The reflections I share in this space may appear, at moments, to indulge in the barbed and the bitter, and the reader unfamiliar with my subject and with my own work, and otherwise disinclined to assertive denunciation, may be tempted to pass on. But what I have to say on the matter of conservatism and culture emerges from my own life experience and comes in answer to questions salient to my own search for self-knowledge, as well as to questions of a more public nature regarding political and intellectual history.
Without ever having encountered any sustained articulation of conservative ideas, without having ever sought them out, I discovered in the middle of my undergraduate years that I had become a conservative—or rather, had become one again after a curious childhood adoration of Ronald Reagan. It suddenly appeared that the term “conservative” was one that described a set of beliefs I had almost inadvertently acquired in response to my encounters with fellow students and the professoriate at the University of Michigan—in bewilderment before the poems of W.B. Yeats, Yvor Winters, T.S. Eliot and Dante, and in fear of the novels of Dostoyevsky and Faulkner; through my re-encounter with the Catholicism of my youth that I had set out with the fine intention of forgetting; and, behind all of the above, in repugnance before the many splendored grotesquerie of contemporary society, which seemed to have long since taken for granted that the highest achievement possible in human life was technocratic power and the only happiness the forgetful pleasantries of the hour.
G.K. Chesterton begins his great book, Orthodoxy (1908), with the story of an English yachtsman who sets out on an ocean journey in hope of exploring new lands. But, having lost his bearings, his sailboat delivers him unknowingly back to his native shores. There, he discovers for the first time that which he has always known and—relieved of the prejudice and scorn familiarity sometimes breeds—he finds it good. So did I find myself staring upon a flat Midwestern landscape figured with artifacts I had once not even found arcane but now saw to be beacons of truth, goodness and beauty. When I asked myself what accounted for this change of perception, I had chiefly to turn to the books I had been reading, the Renaissance paintings I had been visiting in the University museum almost ritualistically and the orchestral music which I had been listening to while I studied—initially only because, lacking lyrics, it did not distract me. Having never ingested a polemical screed or jeremiad from the right, I found myself already accepting what Russell Kirk would call the “canons of conservatism.”
It was poetry that helped me find words for these awakened sympathies. Literature’s narrative dimensions suggested to me that there was something invaluable about the past; it was a source of life and a seat of wisdom, rather than a corpse whose frozen grip we feel tugging at our ankles. Moreover, the backward journey of narrative into the past appeared as just one particularly cogent form of the reflective journey any person undertakes when asking the fundamental questions about his existence. And I saw that that journey could not end with the superficies of everyday life, but rather ascended to enduring truths that only flash and figure in our life of appearances. I saw that not all art provoked one to peer through, behind and above the present moment, and when I had sifted out the Zolas and the Karen Finleys, the Kushners, the indie rockers, the Brechts and the George Eliots, I found the grain that was left constituted a long and fertile tradition—one that another Michigander, Russell Kirk, in The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (1953), had catalogued and distilled almost half a century previous. I had come upon conservatism by way of the literary precisely because conservatism, in a fundamental way that testifies to its veracity rather than its fictitiousness, is a literary movement. And so, to understand the nature of conservatism requires undoing a number of misapprehensions that have passed into the realm of common knowledge regarding both conservatism’s nature and the nature of art.
The Bien-Pensants of the Liberal Order
The reader may be forgiven if he presumes the use of the term “cultural conservatism” to test the possibilities of language. We have come to associate this oft-spoken phrase primarily with others—such as the “moral” or “silent” majority, and “traditional” or “family” values—that bespeak not a notion of culture as cultivation, as lively growth within a fertile field, but rather of culture as cult, a static and received, putatively sacred, order before which life must kneel and growth must recede. We typically maintain such associations, which amount to a presumption to disassociate culture and conservatism, alongside another set that joins liberalism to cultivation, sophistication, intelligence and creativity.
I have generally found these presumptions contrary to the reality of things, and yet have not had to search long to apprehend the reasoning behind them. In our time, after all, to be cultured—that is, to make even pretenses of having cultivated one’s spirit, mind or sensibility above the level of a clever ape, a utilitarian hedonist—usually entails only a small number of perfunctory gestures that accompany a description of oneself as “liberal.” One reads a newspaper or magazine; one has National Public Radio as a preset for one’s listening pleasure on the long commute to a cubicle in the city; one has ground one’s way through the latest memoir by some young author who has managed to narrate her compounded victimhood—suffering demographic oppression because of her race or sex and the benighted violence endemic to her family’s “ethnic” traditions, as well as her passage through such traumas to the reflective liberation that only the late modern American city makes possible.
