Thursday, December 14, 2006

the conservative mind, part one

i wish so-called conservative of all stripes -- social conservatives, fiscal conservatives (i.e. classic economic small-l liberals), libertarians, neocons, etc. -- would take up a close and hard reading of the "six canons of conservative thought" as laid out in the conservative mind (1953) by russell kirk, the dean of modern american conservatism. if they did so i wonder how many of them would really and honestly swear by these principles. (the russell kirk center for cultural renewal website offers an expanded list of 10 such principles, and it may be worth cross-checking them against one another, something i may do by way of a conclusion to what i envision will be a multi-part post.) here's the first, and it's loaded:
(1) Belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience, forging and eternal chain of right and duty which links great and obscure, living and dead. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems. A narrow rationality, what Coleridge calls the Understanding, cannot of itself satisfy human needs. "Every Tory is a realist," says Keith Feiling: "he knows that there are great forces in heaven and earth that man's philosophy cannot plumb or fathom. We do wrong to deny it, when we are told that we do not trust human reason: we do not and we may not. Human reason set up a cross on Calvary, human reason set up the cup of hemlock, human reason was canonised in Nôtre Dame." Politics is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which is above nature.
personally i think belief in a divine intent to the universe is perfectly understandable, acceptable and even noble on some level. i do not think we are the only thing this universe has going for it, nor do i need much persuasion of the existence of an entity or entities possessed of a higher intelligence than us.

but it's quite a step from there to a "belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience, forging and eternal chain of right and duty which links great and obscure, living and dead." essentially, the rule of divine intent leaves little room for human agency or will in our endeavors in the world and among each other; society is thus less the product and commerce of human inter-association than the active fulfillment of a divine plan.

1579 drawing of the great chain of being from Didacus Valades, Rhetorica Christianathis all begs the question of how and why a benevolent god would plan and allow for the gross malfeasances that human society continually and increasingly commits. (the problem of evil is both the cornerstone and the undoing of conservative thinking, as we will eventually discover.) the image of the "eternal chain of right and duty which links great and obscure, living and dead" is nothing less than the scala natura or "great chain of being" that dates at least as far back in western thought as lucretius (1st century B.C.) but ever since copernicus (i.e. the last 500 years) has enjoyed all the currency of heliocentrism. regardless, what's crucial about kirk's invocation of the scala natura here are the notions of order and hierarchy it implies: that is, fundamental inequalities exist among god's creations, certain of which are inherently superior to others. these inequalities become more pronounced in subsequent principles kirk lays out.

the bottom line of kirk's "divine intent" ruling society is a quintessential summation of conservatism: "Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems." however, given that politics, τ&alpha πολιτικη (ta politiké), are "the things of the polis," public or civic matters, the only way that political problems are fundamentally religious or moral problems is if the polis, civil society or the state, is fundamentally a religious or moral entity. and for this to be the case, conservatism must posit a theocracy, defined by the OED as follows:
A form of government in which God (or a deity) is recognized as the king or immediate ruler, and his laws are taken as the statute-book of the kingdom, these laws being usually administered by a priestly order as his ministers and agents; hence (loosely) a system of government by a sacerdotal order, claiming a divine commission; also, a state so governed: esp. applied to the commonwealth of Israel from the exodus to the election of Saul as king.
and the problem with theocracies is, of course, whose god rules? or better still, since for example christianity and islam believe in the same god, whose understanding of god?

we'll come to this problem later -- libertarians, you still with me? -- but for now let us simply conclude by way of kirk's critique of "a narrow rationality" for the fact that it "cannot of itself satisfy human needs" because (in feiling's words) "there are great forces in heaven and earth that man's philosophy cannot plumb or fathom." sure, of course. rationality is not the panacea that francis bacon perhaps thought it was in the early 1600s. should anyone still deny the limits of human reason today, the conservative response with a swift a certain rebuke: "We do wrong to deny it, when we are told that we do not trust human reason: we do not and we may not." in other words, conservatism rejects reason altogether as untrustworthy human folly.

in short, from kirk's first principle we have learned that modern american conservatism is nothing less that a reactionary backlash against renaissance humanism, enlightenment, and rationality as they colluded 500, 600, 700 years ago to overthrow the judeo-christian god as the sole authority and trustee of the human and universal endeavor, who created the universe with an inherent hierarchy of superior and inferior creations and according to a plan and purpose that works actively in the lives of those creations, including its political institutions that are naturally theocratic.

2 comments:

Mark Wallace said...

If I'm not mistaken, Russell Kirk also wrote several volumes of ghost stories which are really very good (I've read a few). There's finally a religious message on some level to all of them, but it's not hugely cloying.

Mark Wallace said...

And because I'm still fascinated by this issue, it's pretty clear that Kirk's ideas are more or less the same ones shared by writers like T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, and many other well known 20th century writers. I say this not because I agree with their position (I don't) but just to point out how deeply imbedded that position is in Modernist literature.