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conservativeVirtue and the Promise of Conservatism: The Legacy of Burke & Tocqueville, by Bruce Frohnen

In his role as a professor of English literature, Thomas Howard sometimes gives his class a list of the following words: majesty, magnanimity, valor, courtesy, grace, chastity, virginity, nobility, splendor, ceremony, taboo, mystery, purity. The reaction he gets is quite predictable and never intelligent: “…either a total blank, embarrassed snickers, or incredulity,” he writes, adding:

“The entire list of words land in their laps like a heap of dead basalt meteorites lately arrived from some other realm. They don’t know what to do with them. They have never encountered them. The words are entirely foreign to the whole set of assumptions that has been written (or I should say televised) into these students’ imaginations for the whole of their lives. Majesty? The man must be mad. Valor? What’s that? Courtesy? What a bore. Virginity? Ho-ho-there’s one for you!After all, Howard’s young charges must reason, if it can’t be touched, tasted, seen, heard, or smelled it must not exist (a fine philosophy, if one happens to be a dog). Of what use are such hieroglyphs?” 

Of what use indeed? Commenting upon the mind of the modern reformer in one of his recent books, conservative man of letters Russell Kirk has addressed this issue, writing that only by “proper attention to prudent reform – effected by holding to the enduring norms – may we preserve and improve “a tolerably ordered, just, and free society.” And among the enduring norms, the permanent things, is virtue. “In the long run,” James Q. Wilson has written, “the public interest depends on private virtue.” “Any proper defense of society must grow from a desire to serve that which is old, familiar, and accepted as the will of God,” writes Bruce Frohnen in Virtue and the Promise of Conservatism. “And virtue is acting in ways that promote and provide the means for this defense.”

The mind of the modern is a mind infected with the belief spawned by Hobbes that the primary goal of life is self-preservation. As in the case of Howard’s students, the modern equates the pleasurable with the good and the physically verifiable with the true. This bent mindset is, in fact, the problem of the modern age. Frohnen’s book is a counterblast to it, containing much wisdom, eloquently stated, and appearing at a time when the several strands of modern American conservatism are in a state of snarled disarray and reorganization – to an arguably great extent concerning this very issue. Of Frohnen’s book it may be said that not since the appearance of Kirk’s monumental study, The Conservative Mind (1953), has cultural conservatism been so well defined, its sharp differences with competing philosophies so delineated, its colors so freshened.

But in a nation in which writings by the likes of R. Emmett Tyrell and Charles Krauthammer are published regularly, is there a need for yet another book on conservative thought? Why yes, if only to define the life-giving differences between cultural conservatism and the neoconservatism of the above-named authors, thus giving the heirs of Edmund Burke, John Adams, and T. S. Eliot a voice. There are indeed significant differences among those strands of conservatism, especially concerning the long-scoffed-at issue of virtue in American life.

“To the extent that we abandon our pursuit of virtue,” writes Frohnen, “we abandon the necessary link between ethics and politics, and between the transcendent and the material -between God and man – which is the basis of any truly good life.” The virtuous life being of little worth to those who pontificate unctuously about the need for an envy-driven ethic of fairness and sentimental utilitarianism, virtue is not widely spoken of today without a sarcastic smirk. It is considered little in the world of neoconservatism and libertarianism, much less among those who desire a new politics of meaning in this Year of Our Lord 1994. This is no small matter, for as Frohnen points out:

To promote affirmation in a time of cynicism, in a time during which iconoclasm has formed a new and intolerant intellectual orthodoxy, is to be truly “revolutionary. ”But such promotion is the essence of conservatism. We must understand and cherish whence we come so that we may determine in which direction we should travel in the journey of life, and in our attempt to extract ourselves from our current predicament.

Just so; for much “extraction” needs doing, now as then. Burke and Tocqueville themselves lived in far from placid times, and their own writings and activities were calculated to redeem the time in an age of sophistry, faithlessness, and levelling. Frohnen interprets the thought of each, arguing that the writings of both Burke and Tocqueville give sustained, compelling philosophical arguments for the conservative “good life” (meaning the life of accepting virtue, not a life with the promise of a winter home in Bimini). Each defended his own and other societies on the ground that existing institutions, varied though they are in custom and convention, allow for a life which promotes service to the community: service given out of affection for those with whom one has lived one’s life.

