John Stuart Mill apparently once (at least once) referred to the Tories as the stupid party, a label some are also quick to apply to contemporary conservatives and Republicans here in the U.S.  What Mill meant, and what his self-conscious and unself-conscious followers mean is at least this: conservatives typically mistrust the latest inventions of a human reason they regard as fallible.  Conservatives are not “progressives” (a meme that derives what force it has from the way in which scientific discoveries build upon one another).

Guilty as charged, though I wouldn’t call it stupid, especially in human affairs, to respect the accumulated wisdom of the ages against the latest purely theoretical product of reason.  Nor, in human affairs, is everything new necessarily an improvement over what it replaces.

So conservatism isn’t, strictly speaking, stupid.

Even if some people who call themselves conservative sometimes sound that way.

I have in mind an incident discussed by Hillsdale College’s Bradley Birzer , in which Rush Limbaugh (who calls himself a conservative) apparently made fun of someone who majored in classics.  Now, I don’t know the full context, though apparently the classics major was likely at some Occupy protest bemoaning the fact that she was unemployed or underemployed and Limbaugh wondered why no one had told her that a degree in classics would be worthless.

Limbaugh and the Occupier seem to agree about one thing: that the value of an education ought to be reflected in the marketplace.  I’m tempted to say that this is crass, though someone as learned as Thomas Hobbes held an opinion pretty close to this (see his discussion of the value or worth of a man in Leviathan ).  Stated another way, the opinion Limbaugh shares with the Occupier is not conservative, but rather has some kinship with classical liberalism (which often passes for conservatism in the U.S.).

But I digress.

I might likely have had some sympathy with Limbaugh’s often entertainingly bombastic ridicule of people with whom he disagrees if, for example, the sign-holder had claimed a major in some trendy, politically correct subject.  But classics ?  Here I’m with Birzer:

If we are to challenge—within any degree of success—the ideological hostility toward the liberal and whole understanding of man, Dawson wrote, we—Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, Jews, and men of good will—must fight as a republic of letters, avoiding a “civil war of rival propaganda.”  [Dawson, CRISIS OF WESTERN EDUCATION, 124]

These words especially apply to anyone who is willing to call him or herself “conservative.”

“Virgil and Cicero, Ovid and Seneca, Horace and Quintilian were not merely school books, they became the seeds of a new growth of classical humanism in Western soil,” Dawson wrote in 1956.  “Again and again—in the eighth century as well as in the twelfth and fifteenth centuries—the higher culture of Western Europe was fertilized by renewed contacts with the literary sources of classical culture.” [Dawson, “Christianity and Ideologies,” COMMONWEAL, May 11 1956, 141.]

Again, I ask, what is Mr. Limbaugh’s conservatism?  To conserve ?  To conserve what ?  If we don’t recognize the continuity of the liberal arts from Socrates to Cicero to St. Augustine to St. Thomas More to John Adams, we are a lost people indeed.

And, perhaps, if we fail to remember such things, we deserve to remain lost.

Show 0 comments