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A quarter of a century ago Modern Age asked me to assess the state of American intellectual conservatism for its 25th anniversary issue.[1] I had been a student of the subject for twenty years. In 1971, five years before George Nash published The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, I and a co-author brought out a similar but shorter book—in Stockholm, Sweden, of all places. It covered the movement’s historical background, central ideas, main figures, books, and publications, its economic and foreign policy thinking and organizational and political influence.[2] As a professor in the United States I have for many years taught a graduate course on conservatism, including its American varieties, and have written much on that and related subjects. From the beginning, this study of conservatism formed part of larger philosophical objectives, and I pursued it with an emphasis on ideas and history rather than day-to-day politics. Having now been invited to assess American intellectual conservatism on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Modern Age, I mention these facts to indicate the nature and extent of my interest.

The article for the 25th anniversary issue noted that, although American intellectual conservatism could celebrate great successes and strengths, it had to address several problems if it were to avoid stagnation and decline and have a chance to realize its potential for changing America for the better. As a prelude to offering a critical appraisal twenty-five years later, I should like briefly to restate the points that I made the first time. In summary form these may look obscure and less closely related to each other than they are, but the rest of the article should help explain their meaning.

The points made in the 25th anniversary issue were as follows: 

(1) American conservatism lacked philosophical continuity and maturity. Its development had been choppy and fragmented, intellectuals of different orientations showing little interest in really learning from their predecessors and each other. The movement had not quite absorbed the ideas of those of its thinkers who were most original and insightful. A prejudice favoring certain German and other European thinkers over American ones compounded insufficient attention to a major figure like Irving Babbitt. In general, American intellectual conservatism needed more philosophical penetration and conceptual precision It needed a better sense of priorities. It had to resist an exaggerated interest in the practical politics and “public policy” issues of the day. The future is decided more by society’s fundamental moral, aesthetical and intellectual trends than by politics in the narrow sense.

(2) The failure or success of American conservatism would ultimately depend on whether it was able to spread “a new spirit of ethical realism.” It needed better to understand that genuine morality is first of all a matter of personal character, of acts of will, and that moral virtue shows itself most especially in admirable conduct towards people up close. American conservatism had to guard against the danger of morality being mistaken for the kind of merely sentimental benevolence for the world’s unfortunate for which Jean-Jacques Rousseau set the pattern. This self-congratulatory, pseudo-moral “virtue” hides dubious motives—usually the will to power—behind compassionate-looking, ambitious schemes for remaking society and the world. Some of the most passionate “lovers of humanity” have done great damage in the name of helping their fellow human beings.

(3) In spite of its frequent statements about the importance of history and tradition, American conservatism had achieved no more than a fumbling philosophical grasp of the connection between history and the moral and other universality that it affirmed. Specifically, it had not seriously considered that there is a form of “historicism”—represented, for example, by Edmund Burke—that recognizes the inescapable historicity of human existence but is nevertheless compatible with the notion of transcendence. This historicism provides an alternative to a more static, ahistorical conception of universality of the kind propounded, for example, by Plato. The latter conception may have psychological and nostalgic appeal for some today but is philosophically retrograde. One of the consequences of not taking account of the possible union of universality and historical particularity was an inability to distinguish adequately between two very different forms of individualism and liberalism, one atomistic and the other integral to a Burkean conservatism.

(4) American conservatism had to understand better the great extent to which the imagination—ranging from great works of art to mass culture and everyday intuitions about life—shapes our most fundamental sense of reality and our wishes for the future. The imagination, interacting with the will, does so for good or ill. Civilization stands or falls with the quality of will and imagination that predominates within it. Perverted imagination distorts even rationality, for it is from the imagination that reason receives its fundamental sense of reality and proportion. Without a fundamental reorientation of the imagination, which prepares the mind to consider even unpalatable and discouraging facts, presumed intellectual victories for conservatism will not transform society.

(5) Intellectual conservatism had not done much to effect “a sorely needed restoration of philosophical reason.” For that situation to change it had to get beyond a one-sided view of rationality. Being properly concerned to resist the intrusion of abstract and positivistic rationality into humane studies, some of its leading thinkers, including Russell Kirk, Peter Viereck and Eric Voegelin, were, unfortunately, suspicious of all systematic, conceptual intellection, trusting instead in a higher intuition to provide the most important insight. They did not consider that there exists a form of rationality that is very different from rationalistic reductionism and the type of reason that Voegelin calls “egophanic.” There is a deeper rationality that has always been at work in human beings but that has been hiding, as it were, behind flawed notions of its own nature. Recognizing the existence and form of this reason reinforces opposition to abstract rationalism where it does not belong but also requires revision of older, ahistorical conceptions of philosophical reason. It is not to deny the crucial importance of “immediate experience” or “moral imagination” to point out that there is a type of philosophical reason that does not distort or kill what it touches but that tries faithfully to articulate actual, living human experience, including experience of the universal. A problem with even the most profound and sober intuition, from the point of view of knowledge, is that it cannot argue; it is mute in philosophical debates. But this sound, full-bodied intuition has an ally in a historically grounded rationality that takes conceptual account of what has been experienced. It tries to sort out the contents of experience, distinguishing between what belongs to the world of practice and what is mere imagining or unrealized desire. It is this deeper but humble rationality that makes us recognize the crucial importance of history for understanding human life.

The 1982 article ended with a call for a kind of historicism—“value-centered historicism”—that would reconstitute the theory of knowledge and make possible a more general philosophical strengthening of American intellectual conservatism.

