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Obligatory Navel-Gazing

This summer, I’ve spent far more time with self-professed libertarians than I have with self-professed conservatives. Usually, it’s about 50-50, but this summer has been much more like 70-30.

I’ve especially been influenced–directly and in person–by fine folks such as Larry Reed, Jim Otteson, Ed Lopez, Carl Oberg, and Ben Stafford. The former two have influenced me for a quarter of a century, while the latter three have influenced me only relatively recently.

And, of course, I also had other excellent influences–some wonderful discussions this summer with Barbara and Winston Elliott and Annette Kirk. Again, all in person.

Regardless of the intellectual influences–each of these persons mentioned above is an absolute joy to be around, and each has been a blessing.

My own via media–alternating between libertarian and conservative–is nothing new. For probably twenty-five years, I’ve gone through seasons leaning somewhat explicitly toward conservatism or toward libertarianism. No form of progressivism has ever tempted me; even as a child I was rather immune to visions of some inane and vague future of goodness. I saw too much struggle in those around me to know that all works out in the end in this world.

In the next, sure. But not here and now. Here and now, we just do our best to promote integrity and excellence, attenuating the darkness that wishes–with all of its might and will–to engulf us.

My reading as a child, perhaps paradoxically, also gave me a sense of realism about the failings of this world. As Tolkien taught me, good triumphs only to see the rise of a newer and smarter evil.

I’m at a point now–especially given the events of the world and in the U.S.–where I’m fine with either label. Indeed, after spending the last two weeks reading Albert Jay Nock, Isabel Paterson, and the earliest writings of Russell Kirk, I’d be pretty happy with a term such as “Individualist.” Frankly, the term “individualist,” though, seems rather too noble, and I’m not sure I’m worthy of it.

“Individualism, the ideology called individualism, ‘was born in hell; and look to it, for some of you shall be the father,” Kirk wrote in 1955, quoting the vice of Wrath from book six of Marlowe’s sixteenth-century play, Doctor Faustus. “It is a denial that life has any meaning except gratification of the ego. In politics [individualism] must end in anarchy; its philosophers are Godwin, Hodgskin, and Spencer.”

Kirk, though, would not have written this six or seven years earlier, and he certainly never lived a life fighting individualism. Indeed, in almost every action of his life, Kirk lived as a strict individualist, avoiding entanglements with academia, etc., though he certainly never embraced the ideas of Godwin, Hodgskin, and Spencer.

Here and Now: What the Austrians Tell Us

What seems to matter to me most, July 30, 2011, are three things: 1) a promotion of the dignity of the human person, especially in education and culture; 2 a radical reduction in the size and scope of government, domestically; and 3) a reexamination of our foreign policy, especially in terms of the U.S. Constitution.Obviously, almost any conservative or libertarian would find these three things fine.But, what about the free-market economy—a subject, admittedly, about which I know very little as a professional, though I spent much of my free time in high school reading as much of Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Julian Simon, and Henry Hazlitt as I could, especially when rather boring teachers weren’t paying attention; I snuck the libertarian books into my textbooks during classroom lectures.In particular, what is the purpose of economics? What does it teach us about man, his place in the universe, his place in Creation?
Certainly, as the Austrians understand, when one attempts to fit man into a box, an equation, or some other niche, he becomes guilty of the “fatal conceit,” the belief that we know better than another what is best.Ultimately, Friedrich Hayek argued: the “fatal conceit” is the belief that an individual can reshape the world in his own image, overturning centuries of finely-evolved history, morality, and philosophy. In the modern world, I think, one may trace the origins of the “Fatal Conceit” and its resulting widespread destruction of lives to the French Revolution. Edmund Burke, the great Irish-Anglo statesmen and a significant influence on Hayek, described it well: “Have we not produced it ready made and ready armed, mature in its birth, a perfect goddess of wisdom and of war, hammered by our blacksmith midwives out of the brain of Jupiter itself.”[1] In turn, the goddess will devour its creators.

We also learn from the Austrians such as Israel Kirzner, that man is an incredibly creative being.

