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men of the westConservative intellectuals tend to be a dismal sort. By natural disposition we are pessimistic people. We cannot really be blamed for this, when one considers the history of mankind and particularly the sorry history of human governance. From starting unnecessary wars to enslaving whole peoples to reducing the masses to poverty through excessive taxation, man, when clothed with the right to rule others, has shown himself to be a tyrant-in-waiting.

Moreover, we conservatives realize that human nature is intrinsically inclined to do evil, that utopias are unachievable and their pursuit dangerous, and that we are apt, over time, to lose our moorings to the commandments of God and His laws of nature. We thus tend to hold out little hope for the future.

As justification for our inherent pessimism we need only to look at the peculiar and sorry times in which we live: an era in which the Founding Fathers are considered “dead white men,” but in which the Constitution they made is held to be living; a time in which political compromise is valued as a priority but commitment to principle is reviled as naïve, quixotic; an age in which any kind of perverse speech or lifestyle is celebrated in the name of freedom, but in which free enterprise is stifled in the names of equality and compassion; a time in which information reigns supreme, but in which logical thinking is scarce; an era in which we have attained the greatest technological know-how but in which we have the least understanding of beauty, goodness, and truth.

Added to all this is our conservative tendency to revel in the nobility of lost causes. This in itself is not a bad thing at all—quite the opposite in fact. As T.S. Eliot said:

“We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that anything will triumph.”

But we have not taken Eliot’s words to heart. We mistakenly look for permanent victories, political and cultural, and when they do not come, we despair. We seem not to realize that it is not permanent victories that we should seek but rather the preservation of “the permanent things,” which is victory enough.

Keeping alive the flame, however, does not mean hiding its light. After all, a flame that is not open to the air will be snuffed out. Like Isaiah we are under the Divine injunction to be “a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind.” This means that conservative thinkers should not talk exclusively amongst themselves, as we are prone to do. (One might recall that perennial philosophical question: “If an intellectual presents a paper at an academic conference, does it make a sound?”) Instead, we need to shine forth the light of truth, goodness, and beauty through the best available means that can reach the masses; today that means the internet, and specifically online journals like The Imaginative Conservative.

As Sam Gamgee says in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: “There’s some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.”

In fighting our worthy battle, American conservatives can position their forces on the ramparts of certain premises: that the Founding Fathers, despite their flaws, still have much to teach us today; that the Constitution is actually dead, in the sense that its actual written words need to be taken seriously; that free enterprise is inextricably linked to political freedom and ordered liberty; that inquiry, to be free, must be grounded in reason and must be directed to the ascertainment of truth; and that information and technology are not goods in themselves unless they serve the good and the beautiful.

Yes, our enemy is strong, but we must remember that temporary victories are indeed possible if we keep sharp our Kirkian Sword of Imagination. As the composer Richard Wagner said, “Imagination creates reality.” Who, for example, would have thought that Ronald Reagan’s vision of the early 1980s of American victory over communism would become a reality less than a decade later? Of course, since the collapse of “the Evil Empire,” new terrors have arisen in the world— abroad and at home—to threaten Western Civilization, but we conservatives should have expected that.

This should not be interpreted to mean I advocate engaging in crusades to right wrongs across the globe; to the contrary, we should heed the sage advice of John Quincy Adams and not “go abroad looking for monsters to destroy.” Yet there indeed are dragons in the world, and some are rising in the East, and they may find us soon enough. The most fearsome ones, however, are already amongst us, inhabiting our very souls, twisting them toward evil, falsehood, and ugliness, and causing them to decay. But we can take comfort in Chesterton’s assurance that such dragons can be killed.

Western Civilization is undeniably in decline and indeed its very existence is in doubt. Yet these thoughts ought not to drag us conservatives down into a morass of defeatism. Sadly, though, some conservatives are indeed calling for retreat. They say that the hour is too late, that a remnant must run to the barricades and shield itself and whatever is left of Western Civilization from the barbarians at the gates. Like Tolkien’s King Theoden, they seek a Helm’s Deep in a desperate attempt to preserve the world of men from the hour of the Orc. But I call on conservatives to refuse to cede the current hour to darkness, and I join with the Aragorn of Tolkien and Peter Jackson in declaring:

A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends, and break all bonds of fellowship; but it is not this day! An hour of woe, and shattered shields, when the Age of Men comes crashing down; but it is not this day! This day we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good earth, I bid you stand, Men of the West!”

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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18 replies to this post
  1. As a conservative, I don’t get this reverence for “the Founders”: they were largely Enlightenment radicals, and I see very little evidence their war made things better than if they had obeyed their king.

    • Mr Callaghan, you need to read Russell Kirk on this. A wise Anglophile, he still discerned among America’s founders a drive to preserve ancient rights of Englishmen taken away by London.