Looking back on these observations, I find nothing that I would like to take back. What were problems with American intellectual conservatism twenty-five years ago are problems still and have in some ways gotten considerably worse. Some promising higher potentialities of the movement remain largely unrealized.

A non-philosophical reader might ask why a discussion of the state of American conservatism would center on issues like these and not on matters like the market economy, foreign policy, education, the Republican party and the size of the Federal government. The answer is that the above points relate directly to each of these more obviously political questions, most generally to how they should be approached. The points help explain the pervasive intellectual confusion of today’s American conservatism, not least its getting mixed up with imperialistic ideology and related causes subversive of traditional America.

The following discussion of challenges facing American intellectual conservatism will return to but supplement the old list of weaknesses and opportunities. I shall argue that the movement has to revise considerably its predominant notion of what is important and unimportant. It must recognize that some of its oldest and most deep-seated inclinations have been misguided.


American intellectual conservatism has been much-affected by a dubious pragmatism. One of its manifestations has been the just-mentioned preoccupation with practical politics and a corresponding neglect of philosophy and the arts. This emphasis is connected to the assumption that capturing political power is the key to shaping the future. I am not such a fool as to deny the importance of politics—I am a professor of politics. Politics forms an essential part of the effort to build and protect civilization. But, in trying to effect a renewal of American and Western society, winning and exercising political power cannot take the place of the patient and demanding intellectual and artistic efforts that, in time, might change the mind and the imagination of a people. It is such efforts, together with the practical actions that they inspire, that set the basic direction of society. The sine qua non of social health may be the inner and outer striving of morality, but morality urgently needs the oxygen of sound thought and imagination. If a corrupt intellectual and artistic culture is spreading ever new infections, no amount of political activism can create social health. It should be granted, of course, that in some particular circumstances well-considered political action might have a catalytic, generally beneficial effect, and that in a desperate situation it might, at least for a time, avert disaster.

Needless to say, it is highly desirable that some intellectuals should take a strong interest in the study of politics. Indeed, as thinkers or as participants in politics, they can exert a salutary influence on political practice, but they can do so only if they understand the realities of politics, including its limits, and understand how it is shaped by ideas and imagination. Activism that is not informed by this kind of realism is ineffectual or self-destructive.

The “pragmatic” preoccupation with practical politics in American intellectual conservatism is closely related to a fondness for economics and business, which is often so pronounced that it amounts to regarding the aims of conservatism and business as the same. But civilization, including a civilized market place, depends, as Wilhelm Röpke has observed, on moral, imaginative and intellectual preferences that do not arise spontaneously from the economy as such.[3] The priorities set by businessmen and financiers in their economic activities are not ordinarily prescribed by the good, the true and the beautiful. Too many conservatives with libertarian leanings underestimate the extent to which purely economic considerations need to be subordinated to other motives and the extent to which institutions and individual gate-keepers must help foster moral restraints, good taste and respect for truth. If many businessmen in the Western world have exhibited admirable traits like honesty, good manners and social responsibility, it is because, like others, they have been formed by an ancient civilization. They have been subject to the elevating pressures of priests, thinkers, aristocrats, teachers and artists. Today, as our civilization deteriorates, the utilitarian one-sidedness and greed that business tends to generate when left to itself are being released from those traditional restraints.

As with politics, it is of course perfectly proper, nay, indispensable, for some intellectuals to study economic activities closely in order to understand them better. In its higher form, economics is a splendid discipline that blends into philosophy. But the economical must be understood as taking its place in a larger whole in which business and finance are means to higher ends.

There is a form of American pragmatism that is just what it should be: concerned to establish what can work in the real world of action. It properly refuses to engage in wishful thinking and in pointless, merely abstract speculation. More common, however, is a pragmatism that originates in a twisted, truncated view of human beings and their world. This pragmatism expresses a strong anti-intellectual and anti-aesthetical prejudice, as in the case of the obsession of so many self-described conservatives with politics and economics. In spite of America’s great universities on the intellectual side and its great symphonies and museums on the aesthetical side, to mention just a couple of relevant institutions, American life has a powerful utilitarian bias. That predisposition is exemplified by an inordinate fascination with makers and doers and an inclination to look down on persons engaged in non-utilitarian, low-paying pursuits. The person most admired in America may be the self-made man with a great fortune. The best and the brightest are expected to gravitate in the direction of money-making and away from activities whose main rewards are non-economic. America and conservatism at their pseudo-pragmatic and anti-intellectual worst come through in that embarrassing old saw: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”

Expressing and fostering a narrow, simplified notion of human beings and their needs, the prejudice against non-utilitarian pursuits has stunted intellectual and aesthetical life and thereby also the moral life. Its harmful effects have been compounded by spreading mass tastes.

American postwar intellectual conservatism at its best was in considerable part a protest against the contraction and perversion of the human range that are characteristic of this pseudo-pragmatism. Russell Kirk was prominent among those who criticized utilitarianism and sought to strengthen a sense of higher values.[4] Kirk and others stressed the moral-spiritual and aesthetical bases of the civilized society and our great dependence on and indebtedness to earlier generations for a proper sense of priorities. But from the very beginning such thinkers had to contend—within the conservative movement itself—with economistic and activistic thinking. Though Kirk was widely regarded as the central figure of post-war intellectual conservatism and received much praise, especially on ceremonial occasions, many reputed conservatives consciously or unconsciously regarded him and kindred thinkers as too literary, as too distant from what surely had to matter most—practical politics and free markets. The problems of “the real world” had to take precedence over disquisitions on the moral-spiritual sources of order, the moral imagination and the renewal of education.

The old pseudo-pragmatism had an influence even where one might have least expected it—within the strain of conservatism that most resisted the utilitarian temper—although there it asserted itself more subtly and indirectly. Some of the anti-utilitarian thinkers were highly learned and saw deeply, but they expressed their ideas in a manner that was more essayistic, more conceptually tentative than philosophically rigorous, which left their ideas vulnerable to misunderstanding, misuse and caricature. Russell Kirk is a case in point, and so are Eric Voegelin and Peter Viereck. In fact, as has been mentioned, they were suspicious of the more stringent, systematic reasoning of philosophy; they mistakenly assumed it to be indistinguishable from rationalism. [5] One might have thought that others of philosophical disposition would have felt the need to clarify, complement and revise important but ambiguously stated ideas, but the old anti-intellectual prejudice of pseudo-pragmatism, reinforced in this instance by opposition to rationalism, discouraged such efforts.

Whereas in France, for example, any self-respecting intellectual must at least feign interest in and admiration for the more advanced work of philosophy, among American intellectual conservatives the mention of such works, especially German ones, often elicits sighs, jokes and condescending smiles. How silly and tiresome that German obfuscation! If the most difficult, “technical” philosophy seems unappealing, the fault is assumed to lie with the philosophers, who are considered self-important and pretentious, and not with the reader’s lack of preparation. Conservative intellectuals have felt all the more excused from the exacting and protracted labors of philosophy as its “abstruse” notions have appeared to have no relation to immediate practical needs. Is philosophy not also chiefly the province of weirdos and leftists? Though American intellectual conservatism has had major thinkers, its development has been retarded by disinterest in philosophy beyond the level of broad generalities. As the movement never quite understood the significance of the most demanding philosophical work, it never really respected it and therefore never developed a mature philosophical culture.

This criticism does not imply that philosophy proper is inherently wiser and more important than more essayistic writing. Some philosophy is wrong-headed, and frequently writing that is not philosophical in the stricter sense is more penetrating and illuminating than formally proficient philosophy. The best philosophers owe much of their perspicacity to poets and highly intuitive writers of prose who have steered their minds in the right direction. Yet without the work of philosophers that which sages have comprehended but have left compact and perhaps bewildering cannot be properly pinned down, elucidated and transmitted. Neither can flawed or mistaken notions mixed in with wisdom be identified and weeded out.

It is in large part because of a lack of philosophical work and a disinclination to consult such work that important ideas of American conservatism have yet to be fully absorbed and appreciated and that major intellectual problems have gone largely unaddressed. Contrary to the expectations of pseudo-pragmatists, the consequences of this deficiency have not been negligible but far-reaching and partly devastating. They have extended from the universities to journalism and practical politics.

Most generally, a lack of philosophical rigor has permitted intellectual messiness and confusion. The conservative movement has had difficulty ranking intellectual contributions and distinguishing between profundity and superficiality, truth and ideology—a weakness that has festered and worsened with time. So-called neoconservatives have asserted that, before they provided fresh fire-power, American conservatism was intellectually weak and ineffectual. But a person really familiar with American intellectual conservatism in the decades just after World War II who compares it to neoconservatism is struck, on the contrary, not only by the marked shift in views but also by the intellectual decline among those reputed to be the leading thinkers. This is so especially in the area of humane, historically based study and reflection. Though not without its intellectual problems, the earlier movement exhibited considerably greater depth and range. To support this point one need only mention a few names from that period, for example, Mel Bradford, Francis Canavan, Whittaker Chambers, Gottfried Dietze, John Hallowell, Will Herberg, Milton Hindus, Friedrich von Hayek, Erich von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Russell Kirk, John Lukacs, Thomas Molnar, Gerhart Niemeyer, Robert Nisbet, Wilhelm Röpke, Peter Stanlis, Stephen Tonsor, Peter Viereck, Eric Voegelin, Eliseo Vivas, Richard Weaver, and Francis Graham Wilson—a selective list that is merely suggestive of the intellectual resources of the earlier conservatism. The claim of neoconservatives to have raised the general intellectual level of American conservatism shows plain ignorance or is calculated to distract attention from thinkers not serviceable to neoconservative designs. But, if the original conservative thought was generally superior, why would the movement have been drawn to neoconservatism? Besides raising the issue of the power of money and connections, this question brings us back to the lack of philosophical discipline.

In the post-war period William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review played a central role in constituting and setting the tone in the emerging conservative intellectual movement. The magazine gathered many intellectuals of real ability and was—though with such notable exceptions as the excommunication of Peter Viereck—admirably ecumenical. The openness to different points of view was, however, due in part to a lack of philosophical discernment and coherence. Though the magazine had an editorial line with regard to political issues, there was about its general intellectual demeanor a quality of hit or miss. It was indicative of the problem of philosophical integration that, despite his obvious intellectual gifts and stylistic talent, Buckley never tried publishing a book that systematically set forth his own conservative outlook. His forte was not binding ideas together into a larger whole. He attracted to his magazine leading intellectuals who as individuals did attempt something like an overarching point of view, but these individuals were, though in broad agreement on political issues, in important respects on different intellectual wavelengths.

