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The “Conservative Scholar” of the next century will engage a most formidable responsibility as scholar, as a borrower and lender of truth in the interest of community. He must struggle to recover, to clarify, terms in relation to the reality of existential creation itself: positive law, natural law, person, individual…

Polonius: “What do you read, my lord?”
Hamlet: “Words, words, words.”

shakespeare marion montgomeryAt this turning of a millennium it is both a difficult and a dangerous undertaking to use signs, most especially to attempt wise words suited to the recovery and sharing of what T.S. Eliot called “The Permanent Things” necessary to community. Difficult, because our signs are decayed by indifference to or deliberate misuse of them. Symptom to the point: Only the “sound-bite” passes as currency in the commerce of the “global village.” The speculator in signs feels forced to bright facility at the expense of reflective economy. He is expected to be as quick-witted as an Oscar Wilde, whatever purchase involved: Whether as poet or as philosopher, but most certainly as politician. That is why the “media expert” is the chief expense in political campaigns, to sell a program or elect a candidate to a public authority over programs. Ours has become an age demanding instant communication of words suited to arresting feeling, out of a gradual conditioning of public expectations which have set thought aside from feeling. How little we seem to notice that the clever word is in this moment epigraph but decays into this moment’s epitaph the moment passed. Such is the intellectual climate of our dissolving community with which the scholar now, and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, must contend.

If in this climate the task of bearing witness to the truth of things is difficult, it is even more so dangerous to the bearer of signs, to the scholar whose offices are those of both poet and philosopher. It is dangerous to him in relation to a primary responsibility to his own integrity as person—as an intellectual soul incarnate. In pursuing this responsibility, in literature and philosophy, I have more and more been concerned with signs as touching upon truth beyond the reaches of zip codes or e-mail stations, beyond scholarly journals and books. No wonder, then, that I approach this present responsibility, to bear cryptic witness out of fifty years in the academy, with fear and trembling. What may I say to the “Conservative Scholar” who finds himself inheritor of responsibilities to signs in the “Twenty-First Century?”

I remember Nestor two millennia (almost) ago, garrulous beyond his several wars in the midst of yet another one, regaling impatient Greek warriors in their prime under the walls of Troy. The circumstances offer analogy most haunting, if one substitutes Academy for Troy and Conservative Scholar for impatient Greek warrior. More centrally relevant to prudence, in respect to an appropriate literary analogue to my present responsibility, I remember not Nestor but Sophocles’s Tiresias at Thebes. But then remember that wise seer in Dante’s treatment of him: In Hell, his head turned backward to rub his nose in history for presuming a wisdom presumptuous about future contingencies—as if he might resolve them intellectually as “seer” and solve the future. For Dante, the concern becomes for history (past, present, future) as it must be engaged in the light of eternity, requiring of the poet as seer that he sort and maintain the permanent things as best he may, as fallible seer. That is, as prophetic poet, Dante recognizes his own limits, being responsible to recall us to known but forgotten truths about our given, created, nature as intellectual soul incarnate.

The difficulty to poet or philosopher or scholar is to sort tradition itself in order to rescue whatever of history is viable to a present concern for a continuing community of the living and the dead, with some confident expectation in the yet-to-be-born. It is a concern governed primarily by the light of eternity, avoiding fear of or presumptions about future contingencies. Through this concern the worthy things inherited from our fathers become viable, a nurturing out of tradition in a living present to this community. My emphasis on terms is to call attention to terms in relation to the truth in them, which truth depends upon truth as independent of my uses of terms, that being the ancient reality long neglected in a progressive modernism. As a conservator of life-giving truth to community, I know from experience that I am already tempted to arrest the viable inheritance to mere artifact.

This is a danger to me differing somewhat from that to Tiresias, who inclines (in Dante’s view) to a prideful holding through presumption. Tiresias would prove more dramatic a presence, of course, than Hamlet’s would-be mentor Laertes. That this is so requires only our listening carefully to political prophets of the time. Or to this point if in question: cast a cold eye on the tabloid offerings next to the grocery checkout. Nostradamus is a growing presence as our Tiresias to the popular mind at this millennium’s turning. A duller, more tedious spectacle is our inclination to tradition as artifact, in contrast to sensational prophecy by our seers, whom we now term experts.