The disenchanted elite among such claimants may combine an interest in installation art with indie rock or, if a bit more comfortable within the established order, they attend orchestral performances they lack the basic training to tell apart, or the occasional play whose chief interest is its political topicality. The culture of liberal America tends to the self-congratulatory rather than to the discerning, to the dutiful observation of refinement and right thinking rather than to good art and actual enjoyment. Such gestures merely embroider a series of thickly-knit clichés about sexual liberation, social justice and free expression within the limits of the politically correct.
What I wish to suggest by this sardonic brief is that there is nothing especially lively about liberal culture; to the contrary, it is moribund in its conventions largely because it serves, again, to ornament a conception of human life whose end is everlasting freedom of choice—what James Kalb has defined as the imperative to “equal freedom.” Such cultural manifestations serve merely to iterate and reiterate that everything received from the past or from any source outside one’s “identity” is oppressive and that, therefore, a self-expression “transgressive” of previously established boundaries is the highest end to which a person may aspire. As such, it has led to the familiar path of degradation that everyone recognizes though only a few will condemn: first, we admit strains of the pornographic into supposedly high art; then we demystify the idea of “high art” altogether; ultimately, the pornographic itself becomes “equal,” becomes the only kind of art we have left. All of this is accompanied, of course, by sneers at the prudery of the ignorant, who before simply did not “get” the beauty of banal abstract canvases, but now are ridiculed for being so ingenuous as to think there should be such a thing as “beauty” to get.
Liberalism identifies equality and freedom as the Good: its society proposes as an ideal nothing more specific than the sloughing off of received habits and beliefs and the dissolving of all apparent social hierarchies. Once this has been obtained, liberalism has nothing more to say: it has no positive content. In practice, this has led to the assumptions that to be intelligent means not to believe in anything; to be well cultured means to see all cultural judgments as expressions of power and ideology. In the contemporary academy, these conclusions tend to take on an evangelical sincerity, a zeal to debunk and degrade, but for most of us the loss of substantive beliefs and standards leaves the world feeling, sometimes, unbearably light and empty, but mostly incredibly convenient and entertaining. While I heartily contest the truth of this perception of reality, for my present purpose I need merely to suggest how paradoxical it is to associate this cultural vision with either vitality or refinement. A peculiarly nauseating species of repetition and a relentless commitment to the indifference and, therefore, meaningless equality of things seems a more accurate diagnosis.
The Revolution of the “Stupid Party”
And yet, for decades, indeed since the emergence of “conservative” and “liberal” as meaningful terms in the wake of the French Revolution, liberalism in particular and the left in general have been associated with intellect and culture while conservatism has been dismissed as the “stupid party.” How can this be? And why did I begin by allowing this misperception as excusable?
Conservatives have traditionally spoken of themselves as the voices of truth, goodness and beauty drowned by the tide of modern revolution. They have been by nature pessimistic, not merely or even chiefly about the probable fortunes of any utopian schemes for the perfection of a dual-natured man—one who may be neither beast nor angel but becomes most bestial when he aspires to the angelic. Rather, conservatives have affirmed the sound intelligence that reveres received traditions and practical wisdom as the foundation of all knowledge, stood in defense of a complex network of intermediate institutions and affective bonds as the only alternative to individual loneliness and state tyranny, and affirmed in faith the human intellect as incapable of reducing itself to a merely rational instrument for material security precisely because its true happiness and sole peace is to be found in the contemplation of the Good—which it can never harness for its own use and domination, but which it may serve in joy. If they have believed in these things, they have also believed that they were on the losing side of history: tradition, community, order, intellect and the sacred were destined to be trampled. The liberal rush to establish a rationalized order relieved of all inherited burdens and committed to the perpetual acquisition of power and control over human life would uproot these goods from the heart of society. And the Marxist and Fascist deluge that sought to surpass liberalism and stretch human ideological and technological might to ends even beyond the dreams of perpetual acquisition—to the dictatorship of workers or the absolutization of the State—these movements would extinguish even those residual goods conservatives wished to protect.