The person at National Review who worked most diligently to define and enforce a specifically American conservative intellectual identity was senior editor Frank S. Meyer. His “fusionism” can be seen as an attempt to synthesize two major strains of thought in the magazine. Meyer was a libertarian and individualist in that he advocated a minimal state and maximum freedom for the individual, but he also tried reconciling that view with elements of a traditional understanding of moral virtue. Another editor concerned to formulate a genuinely American conservatism was Willmoore Kendall, who had been one of Buckley’s professors at Yale. Kendall was an expert on the American political tradition. His notion of the special character of the American people and the U.S. Constitution put its mark on the conservative movement. James Burnham, a professor at New York University, was already famous when he joined the magazine, partly as the author of The Managerial Revolution. A leading authority on communism, including communist infiltration of American institutions, and strategic foreign policy thinking, he was also a trenchant critic of modern liberalism and wrote an important book on American constitutionalism. Burnham was a synthesizing thinker of large scope. He became a pillar of National Review, was arguably its intellectually weightiest figure.

A comparison of these and other editors to their counterparts at today’s National Review strikingly illustrates the intellectual weakening of American conservatism. Yet the reputations of Meyer, Kendall and Burnham as major conservative thinkers, acquired partly through the influence of National Review on conservative opinion, were exaggerated. These individuals, too—Burnham perhaps less so than the others—lacked something in philosophical subtlety and stringency and offered some less than felicitous combinations of ideas. Frank S. Meyer’s fusionism may have made some sense as the theory for a possible political alliance—it can be said to have prefigured the Goldwater movement—but it was less philosophical than ideological in its attempt to define for all times and circumstances the legitimate functions of government and in drawing the line between governmental and other power. Meyer also underestimated the dependence of freedom and virtue on historically evolved human institutions and associations, including those of government. Willmoore Kendall was prone to incorporating intellectual influences without fully exploring their compatibility with other of his ideas. He was simultaneously a defender of the Framers of the U.S. Constitution and an admirer of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, not realizing that, in spite of superficial appearances, the latter advocated a view of human nature, society and government radically different from that of the former. James Burnham did not advance conservatism by adopting a positivistic epistemology ill-suited to studying the spiritual nature of man and the higher values celebrated by the older Western tradition. His purely naturalistic Machiavellian conception of politics, too, made for an incomplete view of human reality. Each of the three thinkers had a past on the extreme left. Meyer had been an ideologically intense member of the international communist underground. They were now strong anti-communists but had some difficulty shedding reductionistic habits of mind. That their respective basic assumptions were rather different, in part even incompatible, was not much noticed by a movement that was more interested in the advocacy of certain policy positions than in philosophical consistency and precision.

National Reviewwas enamored of free market economics, and it could cite, promote and publish many sophisticated economists. One of its favorites was Milton Friedman, who would become an icon for the conservative movement as a whole. Though Friedman made compelling arguments for a free market, his notion of capitalism did not dwell on what ordered liberty owes to historical development and non-economic considerations or on the need for the market to operate under civilizing pressures.

In sum, like National Review, the conservative intellectual movement as a whole was influenced by the ubiquitous pseudo-pragmatism and showed no strong inclination to get to the bottom of difficult philosophical issues. More concerned about seizing opportunities for anti-statist political coalition-building than about achieving intellectual coherence, the movement left some of its basic assumptions regarding human nature and society in provisional, poorly integrated form and got by with a partly jerry-built intellectual structure. Because of its shaky philosophical foundation, it was liable to adopting ideas that, though questionable, were endorsed by National Review or had other influential sponsors.

The last few decades have seen a confusion more glaring and egregious than any previously seen. The movement curiously and increasingly became associated, even identified with, ideologues whose central ideas had but a tenuous connection with conservatism as usually understood. In fact, these ideologues bore a closer resemblance to the eighteenth century French Jacobins. The Jacobins were the intellectual and political leaders of the French Revolution. Rejecting historically derived beliefs and practices, they wanted to remake society according to allegedly universal, ahistorical principles, which they summed up in the slogan “freedom, equality and brotherhood.” They saw France as called to liberate mankind. The new Jacobins similarly have a disdain for historically formed societies and want to reconstruct them according to ahistorical and allegedly universal principles. These are summarized as “freedom” or “democracy.” America, the new Jacobins assert, is unique in that it was founded on those principles rather than on tradition. America has the historical mission of spreading them around the world, giving other peoples the kind of fresh start that was provided by “the American Founding.” It is paradoxical, to say the least, that a movement calling itself conservative would come under the influence of such beliefs and that people attracted to the new Jacobinism would be called neoconservatives. Even more surprising, advocates of neo-Jacobin ideology would eventually be allowed to decree who was and who was not a real conservative. They could do so by virtue of achieving strong position in the foundations, media, think tanks, and universities but mainly because of the intellectually frayed condition of the conservative movement. Had the latter been philosophically and historically better grounded, it would have recognized who the new Jacobins were and countered their attempt to divert and transform the movement. Conservatives would have known that modern Western conservatism originated as a reaction against the old Jacobinism.[6]

The upshot of these comments is obviously not that greater philosophical depth and stringency would have produced uniformity. Any intellectually vibrant movement will exhibit diversity and tension. The point is that philosophical maturity would have reduced the element of confusion, ideological simplification and outright error and raised the general level of discussion.