Shakespeare catches, by wit and humor, a dramatic presence of dullness in that play between Hamlet and Polonius, so effectively that we may lose something of Polonius’s witness to truth. “To thine own self be true,” he solemnly proclaims, an obligation we might argue to be both Greek and Christian, as Plato and St. Augustine would argue. But the dullness in Polonius is “off-putting.” And, suspected by Hamlet as being from one in cahoots with his own devious elders, Polonius’s wise words seem codified and condescending, lacking wisdom’s immediacy. For, as youth is likely to know intuitively, true wisdom bears an immediacy to present contingencies to youth’s action in a present threatening moment, though to be acquired by long labors turning beards gray. Both Hamlet and the young warriors under the walls of Troy know as much, though they may treat wise words as but words, words, words. Sound-bites untuned to the present, savored by old busybodies remembering their lost youth. Eager youth is seldom ravenous for wisdom.

The young know that Polonius’s wisdom is borrowed wisdom, hinting at collusion and hence suspect. In the old days. When I was young. As my grandfather used to say. And so impatient youth responds to such preamble as if merely bearing dullness in Polonius. Or perhaps combined with an arrogant affront in a Tiresias. Not a deportment in the old inviting to a reflective prospect upon the future by the young, however much any seer of any moment may actually intend to wake them to a sense of reality sufficient to youth’s responsibilities. Thus wise old Homer puts dramatically one of those permanent things concerning fathers and sons, but wisely puts it with charitable humor: young warriors on the brink of first battles, impatient of old Nestor as they turn to the immediacy of an ancient “multicultural” conflict in pursuit of glory in the name of justice.

Even so, a Nestor is obligated to bear witness to the present. And so I must, to the young warrior on the threshold of action—the “Conservative Scholar” besieging or invading the academic city in its growing collapse to jungle—identify both the difficulty and the danger he is obligated to endure by such witness in my signs. What I may or must say comes out of fifty years spent in a collapsing intellectual community, the academy which Jonathan Swift examined nearly three-hundred years ago with devastating irony. Though the careful, analytical account of the Grand Academy of Lagado by his majesty’s surgeon Lemuel Gulliver up almost to our century passed as of the literary genre called satire, in the next century it may well be taught (if allowed into the State Lagado of tomorrow) as a naturalistic fiction based in current reality.


Increasingly, I find it uncomfortable in describing myself, or being described, as a conservative, though my most central concern is to conserve what is viable to my own journeying as homo viator. This because terms have so easily become shibboleths used for power that they obscure valid content. As Eric Voegelin observed, our signs are largely opaque, to which I add that they thus serve as self-reflectors rather than as openings upon truth. And so I find myself attempting definition and redefinition, lest I distort truth and be misunderstood by the wary. Hence I am cautious toward epithets like conservative, now popular as a pejorative term in our current ideological wars. Thus epithet by adversarial intent is turned epitaph to prevent careful reflection. I would conserve the valid. But then I encounter a cognate term, conservation, which as flag to current thematic programs appears most various and unacceptable in significance—in its signifying meaning. As an ambiguous term, it appears sprung from a liberal mentality (in a pejorative popular sense), rather than a conservative one. It grows in authority, at least since William of Occam, in proportion as it becomes established doctrine eschewing conservation as properly our governing, through responsibility as persons, the holiness of things—a responsibility charged to us as stewards of being.

The holiness of things: These are things encountered by homo viator, and existing as holy because they are the existing consequences of a sustaining action of transcendent Love—however that relation between a causing Love and the thing caused may be riddled and “intermed” by scientist, philosopher, poet. The British poet David Jones, in a great but neglected poem, Anathemata, remarks in his “Preface” that “while Prudentia is exercised about our intentions, Ars is concerned with the shape of a finished article,” the made thing, whose purpose in the making is tribute to, rescue of, whatever things are “cursed,” the “profane things that somehow are redeemed” in part through our sacramental devotions as stewards. He speaks movingly and at length here of the “holiness of things,” which I invoke as governing each person’s responsibilities to stewardship—each according to his gifts as person.

