Is Anglo-American Conservatism Enough?

HomeArticlesIs Anglo-American Conservatism Enough?

I

Asking Is Anglo-American conservatism enough? is to presume that we already know what conservatism is and is to acknowledge it as good. But do we know what Anglo-American conservatism is?

First, we have to understand how Anglo-American conservatism recognizes itself. Roughly speaking, it was born in the wake of the effects of the French Revolution through Sir Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Burke (1729–1797) saw in the French Revolution the very vision of a demonically-inspired world-destructing event. He saw that revolution as the incarnation of the very idea of the End of All, and the revolutionaries were the apocalyptic devils that would bring the old (and true) ways of the world to a full stop.

But it was Russell Kirk (1918–1994) who would cement conservatism as an intellectually organized, self-articulated and philosophically-inspired movement. Kirk was born into the maddening 20th century and witnessed through his 75 years of life a World War (in which he served), the rise of the Russian and American empires, the banalization of sex as a recreative entertainment, the rise of “new religions,” the desacralization of mankind and the emergence of a new spiritual disease: boredom. If in Burke’s case he saw that the good things, the important things, the beautiful things of the world were in danger of annihilation in the hands of the self-anointed prophets who wanted to reign the world by their own designs, in Kirk’s he thought that those things — the permanent things — were already lost, except in very small islands where the heralds of the new society had forgot to come by. Kirk would now try and redeem his time and his society through the awakening of the moral imagination, collecting the best of bygone days. This wish would be the axis of his masterpiece, The Conservative Mind (1953).

“Redeeming the time,” the “permanent things” and the “moral imagination” are expressions (or perhaps symbols) that form the atlas of Kirk’s thought. From these symbols irradiate the elements of the “conservative mind,” a mental image based majorly in prudence and distrust in the abandonment of mores and traditional thought. Anglo-American conservatism is besotted with the assumption that the ideas that guide our society were established by unknown and seemingly unknowable sources, before memory can recollect. This is how things are, and man cannot formulate any social laws and reforms better than what tradition provides us, because man cannot foresee how the world works — but tradition can, because it is tried and true, and carries the elements of the moral imagination, of the redeeming of time and of permanent things. This is a prudent way of living and is based upon a kind of “spiritual arithmetic” in which prudence equals to prevention of error. It is not hard to see that there is a degree of pragmatism at the heart of Anglo-American conservatism[1] — even if its proponents are openly declared enemies of pragmatism.

II

These are the main lines of Anglo-American conservatism, taken from one of its foremost representant, as its conceptually understands itself. But is this how this kind of conservatism translates itself into reality?

It is not usually acknowledged (or noticed) that two contradictory ideas lie at the heart of modern Anglo-American conservatism. Russell Kirk summed those contradictions up when he wrote that “conservatives generally believe that there exists a transcendent moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society.”[2] On the one hand, conservatives aim to conserve — or to reform, if that be the case — social norms and mores to bring into harmony with those transcendentally-handed traditions; on the other one hand, conservatives claim that traditions take its roots from a joining of divinely-handed primal conceptions.

Conservatism and Libido Dominandi

Let us first look at the first mental thread. To a thinker like Eric Voegelin, this last part would be sufficient to reveal that underneath the transcendental evocations of conservatism’s self-understanding lies a libido dominandi. There is a will to bring, by an intellectual (noetic) understanding, the social norms to uniformity. Since conservatism was born in reaction to the outcomes of the French Revolution, — a movement that was, in its turn, another human try to change the ways of society, — perhaps it is not a wild guess to think that conservatism is just a different expression of conscience to dominate the whole of society. So, even if Kirk himself thought that politics are “the diversion of the quarter educated,”[3] and that conservatism is the preservation of what is old and true in our world, it refers eminently and primarily to modern world and modern politics — which the latter is the desire to control society based on the figure of the bearer of a new cosmological design of order. (Voegelin, indeed, had little to say to and about either Kirk or American conservatism in general, although he was professedly admired and cherished by luminaries of American conservatism,—such as Bill Buckley Jr., — who tried to appropriate he and his work into their cause, taking Voegelin’s anti-Communist utterings — especially those from The New Science of Politics [1952] — at face-value.[4])

