Given the recent history of American conservatism, it comes as something of a shock to realize that conservatives expressed dismay at 20th century developments in military technology. In an essay on “To Whom is the Poet Responsible?” (in The Man of Letters in the Modern World: Selected Essays: 1928-1955 ) Alan Tate is aghast at the reaction to the detonation of the first atomic bomb in 1945. He traced it back to a fundamental theme inherited from the Renaissance:

“It is a fact that we cannot blink, that the Renaissance doctrine of the freedom of unlimited enquiry has had consequences for good and evil in the modern world. This doctrine has created our world; in so far as we are able to enjoy it we must credit unlimited enquiry with its material benefits. But its dangers are too notorious to need pointing out. An elusive mystique supports the general doctrine, which may be stated as follows: We must keep up the enquiry, come hell and high water.”

One response to this “demi-religion” is to claim that its truth must be partly suppressed. Tate doesn’t want to say that, but does say: “I am only ready to point out that it is not suppression of truth to decline to commit wholesale slaughter even if we have the means of committing it beyond the reach of any known technique of the past. Is it suppression of truth to withhold from general use the means of exploiting a technique of slaughter?” (26-27).

More on: History, Politics

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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