Respect for the notion of tradition comprises a core element within the paleoconservative bag of ideas. As it should. Respect for tradition constitutes one of those attitudes that separates the paleoconservative from both the neoconservative (for whom tradition begins some 200 years ago at most) and many libertarians (for whom the individual is an end in itself that tradition represses). It is most certainly true of progressivism, whose collectivism shares many of the same presuppositions of the libertarian (gotta get those individuals in line!) and thus the same response. No, tradition defines the paleoconservative identity, for it is within tradition that one finds oneself liberated from both the loneliness of selfishness and the meaninglessness of a centralized, impersonal, and oppressive bureaucracy. Here, one is introduced instead to family, a language, and a set of meaningful manners of personally caring and being cared for. Tradition is lifeblood.
As a college educator who, indeed, teaches his paleoconservative principles, I face a difficult task. I have to convince students—usually overeager to experience the world apart from parents for the first time—to take tradition seriously. To date, my best pleas for advocacy open along these lines: We are already inextricably bonded to a tradition of some sort. The question is whether it’s a good one or bad one. If a person should seek to free himself from his traditions, he should study that tradition thoroughly—knowing it inside and out—so as to grasp that which may be binding. No doubt, when students listen, they often find that it is today’s ideologies, rendered at the level of unabashed liberal (both collectivist and libertarian) critique, that are the most coercive and harmful.
This argument stands strong so far as I can tell. The problem is that it too often fails to compel. Students, it seems, have already been so influenced by certain liberal trends advocating the rejection of tradition that my statements fall on deaf ears. However, in my teaching, I have found a new and unlikely ally in this intellectual battle: Confucius. Less than four years ago, I would have dismissed this ancient gentleman almost immediately. The thought of bringing one of the purported main intellectual influences of the Maoist revolution—not to mention someone whom dedicated cosmopolitans and diversity-mongers alike would generally compel students to study—into the developing scrutinies of my students would have been a non-starter.
Conversely, I’ve found over the past few years that Confucius is quite helpful, at least after one sifts through his too oft leftist, Western commentators. (With anti-Western bents, of course.)
Regarding the leftist positions often ascribed to Confucius, they now seem clearly wrong. If any analogy exists between Confucius’ thought and the West, it’s unsurprisingly found in the notion of subsidiarity—that higher levels of law must be grounded comfortably within the lower, more family-oriented traditions. After all, when asked by someone why he has no spot in his province’s government, Confucius responds, “[I]t is all filial conduct! Just being filial to your parents and befriending you brothers is carrying out the work of government. (2.21)”* Indeed, the statement is by far saner than those held by Socrates in that great Western work called the Republic, which advocates a socialized form of parenting and camaraderie.
Needless to say, one of the main principles of Confucian thought is found in a specifically named virtue of filiality: that one owes loyalty primarily to one’s family and its good. Confucius pushes the point to its extreme end. For instance,
The governor of She in conversation with Confucius said, “In our village there is someone called a ‘True Person.’ When his father took a sheep on the sly, he reported him to the authorities.” Confucius replied, “Those who are true in my village conduct themselves differently. A father covers for his son, and a son covers for his father. And being true lies in this. (13.18)
While the statement surely provokes, one easily affirms it fully with something like the addition that the son, for the sake of his father, also return the stolen sheep.
This is a far cry, however, from collectivist understandings of communal organization, which draws us either into the cult of humanity by asking us to contribute our loyalties to an abstraction (controlled, of course, by the UN, IMF, WB, EU and lord knows whatever other acrimonious acronyms there may be) over our families; or calls us into cults of nationhood, asking us to pledge our loyalties to impersonal and centralized bureaucracies before our most beloved relations. No, Confucius’ filial stance is utterly anathema to such positions.
This moral focus on the nature of family and the duties we owe our families should not surprise. Not only is it common within ancient modes of thinking, but it also fits perfectly well with another of Confucius’ main principles: ritual propriety. The virtue of ritual propriety focuses on song, dance, and ritual and their proper performance, in getting these things right and in performing them correctly. Despite the consummate fear that Confucius may ask one to read his book in tights and a tutu, a big part of his emphasis on ritual propriety rests on the notion that a remembrance of one’s filial and communal traditions brings one identity and allows for the production of communal—familial and tribal—harmony.
We tend to obviate such formalities today, especially given a certain amount of anti-formalist leanings in all of us. No doubt, we have good reason to do so: pure formalisms lead to a lack of flexibility in relationships, a lack of capacity to live them out in the real world. Still, the idea holds sway, and can be found in any number of analogies. Those of us who attend Mass or a church service of some kind absolutely notice—and usually get upset by—a change in the procession. Our sense of connection is lost, and we focus on what’s changed rather than spirit of the community of the Lord. Indubitably, we end up cursing at our priest beneath our breath. Or again, most have awkwardly shaken hands with someone whose grip, taken at the end of the fingers, is uncomfortably light. Or, still more uncomfortably, the one who grips hard toward the knuckles and shakes violently, like a dog snapping a varmint’s neck. The first shaker causes us to question our interlocutor’s bona fides, and the second forces us to question what the shaker really wants to shake at us. Both force us to ask whether it’s a relation in which we actually want to engage. These represent rituals whose implications are subtly severe. And Confucius knows it.
In focusing on ritual propriety, what Confucius does is ask us to take up the internal meanings of the traditions in which we already live. Like a jazz soloist who studies the licks, solos, and attitudes of the soloists before him, we are to internalize and take up the tradition as one identified with it, contributing to it, and extending it in ways that the Good so calls us to do. I couldn’t ask anything more of my students than this.
As one can thus see, Confucius’ corpus forms a boon for those of us paleoconservatives who would seek to remind ourselves and our friends of the importance of both the tradition and the family in our lives (the former being conferred by the latter). Still, a question remains: why give into certain forms of diversification to teach such thoughts when the West’s own traditions have plenty to reflect on in the same manner? The answer is twofold.
For one, not all attempts to think through traditions beyond one’s own must submit to the cultish call to diversify. Such traditions are, simply said, interesting in their own right. And I hope there’s nothing wrong with a spirit of wonder even in our highly politicized times. More importantly, engagement with traditions beyond one’s own is not necessarily based on the idea that one must become more sensitive to others’ positions in the cosmopolitan sense. (Although the divine possibility of hospitality—to graciously open one’s home to the stranger—emerges in such sensitivities. But this virtue is not a cosmopolitan but a paleoconservative virtue because it can distinguish between family and stranger.) Rather, in defining the tradition of the other, one also thereby better defines that tradition from which he himself comes—at least if he’s intellectually honest.
Second, and as I’ve mentioned, students have already been turned away from the Western traditions by anti-traditionalists. Such traditions have been fully subsumed under the idea of being innately oppressive and patriarchal. (Parts for whole and all that.) What the study of Confucius allows one to do as a teacher is to distance one’s students from those over-emphasized critiques and get students to take up the question of what, again, it would, could, and should mean to embody one’s tradition. In a study of Confucius, we become freed to reflect on a thinker who’s not been bludgeoned into a bloody pulp by the cudgels of liberalism. As such, he can most certainly help to direct us back to ourselves, our families, and our communities precisely because he remains so distant.
Books on the people and topics discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
*All quotes from Confucius’ Analects are taken from The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation by Roger T. Ames and Henry Rosemont Jr. (Ballantine Books, 1999).