And, yet, armed with this knowledge, one must ask more questions. What is this creativity for? The man who made the Model-T is creative. So, creative in fact, that Aldous Huxley has his future citizens of his Brave New World make the sign of the “T”. The men who made the gas chambers were creative. The men who made skyscrapers were creative. The men who made the machine guns were creative. The men who made the plastic tabs at the end of our shoe strings were creative. And the men who made the atomic bomb were creative. What kind of creativity do we want? Some, creativity, it seems is moral, some is diabolical.

Freedom for?

And, yet, still more questions arise. What is freedom for? Certainly freedom isn’t an end in itself, is it. It must be a means to something else. Something more concrete; something more humane. Indeed, the true Grace of freedom is not that it allows us to choose—choice certainly being very important, but, again, a means to an end. After all, we must ask, a choice in what: Does anyone really risk life and limb for Nike or Adidas? Did thousands of marines die on Omaha beach for Coke or R.C.? Did the Patriots at Bunker Hill really rush into the fray for British for Meijers or Krogers? Did 14,000 Virginias cross a corn field in Pennsylvania on July 3, 1863 for Target or Wal-Mart?

In the long history of the West, at least 4,000 years old now, liberty has been a precious thing. It has been bought with the gut-wrenching labor of hundreds of generations, grown over centuries, finely honed. Very few in the West have given up his existence for the freedom merely to be free. Freedom, liberty, usually meant the ability, the right, to do what one ought to do, to do what is right. Overtime, seven things came to be associated with right reason and proper order, the true ends of freedom, rightly understood: prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude, faith, hope, and charity. These, hopefully, countered the seven other things: Pride, Envy, Gluttony, Lust, Anger, Greed, and Sloth.

What, then, does liberty allow?

First, it allows us to worship as we choose.

Second, it allows for the protection of property. Labor, the work of man, is the means by which a man uses the gifts that God or nature has given him and each person, uniquely. Aristotle called this one’s teleology, or purpose. We have a moral duty, therefore, as well as a right to pursue our gifts and use them for ourselves as well as for the community.  One may never discover all of his gifts in his short lifetime, but the journey is more important than the goal. Thomas Jefferson understood this well; it is the pursuit of happiness, not happiness itself. And, happiness to American patriots meant moral satisfaction. Not doing what one wants, but doing what is right for the res publica. Edmund Burke took this even further, arguing that men found their real personhood as sub-creators, or artists, made in the image of the Creator.  It is through art that one discovers his morality and goodness, tempering one’s fallen nature. Burke stated it simply: “Art is man’s nature.” Our moral imagination, rather than our passions, should rule. Hayek also dealt extensively with this definition of property, noting that while “each man knows his interests best,” one’s gifts should be used in community, where reason is “tested and corrected by others.” “As individuals,” the great poet T.S. Eliot wrote, “we find that our development depends upon the people whom we meet in the course of our lives. (These people include the authors whose books we read, and characters in works of fiction and history.) The benefit of these meetings is due as much to the differences as to the resemblances; to the conflict, as well as the sympathy, between persons.” To level is to lessen who or what we are meant to be. To level also assumes a duty that is not man’s, but God’s alone. It perverts justice, that which gives each man his due. “We all are part of a great continuity and essence, and ought to rest content if we have done our own petty labor in obedience to what it seems, according to our imperfect lights, the decree of Providence.”

Third, liberty allows for association. These various institutions of subsidiarity–church, family, voluntary associations, private schools, fraternal and sororal lodges, and mutual aid societies, to name only a few–add a necessary and vital layer between the individual and the government. Burke noted that the French revolutionaries, influenced by Rousseau’s fallacious understanding of individualism, desired to destroy all intermediary institutions, subjecting the individual to direct government rule. The greatest republican proponent and analyst of the independent sector was the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville. In an oft-quoted passage from Democracy in America, Tocqueville discussed the American propensity to work through intermediary institutions:

Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but other of a thousand different types—religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute. Americans combine to give fêtes, found seminaries, build churches, distribute books, and send missionaries to the antipodes. Hospitals, prisons, and schools take shape in that way. Finally, if they want to proclaim a truth or propagate some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form an association. In every case, as the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government or in England some territorial magnate, in the United States you are sure to find an association.