For Burke as for Tocqueville, the conservative good life can only exist and human nature be fulfilled only in those societies whose citizens serve the existing social order because of uncoerced affection and the belief in its goodness. “Contemporary conservatives who deny the existence of or the need for accepting virtue in effect deny their own philosophical roots and the possibility of achieving their own inherent goal,” writes Frohnen.

His own goal, in Virtue and the Promise of Conservatism, is to show that the conservative good life has been expounded in coherent form, and that it can and should be so expounded again. Like virtue itself, the arguments of Burke and Tocqueville for accepting virtue have been obscured to the modern mind by the omnipresent stress upon egalitarian materialism, itself the poisonous legacy of Hobbes and others. But by brightening one’s own corner, in the burden of the old hymn – that is, by renewing our commitment to the truths and life of the spirit – “we may regain our understanding of God’s will and our need to follow it if we are to live a good life.”

Many claim that conservatism is neither philosophical nor coherent – this because, not being an ideology, it proposes no single blueprint for creating the best society. Frohnen argues that this common charge rests upon an exaggeration – whether willful or not – of the powers of human reason, and upon an excessively narrow, near-utilitarian vision of philosophy’s nature and end. Conservative political philosophy, Frohnen counters, based as it is upon recognition of flawed humanity’s limitations, asserts man’s need for God, for tradition, and for “the natural attachments arising from the fundamental institutions of family, church, and neighborhood.” Conservative philosophy recognizes that any good life “depends at least as much upon goodness of heart as upon brilliance of mind”: that – to put it briefly – the content of one’s character matters greatly, not just the ability to campaign successfully for the politically correct cause of the hour. Such a belief is the Parable of the Widow’s Mite writ large.

Having reconstructed Burke’s and Tocqueville’s arguments concerning human nature, the proper scope and limits of reason, and the requirements for a virtuous life, Frohnen shifts to a discussion of several twentieth-century conservative figures. In doing so he demonstrates that the fundamental elements of conservative philosophy remain coherent and meaningful when adapted to a different time and different circumstances. Frohnen focuses on the writings of three prominent conservative figures who represent major sectors of the post-war movement: the “libertarian” or “liberal-conservative’’ philosopher Michael Oakeshott, neoconservative journalist Irving Kristol, and cultural conservative Russell Kirk. (In discussing them, the author makes brief reference to the writings of Catholic thinker Michael Novak, who provides “an all-too-rare defense of existing institutions and practices in terms of the spiritually based good life that they make possible.”)

Oakeshott, Kristol, and Kirk are each considered conservative, but each holds what seems, on the surface, differing views on the nature of man and society, and on the proper nature and role of politics. Having outlined their divergent philosophies, Frohnen shows that these very different thinkers indeed share a common attachment to a conservative vision of human nature and the virtuous life recognizably Burkean and Tocquevillean – Kirk especially so, as regards Burke. Each of the three principal moderns examined by Frohnen acknowledges the post-Hobbesian view of human nature and the role of politics, and each seeks to address this dilemma by emphasizing the role of traditional beliefs, practices, and institutions in bringing about the good life. Granted, not all these thinkers have succeeded in constructing “a powerful defense of existing society and a conservative approach to rebuilding the good life, nor do all of them reject materialist arguments in favor of appeals to accepting virtue,” writes Frohnen, who contends that all contemporary conservatives should do both, and that the latter is necessary for the former.

Oakeshott, Kristol, and Kirk approach the modern dilemma and its solution on very different terms, but nonetheless each perceives a crucial problem in our loss of virtue as a norm. Each sees the need for spiritual rebirth in contemporary society. Briefly, Oakeshott seeks to persuade us to embrace virtuous self-restraint, using the story of the Tower of Babel to show the disastrous nature of attempts to immanentize the Christian eschaton. And by defending the performance record of democratic capitalism, Kristol seeks to slow or prevent our current materialistic predicament from sliding into the fetid embrace of statist collectivism. “Redeem the time, redeem the dream,” Kirk has written, quoting Eliot. He seeks to revivify belief in traditional norms and address educational concerns in order for humanity to restore its bent or broken links with the permanent things.

