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George Panichas

Better to be despised for too anxious apprehensions, than ruined by too confident a security. —Edmund Burke

The crisis of modernity is an inclusive one. Its power and scourge are such that even those movements that seek to defend the sanctities of tradition and the values of order find themselves increasingly beleaguered. Richard M. Weaver observes that “fundamental integrity, once compromised, is slow and difficult of restoration.” He goes on to emphasize: “Teachers of the present order have not enough courage to be definers; lawmakers have not enough insight.” Weaver’s diagnostic observations tell us something about the depth of the malaise that afflicts society and about the difficulties of resisting our continuing plight. The absence of courage and insight, as he further indicates, in the realm of intellect and the world of politics, sharpens and accelerates the personal and public dimensions of moral crisis at the highest and most important levels, where the course of civilization itself is ultimately determined.  

Clearly the materialistic tendencies of the twentieth century, especially as these have solidified since the end of World War I and as “we moderns” have embodied them directly or indirectly, are now absolute tendencies in constant evidence. Insidious and intrusive, these tendencies transpose into fallacies of the most dangerous kind that trap even those who have conviction and affirm standards conducive to what Weaver terms a “metaphysical community.” One likes to think of this “metaphysical community” as a natural and inseparable extension of the conservative metaphysic and of the conservative mind. One also likes to think that, in the midst of the general disarray that characterizes our crisis, there does exist and persevere a spiritual conservatism; that this spiritual conservatism is the fons et origo of all conservative perspectives: a primal, permanent, intensive, inviolable force and faith, unchanging and uncompromising in its principles—at once catholic, critical, and catechetical. This spiritual conservatism, one likes to think, revolves around, is rooted in, returns to, and reveres the highest axiomatic verities, the Word of God and the Order of the Soul.

God and soul are two words that are perhaps the greatest casualties of the ongoing crisis of modernity. The interior experience of these two words, in their living significance as the fear of God and the needs of the soul, seems to have neither meaning nor relevance. Their diminution and absence are symptomatic of the vacuum of disinheritance in which modern man finds himself. As words of prescriptive value they simply do not exist in a society programmatically addicted to the unending lures of presentism that reject those sacred paradigms of aspiration that human character requires if it is to venerate and sustain any ordering principle of divinity. The rejection of these two words now enjoys wide acceptance as even a cursory scrutiny of the social-political scene will disclose.

Far from being arrested or deterred, the “age of liberalism” has actually achieved an insidious triumph as its sophistic proclivities infiltrate every aspect of human thought and activity. This destructive process signals the advance of what Michael Polanyi calls a “positivistic empiricism,” that is, “[the] idea of unlimited progress, intensified to perfectionism, [which] has combined with our sharpened skepticism to produce the perilous state of the modern mind.” We can now discern a withering totalization of this advance as it absorbs and shapes both political and intellectual thought and opinion. Even traditionalist conservatism retreats in front of this peril, in fearful awe of its might. The paths of this retreat are strewn with surrenders, backslidings, defeats, and losses of unfathomable consequences. Not only a principled conservatism but also a spiritual conservatism has been debased. What we find in alarming amplitude is the gradual emergence of a conservatism susceptible to the centrifugal tendencies and aims that Polanyi designates.

Sham conservatism is a symptom and portent of the spiritual desuetude that permeates American society and culture. A tinsel, opportunistic, and hedonistic conservatism, then, is what we see around us, unable to affirm the standards and certitudes that must be resolutely affirmed if an authentic ethos-centered conservatism is to survive. This survival will not occur whatever the immediate accomplishments of, say, the “moral majority” and the “new right,” which merely pursue “pragmatic significations” residing in the liberals’ standard baggage of “new deals” and “new frontiers.” A conservatism that lacks “ontological referents” is as spiritually barren as the liberalism it opposes. Endless “policy reviews” and “policy studies,” as these thrive and govern in some conservative quarters, in the end lack a basic apprehension of the “permanent things” and are responsive to the empirical ambitions that reflect the tastes and power-drives of a technologico-Benthamite world. A sham conservatism merely temporalizes and trivializes and dissimulates spiritual laws and truths. Such a conservatism belongs almost exclusively to the world and is impervious to the primacy of God as the measure of the soul. This primacy should constitute conservatism’s ground of being; should define and inform a true “metaphysical community”—at once covenantal and sacramental. That community is certainly not one that we observe in our body politic or in the realpolitik of contemporary conservative entelechies. A chic politicized conservatism, as we now view it, fails to acknowledge spiritual needs that coalesce in God and soul.

Given the large and visible popular successes of political conservatism and the vibrant images and impressions it has in recent years engendered, there is an obvious unwillingness to examine critically the true conditions of the conservative movement today. That movement, however, increasingly echoes the “secular hypothesis” and dwells in the “secular city”; it has forgotten or neglected those spiritual exercises that belief in God and in the soul demands and that a genuinely spiritual conservatism accepts. Even when this political, gnostic conservatism invokes the two holy words God and soul, it profanes them by assigning to them a spurious valuation, in short, by ignoring or eliminating the inner life of conservatism. And this dislodgement is today the greatest crisis that grips conservative life and thought. That inner life is inadequately recognized or honored by many conservative leaders and spokesmen, in word or in work. In effect the theology of conservatism has been sacrificed to the new gods and the new morality of modernity. The discipline of spiritual conservatism has been manifestly lessened by its own peculiar form of liberation theology, as it were, and by the purely quantitative point of view prevailing in the marketplace of ideas.

