What’s Wrong with the World

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The party of grateful men.

Among the foundational Conservative values is simple appreciation. Gratitude for the good that he, somehow, through no merit of his own, is able to enjoy and recollect, will always be at the very heart of what animates the Conservative. It will not do for us to forget this, and accept the pretense that Conservatism is just another variety of political activism, always exercised by discontent and annoyance. This is the pretense of the professional political operatives, whose livelihood depends upon the continued agitation of segments of the population. Their business is not the happiness of man, but his unhappiness. Political operatives we will always have with us; yet the Conservative at least knows their place. And knowing the place of things is a fine formulation for wisdom.

Conservatism has given pride of place to gratitude. This is the ground of its politics.

Few have elucidated this teaching with greater care (some might even say pedantry) than the English political philosopher Michael Oakeshott, as when he wrote, “The disposition to be conservative is, then, warm and positive in respect of enjoyment, and correspondingly cool and critical in respect of change and innovation”; for change “appears always, in the first place, as deprivation.” The conservative disposition appears when “what is sought is present enjoyment and not profit, a reward, a prize or a result in addition to the experience itself.” The Conservative is grateful for the good things he enjoys, and wants to preserve them. These good things, moreover, are only occasionally associated with political things, and very rarely with exclusively political things. They happen mostly in private life: in the fellowship of good friends, in solitude with the beauty of Creation, in corporate worship of the Creator. The Conservative therefore understands much of his political duty to be the restraining of politics from encroaching on the private good that he and his countrymen enjoy. It might even be fruitful to think of Conservatism as gratitude organized into a political movement. It appears whenever a people feels its dearest things menaced by the machinations of its political class.

Now it is important to briefly note two things: (1) that this principle of appreciation, and the prudence by which it is implemented, precedes the Conservative’s judgment of the proper role of the State; and (2) that it need not be moved to action only by the actions of the State. The natural commotion of the free market might just as easily threaten something held dear by many men, and thereby call to life a Conservative resistance. If, for instance, the Conservative senses that political enthusiasm for free enterprise (a system he generally approves of) is issuing in a deadening reductionism that makes economic calculation the measure of all things, he will not hesitate to oppose it; for he will see in it a threat to some incommensurable goods. On this point the Conservative must part ways with his occasional allies the Libertarian and the Capitalist.

It is true, of course, that long experience has taught the Conservative a deep distrust of the modern State. But the Conservative, knowing his history, also knows that the modern unitary State, with its tendrils reaching into almost everything, is a consequence of a revolution made in human politics: a leveling of the older social order, with its rich tapestry of authority, distinction, and variety, and its independent sources of power. The power available to the modern State, which rushed in to fill this vacuum produced by this revolution, is beyond anything ever conceived by the most ambitious despots of the older tradition; and thus the despotisms of the modern age, as wise men like Burke foresaw, have exceeded anything ever before seen. To borrow a phrase from Evelyn Waugh, what Burke saw in Revolutionary France was the modern age in arms, a proto-totalitarian state where politics is all there is.

So the Conservative’s view of the State is ambiguous and skeptical — skeptical not only of the claims of statists, but even of the claims of anti-statists. The modern State is available for manipulation, and it is an instrument of terrible power. But it is not always in the interest of sheltering what is dear to him to effect a weakening the State. To sweep aside all laws against indecency, obscenity, or blasphemy, for instance, may indeed momentarily diminish the power of the State; and concomitantly diminish the capacity for ordered liberty. Here the Conservative may, upon examination, find that he is grateful for the mild application of legal sanction against the obscene or indecent, which would pollute the public life of his community and poison the minds of his own children. It is not true, always and everywhere, that to reduce the role or size of the State is to enlarge liberty. For off at the end, the obliteration of all those apparently trivial or even petty laws against vice may issue in a vicious people; and a vicious people, ruled by mere whim and appetite, will either be governed by a firm despot or not governed at all. Anarchy or despotism will be the lot of such a people; or worse, both at once. It does not require a great insight into the nature of things to see that men who will not govern their own appetites, and who throw up elaborate legal sophistries to protect their license, are unlikely make for a free, as in self-governing, people.

