“We do not retreat. We are not content to stand still. As Americans, we go forward, in the service of our country, by the will of God.” So said Franklin Roosevelt in his third inaugural address. Winston Churchill was also prescient in his remarks about how the fate of “Christian civilization” hung in the balance during the Battle of Britain (and the Second World War more generally). Thank God the United Kingdom prevailed in the summer of 1940. But, alas, it was not the enemy outside but the enemy inside that was the wrecking ball to the Greco-Roman-Hebraic synthesis that Churchill knew was threatened by possible German invasion during the Second World War.
What Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill shared, beyond being the two leaders of West during the Second World War, was an unflinching commitment to the rooted ideals of Anglo-American identity and ideals. Both understood that there was a long inheritance passed onto them, and us, which was threatened from the advances of evil in the world in the dark decades of the 1930s and 1940s. But even they, despite their deification and heroic stature that would merit them both a chapter if Thomas Carlyle updated his On Heroes, Hero-worship, and the Heroic in History for the twentieth century, would likely be scorned by the contemporary world as “old-fashioned,” “out of date,” and “not with the times.” After all, both men courageously stood up for the West when it was under pressure, under siege, and buckling under intense scrutiny and conflict.
Classics and Moderns
Liberalism is a word that means many things to many people. Philosophical liberalism is associated with the works of those seminal Enlightenment figures that gave birth to liberalism itself and can very easily be identified. From Francis Bacon to Thomas Hobbes, and Benedict Spinoza to John Locke, common features of liberal philosophy emerge: materialism, monism, mechanistic determinism, that human nature can be reduced to consumerism, and that—as Martin Hollis said back in 1975—humanity can be grafted into becoming the novus homo economicus (“the new economic man”); the homo economicus itself derivative of Locke’s anthropology of being property-acquiring and consuming animals in Two Treatises. Humans, then, are nothing more than objects to be used or become barriers to our want for peaceable consumption.
In liberalism, life can be surmised as nothing more than economic consumerism mixed with a strong belief in Whiggish mathematical optimism. Not to mention that humanity is reduced to nothing more than “matter in motion” attempting to exert itself in power for ever greater power for itself. As Leo Strauss noted back in 1953, the logical end of liberalism—through its understanding of humanity and the purpose of life and politics—was an implicit atheism, political hedonism, and cultural nihilism.
The inevitable outcome of liberal philosophy is a reductionist universalism in metaphysics and ontology: Humans have no meaningful communities, traditions, or cultures, since such concepts are simply manifestations of material phenomenon. Rather than a people of unique histories, cultures, customs, and traditions, liberalism—like the Assyrians in the time of Isaiah, and the Babylonians in the time of Jeremiah—contends to erase all identity and history in favor of a vague sameness that roots all human desire in conatus, or egoistic emancipatory desire. The end result is what R.R. Reno has called metaphysical and ontological poverty: the complete uprooting of people from their communities, heritage, history, and traditions that give them meaning in life.
Liberalism, in many ways, is just a modern reincarnation of sophism mixed with Lockean economism and an “optimistic” view of progressive history, which has taken widespread root in Western culture and society. It is now defended, and promoted, in varying forms by both the so-called political “left” and “right.” The economistic right, with its proclamation of “pro-growth,” “low-taxes,” and “deregulation,” advances the neoliberal economic ideology of augmented classical liberalism: Politics should concern itself with the economics of the private producer because what is best for private producers is what is best for all of us. The redistributist left—equally economistic in its outlook—with its proclamation of “economic fairness,” “strong middle-class jobs,” and “sharing the pie,” reflects nothing more than the consumer-oriented liberalism of modern liberalism and the freedom from want. None give consideration to that fact that life might be more than just economics; it is already accepted as the universal axiom of faith loudly proclaimed as “fact.” The specters of economism haunt our politics, society, and consciousness.