Once again, I readily excuse the reader who has not found much reverence for these things in the policies and practices of mainstream conservative politicians during the last 30 or more years. And yet, one hears—or at least heard—paeans to them in conservative rhetoric. Indeed, Ronald Reagan was capable of ringing the church bells of national and sacred tradition with a resonance that almost survived his combining it with the sorts of utopian, progressivist language proper to his hero, the classical liberal Thomas Paine, and with a confidence in economic ambition, growth and markets that nearly surpassed the brazen “scientific” materialism of Marx. In just such a combination, a grafting of leftist utopian rootstock onto the tendrils of conservative rhetorical reverence, a silent revolution occurred.
We can define that revolution in two ways. First, it involved the mutation of conservative beliefs in the necessity of private property, the family economy, the robust life of non-state institutions (including the Church and the market) and of frugality and modesty in all cooperative and political schemes. These beliefs were quietly funneled into the ideologies of “supply-side economics,” which promised that all these things could be not only preserved but even strengthened through a commitment to breathless, state-subsidized economic growth. But if we dilate more widely, we may justly say that conservatism’s practice of standing on principle athwart the march of “progress,” and its taking its “stand” therefore in intellectual and literary—that is, cultural—forms, were both transformed from within until they became unrecognizable. Party politics supplanted cultural conservation.
Suddenly, the march of progress was on the side of soi-disant conservatives; by 1994, Newt Gingrich could declare himself a “conservative futurist” and no one seemed to think that an oxymoron, although by 2006 most clearly thought that intelligent, modest or isolationist conservatism certainly was. Conservatism went from being the minority, literary voice—declaiming the goodness, truth and beauty our ancestors had made possible and which the present was dismantling—to being the voice of an institutional politics of economic and, often, cultural liberalism. Growth and markets, freedom and power, were now the credo of Reagan Republicans as much as they had been of Wilsonian Democrats—or even of French Jacobins two centuries before.
Conservatism as Literary Movement
In an amusing lecture delivered to the London Conservative Union in 1955, T.S. Eliot sought to describe the “Literature of Politics,” and particularly to name the classic texts from the literature of conservatism. “There are four names which we could all, without any prompting, repeat in chorus,” he observes, and they are, “of course, the names of Bolingbroke, Burke, Coleridge, and Disraeli.” If one attends to the middle names alone, something comes into focus: the two most influential philosophical voices in Anglophone Romanticism, they who gave a set of categories and standards through which art and politics, thoughts and feelings, would be filtered for more than a century, were the godfathers of modern conservatism. It is Eliot who recites these names, though he protests anyone could do so. The chief difference between Eliot and Burke and Coleridge is that the former lived in a period where the label “conservative” could be unproblematically applied to the latter. And so, the defining figures of two centuries of Anglo-American culture, the first romantics and the don of modernism (I have always thought Helen Vendler right to have proclaimed Eliot the greatest poet of the twentieth century in that classic organ of “middle-brow” America, Time), also happen to be the antecedents and consummation of conservatism.
Eliot’s prose by nature tended to the formation of lists. Having given up philosophy in 1915 after arguing himself out of the capacity for any serious belief, Eliot elected for a vocation as poet and literary critic. And, as critic and poet alike, he preferred to cite, quote and list others whenever possible. In his younger years, this allowed him to introduce ideas like clouds, affirming general beliefs or “tendencies” even as he acknowledged them mere convenient impositions on a reality that could never be known or precisely described. Knowledge “imposes a pattern, and falsifies,” he would write much later in “East Coker,” reprising and interrogating the philosophical skepticism of his youth.
Even after his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism in 1927, Eliot kept listing and quoting, having accepted his position as critic and poet—as the voice and analyst of thoughts that belong to others or to everyone. This sense of deference to tradition, whether grounded in the necessary imprecision of the “knowledge of experience,” or, as it very early became, in hopes of evoking an eternal ideal order of which individual persons were merely expressions, suggests Eliot’s conservative tendency long before he visited the London Conservative Union. But there, he at last made explicit what readers of Eliot—and, indeed, of much modern poetry—have always known: for all the appearance of anarchy and novelty, much of modern art remains opaque if one does not have a sense of how right-wing politics and sacramental Catholicism inform it. Modernist art nearly always appears as an eruption. What is erupting? The truths of tradition into a disconnected and confused present. How does one describe the eruption? As a symbol in Coleridge’s use of that word: the manifestation in identity of a literal thing and a figural reality beyond it—in a word, a sacrament.