Tocqueville, as Barbara has reminded us many times so beautifully, was a French Burkean who viewed community and its interaction with the individual as organic. This organic or natural quality of voluntary associations allows them to promote equality, liberty, and civilization. Persons who had “lost the power of carrying through great enterprises by themselves, without the faculty of doing them together, would soon fall back into barbarism.” According to Tocqueville’s logic, a stable American individualism both precipitates and depends upon voluntary unification. As for liberty, Tocqueville contended, the natural formation of voluntary associations allows Americans to do for themselves what governments in Europe might do for their citizenry. America, in this one respect, was superior to Europe. Governments and bureaucracies, Tocqueville claimed, are neither organic nor subtle. They are unable to make nuanced or delicate decisions, as can voluntary associations in which “[f]eelings and ideas are renewed, the heart enlarged.” Governments, try though they might, are incapable of changing the true morals or being of the individual. “Once [government] leaves the sphere of politics to launch out on this new track,” argued Tocqueville, “it will, even without intending this, exercise an intolerable tyranny.” Worse, the control of societal change and growth is a zero-sum game. If the citizenry controls the power to make decisions, the government must be necessarily and proportionately smaller. In a “vicious cycle,” the reverse is also true. “The more government takes the place of associations,” Tocqueville wrote, “the more will individuals lose the idea of forming associations and need the government to come to their help.”  Following de Tocqueville, Russell Kirk also feared the government’s “love” of community, knowing that modern states meant uniformity when they employed the term. “The omnicompetent state may talk the language of community,” he wrote, “but the measures it employs are destructive of those free engagements of love and charity that constitute real community.”

Fourth, liberty prevents statism and, subsequently, mass murder. And, the state has been the most violent institution in the history of the world. Unlike Mr. Owen’s relatively benign New Harmony, socialism in the twentieth century slaughtered nearly 200 million persons. Inspired by the excesses of the French Revolutionaries, the twentieth-century ideologues began their assault on the modern world with the destruction wrought by the first world war, and the consequences have been terrifying.  One scholar put it bluntly: “the French Revolution was the overture to the “Age of the G,” of guillotines, gaols, gallows, the Gestapo, gas chambers, and gulags. The guillotine marks the first step toward a mechanical-technological mass extermination, toward genocide.” In regime after regime in the twentieth-century, ideologues repeated and multiplied the tragedies of the French Revolution: the Soviet Union and Mexico in 1917 (where the governor of Tabasco renamed his children, “Lenin, Lucifer, and Satan”), Italy in the 1920s, Germany, Austria, Portugal, and Poland in the 1930s, the rest of eastern Europe in the final year of World War II, China and Korea the late 1940s, Vietnam and Cambodia by 1975, and numerous others in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Traditional understandings of character and virtue resulted in arrest, torture, the gulag, the firing squad, or the gas chamber. Throughout four of the seven continents, the killings fields could be found everywhere in the twentieth century. Indeed, of the seven continents, only North America (excluding Mexico), Australia, and Antarctica remained safe, the latter being the safest! In terms of the loss of human life, the world has never seen anything like the consequences of this ideological takeover. “As some departed beneath the sod,” Solzhenitsyn wrote, “the machine kept bringing the replacements.”  Indeed, the ideological regimes incessantly demanded the blood sacrifices from the very beginning. Sound estimates are that ideological regimes—communist, national socialist, fascist, and all others—murdered almost 205 million of their own men, women, and children in the twentieth century. The ideologues destroyed each of these person through the holocaust camps, the forced labor of Gulags, forced famines, in the interrogation chambers, and lined up in fields and across bridges, machine guns ripping into their flesh, releasing their souls into eternity. Numerous other ideological regimes—in Nationalist China, Japan, Turkey, Pakistan, Yugoslavia, North Korea, Mexico, and Indonesia—murdered millions as well. 

Finally, the End

But, finally, a few more uncomfortable questions; questions we should ask ourselves. First, the free market attacks the conformity imposed by the government, but is rule by the corporations much better? Many corporations would rather not look at us as human persons, but only as consumers. Would they like to control us with advertising and marketing blitzes? Certainly, very few corporations believe in the free market. Instead, they desires subsidies, zoning laws, tariff protection, tax breaks, government contracts, and every goody the nation-state will give them. There is such a thing as regulatory capture. And, definitely, we know that corporations invade our privacy at almost every turn: from their collection of information on us to the telemarketer invading our families at dinner time.