But the Conservative discovers, often to his acute regret, that his opponents are usually malcontents of some variety — “energumens,” in a term favored by Russell Kirk: men possessed. What so exercises them against the settled things of their society will always remain something of a mystery to him. But that this agitation issues in a habit of mind inimical to what the Preamble of the Constitution refers to as “domestic tranquility” is not so mysterious. The language of discontent positively permeates our politics. Senators sound more like generals when they talk of the necessity that Supreme Court nominees be prepared to “fight for women’s rights.” Our leaders conceive of new “wars” on social blights every other year. We hear talk of our country rent into “two Americas”; of the great and unending “struggle” against discrimination and prejudice; and so on. In this idiom there seems little to enjoy in the world, little to be grateful for, and much to be incensed about. Oakeshott again:

To some people, “government” appears as a vast reservoir of power which inspires them to dream of what use might be made of it. They have favourite projects, of various dimensions, which they sincerely believe are for the benefit of mankind, and to capture this source of power, if necessary to increase it, and to use it for imposing their favourite projects upon their fellows is what they understand as the adventure of governing men. They are, thus, disposed to recognize government as an instrument of passion; the art of politics is to inflame and direct desire.

This sort of politics — politics as “an instrument of passion” — fills the Conservative with alarm. It begins in some vaunted dream of a better world; it ends in cataclysm.

It is not that the Conservative is inclined to dismiss the long train of abuses, crimes, usurpations, perfidies, frauds, deceits, pillages, despoliations and betrayals that characterize so much of human history. Nothing could be farther from the truth. But the Conservative is certainly inclined to dismiss the malcontent’s delusion that only these things constitute reality, while the good things of life are mere chimeras. This bitter frame of mind, so ubiquitous in our politics, which would have various factions and constituencies provoked to unreason by the ceaseless threats to what they have so laboriously achieved, and their quietude broken by manufactured alarm — such a frame of mind the Conservative regards as dreary and pernicious heresy.

The irony is, of course, that Conservatives are often lamented as incorrigible pessimists, as crabbed and bitter old men whose only solace in a crumbling world is to wail against the iniquities of their age, like the prophets of old. It is a mistake for the observer to suppose this. Sure, there have been and still are some of these sad and romantic figures; but they are rare even in Conservative ranks. In truth most Conservatives are grateful men; and the misjudgment of them (when it is not borne of simple mistrust and malice) derives from an overestimate of the importance of politics. The Conservative often has, admittedly, a low opinion of politics, especially modern politics with its feverish Rationalism; but only with men whose estimate of the importance of politics is wildly inflated could this admission lead naturally to the conclusion that the Conservative has a low opinion of life. The Conservative, in other words, may indeed be deeply pessimistic about politics, may indeed be given to the suspicion that politics in a democracy often resolves itself into authorized plunder and choreographed vandalism; but he is certainly not so morbid an optimist as to imagine that politics is life.

The Conservative, it must be remembered, does not despise but rather honors and cherishes tradition, custom, habit, even prejudice — all constituents of, if you will, non-political life. He has not forgotten Chesterton’s aphorism that tradition is the “democracy of the dead,” which gives votes to “the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors” and “refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who just happen to be walking about.” He is firmly opposed to the strange modern compulsion to drag every principle or institution we have inherited before the tribunal of a narrow rationalism and lay out an indictment against it. But unfortunately, it is this compulsion that has become the primary preoccupation of modern politics; and thus for the Conservative politics appears all too often as an anarchic but determined assault on those things most dear and venerable to him.

Some examples:

¶ Over the last fifty years and more, the opponents of Conservatism, a motley and vigorous lot, have regularly been seen celebrating and advancing what is referred to as “the separation of church and state.” Now the Conservative generally has no problem with the principle (from which this catchphrase derives) of religious freedom as it was understood by the Framers and articulated in our founding documents: Contrary to received opinion, there have been very few theocrats within the ranks of modern Conservatives. Liberty of conscience is indeed dear to us. But when the Conservative learns that, according to the Ninth Circuit Court, the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance is a violation of religious freedom, but having public school students recite Muslim prayers, adopt Muslim names, and perform Muslim customs, is not, the Conservative suspects that a fine political principle has been conquered and transformed by the politics of the malcontents and must be regarded, in most cases, as an instrument of the enemy. Such a peculiar contortion of the constitutional principle could only be accomplished by abrogating the force of tradition and prescription. Despite the ineradicable fact that America’s heritage is Christian, something evident to all until about 1970, it is asserted that Islam, atheism and Christianity must be approached from a position of rigid rational equality, with even a certain favoritism extended to the minority. For such ahistorical mania the Conservative has little patience. To a man grateful that he may worship his Maker in peace, his conscience protected, though never imagining that error should be given equal stature as truth, it can only be a drab and degrading nightmare for irreligion to make religious liberty its instrument of usurpation.

¶ Over a similar range of time, the brazen celebration of sexual deviancy — which is increasingly the mark of our popular culture — and the concomitant denigration of normalcy, has filled the Conservative with dismay and revulsion. Having few illusions about the power of the sexual impulse in human beings, the Conservative sees this also as a poisonous anarchy of discontent. The spectacle of confused men and women actually making a formal political identification of themselves by their sexual proclivities, this dreary politicization of the intimate, is yet more evidence of the sickness of our politics. And on this point the Conservative emphatically breaks ranks with the Capitalist, for nothing is more certain than that our Capitalists have joined the madness, are exploiting and profiting by it.

¶ The transformation of patriotism into ideology is another trend that the Conservative views with apprehension. Patriotism, rightly understood, is a quintessentially Conservative sentiment, for it is rooted in gratitude, and is activated by the feeling that something precious is threatened. For most normal men, patriotism is as natural as filial piety, love and affectation for one’s kindred; and since a normal man hardly needs a carefully-reasoned treatise to discover that he loves his father, neither (in the view of the Conservative) does he need an elaborate ideology in order to love his country. Patriotism is resistant to precise articulation, and does not in any way require precise articulation to carry its power. Grown men do not grow teary-eyed at the chords of “America the Beautiful” or “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” because they have been argued into a love of their country. It is obvious (or should be) that patriotism is not itself a virtue, but rather the effect of a prior virtue, which we might label piety or loyalty. The Conservative worries that only an impious age would attempt to replace instinctual loyalty with abstracted intellectual conviction. For if to love one’s country means endorsing an ideology — the ideology, say, of democracy and the rights of man — then what meaning have we given to treason: no longer active disloyalty and treachery but mere disagreement?

When the Conservative looks outward upon his world, he sees a great deal to love and cherish. Much is dear to him, and his contentment is often very evident. His world is not shattered by the revelation that men are, more often than not, rapacious and deceitful. He feels deep indignation at injustice, but he does not expect true justice from man, much less from the politics of men. What he expects are approximations of justice; and he perceives that, certainly in our day, most classes of injustice lie not in some obstinate clinging to poor approximations, but in impatient betrayals of good ones. His objection to Progress is usually just an objection to decay and obscurantism masquerading as progress. History is really not replete with aspiring tyrants or fatal visionaries who safely advertised their calamitous ideas as awful, oppressive, sanguinary Decline, thus allowing good men to thwart them. Quite the contrary. Oakeshott gave us a fine phrase for the proper politics of Conservatism: the “politics of repair.” Not merely, as should be immediately apparent, repair of the good things undone by the malcontents, but also repair of those good things that have grown frail or exhausted: the reform of what ought to be preserved but will not survive the impatient intrigues of our impatient times.

Comments (5)

I forgot to mention what a fine essay this is when you posted it over at your place.

Great piece. I will probably refer to it in a later post, though you may be surprised at some of the things I'm grateful for. :-) Like gospel music.

As you can see above, I'm kicking the tires on the site.

A fine essay, indeed. Thank you Mr. Cella and to the rest of you, here's to your success at WWwtW. I'm glad to see a successor to Enchiridion Militis come along.

Further to your statement in the last paragraph about conservatives not objecting to authentic progress (only its masquerade), a related insight lies within Chesterton's point about a democracy of the dead. It is precisely because conservatives believe in progress that they reject the "oligarchy" of contemporaries who walk about plugging ad hoc masquerades of progress. In other words, the handmaiden of gratitude is the sense that there is something to be grateful for, a treasury of blessings whose gestation is measured in centuries. Thus does conservative gratitude for the enduring accomplishments -- albeit achieved at a glacial pace -- of those now dead qualify conservatives as the real patrons of authentic progress.


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