A different sort of reflection today. Current events combine horror and mind-numbing sameness in equal measure. If I were somehow confined to talking about politics, policy, and current events today, I’d give up talking. I’d rather cut my lawn with a cuticle scissors.
In his essay of this morning, Roger Kimball announces a paperback edition of his book The Fortunes of Permanence. I haven’t read it yet, but his essay excerpts its preface in a challenging and thought-inspiring way. Here’s the snippet that sparked my thoughts of today:
In Henry IV Part 1, Sir John Falstaff, a thoroughly modern rogue, asks, “What is honor?” He concludes, not without a bitter dram of contempt, that honor is but a word. And what, he asks, “is in that word ‘honor’? What is that ‘honor’? Air. A trim reckoning,” he says, “a mere scutcheon.”
Russell Kirk’s life was a campaign against this species of existential depreciation. It’s a campaign to which I hope The Fortunes of Permanence might make a modest contribution. For Kirk, honor was a reality, not “air,” not nothing, and I suspect his pantheon of realities had plenty of room for angels as well.
This calls to mind a key segment from C. S. Lewis’s towering essay The Abolition of Man:
In actual fact Gaius and Titius [the authors of a particular “modern” children’s book] will be found to hold, with complete uncritical dogmatism, the whole system of values which happened to be in vogue among moderately educated young men of the professional classes during the period between the two wars. Their scepticism about values is on the surface: it is for use on other people’s values; about the values current in their own set they are not nearly sceptical enough. And this phenomenon is very usual. A great many of those who ‘debunk’ traditional or (as they would say) ‘sentimental’ values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process. They claim to be cutting away the parasitic growth of emotion, religious sanction, and inherited taboos, in order that ‘real’ or ‘basic’ values may emerge. I will now try to find out what happens if this is seriously attempted.
Let us continue to use the previous example—that of death for a good cause—not, of course, because virtue is the only value or martyrdom the only virtue, but because this is the experimentum crucis which shows different systems of thought in the clearest light. Let us suppose that an Innovator in values regards dulce et decorum and greater love hath no man as mere irrational sentiments which are to be stripped off in order that we may get down to the ‘realistic’ or ‘basic’ ground of this value. Where will he find such a ground?
First of all, he might say that the real value lay in the utility of such sacrifice to the community. ‘Good’, he might say, ‘means what is useful to the community.’ But of course the death of the community is not useful to the community — only the death of some of its members. What is really meant is that the death of some men is useful to other men. That is very true. But on what ground are some men being asked to die for the benefit of others? Every appeal to pride, honour, shame, or love is excluded by hypothesis. To use these would be to return to sentiment and the Innovator’s task is, having cut all that away, to explain to men, in terms of pure reasoning, why they will be well advised to die that others may live. He may say ‘Unless some of us risk death all of us are certain to die.’ But that will be true only in a limited number of cases; and even when it is true it provokes the very reasonable counter question ‘Why should I be one of those who take the risk?’
At this point the Innovator may ask why, after all, selfishness should be more ‘rational’ or ‘intelligent’ than altruism. The question is welcome. If by Reason we mean the process actually employed by Gaius and Titius when engaged in debunking (that is, the connecting by inference of propositions, ultimately derived from sense data, with further propositions), then the answer must be that a refusal to sacrifice oneself is no more rational than a consent to do so. And no less rational. Neither choice is rational — or irrational — at all. From propositions about fact alone no practical conclusion can ever be drawn. This will preserve society cannot lead to do this except by the mediation of society ought to be preserved. This will cost you your life cannot lead directly to do not do this: it can lead to it only through a felt desire or an acknowledged duty of self-preservation. The Innovator is trying to get a conclusion in the imperative mood out of premisses in the indicative mood: and though he continues trying to all eternity he cannot succeed, for the thing is impossible. We must therefore either extend the word Reason to include what our ancestors called Practical Reason and confess that judgements such as society ought to be preserved (though they can support themselves by no reason of the sort that Gaius and Titius demand) are not mere sentiments but are rationality itself; or else we must give up at once, and for ever, the attempt to find a core of ‘rational’ value behind all the sentiments we have debunked.
Lewis was my sort of thinker: one who seeks the foundation beneath contentious propositions. Let it be said at once that there is no proposition more contentious than this one:
There are absolute values,
Metaphysically given ab initio,
That nothing can erase from reality.
The whole program of contemporary relativists and “social constructionists” is an attempt – possibly a last-ditch attempt – to deny the existence of those values and erase all trace of them from the minds of men.
True conservatism inheres in the defense of those values…but not as a rearguard fighting desperately in a beloved but lost cause.
As a (somewhat) younger, more politically focused blatherer, I liked to answer the question “What is a libertarian?” with the response “A libertarian is a conservative who remembers what conservatism used to be.” For conservatives were once what are called libertarians today. Their political pole star was freedom. They also venerated and sought to preserve a range of social and cultural traditions. However, that desire expressed itself largely in an invitation to persons unacquainted with those traditions to explore them and compare them to others. It was not a relativistic, “they’re all equally good and valid” mindset that lay beneath this. Rather, it was confidence in the soundness of the foundation beneath the traditions they found worthy. A mature mind engaged in honest inquiry would find their roots to be as real and reliable as the earth beneath our feet.
But of course, no mortal is born with a “mature mind.” For the purposes of adult life, the mind of the young human is tabula rasa. What first enters it determines the scope of things to which it will be receptive in its adult years. Thus, the tradition of education in the eternal verities and the cardinal virtues lay at the core of the conservative attitude toward child rearing. With that foundation in place, the young adult is equipped to do his own exploring, with his parents’ confidence that he will stay true to the truths that are permanent and irrevocable.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
[T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding]
A man’s “life adventure” ends only with his demise. Throughout his life he will encounter novel ideas, innovations and their promulgators, and challenges to his premises. Sincere conservatives know this. Indeed, they celebrate it, for without the stimulus of such things, what point would there be to life? The drive to learn of other ways and the practices of those who’ve followed them rests upon a premise without which our minds could not function: the premise that there is an objective reality. That reality, which C. S. Lewis called the Tao, is where the only truly permanent things may be found.
Thus, the conservative’s veneration of certain traditions harmonizes with his love of liberty. The lack of liberty forecloses the learning that makes studying and reinforcing the traditions he cherishes possible. He sees in the totalitarian ideology – of any variety – the denial that reality is, if I may, really real: precedental, enduring, and trustworthy.
The conservative project is and has always been to ask “What endures forever, immune to anyone’s likes, dislikes, or adverse preachments?” and to insist that those things be given their due. But this inherently requires a regime of liberty…and in this we find the refutation of all the twaddle promulgated by the nihilists, the moral relativists, and the censors who demand that only their view deserves to be heard.