the imaginative conservative logo

A people is constituted by the living who recognize, respect, and identify with their dead in the things and imprints of places that they left behind. The living love their dead by training their young into the social affections that keep their dead alive to them…

edmund burke charles-willson-peale-the_peale_familyEdmund Burke’s “eternal society”—the “primeval contract” among the dead, living, and unborn—is often cited as a crucial principle of conservatism. Conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, for example, has made this the cornerstone of his political philosophy and has authored numerous works attempting philosophically to ground this concept. And while I find many of his arguments convincing, more work needs to be done. In particular, conservatives need to provide a legitimate phenomenological link or ground for a temporal connection between place and people. That seems to be Burke’s claim: that there is some real connection among the dead, living, and unborn and a particular place.

To ground philosophically this intergenerational solidarity, I argue that we ought to look to the potential connection between the laborer and the products of his labor within a social context across time. Generational civil solidarity is achieved through the artifacts and places made, cultivated, and conserved by a people’s ancestral labor and activity.

One feature of the human being often overlooked or suppressed in modernity is our capacity to extend affection toward things that were made or cultivated by those to whom we have natural affection. One can feel a connection with the products of a relative’s labor. A chair made by a grandfather, for example, that still supports the weight of his aged grandson, long after the maker is gone, is a sort of continued presence of the maker, an object towards which his natural relations (viz. his family) have affection. He expended his life into the product; it is his personality embodied. He is recognized in it and remains with the family through it. And the significance of this object is not inherent to its material: One does not find affection upon examining it. The object, nonetheless, as a part of a higher realm of social affection, has higher significance than the mere arrangement of its material. The object has been elevated to a higher state of existence, transcending the present and its material composition—it has become an object of human concern above appetite, consumption, and use. One’s sense of belonging to another is extended to the things (or places, as we shall see) that show the imprint of the beloved’s labor.

A brief reflection confirms this truth. One treasures his or her family heirlooms, the house built by one’s grandparents, and various documents proving his ancestors’ accomplishments (e.g., honorable discharge records). These have a value greater than market value; their value transcends what another could do with them. What others might toss out, abuse, or simply thoughtlessly consume, is considered precious to another. And this value exists simply on account of an extension of affection, a value utterly lost when attachment ceases.

These two realms of value—the market value (the value so emphasized by the market society) and what I call the temporo-affective value—temporalize in very different ways. The former value is a value in relation to the now: its use, asset value, or desirability to consume. Its value is embedded in a set of relations, but it is one of economic exchange—relationships coterminous with mutual utility. The latter, however, has value principally (though not necessarily exclusively) in a set of relations described above, namely, a set of relations that exists apart from utility—relationships that are ends in themselves. Further, and most importantly, these relationships transcend the present, extending both to the past and the future. The objects are cherished in the present on account of one’s attachment to past ancestors and preserved or conserved for future generations. The object’s preserves some presence of the past; it provides the lingering attendance or a watchful eye on the present. Notice that this transcendent value necessitates both a past and future component. One only vainly cherishes what the future will discard.

The lower realm is the realm of consumption, capital, asset value, commodities, and the garbage bin. Once something ceases being useful, it is discarded. In this realm, nothing is preserved or conserved, unless it is monetarily advantageous to do so. When it breaks, it is tossed out. What the higher realm calls a home, this realm calls a house, or, better put, a three-bedroom, two-bath single-family residence. Without the restraining or completing power of the higher realm, one succumbs to wasteful appetite, thoughtless consumption, and an insatiable desire for gratification. Everything is a means, and all value is in reference to the satisfaction of the present or some future present. In other words, something is retained in this realm only if it might satisfy some future appetite.

The higher realm, however, while not destroying the lower, completes it by raising it into full temporal significance. The item is raised into a set of social affections that transcend use-value and appetite satisfaction and connects it with the dead, the living, and the yet-to-be born. It is not something merely to be used (as a mere means), but to be cherished in use (as a means and end). When our world takes on this phenomenological adornment, we see our world as a gift from others and a potential gift to our children. It is not there merely to be used, consumed, and discarded. This higher realm adorns reality with the recognizable ‘face’ of its past cultivators, compelling the living to live with respect to ancestors and to become worthy ancestors themselves.

