“This year will mark a great opportunity for conservatives,” said the voice over the radio, by which he meant that one style of politician wholly committed to the cramped secular vision of man would triumph over another style of politician committed to the same thing. Which caused me to consider that any new conservatism in America will be Catholic, or Christian at least, in both its looking forward to the kingdom of God and its gratitude for the gifts of the past, or it will not be at all.
What would such a conservatism look like? I suggest the following, at the least.
It must be rooted in natural piety. Our schoolchildren these days know next to nothing about the heroes of their native land, flawed though these heroes certainly were. They know little enough about the place where they live, as their days are devoured by the institutional school and the place-denying un-world of the television and the Internet. They are taught to dissociate themselves, in pride, from the narrow prejudices of their parents, thus enabling them all the more easily to absorb the narrow prejudices of their keepers in the schools and in the media.
The result of all this dissociation is that we hardly have citizens at all, who take pride in their localities and exert themselves to preserve them and pass their beauty along to the next generation. We have instead a mass of rootless people, isolated in time—since they come from nowhere in particular, and are going nowhere but to the place where their untrained wills must lead them—and alienated from one another. We must remember that piety is a natural virtue before it has been baptized; it is a deeply human thing to love one’s place merely because it is one’s own, and to cherish memories of those who dwelt in it before and helped to make it what it is.
It must recognize zones of authority. Libertarianism is, I am afraid, a false friend. It assumes that my freedom is defined by what others cannot legitimately prevent me from doing: from learning how to play the violin, if I so choose (to use Isaiah Berlin’s example), or, far more sinister, from destroying the offspring in the womb. But that is a cramped view of freedom, and assumes that the relationship between freedom and authority is adversarial.
For authority is not opposed to freedom; it is rather its precondition. We can divine this from the suggestive Latin etymology: the auctor is one who gives increase. When, for example, the child cheerfully obeys his father, he liberates himself from both the unruliness of his youthful appetites and from the distractions with which the world besets him. He becomes a responsible young man capable of shingling a roof, or changing the oil in the car, or kneeling before the Lord in humble and exalting prayer.
The family, for instance, ought to be an area of freedom from state intrusion not, principally, because the individuals in it should be allowed to do as they please within the bounds of the civil law, nor even because the family can accomplish what the state cannot, but because it is in itself an area of law-giving and law-abiding. It has its own authority, which demands respect. The school, the parish, the neighborhood, the city, the workplace, the football team, indeed all free associations of human beings—both those that arise by nature and those that men create and choose—should be afforded freedom, not as part of a Madisonian compromise among competing factions, but as an acknowledgment by the state of what is after all human reality.
Such a vision would, paradoxically, help deliver the freedom which libertarians long for while grounding it in the virtue of obedience and breaking the terrible reduction of human life to the conflict between individual will and state control.
It must uphold human nature: both what is human, and what is natural. We will perhaps soon hear scientists, motivated by the lust for glory and power, championing the production of “transhuman” creatures, or suggesting that we take control of our own evolution by placing it in the capable hands of politicians and genetic engineers. This, of course, is rather like looking for one’s philosophy of life from mayors and plumbers—meaning no disrespect to mayors and plumbers, so long as they keep to what they know how to do, such as cutting ribbons at a statue-unveiling, or laying pipes in the right direction.
When, for example, the child cheerfully obeys his father, he liberates himself from both the unruliness of his youthful appetites and from the distractions with which the world besets him.
The conservative must reject all violations of the human and the natural. We must treasure the beauty not of some imagined life of indefinite duration, cobbled together with spare parts grown from embryos for our own purposes, reducing ourselves and them to mere machines. We must instead insist upon the holiness of a human life, from conception to natural death; and we must see that yielding to a secular vision of freedom as autonomous choice has now brought us near the disaster of an engineered world, with children pieced together according to our specifications, to fulfill our ambition or vanity.