Dislodgement leads to capitulation as the present state of conservatism reveals. Where are to be found, one must ask in “fear and trembling,” the spiritual exercises in conservative experience today? How is one to resist the materialistic doctrine that assails conservative criteria and that takes precedence over God and soul? A spiritually strenuous conservatism, as Irving Babbitt would say, has given way to the spiritual idler. The consequences of this recession have led to a general confusion among conservative adherents no longer able to distinguish between what Babbitt calls a law of the spirit and a law of the members, that is to say, the confusion of the things of God and the things of Caesar. This confusion, endemic in liberalism, imperils the conservative metaphysic. Nothing could be more debilitating than the confusion of first principles.

The preceding reflections should not be construed to mean that what is advocated is an otherworldly conservatism. Yet, a conservative metaphysic that neglects or omits the teleological dimension—and that seeks to escape from “the tragic sense of life”—falls into the same trap of illusion that is intimately connected with the liberal temper. Rather, these reflections, in their corrective purposiveness, seek to emphasize the need for a binary discipline—the discipline of ideas and the discipline of transcendent belief. The forms of conservative thought as we encounter them today are too much of this world, too much an acceptance of nominalist philosophy. They lack the element of ascent and are mired in the worship of time and in an “abandoned world,” Godless and soulless. This is the world of spiritual dead-ends that belongs to “an age of bad faith” in which the “gods of mass and speed” breed to bring about the consuming majoritarian nightmare that Matthew Arnold depicts: “And littleness united / Is become invincible.”

Insofar as the conservative metaphysic bows to the “world-machine,” it reduces itself to the non-ontological and non-organic elements that identify contemporary life in its cruel alienations. This is the post-Christian and post-modern world that arrogantly renounces the “religious sense” and denies “the idea of the holy”—renounces God and denies the soul. It is a sad paradox that conservative leaders and thinkers often fail, in the present climate of their political victories, to recognize or implement their spiritual identity and responsibility. No authentic conservative metaphysic can be operable when the discipline of God and the discipline of the soul have been ceded to the doxai, the dialectical structures and superstructures of modern life.

We hear the claim that we live in “a decade dominated by conservatism.” But such a claim must be assessed in the light of what precisely identifies and measures the particular dominances spawned by the conservative political phenomenon. From a metaphysical standpoint that phenomenon is neither reassuring nor inspiring. Its major social-political orientation is one of program and policy and points to a conservatism that has a downward tendency. That is, the conservatism that we view in the public sector is largely socioeconomic in character; its aims are too easily influenced or tainted by the idea of mechanical progress, by that overriding belief that distinguishes a modernity that scorns divine transcendencies and embraces the instrumentalist article of faith that Simone Well sees at the center of our spiritual crisis: that “matter is a machine for manufacturing good.” No expression better particularizes the supreme impiety of the modern age as it molds habits of mind, attitudes, expectations, and aspirations. This impiety has gone unchecked during the past decade, and this dismaying fact should trouble the conscience of conservatives who subscribe to any spiritual standard and value. The world of pure instrumentality, in which everything is subordinated to the mechanical principle to which Simone Weil refers, is a profane world that needs to be unflinchingly opposed.

The perceived public image of conservatism, especially as it is now articulated and conveyed by fancy conservative journalists and publicists, is one of glitter. But all that glitters in it is not gold. Too often a cleverly packaged conservatism lacks the spiritual disciplines indispensable to a serious concern with ultimate issues that go far beyond public-policy issues. It lacks transcendence in the contexts that Saul Bellow stresses when he complains that there is now “no particular concern in the foundation of the country with the higher life of the country.” Such a conservatism, to be sure, has achieved institutional prominence and electoral popularity, and its glamor has even appealed to the electronics media. It is, in an organizational and popular sense, strikingly successful. But all these external trappings do not satisfy the higher spiritual demands and responsibilities that are inherent in the conservative metaphysic.

What has been concocted for popular consumption is a kind of formalist conservatism, with an emphasis on the medium, on style, on technique, on constructs. Its spokesmen and popularizers, however capable and impressive they may be in creating a “verbal icon,” seldom speak in a sapiential or soteriological sense. They acutely remind us that what we must restore to conservative theory and thought is a language that is sermonic, as Weaver would say. Within this language, and metaphysic, God and soul not only occupy a central place but also define and inform a spiritual, and visionary, conservatism. No significant restoration of an authentic conservatism in our time is possible without our giving our first allegiance to spiritual principles of order—to the life of the spirit, as Eric Voegelin insists, that is the source of order in man and in society.

We cannot escape the fact that during the past ten years or so conservatism has experienced a spiritual decline even as it has made considerable political gains. This is an aberrant phenomenon in need of amendment. For whenever the conservative idea permits its spiritual aspirations to slip away and to be dominated by political motives and arrangements it is no longer genuinely conservative. The interior life of conservatism, in effect, has been subordinated to surface-consciousness, to the external world. By putting on the character of illusion it is no longer “capable of infinity” or making “contact with nonexistent reality,” to use a Voegelinian terminology. For conservatism, then, to be metaphysically viable it must return to its center of principles and recommit itself to the transcendences and values that fix its spiritual ethos, shape its work, register its vision.

“It is out of reverence for the moral ideal,” Jose Ortega y Gasset counsels us, “that we must fight against its greatest enemies, which are perverse moralities.” If we are to recover “the moral ideal” and if we are to be reconsecrated to the life of the spirit, we are in urgent need of an unconditional conservatism, lean, ascetical, disciplined, prophetic, unswerving in its censorial task, strenuous in its mission, strong in its faith, faithful in its dogma, pure in its metaphysic. It must now cleanse itself of gilded accretions, false complacencies, expedient compromises, meretricious temptations, and drifting aims before it can be filled, morally and spiritually, with “a burning fervour full of anguish,” as the great mystics would say. In its present state of crisis, conservatism must submit itself to an exacting metanoia. Only in acts of repentance will contemporary conservatism find seeds of renewal.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreReprinted with the gracious permission of Modern Age (Spring 1986).

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