The end to which politics is directed is peaceable and equitable consumption, as Hobbes and Locke each proclaimed in their own ways—their political philosophies deeply embedded with their deterministic and empirical prejudices. There is nothing sacred, nothing worth defending, nothing of any importance besides oneself and one’s ability to exert oneself in power. Lebenswelt has been utterly cut from beneath the feet of humans. This runs counter to the tradition of classical politics and philosophy, which proclaims that humans are social animals and desire love and community, and through love and community one derives some level of happiness.
The assertion that “liberalism” and only “liberalism” endorses the notions of market economics, benign covenantal political community and arrangements, and “freedom,” is an argument that only people with no knowledge of philosophy make. Long before Locke’s Two Treatises, Aristotle defended property rights as the basis of all politeia. Property rights are also implicitly defended in the second half of the Decalogue. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas also defended the natural right to property in their works as well. Aristotle, Cicero, and Augustine equally defended notions of orderly and non-intrusive states in their political theories. The Prophets of the Hebrew Bible, moreover and more remarkably, criticized the constant abuses of the Israelite and Judahite kings throughout the books of The History.
The crisis facing “the West” is not one of supposed “illiberalism,” but one of liberalism. Liberalism is not the soul of the West. Liberalism is the usurping force born of the dream of abolition and universalism that opposes, at every level, the three legs of Western culture and history: Greek philosophy, Roman law, and Hebraic religion. As Steven Smith has written, liberalism urged emancipation and abolition of the (current) human condition. And as Roger Scruton and the late Peter Augustine Lawler both knew, the logic of liberalism culminates in transhumanism and the erosion of the rootedness of culture, life, and community in the name of progress. We are, after all, in Hobbes’s words, nothing more than “matter in motion.” The soulless, rootless, and materialistic Jacobinism of the twenty-first century embraces the same universalistic, imperialistic, and assimilationist dreams of the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires of the Hebrew Bible.
Why “The West” Matters
The question facing the West is the same question Jeremiah raised to the Judahites as the armies of Nebuchadnezzar besieged the city. Over and over again Jeremiah accosts the Israelite leadership and priestly class for abandoning the roots and traditions of the Israelite people. Beyond that, in his confrontation with the false prophet Hananiah, Jeremiah warns of the arrogant overconfidence of the royal ideology—the belief that Jerusalem was unconquerable. Like Hananiah, the priests of contemporary liberalism tell us of the one-way street of progress and salvation—and we must obey and follow. Rather than follow the blind into oblivion, Jeremiah calls upon the Jerusalemite population to seek repentance and a return to their roots.
Many progressive commentators, for example, don’t even hide their emancipationist Jacobinism when they assert, “The whole point was that democracy and capitalism were not uniquely ‘Western.’ They were not the property of any particular religion or race but the universal aspiration of humankind.” The high priests of liberalism will stop at nothing to propagate their dogmatism far and wide. The whole goal of liberalism is that emancipation from rootedness, tradition, and history to create the “new man” that is—essentially—Nietzsche’s “Last Man.” The Last Man is not only a person who has grown tired of life and seeks nothing more than comfortable material living, he has also been uprooted from life itself which has led him to his pitiful state of ontological and metaphysical poverty which are the causes of his catatonic insect-like state of being.
The “West,” as an employed term, either refers to that concrete to concrete organic outgrowth and synthesis of Greek philosophy, Roman law, and Hebraic religion that enshrined in Western consciousness the seeds of natural liberty, natural law, limited state power, communitarian virtue, and, most importantly, natural right, or it is a term of “racial and religious paranoia.” Any philosophically literate person knows that it is the former rather than the latter. And it was this inheritance of Greek philosophy, Roman law, and Hebraic religion which gave the West its roots and ideals of life.
Some of the most important fathers and thinkers to the Western tradition include a Mesopotamian migrant whose journey became the foundation for three major world religions, a Trojan warrior born on the coasts of Turkey who traverses the Mediterranean through storm and trial to found Rome, an African Berber philosopher who wrote Confessions and City of God, and an Islamic Aristotelian born in Iberia who is featured in Raphael’s “School of Athens” and whose thought brought forth lively dialogue with the medieval scholastics and a revival of Aristotelian philosophy.