Conservatism and the Transcendentally-Handed Order of the World

This is close of calling conservatism of gnostic. But I said that there are two mental threads clashing in paradox in the ontology of conservatism, and this is where the second thread rises and prevents this from happening. Conservatism claims that a transcendent and unknowable source established the mores and traditions of society, and we had better to leave things as they are (in both the perennial and momentarily sense of this verb). Conservatism, as defined by Burke and Kirk, believes that the world is a nomatic (from nomos) structure that coincide, to varying degrees, to its natural (physikos) structure.

But then comes the catch: It is not possible to conjecture the real structure of the physis, for it is unfathomable. We are not allowed to speculate on the ontological structure of the world because we, as humans, are fallen creatures, sojourning the wasteland, looking for that piece of lifeline to which we must grip with all our strength; otherwise we are doomed to venture in the revolting sea of everchanging wills and passions and temptations. Only a madman would want to leave time-honored traditions for untested and innovative inventions of immanent provenance.

It is exactly this faux-Pauline interdict against transcendental speculations that prevents conservatism, despite its modern origins, from being a gnostic movement. Gnosticism is characterized by the human arrival to Salvation through the acquiring and exercise of wisdom (gnosis) (cf. Col 2:8–9). Conservatism, being against transcendental speculations (one grips to his religious traditions, for instance, because it is the tradition that was available to him in his circumstances), establishes traditional elements of societies not as social conventions, but as divinely imposed substantive elements of the human adventure, integral parts of man’s experience; they are unquestionable components of social life because they are signs of that unknowable Beyond, to which we know only what It wanted to reveal to us. In this manner, man in this situation is much like Manue and his wife after coming to sense about the true nature of the Angel who comes to visit them: they know that the angel is the Lord, but it is foolish to understand His name (or, then, what He is) (Jgs 13:17–23). He just is and either you do accept Him or you do not — and then you are doomed. To conservatism, the same goes for tradition.

However, in spite of its traditional pretensions, Anglo-American conservatism strikes me as a remarkable modern way of looking at metaphysical realities. Conservatism thus is the springboard to a traditional cosmology, but it is a springboard that, in its current disposition, is at the edge of an empty swimming pool; deep dives in the nous are not possible in its current self-articulation.

III

If the accidental conjunction of conservatism and pragmatism brings unintended consequences in the implementing of that movement in the world, and if in the inner workings of conservatism we see that two contradictory conceptual articulations clashing and mutually excluding themselves from their full development, we must question: What is Anglo-American conservatism’s true meaning?

If anything, one should consider conservatism as a struggle for the understanding of the integrity of the world. Tradition — or the images of traditions — does not come in the sense of a form in itself; that is, the “tradition” Anglo-American conservatism speaks of and tries to preserve is not a primordial tradition, so to speak; it is not an integral existence. (I insist in writing “Anglo-American” for not only this is Burke’s and Kirk’s conservatism but also to emphasize the geographical and national — therefore modern and fortuitous — character that this conservatism has.) When this form of conservatism speaks of tradition, it is rather an evocation of the idea of the legibility of the world. Traditions should and must be preserved because through them this fallen world is understandable. Forasmuch as man’s natural tension for the beyond, conservatives believe that they are divinely ordained and should not be messed with, for no one has reached gnosis to understand them, or anything, in its full meaning. No one except He who first imposed these traditions (thence why I said that it has a, if faux, Pauline character).