But here is an avenue we cannot take. My task is not to prove that modern art requires a conservative exegesis, but that conservatism is—contemporary popular conservatism not withstanding—literary in nature. And so, let us return to Eliot’s list. If we acknowledge it is not unusual to find him listing names rather than presenting ideas, we should also observe that, in 1955, Eliot had particular reason to be reflecting on the conservative literary tradition. In 1953, in his office as editor for Faber and Faber, he had published the British edition of a book by a young admirer of his. Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, which was then subtitled From Burke to Santayana, would provide Eliot a rich literary and historical genealogy of conservative thinkers—what Kirk called “scholars” to differentiate them from leftist “intellectuals”: Edmund Burke, John Adams, Sir Walter Scott, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Calhoun, Alexis de Tocqueville, Orestes Brownson, Benjamin Disraeli, John Henry Newman, Irving Babbitt, George Santayana … the list goes on. In Kirk’s book, the redescription of these figures builds up a constellation of conservatism whose foundational figure is Edmund Burke and whose loosely shared beliefs Kirk listed as six “canons of conservatism”:
1) Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience.
2) Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence.
3) Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes.
4) Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked.
5) Faith in prescription and distrust of “sophisters, calculators, and economists” who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs.
6) Recognition that change may not be salutary reform.
Was Eliot recalling Kirk’s hard study as he stood before the lunching conservatives of London? We know he was, because Eliot cites an essay of Kirk’s in his remarks and indicates Kirk as his source for knowledge of conservatism’s history as well as its present fortunes. Almost two decades later, Kirk would discuss the citation in his wonderful biography of Eliot, Eliot and His Age (1971). Between the two of them, Eliot and Kirk rearticulated what Burke and Coleridge had initiated: the idea of culture was the quintessentially conservative phenomenon.
The conservatism of Burke and Coleridge sought to remind modern man in an age of revolutionary upheaval that politics was an activity built of art, meaning, representation and community. The lives of peoples and governments, consequently, must be understood in terms of beauty. Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) contended this in multiple ways, the three most influential of which may be summarized under the rubrics of society as artwork, moral truth as dramatic and, following from these, politics as aesthetic.
For much of Reflections, Burke was concerned to establish the unbridgeable intellectual chasm that divided the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and British constitutionalism from the French Revolution of 1789 and Jacobin republicanism. The latter established legitimate government on a basis of abstract principles enumerated in the language of natural rights; the former, in contrast, legitimated polity and state alike in terms of a precious inheritance. The constitution prescribed no natural or permanent formula for legitimate government, but was itself merely the work of generations, who conserved and corrected in fear and trembling. This constitution indicated a birthright, an heirloom, at once giving voice to the claims of the past on the present and the promise that the ultimate end of government is the perfection of man as a creature made for eternal life in God—an end that transcends temporal society and government but toward which their steps are directed. In fine, there is no necessary original or intermediary form of the state, and so the present is especially obliged to past generations, because past precedent is the only guide to how one should proceed into the future; at the same time, the ultimate purpose of the state transcends such haphazard, muddling and prudential limits, endowing the political realm at once with an aureole of the fragile and the sacred.
Society and statecraft thus take on the character of works of art: non-natural but ordained to a particular end; one cannot know in advance what the rules of such things are, but no one can doubt that there are laws interior to them. Such notions are typically described in terms of “organic” society or culture, and this is an appropriate term insofar as it distinguishes Burke’s conception of society from the rarified and mathematical conceptions advanced by the French revolutionaries and their English Nonconformist fellow travelers. English society and its constitution are organic, he argues, because they grow and develop like a tree: slowly and with much care. Any serious turn would uproot and kill. On the whole, however, conceiving of society as an artwork better expresses the intricacies of Burke’s thought, so long as one keeps in mind two related, but in our age often separated, conceptions. One must think of an artisan’s prudential care, reliance on the practices of past masters, and deference to his purpose—the well-made, useful thing—but one must also think of the deference of those who inherit or receive an artwork to the venerable genius of the artist.
