Tuesday, December 19, 2006

the conservative mind, part two

in the previous post we were able to conclude from russell kirk's first "canon of conservative thought" how, in a backlash against renaissance humanism, conservativism posits the christian god as an active force directing and shaping human activity, including government by theocracy and a natural hierarchy in which certain of god's creatures are inherently superior to others.

the remaining five canons essentially reiterate this, with varying emphases.
(2) Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and equalitarianism and utilitarian aims of most radical systems. This is why Quintin Hogg and R. J. White describe conservatism as "enjoyment." It is this buoyant view of life which Walter Bagehot called "the proper source of an animated Conservatism."
i have to admit i find this one the most opaque of all: while the appeal to "tradition" is quite intelligble, i have no idea what kirk could possibly mean by "the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life." i cannot imagine what variety and mystery there might be to traditional life, much less why these would be proliferating. the image i get is that of the scala natura of all the natural world (evoked in Canon 1), the little creatures of the world happily proliferating.

perhaps the "sweet mystery of life" is that there is life and a universe here at all? ok, i'll grant that. but it sounds more to me like mystification than mystery, especially when it's being invoked under the guise of "traditional life." such notions of tradition, "the good ol' days," the way things used to be, are almost always grounded in fanciful speculation. and such fancy and mystery almost always elide real social and material facts of life for those who do not look back on the days of yesteryear favorably. descendents of southern plantation owners have a much different "affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life," for example, than do the descendents of slaves and sharecroppers.

this becomes even more apparent when kirk himself contrasts this with "the narrowing uniformity and equalitarianism and utilitarian aims of most radical systems." in other words: under traditional, ordered, hierarchical life, variety and mystery proliferate; remove the hierarchy and acknowledge all creatures as equal and thus equally deserving of the good and a good life, as "most radical systems" do, and suddenly the natural world trades in all its variety and mystery for "narrowing uniformity." this is a fascinating insight really. conservativism only accepts difference within a vertically-integrated chain of being; any marker of difference must automatically be valued negatively or positively relative to something else. if you recognize difference but integrate it horizontally along what is an essentially a continuum of equality that does not values those differences one way or another (and that essentially holds the similarities and commonalities to be more important or more valuable than the differences), you effectively reduce or eliminate differences altogether in favor of egalitarianism and utilitarianism. again: differences more more important, more valuable in that they denote some people as better and therefore more deserving of the good and the good life than others. hence Canon 3:
(3) Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes. The only true equality is moral equality; all other attempts at levelling lead to despair, if enforced by positive legislation. Society longs for leadership, and if a people destroy natural distinctions among men, presently Buonaparte fills the vacuum.
in a system based on natural hierarchies in which some people are inherently superior to others, how in the world can it be that "the only true equality is moral equality"? this one does seem rather puzzling at first, and again it does point out the fundamental contradictions of conservative thought. essentially, i think, kirk's "moral equality" is simply that we are all bad (call it "original sin"). he never comes right out and says it in the open (like he does with respect to hierarchies, finally, here in Canon 3). but you have to go back to Canon 1, and the quote by keith feiling:
"he [the Tory] 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."
right? human reason is flawed because human beings are flawed. evil exists. nothing will change that, nothing can mitigate that. humans cannot be improved.

however -- and remember, this is the principle of moral equality, that all humans are bad, flawed, evil -- hierarchies dictate that some people are superior to others. herein lines the fundamental contradiction of conservativism: we're all bad, but some of us are less bad than others. in the last instance, kirk's "moral equality" really counts for nothing.


kristine said...

One of the keys to understanding Kirk's text and philosphy is to read through a Catholic theology, specifically Thomas Aquinas's explanation of the "spark'of go(o)dness left over in humanity after the Fall. With that in mind,freedom and reason are in the service of god,which is,according to a Catholic conservatism,the only true possibility for agency. It's not that men don't have reason, but that reason has been perverted. I don't remember exatly when, but Kirk converted to Catholicism at some point in his life, and his ideas, I think, resonate with it quite deeply.

And yes, Kirk wrote ghost stories. I attended a seminar at his home in Michigan many years ago where he and a very ancient Cleath Brooks and Andrew Lytle regailed a gatheringof young conservatives with ghost stories. It was scary, now that I look back on it, in more ways than one.

kristine said...

Oh and, another place to look is Augustine's _City of God_ and Edmund Burke's _A Vindication of Natural Society_. Both important influences.