Freedom doesn’t mean we must love businessmen, as some advocates of the free market seem to think. After all, I enjoy reading about that great propagandist for business in the colonial age, Benjamin Franklin, even if he spent his evenings in Paris in less than beautiful ways; but I really like John Adams, who spent painful years away from his beloved wife so that he could convince foreign powers to recognize the U.S. as an autonomous republic.

I really like Andrew Carnegie, that great rags to riches story, who taught Gilded Age America to make some fine steel; but I really respect Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, the professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College, who took a sabbatical against the strict instructions of his college. Had it not been for the courage of Chamberlain and his 300 men from Maine, armed only with a few rounds of ammunition, steel blades at the tips of their Springfield Rifles, and lots of courage, an invading army might have easily burned down Philadelphia or even New York in the few two weeks of July 1863.

After all, I really think Henry Ford did a lot with his Model T, but I think the world of bull fighter and poet Roy Campbell, who saved hundreds of Spanish priests and nuns, from the hands of Communist revolutionary thugs in 1937.

After all, I typed this talk on MS Word 2011 for Mac and have Bill Gates and Steve Jobs to thank, but I still respect Wall Street Financier Tom Burnett as the better human. Tom and several others took down a plane in clear Pennsylvania skies preventing Islamic terrorists from using it as a weapon against civilian targets, ten years ago this September 11th. We don’t know everything that transpired, but we do know that his last words to wife, given over his cell phone. “We all going to die, but three of us are going to do something about it. I love you honey.” Is there a better modern expression of the Revolutionary slogan, “don’t tread on me.”

I will conclude with the words of Wilhelm Roepke, a Swiss economist who sheltered Ludwig Von Mises from the Nazis. “The measure of the economy is man,” and, he continued, the “measure of man is his relationship to God.”

Liberty is indeed a precious and rare gift: but it’s purpose is not to promote avarice. . . liberty is for charity; liberty is for the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Could the right unify around this?

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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18 replies to this post
  1. The conservative movement that overwhelmgly prefers talking about liberty over duty, Christ, order, morality and tradition has proven itself too shallow to win. It is Tylenol prescribed for an HIV infection.

    Liberty is the fruit of a faithful society, not the end, or even the best weapon for attainment of itself. In history, virtue led to liberty, not vice-versa.

    Libertarianism reverses the order, and by its spirit and rhetoric produces selfishness, which,as history and the current Libertarian Party prove, morphs into progressivism. Libertarian ends are almost good, if naive, but the spirit is wrong and will always lead astray.

    The struggle for civilization is the same struggle every human heart faces: do I live from my high reason or my low reason? The unbalanced pursuit of liberty happens out of the low reason and produces what we have now. The pursuit of a virtuous society comes from our high reason, and produces early America.

    We need a high-minded conservatism – we can't beat the progressives at wooing people's low reason. This is the losing libertarian project.

  2. This is a very fine essay which gives me much to contemplate. There is much in it with which I agree.

    However, I do have some concerns with the discussion regarding the terms "individualist" and "individualism". Dr. Birzer states: "…I'd be pretty happy with a term such as 'Individualist.' Frankly, the term 'individualist,' though, seems rather too noble, and I'm not sure I'm worthy of it." This term "individualist" seems to stand in contrast with my belief that man exists only in relationship. He is created by a Triune God (who is eternal relationship) to be in loving relationship with God. He is born of relationship between his mother and father. He is also born into relationship with a local community and with the greater community of his culture.

    In birth man joins the community of the dead, the living, and the yet to born. Does man have an individual nature, creativity, and responsibility? Yes, of course. But, to describe oneself as an individualist implies to me a disassociation with our true nature as creatures. We live always in relationship, and if we our fortunate we die in the midst of a loving community of family and friends and go to more fully participate in eternal community with the ultimate source of love and life, the Blessed community that is our Triune God.

    I pray that I am not "worthy" of being described as an "individualist" when I pass to the next world. I hope to be remembered as a father, friend, loving husband, teacher, and a child of God. These descriptions I would cherish. For me "individualist" would be the description of a failure to be defined by the highest good, Love.