The human being is, then, a for-others and with-others being, and not only for and with those still living, but with and for those of the past and future. We are for others when we treat others as ends in themselves, something we do to the dead through the things they leave behind. The world of objects is the conduit through which humans respect their dead.

But objects are not the only conduit. Places are conduits as well. ‘Place,’ as opposed to ‘site,’ is, as I define it here, constituted by some social significance. The site of one’s childhood is not a mere site, but a place—a site adorned with some transcendent significance. And upon encountering this place, its importance is not something one can see in the soil, the buildings and trees, but is felt by affections. Humans do not live in homogenous space. The topography of life is not absolute space. One’s being is grounded in place: Our world takes on an adornment of concern and affection. This means that experience with others has created places that, when encountered and cherished, connect one with others long gone. And when we go to these places, we bring along another living person, such our children, to share the significance of this site, hoping that we adorn their world with ours.

Objects and places that take on higher significance on account of family relations are fairly clear cases of this phenomenon, since there is nothing more natural than familial affection. And they support and enhance the connection among the living family members. When we expand the inquiry to extra-familial relations, such as the civil community, there are different and more complex considerations. For it seems likely that affections among members of a civil community are not enhanced but rely on these objects and places for their affection. The natural ties that bind a people are the things left behind, the historical significance and monuments of places, and customary calendrical activities. Aristotle, in Politics 3.9, points out that a true civil community is “the work of affection” formed by marriage, genealogy, “festivals,” and “pastimes of living together.” Without this, a community is merely an alliance to “abstain from injustice.” It is an alliance for the sake of living, not for the sake of living well. They have “nothing in common except… exchange.” A civil community is a community in which people share a common history that transcends mere economic relations.

This community is one that has a history together, and this history is imprinted on the cultural and physical landscape and recognizable as significant by shared affections. A people is constituted by the living who recognize, respect, and identify with their dead in the things and imprints of places that they left behind, something into which they socialize their children. The living love their dead by training their young into the social affections that keep their dead alive to them.

It is for this reason that the higher realm, that which transcends appetite and mere market value, is the most fragile realm of all, for it can be lost in every new generation. The most precious aspect of human community—the connection among the dead, living, and yet-to-be born—is the most delicate, the easiest to destroy. The most effective way to destroy the solidarity of a people is to undermine and sever their connection with the past and thereby disconnect the dead from the yet-to-be born. The future, as a result, becomes a project rooted in universal and timeless values, a process of homogenizing the world into a series of sites—a flatness brought about by disaffection. The world becomes sites of consumption.

Since the extra-familial solidarity is achieved through mutual identification with the cultural artifacts and particular acts of a people, true solidarity is achieved through particulars—that which could be legitimately otherwise. Particular cultural expressions have significance only on account of a shared understanding of their significance. Unlike universal values, which are good in themselves (and usually without singular concrete expression), particulars are relatively good. They are good only on account of a people saying they are good. Hence, the focal point of human civil solidarity is a set of goods that are good only because a set of people have affections toward it. Hence, the sort of practices, relations, and places that many call “arbitrary” or “social constructs” are the focal points and basis of civil solidarity. The world of objects and places in which we see our dead is the basis for that ‘we’. It is not the idea of us that constitutes us, but the concrete embodiment of us in things and places.

For this reason architecture, the most public (and therefore the most political) of the arts, is vitally important for a people’s solidarity. Buildings are meant to endure far past the lives of its architects and builders. Following the architectural patterns of the past, builders construct familiarity, like a reflection of oneself or ancestors or a familiar face. Familiar architecture declares to its observer that your people bequeathed to you the love of place and community and charges you to pass it on. It is judgmental architecture: It is the watchful eye of ancestors that not only demands your respect but also insists that you likewise live and construct in the interest of your progeny.