At the same time we must understand why it is that so many people resist, with shock and outrage, the notion that their bodies are not their own, and that they may not do with them what they please. Josef Pieper long ago suggested that in a drab, regimented world, a world without the celebrations that people naturally engage in, a world without the leisure of true worship, people will turn to eros as the last “green thing” left. Now that the state has arrogated all authority to itself, and now that human life moves restlessly between one institution and another, we turn, mistakenly, to the last bastion of freedom, the last enclosed garden wherein a few flowers may bloom. We turn to the body.
Those hopes, of course, have proved delusive. Eros, elevated to the sole remaining god of freedom, cannot deliver upon that promise; it has instead underscored our alienation, as young people now—to use their own sad and mechanical phrase—”hook up,” without even the heat of the erotic to warm their chilly souls. Or consider the veritable pharmacopia of drugs and devices without which modern man and woman cannot make themselves attractive to one another, so they believe, and cannot even perform the act that the lowly savages, without benefit of instruction manuals or pills or magazines, somehow manage to enjoy. We are so befuddled, and so inured to the mechanization of the body, that the biological and linguistic absurdity called “same-sex marriage” becomes imaginable to us; mainly because we have lost the sense of what sexual intercourse really is—the one-flesh union of man and woman whereby, if the circumstances are right, children come into the world. So we pretend that two men or two women can do other than mimic sexual intercourse, and then we resort to the laboratory or the sperm bank or some other governmental apparatus to provide the children that cannot otherwise be had.
And yet men and women are still longing. Here we find our greatest opportunity. The world preaches autonomy, as sterile as the sexual manipulation which is its greatest but ultimately its most disappointing lure. We must preach instead the fullness of being.
It must recognize that our greatest threat is Nothing. The false gods of pagan Greece and Rome are no more. It is now, for western man, as David Hart has put it, Christ or nothing. He did not mean simply that a belief in the Messiah (having come, or, for the faithful Jew, yet to come) is the only belief left standing. He meant also that the world now offers, as a totem of worship, the god of Nothingness, meaninglessness. “Ye shall be as gods,” said the serpent in the garden; but our new tempters improve upon the old. “Ye are no more than serpents,” they say, or collocations of atoms in the void, and once you understand this—once you understand that there is no objective reality to good and evil, and no such thing as human dignity, you may then do as you please. You may then, for example, act as a serpent does, one long alimentary canal, consuming what you like, and excreting what is not to your use. You may be gods—serpent-gods.
We must learn to “see” this faceless Nothing, this spiritual death. For it cloaks itself in the shabbiest ways. When we hear that all cultures are equal, meaning that man never makes any progress toward the truth, because there is no truth, then we must see Nothing hovering near, like a sinister Cheshire cat, no body and all grin. When we hear that there are no differences between man and woman, then we should turn around and see Nothing, flipping through a magazine, yawning, bored. When we hear that the State must assume all our duties for caring for one another, must feed our children, fill their brains with fog, and put them to bed at night, we must see the Nothing sitting enthroned in our parlors, in front of the television.
Nothing beckons, because Nothing promises freedom: as of a body falling from a great height, but indefinitely. We must understand that Nothing is now, in a terrible parody of God, everywhere, all the time; in the nihilism of personal choice elevated to the sole standard of the good; in the nihilism of the rejection of the past; in the nihilism of the homogenization of cultures; the fast food, the cheap thrill, the easy trick. We must instead offer not Something, but Someone. It is Christ, and him crucified.
“Behold,” says the Lord God, upon the throne at the consummation of time, “I make all things new.” In that great promise, or that stunning paradox, lies what I believe is, finally, the only hope for a renewed western culture. That is because it situates our hope in what we had always known, but only in part; and in the One whom we had always loved, but imperfectly. Therefore the most “progressive” among us, those who have proceeded farthest along the journey of all men towards truth, are those who see most clearly the beauty and the value of all that has gone before. They alone dwell in the fullness of hope.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Thank you to Dr. Clint Brand for suggesting this essay to us. Anthony Esolen. “A New Conservatism?” Catholic World Report vol 20, no 2. (February 2010). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.