    Dr. Birzer goes on to say: "Indeed, in almost every action of his life, Kirk lived as a strict individualist, avoiding entanglements with academia, etc…" Contrarily, I would emphasize that Dr. Kirk demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to family, friends and the Mecosta community. He was certainly keenly aware of the dangers of bureaucratic institutions which worked against true community and real freedom of association. Dr. Kirk was a singular genius and a man of many eccentricities. Both of which I greatly admire and enjoy. But, unlike A.J. Nock, Dr. Kirk chose a life of faith and family over a path dedicated to any "ism". I find much good in Nock's work but I prefer Dr. Kirk's demonstration of a life lived in loving community.

    I am very aware of Dr. Birzer's demonstrated commitment to faith, family and local community and I am honored to call him friend. He, like Kirk, is a man of integrity and singular genius. He loves ordered liberty and constantly works for its restoration. And, also like Dr. Kirk, he has his own set of endearing eccentricities. I will put this peculiar attachment to the term "individualist" on that list and will refuse to ever describe Dr. Birzer with such a moniker.

    I do not find nobility in the term "individualist". I do however admire my noble friend Dr. Birzer. I pray that I may be defined by friendships with such men. And, most of all, I pray that our Lord will welcome me with the words, "well done good and faithful servant, for you have loved me and your neighbor above yourself."

  3. Weston and Winston, thanks much for your replies. I’m about to play some games with the kids, so I’ll need to make this fairly short.

    First, I didn’t mean to make this piece about the concept of “individualism.” I was thinking out loud, and I would need to give the concept (and must for the Kirk book) much more thought. Though I find Paterson and Nock somewhat troublesome as persons, I’ve yet to find anything objectionable in their definitions of individualism. But, I need to give this more thought.

    My main point was—let’s unite the right and fight nationalisms, ideologies, and all progressives (left and right).

    Second, I agree with you, Winston, about Kirk, and certainly I would choose (and, hopefully, have) Kirk over Nock anytime as an exemplar. Kirk was so charitable and giving as to be saintlike. Indeed, I know some who dislike Kirk (or what they think they know of him) who belittle those who like Kirk, saying we bend the knee at the shrine of Mecosta, etc. So be it. Frankly, I’m sure Kirk is a saint. But, that doesn’t—at least from the way I see it—preclude him being an individualist. In fact, in our mass, homogenous, pudding of a society, being an individualist might be the only option for a true conservative or libertarian. But again, as with the first point, I need to think about this.

    Possibly “eccentric” would be a better term than “individualist.” Again, I’m not sure. But, I didn’t mean it in the sense of being atomized or alone.

    Third, as to friendship, C.S. Lewis wrote that mass societies will always distrust it as an institution. In his essay on “Friendship”, Lewis wrote: “Again, that outlook which values the collective above the individual necessarily disparages Friendship; it is a relation between men at their highest level of individuality. It withdraws men from collective ‘togetherness’ as surely as solitude itself could do. . . . Some forms of democratic sentiment are naturally hostile to it because it is selective and an affair of the few.”

    Nock’s (who, despite his rather poor marital relations, seems exceedingly giving and charitable in his private letters) best friend was Canon Bernard Iddings Bell. This seems to be a mark in favor of Nock.

    Fourth, as to noble—as you know, I have no love for a front porch republic. About the last thing I want to do is see my neighbors. In fact, I just want them to leave me alone, not to litter on my property, and to restrain from saying “f-word” around my kids.

    If I still lived in the West maybe I would like a front porch, but not here in Hillsdale. I live here ONLY because I have a job that supports my family. I love my colleagues and my students, but I’m here because Hillsdale College is here. I would trade much to live in western North Dakota or eastern Montana.

    I say noble, because I don’t think a term like individualist can be bestowed on one’s self. It would be like saying, “I’ve now mastered the virtue of humility.”

    If I were a real individualist, I would’ve left the corruption of academia four years ago, moved to Montana, and made a go of writing and speaking for a living—just like Kirk and Nock did. But, I didn’t have the guts to do so.

    Finally, as to being an individualist when we die. I hate to end this on such a dour note, but we each die alone.

