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Conservatives Must Return To Metaphysics

Conservatism’s first principles have been lost in politics; its politics confused with policies; and its policies subsumed into personality.

In his 1964 contribution to the book,What is Conservatism?, M. Stanton Evans lamented that in attempting to identify what ails America, “Some conservatives fix on one thing and some on another, so that the net effect is not clarification but compounded obscurity.” While The American Conservative’s excellent symposium on Frank S. Meyer’s book shed much light on the current state of conservatism, its readers, as Evans suggested, are unlikely closer to a clear understanding.

Today to an even greater extent than in 1964, conservatism’s first principles—it philosophy—has been lost in politics; its politics confused with policies; and its policies subsumed into personality. A return to metaphysics is necessary.

American conservatism at its philosophical root is not about tradition, preservation or conservation. It is not a focus on the American Founding per se or nationalism. Neither is it a fixation on economics. In 1960, The Sharon Statement, American conservatism’s founding document, written by Evans and ratified by William F. Buckley, Jr. and the leading young conservatives of the day, established:

“That foremost among the transcendent values is the individual’s use of his God-given free will, whence derives his right to be free from the restrictions of arbitrary force.”

Building on this idea, historian Stephen J. Tonsor cited Lord Acton’s celebrated line, “Liberty is so holy a thing that God was forced to permit evil that it might exist,” when writing for the 1964 symposium.

In short, conservatives believe man is free and obligated to exercise his best moral judgment informed by conscience. That is his purpose and essence as he is created in the image and likeness of God. Man is a flawed, finite being seeking a Heavenly, infinite end. That is what conservatives believe.

There are but two types of people in this world, as C.S. Lewis reminded us: “those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘They will be done.’” Buckley made a similar distinction when he wrote that the job of conservatives is “to bring hammer blows against the bell jar that separates the dreamers from reality.” Conservatives are realists, utilizing right reason to discern moral action. They are not sleep walking utopians, neither conjuring fanciful futures nor overly romanticized pasts.

A popular battle cry among the Sharon Statement crowd at the time was taken from Eric Voegelin’s writings: “Don’t let them immanentize the eschaton.” In other words, do not let the Left create hell on earth in their quixotic quest to bring about an egalitarian utopia untethered from nature’s laws. The essence of American conservatism can be summed up as a rejection of such gnostic and antinomian errors over the nature of man and his place in the universe.

Conservatives, Evans wrote in his essay, understand that “affirmation of a transcendent order is not only compatible with individual autonomy, but the precondition of it; and that a skeptical view of man’s nature not only permits political liberty but demands it.” He went on to conclude, “Freedom and virtue have declined together and must rise together. They are not opposites; they are not even, in the American context, separate matters to be dealt with independently. They are complementaries which flourish or wither in a direct and dependable ratio.”

Americans remain attracted to common sense. At root they are skeptical of woke utopian nostrums. As Evans told Time Magazine when asked to define conservatism, “I think my philosophy is pretty close to the farmer in Seymour, Ind. He believes in God. He believes in the U.S. He believes in himself. This intuitive position is much closer to wisdom than the tormented theorems of some Harvard dons.”

True conservatives, of all stripes, must band together as realists who can speak clearly to the American people about freedom, virtue and the happiness derived from a well-ordered life. The key to achieving this goal lies in promoting conservative politics, policies and personalities in accord with a proper understanding of nature and its laws while opposing with fervor the secularists working in the service of disorder and error—including those among us.

Christopher G. Long served as president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and national director of Young Americans for Freedom.

Related: Introducing the TAC Symposium: What Is American Conservatism?

See all the articles published in the symposium, here.