Marxists, libertarians, and other progressives often mistake conservatives for reactionaries. Conservatives, the progressive allegation is, want to return us to a time when we were less free and less responsible. And that’s because we have a romantic or even utopian view of the past. The allegedly anti-reactionary truth is that it’s impossible to go back, to reject our technological accomplishments and to embrace discredited illusions about, say, the place of women.

We conservatives reject the progressive view that it’s impossible to go back, given that we now live in a more advanced stage of History. History isn’t simply a tale of either progress or of decline and fall, and who each of us is isn’t completely determined by his or her Historical situation. It’s just not true that the sophisticated understanding of who women are these days is simply an advance over the alleged prejudices of the past.

Our understanding of who we all are has become too “Historical” or even “existential” or not properly natural or personal. Our sophisticates mistakenly think each of us can define the mystery of his or her personal existence—personal identity—without regard to the purposes and limits he or she been given through his or her embodiment, through birth, genuinely relational life, and death.

But it’s also true that we can see, in justice, that our high-tech society has opened possibilities for largely unprecedented personal development for women. We add that it’s difficult—much more difficult than progressives and liberals acknowledge—to reconcile personal fulfillment through work with the more relational forms of free personal fulfillment as a parent. It’s hard to properly honor “voluntary caregiving” in a society that’s, more than ever, a meritocracy based on productivity. But that’s the challenge that’s been given us, and we conservatives pride ourselves in facing up to it. We think that both love and work—even contemplation and charity—should animate every personal life.

We conservatives also reject the reactionary view that it’s somehow necessary to go back—to, for example, an earlier stage in “the division of labor”—in order to live well. We don’t think we’ve simply advanced beyond some legacy of repression, as progressives say. Nor do we think we simply live “after virtue,” as some reactionaries day. We think it highly unlikely that we’ll get back home either by returning to the farm or by entering some self-constructed “Brave New World.”

So we realistic conservatives reject the romanticism of both the agrarians and the transhumanists, of those who’ve diverted themselves from facing up completely to the challenges we now face. Sure, we conservatives are nostalgic for the ways personal lives—manners and morals—were more properly relational in the past. But our nostalgia is self-consciously selective. We admire, for example, the classy Stoic realism of the best aristocrats of our South without wanting to bring back the slavery and racism that distorted their rational self-confidence, just as we can admire the egalitarian idealism of our Puritan founders while rejecting their bizarre and tyrannical (and, truthfully, not properly Christian) effort to criminalize every sin. In this sense, we conservatives can be called postmodern.

As Solzhenitsyn explained, we think it’s quite possible to work for a world that avoids the spiritual excesses of the medieval world and the material excesses of the modern world, to work for a world worthy of the person as a whole. Our selective nostalgia is part of an effort to incorporate what’s best and most truthful about human experience so far in our lives today. So our “appropriation” of tradition is far from uncritical, but we couldn’t really be critical of the excesses or pathologies characteristic of our time (and all times have them) without knowledge of the human alternatives embodied in the knowledge we receive through tradition.

Articles by Peter Lawler

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