    Regardless, I’m deeply thankful to have the friendships that I do in this world of sorrows. Life is struggle, but it’s worth struggling with certain others.

  4. Brad and Winston: Thank you both for one of the finest exchanges I have read in a long time. I am proud to be the friend of two Christian humanists who write so searchingly in the republic of letters.

    Brad, I knew I liked your sensibilities. We are both children of the prairie. I, too, want to have a front porch in western Nebraska, eastern Montana, or Wyoming, where I can see the sky to infinity.

  5. Gleaves, I can't imagine the last decade-plus without the profound friendship you and Winston have offered. Mass man would not approve! And, absolutely agreed regarding the Plains. My soul longs to see them soon.

  6. 1) I agree with Weston's comments regarding libertarianism. I would substitute moral imagination, faith and reason for his use of the term "higher reason."

    2) I agree with Brad's point regarding the efficacy of conservatives working jointly with libertarians to drastically reduce the size of the federal government, end deficit spending, abolish all federal intrusions in education and cease our federal government's attempts at nation building abroad. On these things conservatives and libertarians should work together. However, in my understanding of libertarianism and conservatism there are fundamental differences in the essential principles and priorities of each school of thought. I recommend to our readers these two posts of Dr. Kirk's ten principles of conservatism and thoughts on libertarianism as a good place to begin a discussion on these issues:



    I do not believe conservatism and libertarianism are interchangeable labels and I am not a libertarian. I am willing to concede the two hold a number of political goals in common.

    3) My use of the terms "community" and "neighbor" were meant to include, but not be limited to, those in physical proximity to us. In our world of instant communication and mobility our communities may cross state boundaries and our neighbors may not all live next door. Our Lord of course wished us to love our neighbor as a child of God. Pray for them. This does not necessitate inviting the degenerate next door to dinner however.

    4) As to dying alone, I hope that we are each so fortunate as to die a happy death surrounded by loving family and friends. But should that blessing not be given to us then I pray that I will remember I am accompanied by my guardian angel and that I hear a whole host of angels singing sweet songs of rejoicing. Oh yes, I look forward to seeing all the angels and saints who have prayed for me and for you. And I will remember the Blessed Mother of our Lord who I have asked many times to pray for me at the hour of my death. I pray she will be with me too.

    And then, oh yes Lord and then, I hope to bow down before our Triune God and shout out in gratitude: Thank you Lord for your mercy poured out on this miserable sinner. But miserable no more for I am immersed in God's grace. No, Dr. Birzer I don't believe for a moment that we die alone. Our Lord made us for relationship, now, at the hour of our death, and with Him in heaven. Thanks be to God.

  7. Winston, I very much appreciate your faith, and I hope (the second highest virtue!) you're right. There are lots of folks I'm eager to see in the great beyond. But, glad to have friends like you now!

  8. Great discussion, gentlemen, and thanks, Brad, for getting it going with this treatise on liberty.

    Winston, don't you find that the word "individualist" has always been troubling for non-libertarian conservatives? Yet, I've always been amazed at how often it was used by the Old Right and other conservatives throughout most of the 20th century. I am not sure how many used the term in a purified, ideological manner; in particular, I am not sure Nock would have had the disciples he had had on the right if indeed he had employed the term strictly. But no less a communitarian than Robert Nisbet, who derided individualism as the ideology of the "unconnected, desocialized, hedonistic, and narcissistic" was, like Kirk, profoundly influenced by Nock. Individualism is probably not the best word for it, but during the 1930's-1950's, during the height of Soviet communism and influence, the term communitarian for traditional conservatives of the Burkean flavor would not have been creditable.

    I tend to think that what Nock, Bell, Kirk, More, et al., meant by individualism and liberty was the spirit of the private person and association freed from Leviathan and its progeny, "crowd culture," the culture of the homogenized, standardized, equalized, and complacent, as Bell put it. That is, anyway, what I have always found most engaging about these writers, that they were able and willing to strike out on their own to Mecosta, or Shelburne, or wherever they could carve out a little niche to live the best lives they could beyond the reach of mass government and mass society. There is a lot to admire in this.