Certainly, person proves a term emptied of its traditional content through promotion of the term individual. In that older understanding, person is an intellectual soul incarnate, understood as dependent upon causes other than himself. But with the gradual glorification of the person through individualism, with a growing virtue of autonomy through individuality, the sense of a givenness of personhood becomes obscured. We come to value most, as Emerson would have it, the “self-made man.” And so out of autonomous sovereignty of individuals, promoted by conglomerates of persons, there developed a concomitant but contrary doctrine: the autonomous sovereignty of the individual as a god beyond being itself. The two doctrines are currently embattled in contentions between individual rights and a collectivistic common good. It is contention to the continuing detriment of the holiness of things made—created—but most especially including the person.

Our scholar, now on the threshold of the new millennium, will find the coming age a rich field, embedded with ironies, though a complex of antithetic circumstances to his thought will not be kindly inclined to his responsibilities to the truth. Thus, the individual as conservationist, affected by residual idealism, in his very deportment will likely become naively inclined to a detachment from creation as holy in its things. After all, the latest science would prohibit such a perspective. And so in a desperateness of idealism he may conclude that mankind is himself alien to creation—a foreign destructive agent ravenously intruding upon an ambiguous “nature” rather than himself a fallen, sinful, created person. If one so decides, man must be put in isolation from nature. Once declared by that old poet King David only a little lower than the angels and wonderfully made, he must now be declared lower than plants and animals and earth and water and fire and air.

It is not that man’s violations of stewardship since the Renaissance are to be gainsaid. But what is to be observed in his ravenous progress in and against nature is an accompanying gradual self-apotheosis, whereby he presumes himself by angelism higher than the angels, an autonomous seizing by gnostic power of an illusion of his freedom as if absolute, thus evidenced in his destructions of what is now called the environment rather than creation. So conspicuous are the effects of this presumption that a kindred version of a Puritanism secularized as Pragmatism emerges: environmentalism as pseudo-religion. But the residual person in us experiences a disquiet with this new religion. What the person would require is not man’s binding, lest he violate “nature” by a positive law divorced from natural law. Meanwhile, among the ironies, our scholar encounters the “environmentalist,” who tends to consent to and even to demand a divorce of the positive and natural law, in agreement with his adversary, the exploiter, in the interest of his own collective power. For he does not reject that convenient science which denies the transcendent as reconciler of positive and natural law.

As a present Laertes, then, I must encourage a recovery of person, a reorientation to stewardship of the holy, in recognition of our having been progressively dislocated from creation by the presumption now dominant that man is intellectually autonomous. There has been a long war since Occam, at least, over the world’s body, with allies aligning on either hand under the flags of exploiter of that body on the one hand and preservationist of that body on the other, those terms pejorative as applied one by the other. Two species akin evolved out of an ancient Puritanism in the old Manichaeans. It is more immediate to us out of our own Puritan fathers, occurring by a secularization of their intent to a shining city on the hill of “nature” once nature is forcefully ordered and subdued. The other, a Paganism sentimentalized, whose issue has become the question of the abolition of man to save “nature,” revelation to that end sought in curious ways by contemplating rocks in a desert perhaps with New Age enthusiasms.

And so the “Conservative Scholar” of the next century will engage a most formidable responsibility as scholar, as a borrower and lender of truth in the interest of community. He must struggle to recover, to clarify, terms in relation to the reality of existential creation itself: positive law, natural law, person, individual. His advantage: Each nascent person, though reduced to individual through intellectual reductions of the concept of personhood, nevertheless daily experiences that reality, which experience stirs common sense. His disadvantage: He will find himself as intellectual besieged within the academy. There he must contend with terms decayed through a rhetoric derived from Nominalism, sweetened by Cartesian idealism which is flattering to self-pity at its extreme. A rhetoric is made intellectually respectable through Kantian universalisms such as helped maintain our most famous “American Scholar,” Ralph Waldo Emerson. In short, our “Conservative Scholar” must contend with a general if vague intellectual deportment which is powerfully seductive, to judge by our current academic intelligentsia among whom he will of course discover exceptions, a heroic Diaspora devoted to the truth of things.

This is the first part in a two-part essay. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Winter 2000).

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