Now that the semester is almost over, a brief follow up to the discussion about the place of conservatism in the university……reading this piece about Donald Livingston and the Abbeville Institute got me thinking: what new books about conservative thought would it be beneficial for interested students to read? I’m going to give these a shot over the next month: The Tyranny of Liberalism, Reappraising the Right, and The Conservatives. And don’t miss Professor Livingston’s article about David Hume and the conservative tradition. This is his contention: “conservatism is a critique of ideology in politics, or what Oakeshott called ‘rationalism in politics,’ and that Hume was the first to offer a systematic philosophical critique of ideology. He was also the first to explore its dynamic in an historical event.”
In thinking through Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition and my position as a “conservative” Catholic sympathetic to our friends on the Porch, I’d like to throw this out there for some opinion. Lyotard (“Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives”) has concluded:
The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have given us as much terror as we can take. We have paid a high enough price for the nostalgia of the whole and the one, for the reconciliation of the concept for the sensible, of the transparent and the communicable experience. Under the general demand for slackening and for appeasement, we can hear the mutterings of the desire for a return to terror, for the realization of the fantasy to seize reality. The answer is: Let us wage a war on totality; let us be witnesses to the unpresentable; let us activate the differences and save the honor of the name.
Is the reconciliation of “postmodern conservatism” (a thought on the term here and a succinct summary from Peter Lawler here) something like this: postmodernism rejects the grand narratives of “liberalism” (autonomy, individualism, the elevation of Progress) as well as collectivism (fascism, socialism, Communism) – see here an argument for possible commonalities of “totality” – while grounding itself in a metaphysical “masternarrative,” one of divine intervention and humanity. The differences spring from the assumption that human beings – sinful and lacking in knowledge – at their best make provisional statements about the world, statements constantly subject to revision due to circumstance.
Remaining fascinated by definitions of postmodernism and conservatism, and always returning to the notions of sentiment and “anti-ideology,” to view all the brutal ugliness and inhumanity of what might legitimately be classified as “modernist” (architecture and literature first and foremost) is, it seems to me, to recognize the elevation of “theory” as a chief enemy of suitable definitions for those large and complex terms. And so, below the fold, some summations.
It is, usually, far too awkward to import great figures of antiquity into current political discussions. That said, let’s give it a shot. Thinking through the definitions of conservatism, it seemed to me plausible that a conservative could perhaps make a claim to Cicero. This would assume an “imaginative,” not a historical, disposition: a divine intent in history, God-gifted immutable laws of morality, to which man has a duty to conform; order as a first requirement of good governance, achieved best by a restraint and respect for custom and tradition; variety as more desirable than systematic uniformity and liberty more desirable than equality; the honor and duty of a good life in a good community as taking precedence over individual desire; an embrace of a skepticism toward reason and abstract principle. Why Cicero? Following the Stoics, he taught that virtue and vice are distinguishable through a natural law, that there is an eternality to nature and a moral constitution to the universe, and that a “mixed government” might be advisable. Following the Pro Murena, let’s take a look.
Postmodernism, a critique of the over-ambitious nature of Enlightenment rationalism, is the beginning of an age deeply disenchanted with modernity. What is modernity and (following the most powerful of Twentieth Century constructs) its –ism? This generalization strikes me as a decent one.
As the Right broadly defined argues about its direction, let’s hope for an increasingly large place in that public sphere for Postmodern Conservatism. But what is it? My attempts to define can be found here in various parts. To continue, the embrace of uncertainty is an intersection of two large and confusing terms, postmodernism and conservatism. The “postmodern conservative” is skeptical of new models and standards of “efficiency,” and distrustful of an elevated rationality. The hegemonic pretenses of Enlightenment, the philosophical earthquake that birthed the limitations – and the persistent inhumanity – of modernity’s individualism and rights are a cold and flimsy moral architectural structure. The question: is tradition and revelation (such as Thomism, a Christian tradition of reason) mixed with the reflexive critique of modernity a means of return to discipline instead of a mastery of means? How, in other words, to maintain a standard of quality of life, informed by the accumulated wisdom of generations, when the standards of efficiency and rights – truly, a hurrying to nowhere – are so deeply embedded in our culture and the conduct of existence?
Policraticus considers postmodernism to be a critique of the over-ambitious nature of Enlightenment rationalism, the over-inflated projections of the achievement of the human mind, and the over-confidence in so-called rational political models (such as the conception of the modern nation state). It is suspicious of attempts to describe in narrative fashion the history of ideas as it were a linear path perfectly described and analyzed by a sort of idea-determinism; it is a way back up to “pre-modern” ideas. Jean-Francois Lyotard offers us a memorable definition (“simplifying to the extreme”): incredulity toward meta-narrative. Knowledge, he writes, can never be reduced to science or learning. How can knowledge, he asks, even “concrete,” scientific knowledge, possibly find its legitimacy without recourse to a totalizing, narrative method? Instead, all discourses of learning are taken not from their “immediate truth-value,” but by reference to the value acquired by virtue of “occupying a certain place in the itinerary of Spirit or Life.” Knowledge finds its validity in the practical subject of humanity.
For conservatives, especially “traditionalist,” non-utopian (libertarianism being the chief Right utopianism) ones such as Russell Kirk, the “negation” of ideology and the grounding of valid truth in persons created in the reflection of a perfect Good means that earthly totality is futile and dangerous, its supposed truth prone to the many weapons of violence wielded by the rhetorically attractive. Contempt for those who would reconstruct society upon their abstract designs should be accompanied by the valuation of custom, convention, and “old prescription” – checks upon man’s anarchic impulse and the innovator’s lust for power.
Peter Lawler finds postmodernism properly understood to be a return to “realism” – an understanding of our limitations, an embrace of the mysteries of life, and a rejection of the view that language, for example, is a historical construct with no natural foundation. And yet the human self is elusive – thus a rejection of totality that we may know absent death and of the temptations of ideology. If conservatism may be defined as the negation of ideology, the political secularization of the doctrine of original sin, the cautious sentiment tempered by prudence, the product of organic, local human organization observing and reforming its customs, the distaste for a priori principle disassociated from historical experience, the partaking of the mysteries of free will, divine guidance, and human agency by existing in but not of the confusions of modern society, no framework of action, no tenet, no theory, and no article of faith, then there is much to discuss at these intersections – a distrust of the systems and processes of the idols of ourselves and of our lusts of power and status, a distrust of ideology and metanarratives.
There is a problem with the rationalist desire to transform traditional institutions and human nature on the basis of an intellectual plan. Mediating institutions – the seedbeds of virtue such as family, neighborhood, church, guild, union, hobby group – should demonstrate that human motivation cannot be reduced to ideology of any manner, especially economic ones. We humans are creatures of mystery and love, as evidenced by the many grand mysteries our rationality can never unlock, such as language and music, and to revolt against this “real world” is to scorn the fulfilling accomplishments we can actually achieve (raising children first among them) so as to chase false, empty ones.