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I’ve been working on a book off and on for the last year or so. The working title is Renewing the Conservative Imagination . My thesis is that our age is defined by an antinomian conviction. If we will but be free from moral norms, then we will be happy. Put differently, our age is Bohemian. Transgression liberates us the magical power of inherited moral norms (Bourgeois culture). “Difference” delivers us from “logocentrism,” and so forth.

As part of this project I recently read George Bernard Shaw’s little book on Ibsen, The Quintessence Of Ibsen . The first three chapters provide a wonderfully Shavian (that is to say entertaining and potted) account of the antinomian dream, a fitting introduction to Ibsen’s plays, which more often than not make the voice of duty into the villian—and the woman who breaks free and transgresses social norms into the heroine.

Shaw envisions a time when “the tyranny of duty perishes.” This will happen when we enter into an age in which we feel a duty only to ourselves. Living for ourselves, we will be satisfied, and no longer stretched anxiously across old notions of good and evil, we will become more open, accepting, and authentic.

Shaw’s reasoning is straightforward. All duty is a restriction of the will, and thus it perverts and distorts the natural integrity of our humanity. The key to a healthy society is healthy citizens. Therefore we need to throw off the shackles of morality, and we will have healthy citizens and thus a healthy society.

But this age of freedom, Shaw recognizes, will not come automatically. Figures such as Ibsen play an important role, because the movement beyond right and wrong to natural expressions of honest desires meets with anxious resistance (the dreaded bourgeois!). “The evangelist of this last step,” Shaw concludes, “must therefore preach the repudiation of duty.” Salvation by transgression alone!

The true servant of humanity teaches us that all our inherited ideals of self-sacrifice and duty are so much bunk. As Shaw puts it: “The destroyer of ideals [by which Shaw means duty], though denounced as an enemy of society, is in fact sweeping the world clear of lies.” No more hypocrisy! Finally, the freedom to just live!

When I put down Shaw’s book, I found myself chuckling as I thought to myself, “Well, well, the doctrine of salvation by transgression has a fairly well established tradition. Heresy is our modern orthodoxy.”

Thus the great challenge for the conservative imagination: to envision the way in which obedience humanizes. Not easy. But perhaps made easier by the fact that transgression has become such a cliché.

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