The response of each of these three moderns to our cultural predicament has weaknesses as well as merits, claims Frohnen, and I leave it to readers to discern the validity of the author’s critiques on this matter. Both Oakeshott and Kristol, he says, “seem to lack a full vision of the conservative good life, and Kirk’s education prescription appears to lack a concrete basis in conservative habituation.” But each speaks for “the goals first fully explicated by Burke and first fully applied to democratic society by Tocqueville.”

This is a book finely thought out, relentlessly logical and stately in pacing and construction, especially in the early chapters. Thus it is not light reading by any means, but it is very clear and very well crafted – so much so that much of my summary of Frohnen’s arguments, stated above, consists of indirect discourse. In its stately, deliberate pacing Virtue and the Promise of Conservatism is reminiscent, in places, of Eliot’s Idea of a Christian Society. Unlike Eliot’s book, though, Frohnen’s is directed toward the conservative adherent seeking further illumination; for example, the author assumes that his reader is a believer (or a fair-minded observer of belief) in God and has a sympathetic understanding of what is meant by the term “natural law,” which (as Kirk describes it) refers to “a loosely knit body of rules of action prescribed by an authority superior to the state.” Given the fact that the very existence of natural law has been denied at one time or another by personages ranging from conservative jurist Robert Bork to liberal Senator Joseph Biden, perhaps Frohnen would have done well to have explicated this matter to a greater extent.

There is altogether much to commend and little to take issue with. However, Frohnen is mistaken in asserting that Russell Kirk, unlike Burke or Tocqueville, “emphasizes the role of books at the expense of any ’moral habits.”’ I believe that this statement is exactly backwards, citing as partial evidence the fact that Kirk learned how to read only late in his boyhood and – as he relates in his forthcoming autobiography, The Sword of Imagination – by that time he had absorbed many of the moral habits and norms of his family and community – moral habits and norms which became elemental to his belief system.

Kirk has stressed in many of his works that the role of the “little platoons” precedes the role of books in forming virtuous character, though good books are certainly of great supportive, supplemental, and instructive value. For example, in his most recent essay collection, The Politics of Prudence (1993), Kirk writes, “The sources of a conservative order are not theoretical writings, but rather custom, convention, and continuity.” He adds, “It is possible for books to comment upon custom, convention, and continuity; but not for books to create these social and cultural essences. Society brings forth books; books do not bring forth society.” (To his credit, though, Frohnen is on the right trail concerning his subject’s high regard for books, as Kirk‘s personal library runs to over 10,000 volumes!)

Finally, it is worth noting that it is typical of the advance praise sought out for many books’ promotional purposes for a certain amount of hyperbole to permeate the quotations which result. Not so in the case of Frohnen’s Virtue and the Promise of Conservatism. For, having examined them, I concur fully with every such remark, all of them measured and judicious, written by Ellis Sandoz, George W. Carey, Gordon J. Schochet, and Werner J. Dannhauser in advance praise of this book; and with Peter Lawler’s succinct claim that this is a “very good book, and a rather original one. The author covers a tremendous amount of ground very intelligently. I know of no comparable defense of conservative traditionalism.” Neither does this reviewer.

Book mentioned  may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Reprinted with the gracious permission of Modern Age (Summer 1994).

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  1. Two thoughts: Rousseau argued in his lettre sur les Spectacles that moral censorship was praiseworthy in cities where there was virtue, for there theatre and the arts would corrupt the citizenry (thus his opposition to theatre in Geneva). Where there was no virtue, Rousseau allowed that censorship is a vice, for there the corruption of convention is the awakening of thought amongst the thoughless (thus his support for theatre in Paris).

    The great tragedy of our times is that there is no more youth to be corrupted. This excellent tension between conventional and natural virtue that colored western history has given way to a symbiotic slumber between conventional and natural vice

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