In the most fevered and potent passages of Reflections, Burke provides us with a complementary theory of morality that builds upon this conception of society as artwork: truth is known by means of sensibility and drama rather than abstraction and logic. The occasion of this theory is Burke’s account of the infamous arrest of the royal family—Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and children—as they fled in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution in October 1789. They were forced to march on foot back to the Tuileries Palace in Paris, surrounded on either side by a shouting and scowling mob. As Burke describes the sanguinary and pathetic episode, he contrasts the events themselves with the commentary the Revolutionaries and English Nonconformists give to it. They call it a beautiful day. They call it a triumph of reason and right. They regard the spectacle of a fallen king, like it, and call for the stringing up of the Bishops of France. To which, Burke replies:
After [the royal family] had been made to taste, drop by drop, more than the bitterness of death, in the slow torture of a journey of twelve miles, protracted to six hours, they were, under a guard, composed of those very soldiers who had thus conducted them through this famous triumph, lodged in one of the old palaces of Paris, now converted into a Bastille for kings. Is this a triumph to be consecrated at altars? to be commemorated with grateful thanksgiving? to be offered to the divine humanity with fervent prayer and enthusiastic ejaculation?
The depiction swells still further with dramatic intensity; as he recalls the Queen’s wretched state he is taken back in thought to his own encounter with her:
It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in—glittering like the morning-star, full of life, and splendor, and joy. Oh! what a revolution! and what an heart must I have, to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream … that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honour and of cavaliers. I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, oeconomists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever.
The pitched language excites the reader’s emotions, seduces his moral sensibility to pity the Queen and lament the calamity even if he is unsure what lesson for justice might be abstracted from the events in France by more impartial means. We may be tempted to ask Burke to lay down his rhetoric as one of his gallants might lay down his sword before entering a courtroom, but this misses the theory behind such language. Burke has little faith in ethereal argumentation; the place of moral judgment lies in experience, in history, and history is a dramatic stage. In accounting for why he feels so differently about these events than the Nonconformist Reverend Dr. Price, Burke explains:
… because it is natural I should; because we are so made as to be affected at such spectacles with melancholy sentiments upon the unstable condition of mortal prosperity, and the tremendous uncertainty of human greatness … We are alarmed into reflexion; our minds (as it has long since been observed) are purified by terror and pity … Some tears might be drawn from me, if such a spectacle were exhibited on the stage.
We know from contemporary accounts, actually, that Burke was frequently moved to tears when discussing the Revolution. And so he is not indulging in mere speculation when he proposes that “the theatre is a better school of moral sentiments than churches.” Moral truth, perhaps all truth, must be encountered and weighed on the balance of drama, the scales of tragedy. It may not, therefore, be arrived at by a “metaphysical” a priori, by abstract laws outside of the drama of social life. Having conceived society as an artwork and moral truth as dramatic, Burke concludes that politics is a kind of aesthetics. Thus, he says that a good state should be like a good poem. A poem, as artwork, must be objectively lovely—that is, well formed; a poem, as dramatic experience, should be subjectively potent—that is, it should work upon the affections of its audience, society. And so, Burke concludes that the entire realm of the political operates according to principles of beauty and love—that which pleases when seen, as St. Thomas Aquinas phrased it.
Conservatism’s Anti-Modern Critique
Burke’s theory of political aesthetics, provoked into existence by the outrages of classical liberalism’s revolution against pre-modern society, is the cornerstone of the conservative tradition. The revolutionaries proposed that reason and political right were reducible to a few abstract principles in the realization of which the world may be justly set aflame. Burke insisted, to the contrary, that social life is fragile and intricate, rooted by threads often invisibly fine and requiring the mind and heart to operate in concert if they are to be properly understood and acted upon. His is the consummate anti-modern critique.
Modern persons generally insist that reason and reason’s truth must be self-grounding and self-demonstrating—they must rely upon nothing outside of reason’s methods and culminate in nothing less than mathematical certainty. They insist that goodness—morality and ethics—must derive from similarly absolute and a priori laws, if it is to have any rational claim upon us. To this, Burke replies that truth and goodness alike are reconciled in, and graspable in terms of, beauty. The realm of the aesthetic is where truth and goodness become manifest to us. As such, there can be no a priori method of ascertaining truth or of discerning moral law; these things are discovered in the dramatic story of human life, unfolding within a plot rather than revealing themselves above and beyond the historical world.
Without being anti-intellectual, Burke contends that the rarified intellect cannot ascertain truth; without being relativist, he insists that moral and positive law alike are only gradual discoveries and precious heirlooms inextricable from life in a particular community, which itself forms part of an “eternal society” of the dead, the living and the still to be born. Finally, without reducing judgment to sensibility, he suggests that the life of feeling plays a largely determinate role in the life of human societies.