    Brad, I too have been reading much by and about Nock, More, Bell, and Ralph Adams Cram this summer, but my angle is I am interested in them as Anglicans/Episcopalians. I would be very interested in learning more about Nock's years as a priest and what was his relationship to the church after leaving the priesthood. Nock was extremely private and Crunden has his own theories, but I definitely would love to know more about the religious nature of the Bell/Nock friendship as well.

    Thanks again for a great essay.

  9. I like this: “The measure of the economy is man,” and, he continued, the “measure of man is his relationship to God." Liberty is indeed a precious and rare gift: but it’s purpose is not to promote avarice. . . liberty is for charity; liberty is for the good, the true, and the beautiful.

  10. I also thank you all for an important discussion. I will have to mull over the many points raised here. I have just returned from a tremendous experience of community — the marital union of the children of two prominent families in our Catholic network of cultural villages. The graced virtue of many has been at work in forging strong families; the love of the beautiful has been allowed to grow and find expression in our children's lives, uniting our families; liberty has made the noble possible, love and commitment have made it actual. The celebration was uniquely communal while also being just what we all expected from the individual characters of the newly-weds and their families.

  11. Dear Anonymous, what a wonderful post/comment. Much to think about–and, you've inspired me to go back and see how C.S. Lewis, Hayek, and Nock defined individualism. I'll try and post what i find sometime this week. I've gotten too used to thinking of Kirk as the beginning of conservatism and the right, but, of course, there were lots of folks who carried on the legacy of the right in the 20s, 30s, and 40s. Nock remarks how important 1943 will be–with the publication of Lane's Discovery of Freedom and Paterson's God of the Machine. Given the shortage of paper, war conditions, etc., it's remarkable these books came out at all. Again, thanks for a good post.

  12. Winston – Those are good terms, probably better. I used "high reason" and "low reason" to mean "engaging our higher nature" and "engaging our lower nature".

    Libertarians will lose the engagement of our lower nature to progressives every time. An eternally-minded conservatism elevates the discussion, and reminds us we're never alone.

    When conservatives win – ala Reagan – it's because the discussion has been elevated to include everyone, in every time. What where we then – "the last, best hope for mankind,"? That's where we win.

    It's when our polemics get selfish and me-centered that progressives come in with pseudo-selflessness and beat us.

  13. Weston, well put. It would be interesting to see what folks find attractive in progressivism. There's a movement among libertarians right now to claim the term as their own. I'm not sure what the motivation is, but I would reject the term (and have) as quickly as possible. Seems like sheer poison to me.

    I came across this from Nock, 1932: “Probably it is my instinctive dread of organization that has kept me out of the literary world, and out of the other forms of social and political organization that I have now and then touched. Every person of any character, I think, wants above all to keep the integrity of his personality intact, and under the idea of organization that prevails in this country, that seems impossible unless one stays out pretty resolutely. I know this is true of our educational organization, and I believe it is true of the literary organization too; and it is notoriously true of the industrial and commercial organization. The point is that there is no respect for personality implicit in our idea, and thus our idea is not intelligent, and thus again it wastes an enormous amount of valuable power. Curious, that an organization like the Jesuits has more respect for human personality than an American university or business house, but it is true. I have not heard that the Jesuits ever once wasted a single individual, but our idea of organization wastes them as prodigally as nature wastes perfectly good acorns and fish-eggs."

    Too true, especially in academia.

  14. "Liberty is indeed a precious and rare gift: but it’s purpose is not to promote avarice. . . liberty is for charity; liberty is for the good, the true, and the beautiful." I couldn't agree more, but liberty also allows the bad, the lie, and the ugly, and which in a fallen world will never be completely extinguished. What I appreciate about liberty is that in a sense we are allowed a "free market" in which the good, the true and the beautiful are proved superior to their diametrically opposed counterparts. And because man is made in the image of God I believe, except for the sociopath and the ideologically blinded leftist (and libertarian), that most people appreciate and are drawn to the good, the true and the beautiful.

    So in one way liberty is an end in and of itself, because by definition it has to allow for the possibility of bad choices. Yet we know that those who make bad choices in effect become slaves and thus forfeit their liberty, whether that’s incarceration, addiction, loneliness, divorce, etc. So for me, the question is who gets to decide what liberty actually is; is it license or avarice, simply unlimited choices? Or is it what the Founders understood as moral rectitude, i.e. the good, the true and the beautiful? This debate can only be waged in a culture that appreciates liberty however terribly it is misunderstood by so many.

