TCS Daily

Can Conservatives Be Optimists?

By Paul J. Cella - November 4, 2003 12:00 AM

"Can conservatives be optimists?" Not long ago this question attracted the considered reflection of several distinguished bloggers. Most answered, as good Reaganites would, with some qualifications, Yes.


I am a conservative, and an admirer of Ronald Reagan; but I cannot answer so confidently. There is, first, something almost aesthetically disquieting about men in the lineage of St. Augustine -- that is, men committed not only by the binding of doctrine, but by the weight of facts and self-reflection, to the idea of Original Sin -- calling themselves optimists.


Secondly, it is my observation that conservatives tend to underestimate or overlook the real spiritual perils of prosperity. The Christian philosophy, illumined by Scripture and Tradition, makes no such mistake; indeed even the most pious of Christians might be forgiven for the occasional suspicion that Christian teaching overestimates this peril.


Christ himself marvels at the shriveling effect of wealth on the soul: "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!" (Mark 10:23) Those words, I confess, lead me to tremble for our age. And indeed, at the same time that economic growth rates soared, and Western nations, invigorated by the materialist enterprise of human science, prospered unlike they ever had before, men were slaughtered like cattle by the various armed doctrines of the materialist West. "Treat men like raw material and raw material they will be," C. S. Lewis wrote. Materialism, where it slipped the harness of conscience, where it became the enemy of the Creator and fancied itself as embracing all aspects of the universe, did make raw material of men. And the corpses piled high like mountains.


All this is not to prejudice liberty, which I believe reason amply demonstrates is a gift from God to man; and among the most precious gifts it is, and surely the highest ideal for the secular order. But freedom is instrumental; it was provided that men might faithfully seek virtue, and seek God. That great material wealth has been a product of freedom is no small fact; and that too, rightly ordered, is a blessing from God.


Thirdly, whenever I read of optimism, I perceive a host of specters gathering on the horizon, all signified by the dread word Progress. Conservatives have been speaking altogether too glibly of progress of late. We are full of enthusiasm of democratic revolution across the Islamic world, not altogether unlike, to my ears, the cries of permanent revolution by the Trotskyists many years ago; when what Muslims might need instead is a regression, a retreat from delusion and fanaticism. And discerning men like Daniel Pipes and Bernard Lewis have illuminated the telling links between modern Muslim radicalism and the bloody revolutionary movements of the modern West. In other words, it was in part the Western idea of Progress, with its modern source in the utopian fervor of the French Revolution, which transformed Islam from an austere faith in Fate, into a revolutionary fantasy. And it was precisely Western technology which made that fantasy something more than a trivial irritation. I worry that our fatuous and irresponsible rhetoric may haunt us for years to come. "Men have been sometimes led by degrees," wrote Burke, "sometimes hurried into things, of which, if they could have seen the whole together, they never would have permitted the most remote approach."


Perhaps my demurral here qualifies me as a pessimist; I do not feel like a pessimist. I am not wracked by despair, or doubt about the unparalleled nobility and worth of our civilization, despite all its manifest flaws. I do not expect catastrophe. I expect slow decline. My sense is that our vitality has left us; that we are a spiritually diminished people; that we are living on habits of enterprise and virtue borrowed from a previous age of vigor when our material achievements were properly recognized as secondary and fleeting; and that, even as we depend on these habits, all the creative action of our own age is to discredit and traduce their principles. The contempt for history palpable around us is suggestive evidence of this -- college students cannot correctly identify the century in which the Civil War was fought; children's textbooks are expunged of most anything controversial, meaning most anything interesting. When a nation cuts itself off from its own past, something subtly dreadful has occurred. A civilization cannot long survive on habit alone, cannot long sustain the sort of wild and maniacal hacking at the principles of those habits, to which we so often bear witness. Our culture has come to despise the organic sources of its vitality, as when we refer scornfully to great men with terms of glib abuse like "dead white males"; and those who value their own heritage have become the outsiders.


I say I expect decline. That is very different from saying I regard it as inevitable. If ever there was an abused word, it is that one. I certainly believe that the decline I anticipate can be arrested if men set themselves against it. If a man were to awake from a long and torturous fever-induced nightmare, and discover with a start that he is rushing wildly toward a precipice, all he need do is stop; having committed his will to simple survival, his vista opens wide from there. He need not thoughtlessly turn, almost as if beguiled by a new fever, and march precisely backward in his own wild steps. To his left may extend a daunting though ultimately navigable path along the mountainous crags back to his home; to his right may open a broad and primordial forest, imposing but by no means malicious, through which he can arrive at the home of his fathers. He may even find it necessary and desirable, after careful deliberation, to attempt a risky descent off the cliff before him, anticipating that below, perhaps, there is a solid road around the mountains or the forest; and for this he will need sturdy and reliable equipment, which upon consideration is readily available all about him, though most of it was dreadfully concealed by shadows and monsters in his nightmare. The point is that what he must not do, what in fact only a man of terrible insanity would do, is commit to a fatalism about his rush toward oblivion, or fancy somehow that oblivion is desirable, and plunge headlong in silence.


The whole illustration could be complicated by the presence nearby of other rushing dreamers, even thunderous crowds of them, who have not wakened from their own personal nightmares, and will in all likelihood fall to their deaths. Some may be stricken by that feverish lucidity that sometimes grips the delusive, and insist, against all reason and all the evidence of the natural senses, that oblivion is indeed desirable, or that it is not oblivion at all but Utopia; that the crags to the left are only bloody death and the forest to the right merely frightful doom; and that the reliable instruments around them, the equipment that Man has employed for survival amidst adventure since the dawn of Time, are but the rubbish of ancient beasts, treacherous and unusable. In this complication, our hero may perceive a few moments for the action of charity toward his fellow men, during which he can implore them to free themselves from the fever and halt their rush; but those moments will pass rapidly, and he may well be unsuccessful, for his influence on the wills of free men, even free men frenzied by a dream, is quite limited. And then he must entrust their souls to the God of Mercy -- for thereafter the action of charity will be best used in steeling himself for the difficult journey to his home (or the home of his fathers) where decent men can be mobilized to discover the source of the fever and defeat it.


All this is to say that a man or a nation or a civilization, even once on the road to oblivion, need not end up there. To say something is inevitable only makes sense, in a strict literal sense, after the fact; we more often hear it said that something was inevitable, that looking backward on history seemed to gather and point toward some conclusion, which, surprise of surprises, in fact occurred. The occasional prophet, aye, has appeared and flashed like lightning with his vaticinations across the arc of history; but even the greatest of prophets is wrong more than he is right, and usually right only in the broad strokes, not the details.


The role of conservatives, then, is more counterrevolutionary than it is "conservative" in the strict sense of the word; for to conserve the structures of decline and fall, the forms of cultural rapine and plunder, is to isolate a friend in lonely despond, and blockade him from desperately needed succor in his moment of despair; it is to frustrate the approach of solicitous physicians in the patient's hour of agony; it is, in short, to make the civilization of the West safe for suicide. The conservative's role is properly restoration not conservation: restoration of the spirit of enterprise, by which we prosper, and the subjection of human pride to truth, by which our prosperity is tempered and corrected.


If I am pessimistic, it is because (with apologies to Ralph Waldo Emerson) abstractions are in the saddle and ride the conservatives. Conservative circles seem all abuzz with talk of progress and democracy, words that should fall discordant on our ears. Joshua Muravchik produced a strong defense of neoconservatism recently, but he failed, I think, to properly account for traditional conservative unease with the idea of democracy. He failed to account for the reasons great conservatives like Burke and Tocqueville and even the American Founders -- democrats, all -- feared that its decay would yield a tyranny unlike anything ever seen. If conservatives are to be optimists, which I do think is possible, it must not be because we have simply capitulated to the ideas of the Left, and reproach only their excesses. It must be instead because we know our ideas to be superior; because we favor what is human to what is mechanical, what is organic to what is regimented, what is venerable to what is fashionable. Conservatives never hated Progress and Democracy until they became slogans on placards, catchwords to conceal the armed doctrines of the revolt against God.


The modern world is in revolt against the Augustinian reminder that Man cannot conquer Sin. My fear is that conservatives, influenced as we all are by the pressures of our age, have joined in the revolt -- or at least wearied of resisting it.


Paul Cella writes frequently for TCS.  His online home can be found here.


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