Thus conservatism, first and foremost, should be interpreted as an outwardly tool of intellectual differentiation. One can experience, in a pre-cognitive fashion, life’s data through a conservative gaze as a means toward the formation of one’s nous — much in the manner that one might filter life’s data through religious, political or scientific filters of reality. But since the cynosure of the conservative filter is the struggle for the preservation the world’s structuration as it is, it has a stronger grip to stay within structure of the First Reality than in the formation of a fictional Second Reality as, say, if one chooses a Marxist filter.

The most eminent problem in utilizing conservatism not as a predication of a higher intellectual conceptualization, but rather as an ending in itself, is that interdict on metaphysical speculation. When the doors of symbolic perception are closed, we are led back to the early 20th-century Wittgensteinian closure of the speculation on transcendence. Man becomes thus limited to the lower and more limited sphere of earthly reality; he has to look in this realm for Ersätze of the clarity of the transcendent forms that every man, inwardly, struggles to reach and keep in sight. And then comes the association — almost immediate association, indeed — of conservatism with politics. It is not wonderful that the first expression of conservatism thought, the Reflections on the Revolution in France, is a compendium of letters and, suggestively, political discourses. In fact, conservatism is less a reflective view on the world and more a political force. The association of Kirk with the Barry Goldwater’s bid for presidency in 1964 is an inevitable consequence of that.

But man has a natural tendency — for in him lies the tension toward the beyond—to develop symbolical structures (or reflection on symbols) in order to address what passes in the inner depths of his own soul. He naturally develops languages to convey the workings of his conscience and thus come to the spotlight in the drama of existence. Conservatism, even with its interdicts on metaphysical speculations, also bought forth its own language to represent these inner perceptions. Sir Roger Scruton noted that the language of conservatism is usually like a mourning, “like the Lamentations of Jeremiah”[5] — a keen observation; even more so when we notice that, as I said in the beginning, Burke saw in the French Revolution the image of the End and used symbolical language to convey that idea. It is, indeed, not by accident that the idea of loss and of the End of the World is repeated time and again in Anglo-American conservatism. Kirk used William Hogarth’s drawing The Bathos in his essay “The Wise Men Know What Wicked Things Are Written on the Sky”[6] to illustrate the crumbling of the world in crepuscule of the second millennium A.D. Due to the aforementioned conservative distrust in metaphysical speculation, these structures are regarded as either mythopoetic symbolizations of certain ways of conduct or expressions to convey the necessity of preservation of the traditional forms and habits of society (therefore the conservative stress on morality), when they are actually much more than that.

I wish to wrap up these reflections with an answer to the question that titles these lines. Anglo-American conservatism is not enough. But it can be a start. A useful start if that springboard be not at the edge of an empty swimming pool of codified morals, but rather boards the deep waters of the Beyond. Being an outwardly aid in this dive that is rather the struggle to keep the understanding of reality continuous, — even if failing and slippery, — conservatism must back our journey in the dynamic adventure of existence.

 

Notes

[1] See Seth Vannatta, Conservatism and Pragmatism, London/New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

[2] Russell Kirk, “What Is Conservatism?” in The Essential Russell Kirk, ed. George A. Panichas, Wilmington, Del., ISI Books, 2007, p. 7 (emphasis mine).

[3] Kirk apud Bradley J. Birzer, Russell Kirk: American Conservative, Lexington, University Press of Kentucky, 2015, ePub.

[4] See the section on Voegelin and Kirk in Birzer, Russell Kirk, op. cit, and Barry Cooper and Jodi Bruhn, eds., Voegelin Recollected: Conversations on a Lifetime, Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 2008, pp. 41–4, 86.

[5] Roger Scruton, preface to How to Be a Conservative, London, Bloomsbury, 2014.

[6] Modern Age 29, no. 2, Spring 1985, pp. 111–7.

Victor Bruno

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Victor Bruno is a writer and researcher focused on art and philosophy. He has contributed to important and prestigious academic and popular publications on cinema and film criticism. His main interests are the modern mind, religious traditions, and the unity of the conscience in today’s world.