Conservatism by Peter Viereck (Van Nostrand, 1956) is a companion volume to Liberalism: Its Meaning and History by J. Salwyn Schapiro (1958). Both are designed for college reading.
Lord Hugh Cecil, a leading twentieth-century philosopher of conservatism, defined that ism [sic] as "a force called into activity by the French Revolution [of 1789] and operating against the tendencies that that Revolution set up." (p. 10)
That would suggest that conservatism is merely reactionary or counter-revolutionary. However, there is an alternative within conservatism, i.e., Edmund Burke's brand of philosophy that fights "for the sake of traditional liberties" as opposed to the reactionary brand that fights "for the sake of traditional authority." (Italics are in the original, p. 11.) By marrying liberty to tradition, Burke (1729-1797) found a middle ground between the forces of innovation and those of reaction.
[Conservative philosophers] use the Latin term "a priori" for ideas deduced entirely from "prior" ideas, as opposed to ideas rooted in historical experience . . . . Conservatives condemn, with the term "rationalist blueprints," the attempts of progressives to plan society in advance from pure reason instead of letting it grow "organically" . . . like a living plant . . . . (p. 18)
In their theorizing and planning, progressives ignore the fact that they are playing with the lives of other people. To them, those lives are mere abstractions, no more than terms in an equation. (1) "Conservative theory [on the other hand] is anti-theoretical," according to Prof. Viereck. "The liberal and rationalist mind consciously articulates abstracts blueprints; the conservative mind unconsciously incarnates concrete traditions." (p. 17) So the conservative is not essentially, by Prof. Viereck's estimate, a theorist, a planner, or even a rationalist. The conservative, unbound by theory, is free in a way that the progressive can never hope to be.
What in politics is the self-destructive vice of the extreme reactionary--his remoteness from the present--sometimes becomes his virtue in art. The remoteness may give him perspective, the detachment that facilitates imaginative flights. Therefore, the most objectionable and bigoted reactionary may become in his art the most profound psychologist, the most sensitive moralist. (p. 17)
Non-rationalism or anti-rationalism, "remoteness from the present," imaginative flight, profound psychology, sensitive moralism--these would seem the characteristics of the conservative artist. They would also seem to be the foundation for a new movement in European culture to counter the cold, hard rationalism of the eighteenth century. According to Peter Viereck:
In 1798 Wordsworth and Coleridge published their joint book of poems, Lyrical Ballads. It marked the revolt of the human heart against abstract eighteenth-century rationalists . . . . (p. 34)
It also, by some estimates, marked the beginning of the Romantic Era.
I was surprised in reading Conservatism that William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge are considered conservatives. Surprised because I had thought of them as Romantics and enamored of the French Revolution. But Romanticism, as it turns out, is in part a reaction to the rationalism behind the French Revolution. Wordsworth and Coleridge both became disenchanted by that revolution. (More on that in the next part of this series.)
The first four authors are of course giants of Romanticism in America, and all six wrote Gothic tales. Poe's successor, H.P. Lovecraft, though a rationalist and a materialist, might easily fall into that list as well. Nietzsche, Balzac, and Dostoyevsky are also on the conservative side of the equation according to Prof. Viereck. I should note that Coleridge, Balzac, Hawthorne, and Poe had works in Weird Tales. I would be a little hard pressed to come up with any Neoclassical or rationalist writer of the eighteenth or nineteenth century who was similarly placed in the magazine. (2)Many of America's greatest literary figures have been cultural conservatives in their anti-optimism, their qualms about external reforms--for example, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Henry James, William Faulkner. (dates removed, p. 103)
I'll close by writing about Jakob Burckhardt (1818-1897), an art historian and author who was born in the same year Frankenstein was published and in the title character's home country. (More on Frankenstein next.) Burckhardt was no slouch; his reputation is firm. A friend of Nietzsche, he formulated with Nietzsche the concept of "massman," and, on his own, the concept of what he called "terrible simplifiers," that is, the leaders of massman. His opposite was Marquis de Condorcet, a progressive who believed in the future as a predictable and controllable unwinding of history. As it turns out, Condorcet died in the squalid jail cells of Utopia. He failed to foresee what his theorizing would bring about. It all turned out to be a pipe dream. Jakob Burckhardt, who would have been skeptical of innovation, including any attempt to plan or control the future, nevertheless foresaw it:
I have a premonition which sounds like utter folly, and yet it will not leave me: the military state will become one vast factory. . . . What must logically come is a definite and supervised stint of misery . . . daily begun and ended to the sound of drums . . . . In the delightful twentieth century, authoritarianism will raise its head again, and a terrifying head it will be. . . . My picture of the terrible simplifiers (terribles simplificateurs) is no pleasant one . . . . Naked force in command and the silencing of opposition . . . . (p. 159) (3)
Science fiction and progressivism look to the future, the former by extrapolation, the latter by a priori reasoning. Both would seem to pride themselves on their vision. Yet only conservatives--skeptical of innovation, aware of man's fallen nature, and with their eyes on the past--foresaw the coming of the twentieth-century totalitarian. Jakob Burckhardt foresaw it. So did Friedrich Nietzsche and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Who, then, had the better vision? Who today? (4)
(1) Bill Ayers, for example, one of our current president's buddies, has spoken in an offhand way of the necessity of eliminating twenty-five million Americans from the equation, all in the name of progress.
(2) Revision (Aug. 9, 2015): This was to have been a footnote, but now as I think on it, my note has expanded into something more than a note, so I'll write it as a separate posting. You can access it here. (Link not yet ready.)
(3) Here is a preceding quote:
(3) Here is a preceding quote:
Here is Nietzsche's foretelling:The world approaches two alternatives, either full democracy or an absolute lawless despotism. The latter will no longer be run by dynasties, for these are too soft-hearted, but by a military command disguised as republicanism . . . . (p. 159)
It is the age of the masses: they lie on their belly before everything that is massive. And so also in politics. A statesman who rears up for them a new Tower of Babel, some monstrosity of empire and power, they call "great" . . . . (p. 168)
The democratising [sic] of Europe is at the same time an involuntary arrangement for the rearing of tyrants . . . . (p. 169)
(4) And if the totalitarian state is a Utopia/Dystopia, and if stories of Utopia/Dystopia lie within the realm of science fiction, and if the perspective of the conservative gives him a better view of the future, who then would make a more accurate writer of science fiction? Him or the extreme progressive whose vision is clouded by his pipe dream of perfection?
Original text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley
Original text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley