The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 26, 2017

SHORT COURSES
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Western Civilization, Our Tradition

ISI recommends reading through the introductory essay before following the embedded hyperlinks or before working through the course itself. The essay can orient your reading and reflection so that like Caleb and Joshua you are calm and perceptive in the face of the intellectual giants you will find in this land.

Conservatism is distinguished from other modern political movements in that it concerns memory more than desire; it is primarily defensive, not progressive. The conservative seeks to hold fast to that which is good—and experienced as such—whereas other political movements, tendencies, and ideologies reach for a posited good, one that is not yet possessed. Characteristically, the imagined goods of modern progressive or leftist ideologies are conceived to be “universal” values (such as liberty, equality, and fraternity), whereas the goods and values defended by conservatives are more readily understood as contingent particulars. There does not appear to be a single substance knowable as Tradition per se, but rather many historical traditions, great and small, each making a claim for allegiance and conservation on its own particular terms. As a result, while there may be a Socialist International or a Communist International—one may even speak of a Liberal International—there has never been a Conservative International.

Return of Odysseus by Claude Lorrain

There is, however, one “quasi-universal” that conservatives of many nations, and American conservatives among them, have understood themselves to be conserving: the West. Obviously, the very word indicates that this good or value is not truly universal: it excludes, at least, the East. On the other hand, insofar as the term denotes a civilization transcending in space any particular Western state, transcending in time the history of any particular Western nation, and transcending in intellectual scope or catholicity any particular Western philosophy or doctrine, “the West” stretches toward a kind of universality. To speak of the West is to speak of something cosmopolitan, and yet not deracinated. If it is not an eternal essence, then perhaps it is something sempiternal. The defense of the West is close to the heart of what it means to be a conservative in the modern world—yet the definition of the West and the identification of the threats to it is also a source of disagreement among conservatives of various sorts.

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That the West is approached by modern conservatives with solicitude for its vulnerabilities is an artifact of the time of troubles that was the twentieth century. Earlier and particularly nineteenth-century presumptions about the West were nearly always whiggish celebrations of the historically “inevitable” progress of Western European civilization to its rightful place in the imperial sun: “Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set, / God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet” was a British invocation, but it summed up a more general sense that the West was simply “the best”—and destined for indefinite global dominion. That confidence, however, was profoundly shaken by the civilizational self-immolation of the First World War. For many on the Left, the carnage of the Great War was evidence of the structural flaws of Western “bourgeois democracy,” requiring the remedy of revolution. For conservatives, however, the conflict powerfully tempered any disposition to celebrate our civilization’s achievements with a pronounced sense of challenge and threat.

Against whom or what is it, then, that the West finds itself in need of defense? Two general forms of threat may be identified. First, over the course of the twentieth century it was frequently contended that the West must be defended from internal decay or decline. Conservative reflection on this theme was prompted in the first instance by an engagement with the thought of Oswald Spengler, whose book The Decline of the West was a publishing sensation in Germany and Europe immediately after the First World War. In a resonant, even poetic, though not altogether scientific manner, this prophet of pessimism argued that civilizations are organic wholes organized around a High Culture with a particular “Soul.” Civilizations throughout history have risen and fallen in a pattern of birth, growth, apex, decline, and death—and our Western civilization is no different.

In Spengler’s view, the West was clearly in the last phase of its civilizational life: the “Soul” was no longer animating the body. The telltale signs of a High Culture’s decay included skepticism, materialism, scientism, and the fall of philosophy into mere academicism on the one hand, and urbanization, vulgar democracy, the rule of the rich, and eventually caesarism and bureaucracy on the other hand. The cataclysm of the two world wars in the first half of the twentieth century seemed to many to lend plausibility to the contention that the civilization of Western Europe (and its diaspora in the New World) was now entering its “twilight.”

World War I trench, 1917

While Spengler himself held that the roughly thousand-year civilizational life-cycle was a fact of nature beyond man’s ability to control or modify—in short, that our civilization’s decline was inevitable and irreversible—this was not the lesson conservatives took from his work. Conservatism, after all, was accustomed to resisting the “tides” of history; indeed, conservatism often specialized in imagining ways to “turn back the clock.” Far from leading to an acquiescence in pessimism, therefore, Spenglerian gloom served as a rallying cry, a call both to action and to reflection: if the sources of decay and decline could be uncovered, perhaps they could also be reversed.

Another writer whose thoughts on the rise and fall of civilizations colored conservative understandings of the West’s predicament was the philosophical historian Arnold Toynbee. Writing primarily in the 1950s, Toynbee developed a universal history of civilizations in terms of challenge and response. The challenge might be physical (e.g., the cultivation of nearly inarable land), civil-social (an internal intellectual crisis or religio-political faction), or external (the pressure of another civilization). Whatever the case, the response of a healthy and growing civilization depended upon the efforts of creative minorities able to meet the challenge. (In the absence of any challenges whatsoever, civilizations tended simply to decay.) The signs of civilizational decline, in turn, were a ruling minority turned in on itself and on its past glories—no longer creative—and the construction of a “Universal State” that acted to smother dissent and discontentment among an emergent “Proletariat.”

While Toynbee’s work was by no means accepted uncritically, conservatives did find many points of agreement. Toynbee, for example, tended to highlight religion as a source of recurring civilizational renewal, and conservatives too saw in religion a source of hope for the West. Toynbee’s “Universal State” and “Proletariat,” moreover, had something in common with the centralizing “collectivism” and emerging “mass society” of the twentieth century, against both of which conservatives had set themselves: perhaps, through conservative efforts, the West could retain or regain its individualistic spirit and so continue to nurture creative minorities. Most significantly, Toynbee was no determinist. There was no set date for the West’s demise; all depended on particular human choices and human actions. And, Toynbee admonished, “Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.” It was up to conservatives to forestall, through acts of cultural recovery, the West’s apparently suicidal tendencies.

The theme of a moral crisis of the West, one requiring a concerted and creative response, has remained a staple of conservative argument for more than half a century. It is noteworthy that what are taken by Spengler, Toynbee, and many conservatives as the indicators of civilizational decline—a coolly skeptical stance toward religious claims, the sensual delights of an urbane materialism, the democratization of society, the rational administration of a bureaucracy, the growth of a cosmopolitan “Universal State,” the burgeoning of novel liberties—have been understood by others as signs of civilizational flourishing and progress. The experiences of the first half of the twentieth century taught conservatives to doubt the solidity and sustainability of such phenomena in the absence of vibrant cultural foundations. Hence, in recent years, conservative initiatives in the culture wars constitute a continuing effort to arrest internal tendencies toward decline within Western civilization.

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