These individuals contributed greatly to the rooted foundations of Western thought, culture, and idealism. What they share are shared heritages of law, philosophy, ideas, and religion (nominally). The “gift of the Jews” has proven indispensable for the shaping of Western consciousness and identity.
Before Augustine, the first widespread invocation of the inner self was in the Psalms. The call to repentance and constant theme of Remnant helped establish a primordial individualism, one that does not eschew community most importantly. Louis Dumont, the great twentieth-century sociologist, also wrote extensively on the “Christian beginnings of modern individualism.” The introspective and self-conscious self, whose primacy is the will, is first presented in the Psalms but then “discovered” and elaborated upon by that half-Berber Algerian philosopher who became the greatest philosopher in the history of Christianity and one of the most important and influential in Western philosophy.
But Christianity’s notion of the self, then, is indebted to the Psalms and the Hebraic tradition of the Prophets, especially Ezekiel’s moral individualism. To say the Western tradition owes much to the Bible, and especially the Hebrew Bible, is not apologetics, it is a mere fact of the historical record that is swept under the rug by the emancipatory Jacobins who loathe this fact and fully understand why it is necessary to sublate Biblical history and consciousness from the minds of Western citizens. We are, simultaneously, the conscious and unconscious heirs of this tradition: from Augustine, Aquinas, and Maimonides, to even Locke, Hegel, and Marx—for Locke, Hegel, and Marx were equally influenced by the Biblical traditions and their many outgrowths.
The matter at hand is this: Conservatives see the world full of a multiplicity of different cultures, communities, and civilizations, each unique and different, but each unique and beautiful in their own ways. These different cultures, communities, and civilizations should be allowed to flourish and continue their organic evolution free of the nihilistic thrust of social engineering activism to create any type of “new man.”
Liberals, on the other hand, see a world of universal values that apply to all people irrespective of culture, community, civilization, and history. Liberals see the “end of history” as the open, homogenous, and universal world—but one that requires the liberation from those chains that Rousseau argues now shackles all humans. Rather than a harmonious ebb and flow of multiplicity and plurality, liberals see a world of universal oppression giving way to universal emancipation by the power of activism and the social contract. Lest one forget, even in the writings of Hobbes and Locke, we needed emancipation from the oppressive state of nature in order for “liberty” and “progress” to emerge (and this was achieved by the power of the State becoming judge, jury, and executioner).
Organic Roots and Rooted Liberty
The core of Western conservatism rests upon the philosophical and historical truisms that we all share: legally, culturally, and consciously; a rooted inheritance and customs established eons ago, modified, and passed on generation to generation. Traditionalism is not the assertion that long ago revelatory truth was handed down to be preserved through the years but the belief that something good and worthwhile was discovered and honed in on in the past, and has been preserved and maintained—even built upon—as time went on. Tradition is a point of reference and recourse, not intellectual absolutism; it is, first and foremost, an anchoring point of return in times of crisis and a cornerstone to build on and from rather than remain obtusely entrenched in.
John Fortescue, that great English philosopher and jurist, highlighted the debt to Roman law and Hebraic political theology in his Praise of the Laws of England. As Ofir Haivry and Yoram Hazony described in their American Affairs essay “What is Conservatism?” Fortescue’s “mischaracterized book of law” rests heavily on a political reading of the Hebrew Bible. The limited and constitutional powers of the English monarchy are similar to the manner of politics described in the Prophetic books where the Prophets have voice to openly criticize their king.
The Deuteronomic Covenant, upon which the limited Israelite monarchy is rooted in (having also been established on the basis of compromise), is one deliberately established in limitedness rather than absoluteness, constraint rather than universality. As any political philosophy student knows, the ideas of limited state power are Biblical and not Lockean. Power does not beget flourishing and happiness as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas both knew. Power only leads to an ever greater want for power that cannot be satisfied.
