I need to preach from a Christian text. Being Catholic, I often don’t think of the Bible first in searching for said text. We’ve been reading Chesterton’s Orthodoxy in my little side seminar on Christian political thought. Before Chesterton, we read Pascal and Saint Augustine. And that prepared one of my students to criticize Chesterton, quite rightly, for being too orthodox—or not existential enough. Others emphasize, also quite rightly, that poor pitiful Pascal is way too existential, and, by contrast, Chesterton is very unwhiny and very funny. For Chesterton, Pascal’s flirtation with madness—and his description of the characteristic human condition (including political life) as madness—comes from trying to think without any orthodoxy at all. For confirmation of this view, you can check what Tocqueville says about Pascal thinking himself to death before he was forty.
In any case, it would seem that existential conservatism is a bit oxymoronic, unless you’re some kind of heroic Randian or something. The truth is that when conservatism gets too existential—or too detached from common sense and common beliefs—the typical result is losing oneself in diversions. That’s why there’s a close correlation between our versions of radical libertarianism and excessive obsession with the screen and ephemeral enjoyments in general. As Carl has been explaining (and he’s really being feeling the postmodern and conservative spirit in his inspired posts), theoretical libertarianism–understood as the tale of the absolutely sovereign individual—readily becomes a practical threat to the republicanism required to sustain the civic spirit at the foundation of government that’s both limited and democratic.
Here’s the text, from Chesterton, for today: “We need not debate the mere words evolution and progress. I prefer to call it reform. For reform implies form.” What we call reform conservatism is about limiting and directing government in view of what we know in common about who we are as free and relational beings.
Last night, I saw the traditional Irish band the Chieftains perform with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. What the Chieftains have done is save traditional Irish music by reforming it, by finding a place for it in the broader currents of the classier forms of contemporary popular music. Many of their “traditional” tunes are actually of very recent origin. There is, for example, the beautiful “On Raglan Road,” which is the ruefully sad memories of a failed love affair by the 20th-century Irish poet Patrick Cavanaugh set to a traditional tune. You probably have heard the Van Morrison version, and Morrison, of course, has often collaborated with the Chieftains in this wonderful reform project.
More generally, conservative reform is not about rejecting technological or egalitarian progress, but subordinating relatively impersonal and often morally neutral progress to personal reform. As Solzhenitsyn reminded us, technology should be understood as a gift given to us as an intricate trial of our free will. It poses challenges to the relationships between the generations, as well as to the relationship among fellow citizens, friends, family members, and citizens. It keeps us, generally, from living calmly and responsibly as beings born to love and die, and it makes us ridiculously paranoid about extinction, beginning with the extinction of me. The one true progress, as Solzhenitsyn explains, is inseparable from the project of personal reform that should animate every human life.
And so the Chieftains, in reforming Irish music, mean to keep alive its indispensable relational content and form, what keep alive the memories of a proud people. It’s the music, as Pascal might emphasize, of deposed kings and chieftains, of open, generous, highly erotic, and spiritual saints, scholars, and poets—not to mention republican rebels. It’s part of the music that ennobles our country of immigrants, whose music is of Irish origin as much as anything else. All this is not to say that the highly romantic, honorable, and violent Irish have typically exercised good judgment, but skill and competence and peaceful and tolerant interpersonal expertise aren’t everything.
So the challenge of musicians, philosophers, priests, preachers, and political leaders in our country is conservative reform, to adapt the whole truth about who we are to the “environment” in which we now live.