    • Mr. Callahan, for clarity, it is not about the reverence of a person or persons. It is their commitment for ALL; to inalienable rights, liberties, and ideas which founded a Great Nation, my friend.

  2. As conservatives who believe in the fall, we could also note that these times may not necessarily be more “peculiar and so or” than most others; that a remnant always returns, and that if the West goes Christianity will start up and prosper someplace else.

  3. “Added to all this is our conservative tendency to revel in the nobility of lost causes.”

    We aren’t the ones with an expectation of creating Utopia (or Heaven) here on earth. But aside from that, I thought you did a very reasonable job of speaking on our behalf .

  4. I keep the following words by Chesterton beside my desk at work: “The one perfectly divine thing, the one glimpse of God’s paradise given on earth, is to fight a losing battle–and not lose it.” I don’t recall the specific source, but Chesterton’s sentiment lifts my spirits in difficult times. As Tolkien might say, the Third age passes, and the Fourth Age begins; what will survive the change?

  5. From that article:

    “Western Civilization is undeniably in decline and indeed its very existence is in doubt. ”

    I HATE this kind of pessimistic “Conservatism”! This line of “Thinking” will rally no one to any cause, and more likely convince people to just give up. One thing that separates Americans from most other peoples is we DON’T have a tragic outlook on life. We are optimists by nature. It is the left wingers who are the true pessimists. They believe people can’t handle freedom, thus they require Big Government to rule us. Their demands for material equality would stifle all creativity and innovation and send us back to the level of cave men, or worse, insects. Their view of the future is gloomy and terrifying, surely we can offer something much better!

    • “I HATE this kind of pessimistic “Conservatism”! ”

      Oh, you “HATE” it? Well, that settles the issue for me.

      “This line of “Thinking” will rally no one to any cause…”

      Someone seeking to “rally people to a cause” is… NOT a conservative!

  6. I think Tolkien was profoundly “liberal” in a lot of ways. He valued nature over industry and empathy over coercion. His ethics were rooted in Catholicism and so are conservative by today’s standards, but much of his concern for the “simple folk” of the world (the weak, the small) and the weight he assigned to kindness, forgiveness, understanding, pity, and mercy lend themselves to many contemporary “liberal” causes. And I think the good professor would liken many of America’s conservatives to the Orcs of Saruman rather than the Men of the West who so boldly defied the individualistic, militaristic, industrial, and nihilistic person of Sauron.

    • You hit the mark with your comments, Mr. Markey. Usage of the word “conservatism” is more contorted than that of any other political term, and it is a shame that Americans with even a shade of conservative sentiment have only the protean Republican party as their choice of affiliation if they hope to have anyone in Washington to represent even a modicum of their moral code. The Libertarians, the only viable alternatives, seem more radical than conservative, and they froth at the mouth with their extremism, which contrasts in spirit with the patient thoughtfulness of the Tolkiens, Lewises, and Buckleys of the world.

      The waning Holiday Season provides two categories by which to identify today’s main camps of American conservatives. First, we have the Black Friday Conservatives, who use Christmas to empty their stores and fill their wallets regardless of the Season’s meaning; and then we have the Christmas Conservatives, for whom Tolkien’s values of love, mercy, and tenderness are not liberal buzzwords but rather, if joined with faith and courage, signs of “the better angels of our nature.”

      We need a new party–perhaps the Humane Party.

  7. Stand and fight or run away. Pick your course then take it. And whatever label you feel compelled to wrap yourself in, have the decency to do so with your mouth shut.

  8. Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect, and whistle a happy tune, so no one can suspect, I’m afraid.
    And, what is the happy tune?
    This one…

    To dream … the impossible dream …
    To fight … the unbeatable foe …
    To bear … with unbearable sorrow …
    To run … where the brave dare not go …
    To right … the unrightable wrong …
    To love … pure and chaste from afar …
    To try … when your arms are too weary …
    To reach … the unreachable star …
    This is my quest, to follow that star …
    No matter how hopeless, no matter how far…
    To fight for the right, without question or pause …
    To be willing to march into Hell, for a Heavenly cause …
    And I know if I’ll only be true, to this glorious quest,
    That my heart will lie will lie peaceful and calm, when I’m laid to my rest …
    And the world will be better for this:
    That one man, scorned and covered with scars,
    Still strove, with his last ounce of courage,
    To reach … the unreachable star …

    And, if, as in the musical, you can affect the life of only one person for the better, you have succeeded.

  9. Ah! Don Quixote, I’m just rapping it up truly one of the greatest novels ever written, the musical and song you mention are of course noble and good in their own way (thoroughly different from the book but containing one theme of it). An excellent article particularly harmonizing Eliot and Tolkien.

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