One paragraph of Pierre Manent’s “City, Empire, Church, Nation” expresses something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Referring to modernity as a project, he says:
Inherent in the idea of a project are the beliefs that we are capable of acting and that our action can transform the conditions of our life. Many analysts of modernity have insisted on the second point, the transformative or constructive ambition of the modern project. But we must not pass over the first point too quickly. We are capable of acting—a world is contained in those words! Human beings have always acted in some way, but they have not always known that they were capable of acting. There is something terrible in human action: what makes us human is also what exposes us, takes us out of ourselves, and sometimes causes us to lose ourselves. In the beginning, human beings gathered, fished, hunted, or even made war, which is a kind of hunting; but they acted as little as possible, leaving much to the gods and tying themselves down with prohibitions, rites, and sacred restraints. Historically, properly human action first appears as crime or transgression. This, according to Hegel, is what Greek tragedy brings to light: innocently criminal action. Tragedy recounts the passage from what precedes action to properly human action.
What Manent describes here is not only a change in economics or government or any other mode of behavior, but a change in the psychology behind all behaviors. People were not unconscious of their own activities before modern times, but very few thought of themselves as potent makers of worlds. Today, every insurance salesman can feel like that. His opinions not just about insurance but about politics, music, Wall Street, and any number of other topics can all be expressed in ways that seem to determine, in aggregate. what happens in those areas. (Markets and mass opinion are analogous to democracy in this regard.) This creates a powerful reinforcement of the individual’s wide-ranging opinions and belief in his ability to act. To expect such individuals to behave as men and women did in other times and places—before opinion and the power to effect change became qualities so strongly reinforced—is itself an expression of the belief that we are capable of acting and transforming the conditions of our lives (and others’ lives) however we please.
This is one reason why modern means toward traditionalist ends seem self-defeating: there’s a human type here that isn’t amenable to traditional authority, and non-traditional authority—mass opinion, for example—is already the source of much of what traditionalists dislike. Even if public opinion were a blank slate, the psychology of action inculcated by modernity would not fit neatly into traditional templates.
All this is pretty far away from direct political or cultural applications. But when thinking beyond immediate facts, a stronger conservatism will be one that understands how the human psyche itself has been reformatted by modernity and what that entails.