There is a seemingly arcane but central philosophical issue whose inadequate treatment by American conservative intellectuals illustrates particularly well how a deficiency in thought can have far-reaching practical consequences. The issue concerns the very definition of conservatism. Oddly, the American intellectual movement that claimed the label never evolved more than a rather vague idea of the sense in which it was conservative. In response to the question “what is conservatism?,” a typical representative of the movement would most likely recite a set of principles, such as belief in limited government, a free economy and a strong defense. But if principles of this type define conservatism, why call it “conservatism”? All belief systems have principles of some kind. Jacobins of various types hold to principles with special tenacity, indeed, do so even in the face of reality that refuses to conform to their plans. The term “conservative” suggests something distinctive—a desire to conserve. But of what precisely is conservatism conservative? Of tradition, many say. Leo Strauss and his followers have rejected this view as “historicist,” as endorsing whatever history has thrown up, which they regard as morally relativistic or nihilistic. Traditionalists have pleaded innocent to the charge, saying that while they believe in respecting tradition, they also believe in universal principles of some sort. But if there are principles to guide us, why pay any heed to history? Why be a conservative?

American conservatism has had difficulty understanding and articulating the meaning and significance of “the historical” and how it relates to universal values. Richard Weaver, a revered figure who did have a philosophical cast of mind, long held rather uncritically to a conventional classical and medieval assumption that historical individuality is ineffable and has nothing to do with what is knowable and normative. What, then, is distinctively conservative about conservatism? Going in a direction different from Weaver’s on this issue, many traditionalists, especially Russell Kirk, appealed to Edmund Burke. But, on the whole, they did not really explain to themselves and others just how Burke’s championing of “the general bank and capital of nations and of ages” is connected to his acute sense of universal right. Kirk had a strong intuition that the two could not be separated, and he was right. Charges by moral rationalists that Kirk was a historical “relativist” were unperceptive or were merely attempts to reduce his influence, and yet vagueness on a crucial matter exposed Kirk and the traditionalists to criticism. They might have advanced their understanding of the connection between universality and history by drawing, cautiously and selectively, from German and Italian philosophy from Kant and Hegel to Benedetto Croce, but they were disinclined to venture into the territory of professional philosophers.[7]

Value-centered historicism explains how the historical consciousness of a Burke is not only compatible with but also necessary for making sound moral, intellectual and aesthetical choices. As American intellectual conservatism has not, for the most part, gone beyond an approximation of philosophy, it has yet to grasp that real universality, as distinguished from abstract rationalistic conceptions or romantic dreams, is in this human world of ours indistinguishable from and dependent on historical particularity: The good, the true and the beautiful come into being through discriminating incarnation in the concrete—through synthesisof the universal and the particular.[8]

Recognizing the importance of historical particularity and circumstance, most especially the possibility of union between universality and particularity, sharpens comprehension of the importance of individual personality and the need for creativity in the moral, aesthetical and intellectual life. Universality can be kept alive in changing situations through the creative synthesis of universality and particularity. This idea, so hard for many to grasp, could have enriched American conservatism in many ways. For example, it would have thrown new light on American constitutionalism, making it possible to transcend the artificial opposition between the school of interpretation called “originalism” and the one emphasizing that the Constitution is a “living document.” One may affirm the need to adapt to new historical circumstances and yet retain the conception of an enduring constitutional purpose. The idea of synthesis of the universal and the particular could also have deepened the understanding of the American constitutional ethos as expressed in the phrase e pluribus unum. Do these words mean that unity must be obtained at the expense of diversity? Must the particular, such as a particular American state, give up its distinctiveness and independence in favor of some kind of ideological-political homogeneity, or can unity be achieved throughdiversity, by means of the harmonization of discrete but dynamically interacting parts? Having never developed a firm grasp of how universality relates to historical particularity, American intellectual conservatism has not been well equipped to deal with such questions, central though they are to explaining the genius of the American political tradition.

One of American conservatism’s truly distinguished social thinkers is Robert Nisbet. His discerning explication and defense of the quest for community is an enduring achievement. Human beings sorely need the ties of intimate, close-up associations, starting with the family. Nisbet has demonstrated the devastating effects of social atomism, whether in the form of liberal individualism or Rousseauistic, socialistic collectivism.[9] Nisbet’s acuity is due in part to his awareness of the role of history and tradition in constituting human groups and societies. Yet his discussion of associations would have benefited from more attention to the simultaneously individual and social nature of man and to the needs of individuality as a potential carrier of universality. Without some freedom for the individual to go his own way community may become stultifying and suffocate precious personal originality, thereby undermining community itself.  Though not unaware of the issue, Nisbet does not, for all of his deepening and extension of Aristotle, go very far in the direction of giving human individuality its due. American conservative social thought would have much to gain from exploring further the need for balancing communal, traditional ways, on the one hand, with individual freedom and creativity, on the other. These two elements of social life should, as far as possible, be mutually supportive.

In the perspective of value-centered historicism, liberalism and conservatism, properly understood, are, in a sense, aspects of one and the same desirable approach to life. That Edmund Burke, the great traditionalist, should also be a Whig, a liberal of sorts, can be recognized as apposite. The crux of the philosophical matter is that in life at its best universality and individuality are mutually dependent on and implicated in each other. A firmer philosophical grasp of this relationship would have enriched American conservative thought on community and individuality, tradition and creativity.

American intellectual conservatism has been strongly affected over the years by concerted and persistent Straussian attacks on “historicism” and historical individuality. This campaign has created a presumption that abstract rational principles define higher values and that these must not be seen as in any way derived from history or tradition. For the anti-historicists, what is historical is merely accidental and conventional. The stated fondness of many so-called conservatives for ahistorical principles is incongruous, for modern conservatism was born out of the emerging historical consciousness—as in Burke—and was a reaction, specifically, against rationalism. Even if they did not express it clearly, Burke and others discerned an all-important and intimate connection between universality and history, which made them respectful, though far from uncritical, of tradition.