    I’m a one note samba on this, but as long as the left with its faulty understanding of liberty dominates professions that influence average Americans (i.e. education, entertainment, media, etc.) then we can have these debates about liberty and labels until the cows come home and accomplish nothing.

  15. The allure of progressivism? Freedom. It started as freedom to make money, then became freedom from poverty, freedom from shame (anti-Christianity), freedom from pregnancy, freedom from criminal consequences (pro-defendant, anti-death penalty, etc), and so forth. When liberty means license, it ends up as progressivism.

  16. Brad, I have been mulling over the idea you were struggling to express through the term, “individualist”. They do not define their own meaning of existence, nor think they have no need of others. Perhaps they are more like leaders in exile from their true communities, who feel deeply their loneliness, yet remain true to their true republics. Their common life is one only of the spirit, real but not properly human. By remaining faithful, they frequently become focal points through which others become connected with a better life, as numerous reports say you have.
    “Individualist” makes me think immediately of Colonel Sherburn in Huck Finn. Yet a healthy sense of American independence and self-confidence has been crucial for the founding of many new beautiful human communities, such as ours at Thomas Aquinas College, Wyoming Catholic, Christendom, St. John Cantius parish in Chicago (naming the Catholic communities with which I am most familiar).

  17. These passages from William Lee Miller's book, "Lincoln's Virtues" struck me in the light of the discussion of individualism. Lincoln was extraordinarily different from those among whom he came of age, and his "self-definition" seems to have come about largely through reading works that connected him to the "core of the English-speaking civilization."

    From Miller's book:

    Young Lincoln, growing up in “unpromising” Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois settings, would accomplish a remarkable work of independent self-definition. One side would be a rare sequence of self-initiated projects in reading, study, and self-education. The other side would be a striking series of rejections and disengagements from what others around him did and thought and believed. P.26

    In a society of hunters, Lincoln did not hunt;… among many who were cruel to animals,
    Lincoln was kind; surrounded by farmers, Lincoln fled from farming… in a frontier village
    preoccupied with physical tasks, Lincoln avoided manual labor; in a world in which men
    smoked and chewed Lincoln never used tobacco; in a rough, profane world, Lincoln did not
    swear; in a social world in which fighting was a regular male activity, Lincoln was a
    peacemaker; in a hard-drinking society, Lincoln did not drink; when a temperance movement
    condemned all drinking, Lincoln the nondrinker did not join it; in an environment soaked
    with hostility to Indians, Lincoln resisted it; in a time and place in which the great mass of
    common men in the West supported Andrew Jackson, Lincoln supported Henry Clay;
    surrounded by Democrats, Lincoln became a Whig; in a political party with a strong nativist
    undercurrent, Lincoln rejected that prejudice; in a southern flavored setting soft on slavery,
    Lincoln always opposed it; in a white world of with strong racial antipathies, Lincoln was
    generous to blacks; in an environment indifferent to education, Lincoln cared about it
    intensely; in a family active in church, Lincoln abstained; when evangelical Christianity
    permeated the western frontier, Lincoln raised questions – and gave different answers than his
    neighbors. Pp. 43-44.

    And Lincoln the lecturer in 1859 would make a further point that we rhapsodists of print do not always make: that humble person whom the efficient genius of print has brought within the circle of shared life and thought across time and space may also acquire, from his solitary communing with the writers of other times and places, a new confidence in his own powers. “It is very probable — almost certain — that the great mass of men, at that time, were utterly unconscious, that their conditions, or their minds were capable of improvement. They not only looked upon the educated few as superior beings; but they supposed themselves to be naturally incapable of rising to equality. To immancipate the mind from this false and under estimate of itself, is the great task which printing came into the world to perform. [It is difficult for us, now and here, to conceive how strong this slavery of the mind was; and how long it did, of necessity, take, to break it's shackles, and to get a habit of freedom of thought, established. It is, in this connection, a curious fact that a new country is most favorable — almost necessary — to the immancipation of thought, and the consequent advancement of civilization and the arts.]” p.46

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