Cosmopolitan architecture, however, the type that belongs everywhere (and therefore nowhere), is the least judgmental of architecture. It embodies no particular will of some generation past. It brings to mind no remembrance of ancestry. It fosters no intergenerational connection. It makes no lofty demands on you. It imposes no higher will for your life. It is built only to be destroyed. It is as cheap as its steel frame and unornamented façade. Cosmopolitan architecture is safe, like a gimmick that stuns or shocks the crowd without challenging it to something higher. Cosmopolitan architecture communicates a vision of appetite.

Architecture is crucial, but there are many other rallying points of social affection. Monuments of historical acts; the distinctive manners, dress, dance, music, and language of a people; the calendrical events, such as festivals, feasts, and holy days—all these connect in intimacy the dead, living, and yet-to-be born. For example, distinctive cultural dance, performed either for a crowd or by the crowd, is an expression of respect for ancestors of the past who developed the dance and an expression of love towards the living, which is worth affirming only with the expectation that the progeny will do likewise. The dance is an affirmation of the eternal society. Dancing as one’s ancestors did is a temporo-affective act, one that reenacts the past in the present for the future.

Various forces in modernity work to prevent the full realization of this higher realm. Industrial capitalism, for example, long ago made obsolete the type of intimate relationship that craftsmen and other specialized tradesmen had with their products. A craftsman applies skill and labor to this product, and when completed the worker identifies with it. It is his product and its status in the public realm is not merely a symbol of work finished for a wage; it represents his skills and accomplishments. Even after exchanged, it still remains his product, not to use, but as an object of personal concern. No one in this mode of production would be satisfied with his product being purchased and then destroyed or thrown in the trash.

The capitalist mode of production, however, is a process of minimizing skills required and maximizing efficiency in production, which makes a worker/product connection virtually impossible. The worker takes on no risk for the success of product, for identifying with a product means that its failure is personal. But he still expends life into the product and yet has nothing to show for it but a wage. Work is a mere means to a wage.

Since the products of labor lack any relation to its producers, it is impossible for a family or a people to see their ancestors in them. Hence, the capitalist mode of production tends to reduce all things to pure market value—the lower realm of appetite and consumption. The world of objects, then, is for consumption and destruction. And the business class has an interest in the intense consumerism made possible and brought about only when the world is exclusively for consumption, not a gift.

Mobility has been an important factor in undermining the formation of place. People remain close to home less often than they used to. The general economic uncertainty, brought about by market fluctuations, creates job insecurity, making it difficult to settle down. This increases the importance of the market value of one’s house and decreases the willingness to take risks on customization and improvement, since one will likely have to sell it. The possibility of moving is always on the mind, preventing the type of full-fledged commitment and the development of distinctive neighborhoods shaped by longtime residents. One is never fully at home, but always ready to pack up and move. Without the stability of families, the community cannot achieve the solidarity that transcends getting and spending.

There certainly are more factors precluding or preventing the realization of this higher realm. The migration of peoples, the widespread acceptance of multiculturalism, the general dismissal of historical continuity, and other political, social, and economic phenomena in modernity war against the higher realm. The way out is not obvious however. Still, it is necessary to theorize about how the world ought to be in order to shape political activity here and now.

Conservatives, of course, never want to break society out of the metaxy, the in-between, and thereby immanentize the eschaton. Yet this very metaxy is what I’ve attempted to describe: Humans rise above the here-and-now, above appetite, when they share concern and affection for things and places created and cultivated by their ancestors. Their home is then seen as a gift. This in-between—between earth and the divine—is the realm of reality adorned by the past and conserved for the future. It certainly isn’t heaven, but nor is it naked, shivering nature.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThe Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
1 reply to this post
  1. A thoughtful and well-argued piece. Yes, our economy is based on endless consumption, thanks largely to a culture that stresses individual autonomy and mobility as ends in themselves. And while it’s correct that the way out cannot be defined at this point, noticing and describing our present condition is a good start.

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: