality, the purification of the tribe’s language and thought gets run under the wheels of the electoral train. Many readers of First Things have likely heard of Trilling’s statement that there were no conservative ideas in America, merely “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” If that was true at the time, which I doubt, it’s not true now. But when Trilling says that there is no conservative intellectual tradition in America, we might do well to hold the rebuttal for a moment, and ask ourselves how he might be right. Specifically, what role do authentic self-criticism and openness to ideas of far-flung provenance, the sorts of virtues Trilling demonstrates in his essay on Eliot, play in the constitution of an intellectual tradition? And where, when, how do contemporary conservative thinkers demonstrate these virtues?
If the answer is nowhere, or practically nowhere, then conservatives are making the same mistake that Trilling ascribed to his leftist comrades, for whom, he argued, “immediate ends have become more important than ultimate ends.” A strategy of short-term victory that precludes or damages the building of an authentic, durable, vital tradition is ultimately, in the long view, suicidal. An ossified, closed tradition, as both Eliot and Alasdair MacIntyre have pointed out, is not merely a weak tradition, it is no tradition at all. The best it can manage is a bleating swan song. Or to put it otherwise, it can stand athwart history yelling “stop!”
Yes, I know, by the standards of Trilling, the contemporary left is little better than the right. The universities, mainstream magazines, and yes, my beloved NPR, usually fail to take conservative ideas seriously, if they are even aware that conservatives have ideas at all. They are poor stewards of their own intellectual tradition, and conservatives never tire of pointing this out. Alas, partisan blindness and an ethos of intellectual trench warfare have become the order of the day on most corners. But if you’re reading this, you are likely not a leftist, so I’ll spare you a sermon about the failings of of The Nation or Fresh Air. Besides, whatever their failings, Trilling was right that the dominant intellectual patrimony for us Americans is a progressive one. My native Boston is, for good and ill, the cardinal birthplace of the American mind, and it is still occupied, for good and ill, by the shades of progressives like Emerson, Thoreau and T.S. Eliot’s Harvard-ruling kin. Theirs is the most august and ingrained tradition in American thought and culture, and as long as the right is content to mark its gains and losses in congressional seats, the overwhelming prestige and momentum of this tradition can only be mitigated, and not even by very much.
If conservative intellectuals hope to make a significant, long-term dent in this hegemony, they will need to employ every tool at the disposal of a serious, honest thinker. Including those wielded by Trilling in the aforementioned essay. His are, incidentally, tools that should fit comfortably in the conservative hand. Russell Kirk famously said that conservativism is the negation of ideology. We who find something compelling about this negation ought to be, if such a description is in any way accurate, the most willing and able to think generously, honestly, openly. Are we? Or, as I’m obviously suggesting, does the liberal Trilling demonstrate some elements that are badly wanted in the conservative mind?