Burke’s conservatism teaches that politics is aesthetic; life as a whole is aesthetic; and therefore the arts of the beautiful play a role in human life quite other than that of gratuitous ornamentation. Rather, they are epistemic—artistic form is in some sense the ground of our knowing. Hence the advent of the word “culture.” The Marxist critic Raymond Williams was indeed right to settle on the definition of culture as the “whole way of life of a people.” A culture is the artwork of generations, a concrete form, a habit of being. As Aristotle and Aquinas tell us, something only exists to the extent that it has form, and we may know something fully only in terms of its form. Such is the first lesson of their metaphysics. To see the form of an artwork, a culture or the whole of reality is an activity grounded in beauty and being alike. The most enduring definition of beauty, after all, is form and splendor: an appearance of being that opens onto the depths of being.
It was Burke’s genius to recognize in the modern context this fundamental unity of being and beauty, reality and aesthetics, which partially explains what he intended in coining the phrase, “the moral imagination.” He saw the modern world coming into being along simpler lines—a mechanical rationalism, a utilitarian ethics, a “procedural” aesthetics that valued only force and efficacy, neglecting custom, ritual and all other accouterments of received traditions. The conservative tradition has itself constituted the punctuated, uneven development of these insights in the face of liberal modernity’s continuous march toward a society without a past, a rational order disencumbered of inheritance, a rationalism that knows nothing of the heart much less of the intellect’s higher aspirations. Burke, thus, gave us “culture,” a concept by which modernity could be critiqued for its failure to receive the sacred cultus of the past and its failure to cultivate with care the legacy of past and present in hopes of securing it for future generations. While any people may have a culture, it is the conservative who truly understands what “culture” means.
This identification of being and beauty, which forms the backbone of “culture,” also hints at the historical font of conservatism. Taken by themselves, it would be easy to describe Kirk’s six canons as a mere suspicion of change and deference to the prescriptions of the past—and, of course, these are evident qualities of conservatism. But mere skepticism before innovation does not a conservative make. Rather, the “belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law” (canon 1), indicates that reality in general and cultures in particular possess an architectonic: formal principles, constitutive laws, give a culture coherence and purpose, indicating how it may develop but also restricting that development.
This sense of culture as organically various, but founded on intelligible principles and leading toward some definite end, distinguishes conservatism from liberalism because it judges the particulars of human life in terms of a transcendent form. Critics of conservatism often decry its bows to Christianity as an insincere but necessary recognition of the social and moral function of religion; without some binding divine-sanctioned ethic, anarchy would be loosed upon the world. Surely the traditional conservative recognizes this social function of religion, but at root his belief in a transcendent order bespeaks a confidence in the rational function of religion. The human intellect can imperfectly but really grasp the True, the Good and the Beautiful. Traditions are precisely the uneven, sometimes retreating or decaying, practical developments that seek to discover what is unconditionally good. Thus our reasonings and our aesthetic judgments are based on a certain foundation even if we do not possess the full vision of that foundation. Kirk’s canons—regarding the need for orders, classes and private property—indicate that a culture in being ordered to some good or beauty beyond itself also participates in the Good and the Beautiful, and so should assume a particular form recognizable in those terms. A country, like a poem, should be lovely, says Burke, paraphrasing Cicero.
The intellectual historian may read this analysis and observe, “What you are describing is not conservatism—it is romanticism.” And he would be partly right. Conservatism marks an early moment within the wider historical phenomenon of romanticism, and both may be understood in terms of a becoming-visible of certain dimensions of premodern or traditional ways of life under siege by the various forces of modernity. Romanticism comprises a series of diverse responses, many of which are at home with modern innovations from the disenchantment of the world to the rise of “equal freedom” as the highest good for the human being. Conservatism describes something narrower and more sustained, which I have articulated in terms of the perception of reality as aesthetic form and a consequent centralization of culture—the whole way of life of a people—as the criterion of every judgment. This sense of life and culture as an art of the beautiful has not always led to conservatives’ practicing or prioritizing the fine arts, although it often has. From Burke, Wordsworth and Coleridge to Newman and the Oxford Movement, from Santayana, More and Babbitt to Flannery O’Connor, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot and Walker Percy—we see that the majority tradition in Anglo-American writing since the French Revolution has been in some sense conservative. I have given a very narrow list here, citing only those figures who have been of most immediate influence on myself.
If we were to formulate a list of the minority liberal tradition in Anglo-American letters we would discover something curious. From Keats and Shelley to Walt Whitman and Hart Crane, the liberal literary tradition drinks at its source from the conservative; it has no independent life and would prove a hortus siccus rather than a literary flowering did it not appropriate, adapt and fundamentally draw from the conservative tradition of maintaining the sense and sensibility of the past and standing athwart the reductive excesses of modernity. Freedom and equality are so far from being manifested in particular forms as to serve as the political equivalent of a complete vacuum. In their liberal variety, they are purely negative in character. In contrast, to restate a claim I have made elsewhere, conservatism is not chiefly a political movement—it is a literary one, in at least three senses. Its representative figures have been great writers; it emphasizes what Kirk called the imaginative nature of reality and moral judgment; and it ultimately reconciles reason and morality within the field of the dramatic, the poetic, the beautiful.
Conservatism as Marginal and Interior to Modernity
The conservative tradition is an anti-modern product of modernity. Eliot observes in his address that it came into being through “a fusion of Tory and Whig elements, due largely to the effect of the French Revolution upon the mind of Burke.” And that origin has proven consistently to be both a benefit and a liability. Through much of the last two centuries, the integrity of conservatism as a vision of culture relegated it to the literary and academic realm; the Agrarians of the 1930s, with their insurrectionist rhetoric leading mostly to the production of new poems, testify to this. Had it not been, in this sense, literary in genus, it no doubt would have been fully rooted out by the dominant liberal forces of Western culture. Conservative thought in its purity was preserved within the depths of the liberal establishment as a source of life and fertility whose power was delimited by accusations of nostalgia and sentiment. However, alongside these literary conservatives were others more exclusively political; the Old Right’s resistance to American economic-imperial ambitions and the New Deal provides but one instance of conservatism coalescing into a political movement during a particular historical moment.
In later decades, the major figures of conservatism turned to law and political theory rather than more explicitly cultural enterprises—and, finally, to institutional politics. In itself, this betrayed nothing. Russell Kirk, who authored several novels and short stories, in his political and historical writings plowed the field for just such an unexpected development. But just as Marxists cease preaching the “withering of the state” as soon as they have captured it, so modern conservatives after the 1950s increasingly came to view state power as an end in itself. Many conservatives came to embrace the modern state—which was itself a child of liberalism—until, with the arrival of neoconservatism to power within sections of the Reagan administration, mainstream conservatives were no longer distinguishable from the calculating, imperialist, statist liberals it had been their vocation to oppose. Kirk and Patrick J. Buchanan both admired Reagan, even though his ear was increasingly open to the whispers and whines of Jean Kirkpatrick and Irving Kristol.
Amid this “conservative” ascendency, traditional conservatism was slowly relegated to the familiar margins—represented by such periodicals as Modern Age, Chronicles and The American Conservative. It could claim few prominent intellectual and cultural figures for much the same reason the far left can claim few: both have been easily excluded from the consensus mode of liberalism found on the television news channels and in the major newspapers. Both appear almost incomprehensible to the average American, who has come to think of society as little more than the aggregate of weak and isolated individuals whose relations are chiefly mediated by markets and consumption and whose sense of communal responsibility and common good is almost entirely absorbed within the ubiquitous agency of the state.
I am sorry to say that the far left, marginal though it be, is probably more intelligible to most Americans. Having prized equal freedom as the sole incontrovertible good for so long, they understand revolutionary leftism as bringing an apotheosis of equal freedom that the “creative destruction” of state/corporate capitalism cannot attain. Traditional conservatism, in contrast, resonates only in those brief moments where the loneliness of the modern individual breaks forth and leads him to question the normally unquestioned good of technological and media saturation; when he sees for a moment that the material ugliness of our civilization cannot be solved by “green” technology but by a fundamental readjustment of the human person’s attitude toward creation and acquisition; when, ever more rarely, he reads a book that stirs in him an image of genuine heroism unmotivated by mere trauma and realized in a form more lasting that the bloody phantasmagorias of contemporary Hollywood. At these margins and in these fugitive moments, can some restored literary conservative be discovered? Does our age have within it a Burke, a Coleridge, an Eliot? I think it does; but it is not my duty to name him, only to correct the historical record and to remind him of his origin.