Make Much of Time
Conservatism is not risk aversion, so go live a little.
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
In his autobiography, The World of Yesterday, the Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig describes the last days of the European old order before the Great War as a “World of Security.” There was insurance for everything, a bourgeois respectability to be kept up, and life was filled with carefully calculated and correctly apportioned bonhomie. A certain kind of preoccupation with safety had, along with enjoyment of a decadent high culture, come to define Viennese—and thus European—commercial society. But despite all that caution, after an assassination in Sarajevo, Christendom killed itself, and all of it was gone.
Or to get at my topic from another angle: The poem interpolated here is by Robert Herrick, who had what must have been the noblest aquiline nose of the 17th century. His “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” (1648) can be read, in the meme parlance of contemporary Twitter, as instructions for being a Chad. It should be. For older readers unfamiliar with the language of online irony: A “Chad” is admirable, someone who really does just “live, laugh, love.”
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.
A meaningful conservatism—even a dispositional, rather than ideological, conservatism of the kind we seek to stand for here at TAC—is by no means a synonym for risk aversion. Human nature cannot be calculated for, always factored with perfect actuarial exactness. We live and grow organically, subject to fortune as much as prudence, and, indeed, prudence is the application of reason to the acknowledged and accepted accidents of chance. The limits and guardrails conservatives believe in are discovered and derived from what is essentially human, the shared things observed in art and history, and the image of God received from divine revelation.
In reaction to the deep desire of modernity, we conservatives do not seek to design or manufacture a world or self to fit our dreams, because what we think of as hope is often pride. And so, since in an ugly age of misrule the only thing we can still seek to conserve is the truth and goodness of human beings and human things, we must rebel against the inhuman security so characteristic of our anti-culture, with its public health regime, success sequences, credentialing, contraceptives, War on Terror, menthols ban, mask mandates, tone policing, pain killers, mood stabilizers, trigger warnings, Planned Parenthoods, drone bombings, grade inflation, mass surveillance, assisted suicide, and all the rest. Time’s getting on. You were given the gift of life. Do something with it; take some risks. And pass it on.
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Like most writers, I write to teach myself as much as to share with readers. This little column is as much a message to me as to you. I need help remembering that there is a distinction between what is wise and virtuous in the light of conscience and eternity and what I have grown accustomed to, whether living in the suburbs in high school with an (of course) netted trampoline and a used Lexus to share with my brother or in the halls of D.C. and graduate school. Even as I try to be responsible in managing money today, I must still recall that the riches of this world will be eaten by moths and rust, that my treasures ought not to be stored up on earth, a place which only passes away, but instead in that which is eternal—namely human beings, in life together, here and hereafter. I must remember that it is the liberals for whom this world and this moment matters above all, with no thought for ancestry or posterity; they need to cut themselves from the past and insure against the future to be free in the now. Not me.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.
The conservative says, whether encountered in Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France or in Chesterton’s fence, that we are playing catch-up through most of life. We are dropped into the middle of a story and are not usually the main character, though we are the first character we have care of. That care along with the limits of culture, tradition, and law that hem us in are not the calculated avoidance of risk, however, but guides and guardrails leading toward the right dangers. To live a historically normal life—of filial piety, mating and marriage one way or another, try-your-best provident parenting—is to invite all sorts of risks, actually to seek to give hostages to fortune, and to be, in a word, vulnerable.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken.” That’s true of loving a place or institution or country, certainly a person, even a pet. The only security to be found, Lewis writes, describing what is implicitly our society’s ideal, requires you to wrap your heart “round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.” That is risk aversion; that’s the spirit of the age, despite the damage we still do to ourselves. We cannot build a “World of Security” and we should cease our trying, before another catastrophe. We must learn to live with danger, lest we despair. In 1942, unwilling to see what kind of suicide the Second World War would be for the Europe he loved so much, Stefan Zweig killed himself, too.