According to Strauss and the Straussians, that which is highest must not be associated with tradition or “the ancestral.” To do so is to abandon philosophy and, with it, universality. The Straussians have taught Christians and others who have regarded tradition as one of the pillars of their beliefs to disdain the historical. They have, in effect, taught traditionalists self-contempt. Many traditionalists have naively and gullibly adopted the suicidal course urged upon them.[10]

What most Straussians call “natural right” bears only a faint resemblance to a traditional conception of natural law. Although many of them may not understand or concede it, their notion of universality has more in common with modern Jacobin thinking than with Thomism. Their advocacy of an anti-historical notion of what is ultimately normative is a prime example of how an error in a supposedly marginal and obscure area of philosophy can have consequences that are not only practical but also disastrous. In the last few decades an abstract, neo-Jacobin universalism blended with nationalistic conceit to form the notion of America as an exceptional, virtuous country called to export its “universal principles” to the rest of the world. Because of limited philosophical discernment even persons of some scholarly reputation became supporters of a political cause that has badly damaged America and the world. There could hardly be better proof of the crisis of American intellectual conservatism than that many of its self-designated representatives adopted or excused a reckless radicalism.[11]

One of the ways in which American conservatives have exempted themselves from philosophical effort is to suppose that, especially when it comes to questions of value, what really matters is religious commitment. A common conservative type is the earnest and ostentatious believer, Roman Catholic or Protestant, whose manner announces to the philosophically inclined person that having pious sentiments is much more important than making fine philosophical points. The proper religious commitment is assumed somehow to guarantee soundness of thought. The problem here is not that there is anything wrong with genuine religious devotion. It is that in the modern world religion has been so permeated by what Babbitt calls “sham spirituality” that it has become a major pollutant of the will, the mind and the imagination. No one is immune from religious-moral confusion and smugness. There is an urgent need for scrutinizing spiritual claims. Secondly, religious faith is, especially in an intellectual movement, no substitute for intellectual labor. Insufficient philosophical effort and discipline clouds and distorts central questions of human existence and weakens religion itself. Letting pretentious religious sentiment take the place of thought has had just that kind of effect on American intellectual conservatism—a criticism that is not directed against religious faith but against a particular and common American form of anti-intellectualism.


Space permitting, I would have liked to go deeply into an already mentioned weakness of American conservatism, the common neglect of the artistic. It is analogous to the belittling of philosophy and has similar origins. The role played by the imagination in shaping conduct, for good or ill, is central and decisive.[12] Nothing could be more important to a healthy society than exposing perverse, if superficially appealing, imagination and nurturing imagination of a different quality. These issues have been brilliantly, if incompletely, elucidated by Irving Babbitt, who has explained the moral-aesthetical dynamic of sound and unsound imagination. Unfortunately, although the phrase “moral imagination” is a part of the vocabulary of American intellectual conservatism, these ideas have been only partially assimilated and applied by a movement with a flawed set of priorities.

On the whole, American intellectual conservatives care not very deeply about the arts, especially not above the level of the popular. Conservatives tend to have what one might call unmusical personalities. They seem to feel no deep existential need for poetry, novels, paintings, symphonies, films, and such—though some swear by rock music. Any protest to the effect that a limited interest in the arts is hardly a significant flaw in a real man and a conservative simply confirms the debilitating weakness to which I am drawing attention. Some will predictably and smugly declare that religion offers all the nourishment for the soul that we really need. They indicate thereby a deformed and cramped conception of religion as well as of life in general. In fact, this kind of religiosity often goes together with a utilitarian-pragmatic attitude towards worldly matters.

I suggested earlier that the most basic need of civilization may be moral—“moral-spiritual” might better convey the intended meaning. But without a broad and penetrating imagination, one of whose benefits is to improve the incisiveness of the mind, the higher will in man has great difficulty finding its way.


This article has outlined major reasons why American intellectual conservatism is in crisis. The reasons discussed involve a deeply flawed pragmatism and an insufficient appreciation for the importance of philosophy and the arts.

Greater philosophical sophistication on crucial issues would have protected American conservatism against intellectual, aesthetical and moral trends and their political manifestations that owed their momentum not to their intrinsic merit but to the Zeitgeist and the enormous resources wielded by their promoters. Most generally, conservative intellectuals of real philosophical education and temperament would not have been as prone to formulaic, ideological thinking. Specifically, conservatives more aware of the close connection between history and universality would not have been attracted to the anti-historical natural-right theorizing of a Leo Strauss or to such neoconservative “universal principles” as “freedom” and “democracy,” which are hard to tell apart, both in ideological content and spirit, from Jacobinism. A stronger historical consciousness and a proportionally better immunity against moral-political utopianism would have made conservatives resistant to imperialistic dreaming and adventurism. Strengths of this kind as combined with more knowledge of the origins of American culture and constitutionalism in the classical, Christian and English heritage would have made them understand that American ordered liberty did not result from implementing abstract principles but from the long gestation of a particular culture.[13] They would have been quick to realize that large and indiscriminate immigration and migration into the United States was bound to dilute and undermine traditional American culture in general and American constitutionalism in particular. Philosophically discerning intellectuals steeped in the spirit of traditional American constitutionalism would have opposed a “unitary,” imperial presidency and a national security super-state of the kind propagated by neoconservatives.

It should be obvious, then, that the inadequate treatment of seemingly esoteric philosophical issues is no small matter. Weakness of this kind has badly damaged American intellectual conservatism across a broad range of practical affairs.