In one of the more striking stories of the Hebrew Bible, King Ahab approaches Naboth, a poor farmer, and offers to buy his vineyard and relocate him to a better location and pay him a sum worth more than his vineyard is actually worth. Naboth was a fool for rejecting Ahab’s offer by the standards of economism. Naboth rejected the offer from Ahab because, “The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my ancestors.” The right to property is not one enshrined by state force, as per Locke, but one natural to the condition of humanness and filialism. Naboth adheres to principles of natural law and the promises and inheritance of his ancestors in refusing to sell his vineyard to Ahab.
Ahab, encouraged by Jezebel, eventually had Naboth arrested and executed. The force of the state violates all natural and ancestral laws to seize what it desires. Roger Williams, the founder of religious liberty in America, highlighted this very story in his defense of religious toleration and distinction between state and conscience. The blessings of liberty and freedom of conscience are not mythical “Enlightenment discoveries” but firmly grounded in the Biblical and Hebraic tradition.
Liberty, besides being a natural condition—humanity’s historical mode of being—is also a rooted condition. Liberty is the bodenständigkeit of not only culture but also of one’s being and self-understanding. The notion of deep roots and organic liberty give meaning, sustenance, and consciousness to one’s self-worth, dignity, and existence. It is something to love and defend. In the end, Naboth showed greater courage than the king of Israel, and paid with his life to remain true to who he was.
American Exceptionalism, as an older tradition of American democratic nationalism—rather than universal democratic Jacobinism—proclaimed America was exceptional for how it honored and treated its citizens and not how it acted on behalf of the whole world. Like the songs of Isaiah the city that is the light to the world is one that encourages others to defend themselves and persevere through hardship and not the city that subsumes the world like Pericles’ Athens. Conservatism, properly speaking, understands the concrete to concrete and organic evolution rather than socially engineered conventionalism of the social contract.
Jeremiah: Prophet of Reclamation
With the Babylonian armies posed outside the gates of Jerusalem, Jeremiah tells the Jerusalemites that they, “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.’” Anyone with the longue durée in mind can understand what Jeremiah meant when he spoke those important words.
Naboth, when confronted by Ahab, instinctively knew the inner desires of the confounded and corrupt king. But more importantly, in his refusal to prostrate himself before the State, Naboth stood at his crossroad and looked back upon his ancient path and determined that the blood, sweat, and toil of his ancestors that had been passed on to him was worth defending and preserving over the promise of silver and a better vineyard. Naboth rejected the mentality of economism and stayed true to himself, his family, and his heritage.
Jeremiah does not say that the ancient paths are perfect. And he was right to do so. They most certainly are not perfect. All history and past communities are wrought with their own failures. But those failures teach us, make us grow, and allow us to understand the dangers and difficult decisions that face us day in and day out. Tradition, as mentioned, is that point of reference and recourse in troubled times, a positive force that advances knowledge, not one lavishly asserting that all knowledge has already been acquired and needs absolute preservation and handing down. Tradition is a living and growing process.
The nation, of course, is tied together by a shared sense of values, loves, history, and heritage. That shared sense of values, loves, history, and heritage is precisely “the ancient paths that [are] good” and have been passed on to us in the present. What we do with this inheritance will be telling.
The emancipatory and nihilistic tendencies of Jacobinal liberalism come to us with a devilish smile. “Progress,” the priests of liberalism proselytize to us, demands that we must overcome ourselves and our past. In other words, progress entails the abolition of our traditions, communities, history, identity, and ways of life. It is something alluring and enticing, but ultimately something harmful and destructive. To become the “new humanity” that the social contract liberalism of Hobbes and Locke and the “dream of the Enlightenment” desires requires the emancipation of who we are as humans. The final end of this is transhumanism.
If tradition has any value and force left in the twenty-first century, then it will be the path of recourse we look to in the midst of societal crisis and confusion. As one of the great poets of the twentieth century said, “There are stars whose radiance on Earth is visible though they have long been extinct. There are people whose brilliance continues to light the world even though they are no longer among the living. These lights are particularly bright when the night is dark. They light the way of humankind.”
This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on January 6, 2018.