A better understanding of the central role of the imagination and the arts in shaping individual and society would have made conservatives more perceptive in diagnosing the problems of America and Western civilization and would have markedly changed their strategy for dealing with them. Their ability to identify and expose inhumane qualities of the imagination would have been much improved.

Historians of the future who trace the origins of the curious identity crisis of American intellectual conservatism will undoubtedly record the prominent role of careerism and greed. How easily the powers-that-be in foundations, think-tanks, media and government were able to buy and instrumentalize purportedly conservative intellectuals! At the bottom of this development one finds, of course, a moral failing. But had it not been for the misguided pragmatism and the related problems of conservatism here described, the chronic weaknesses of human nature would not so easily have broken through the defenses of civilization. American conservatism would have been better prepared to resist intellectual shoddiness, corrupt imagination and a false moral virtue. It would not have had to accept so much of the blame for damage inflicted upon America and the world by self-described conservatives.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreReprinted with the gracious permission of Modern Age (Fall 2007).


1. “American Intellectual Conservatism: Needs, Opportunities, Prospects,” Modern Age, Vol. 26, Nos. 3-4 (Summer/ Fall, 1982).

2. Nykonservatismen i USA (Stockholm: Almqvist ; Wiksell, 1971). My co-author, Bertil Häggman, wrote three of the nine chapters.

3. Röpke explains the moral and cultural preconditions of a sound market economy in A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market(Wilmington: ISI Books, 1998; first published in German in 1948 under the title Jenseits von Angebot and Nachfrage). See also his The Moral Foundations of Civil Society (New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 1996; first published in German in 1944 under the title Civitas Humana.)

4. Criticism of a utilitarian-materialistic view of life is a major feature of Russell Kirk’s writing, starting with his early works, including The Conservative Mind (1953), which traces what he regards as a different and far superior American tradition. The title of another of Kirk’s books from the 1950s, Beyond the Dreams of Avarice (1956) tellingly indicates the values that he deems central to a proper conservatism. For a pointed critique of and a proposed alternative to what Kirk calls “a national spirit of covetousness,” see his chapter on “The Question of Wants” in Prospects for Conservatives (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1989), which is a revised and abridged edition of his 1954 book A Program for Conservatives.

5. The general distrust of reason, rooted in rejection of rationalism, finds almost absurd expression in Viereck’s statement that “the definition of a good conservative is that he always loses the theoretical debates with liberals and radicals.” The Unadjusted Man (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1973; first published in 1956), 296. The fact that anti-rationalist conservatives have nevertheless argued strenuously against rationalism shows that they have unconsciously employed rationality of a different kind.

6. The nature and emergence of the new Jacobinism, how it is connected to neoconservatism and how it relates to a general erosion of American and Western culture and the American political tradition are examined in my America the Virtuous: The Crisis of Democracy and the Quest for Empire (New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 2003).

7. The philosophical core of Croce’s work is contained in his early worksAesthetic (1902), Logic (1908) and The Philosophy of the Practical (1908). Croce criticizes, revises and supplements Hegel but has his own distinctive and wide-ranging philosophy. To say that he is one of the truly great philosophers of the twentieth century is not to say that he is above criticism. Flawed English translations of Croce’s works, especially The Philosophy of the Practical, have complicated absorption of his work in the anglophone world, which has had great difficulty, to begin with, breaking out of empiricistic habits. Croce’s book History as the Story of Liberty(Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000; first published in Italian under a rather different title in 1938), is a powerful summary of his “historicist” philosophy, which should, however, be approached with caution by readers not yet familiar with his general outlook and use of terms. Croce prefigures what would later in the twentieth century be called post-modernism, post-structuralism and anti-foundationalism but avoids the indiscriminate rejection of structure and order that has rendered so much of the mentioned currents self-contradictory, undisciplined, extreme, frivolous, and even absurd.

8. Here it is only possible to hint at arguments regarding the synthesis of universality and particularity that I have set forth elsewhere. See, in particular, my books A Common Human Ground: Universality and Particularity in a Multicultural World (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 2003) and Will, Imagination and Reason: Babbitt, Croce and the Problem of Reality, 2nd. exp. ed. (New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 1997).

9. Nisbet’s most famous book, The Quest for Community (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1953), which in one later edition was called Community and Power, provided a strong and early anti-dote to atomistic-individualistic strains of thought within the post-war conservative movement. Russell Kirk was quick to draw attention to a scholar who would become one of America’s most eminent social thinkers in the twentieth century.

10. Leo Strauss’s most widely read attack on “historicism” in general and on Burke in particular is found in Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953). Because Strauss appeared to be a defender of classical political thought, many philosophically uneducated young conservatives, not least Roman Catholics, looked to him for intellectual guidance. At a time when American conservatism needed to find its philosophical footing and evolve an adequate epistemology, especially with regard to questions of value, Strauss, unbeknownst to many of his followers, inserted into the movement an anti-conservative prejudice, making many suspicious of or at least very ambivalent about respecting history and tradition. For an extended analysis and critique of Strauss’s attacks on historicism and of how his ahistorical conception of philosophy and universality undermines tradition, see my “Leo Strauss and History: The Philosopher as Conspirator,” Humanitas, Vol. XVIII, Nos. 1 & 2 (2005).

11. For an in-depth discussion of the radicalism of neo-Jacobin “universal principles” see America the Virtuous.

12. This point is argued at length in Will, Imagination and Reason.

13. The deep roots of American constitutionalism in English political tradition and culture have been succinctly and persuasively demonstrated by Joseph Baldacchino in “The Unraveling of American Constitutionalism: From Customary Law to Permanent Innovation,” Humanitas, Vol. XVIII, Nos. 1 & 2, 2005. The American colonists wanted independence not because they subscribed to ahistorical, abstract principles but because they saw King and Parliament as violating precedent and custom and introducing unacceptable innovation. The colonists protested a breach of continuity and sought to reclaim their historically evolved rights as Englishmen.

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  1. Why is Plato philosophically retrograde? Modern philosophers may not have much time for him, but should traditionalists have much time for them? As one more traditional philosopher put it, all down the ages to philosophise was to think, but it was left to the 20th century not to think and call it philosophy. As much as I admire Burke, I'm not sure he has more to offer us than Plato. I think some of the problem comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of Plato, a mistaken view of him as some sort of quintessential rationalist(to use an unfortunate label Robert Nisbet gave to him.). Plato was a master of dialetic and discursive thought, but he was no rationalist. It is holistic, noetic vision that his use of Elenchus was aiming at and we should avoid reading his dialogues, including the Republic, only narrowly and literally.

    Anyway I found that article fascinating and enlightening, but it didn't answer many of the important questions it brought up(in my opinion.). Most importantly it didn't seem to properly close the gap between Universality and historical articularlity. One problem is perhaps he talks about drawing on sophists like Kant and Hegel instead of traditional philosophers(who were involved in quite a different vocation to modern 'philosophers'). I think what might help would be drawing on the distinction basic to much classical and medieval philosophy(indeed all work worth the name of philosophy as opposed to the sophistry of an Epicurus.). I think in modern times some of the best inheritors and expositors of this true philsophy are William Blake, Coleridge, W.B Yeats, Kathleen Raine and Henry Corbin. As can be seen they are very much art focused figures and provide an excellent extension of the views of Kirk and Babbitt on the importance of the moral imagination.

    They do this by reviving the ancient and medieval view that above the faculty of reason(ie discursive, deductive thought.) there exists the faculty which Blake called Imagination. This faculty is related to Babbitt's idea of imagination, but it goes further. It affirms that the truest Imagination links one's mind or heart, through a noetic vision, to the Imaginal Realm which transcends and is reflected in the Corporeal Realm of everyday existence. This fuses the Particular and the Universal by making the former a particular and individualised manifestation of certain possibilities inherent in the essence of the latter. Though reason is important in order to help us grasp the Universality of our experience, it is not discursive thought, but Imagination which is most important and which is encountered through everyday, historical experience of art, of nature, of community and morality and yet leads us beyond the historical by its very nature.

    It is important to see that Imagination here is not meant simply as mental pictures or subjective intuitions, but a self-affirming, basically ontological and noetic vision of the Imaginal Realm and which is closely related to the Platonic idea of the Intellect(though this latter more overtly carries within itself the desire to go beyond even the Imaginal Realm.) and indeed to the theory of the Icon as developed in the Orthodox Church. There is no question of despising reason, but neither is the Imagination here a secondary support or even equal partner to discursive thought. I think it is this vision that is needed to reunite the Universal and the Particular, which it does by seeing in Traditions things universal and objective which manfest particular and individualised aspects of themselves in any particular, historical setting and which can be judged according to whether their historical manifestations are legitimate possibilities contained within their essence or whether they are deviations and subversions. I think it is such a vision that Claes G. Ryn and much of modern conservatism and traditionalism misses and why it cannot quite reunite the Universal and the Particular.

    • Plato, though he deserves credit for furthering the field of philosophic thought, presents some less than “conservative” ideas. His parable of the cave is, perhaps, most damning in this respect. In this parable he promotes the thought than man can’t discern truth directly but, only infer it from shadows. Further that there are superior beings that stand behind the fire and cast no observable shadows but, see all clearly and must be trusted to lead or govern. Conservatives believe that universal and moral truths can be discerned by man and there are no superior men on earth that must be submitted to.

      • Actual conservatives embrace mediacy and thus reject the IMmediacy of, for example, Rousseau and his legions of modern followers. Thus actual conservatives hold that the discernment of truth does indeed require mediating institutions such as the Church, family, etc. Plato’s allegory of the cave is quintessentially conservative.

        Actual conservatives believe that because of original sin and our consequent seeing through a glass but darkly, universal and moral truths can be discerned by man only in a limited way, and thus revelation is needed to go beyond the limits of reason.

        Actual conservatives also embrace the hierarchy of reality, and thus reject the egalitarianism contained in the notion that there are no superior men on earth fit to rule and thus entitled to obedience.

  2. My Catholic politics teachers are Straussians and I rather doubt they have abandoned tradition and become Jacobin utilitarians. Ryn makes some good points, but I think he is overly concerned with scoring points on his rivals in the academy. Straussians aren’t evil and neither are Classical Conservatives. The differences between the two sides are important, but I don’t think they are nearly as dire as Ryn seems to believe.

  3. Perhaps conservatives simply act to leave the world in better shape than when they became participants, conserving material, energy, knowledge, well being and opportunity to name a few aspects.
    Sustainability of ‘genuine morality is first of all a matter of personal character, of acts of will, and that moral virtue shows itself most especially in admirable conduct towards people up close.’

  4. This is the finest critique of American conservatism I’ve ever read. The analysis is absolutely brilliant. And, the author’s critique of Voegelin is of a kind Voegelin hoped might surface. I must read Dr. Ryn!

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