Conservatism Does Not Equal Anti-Liberalism
In 2005, the rightist historian John Lukacs wrote that America’s political future might well be decided on the Right, in a contest “between people on the Right whose binding belief is their contempt for Leftists, who hate liberals more than they love liberty, and others who love liberty more than they fear liberals.”
That line came to mind last night, reading the paeans to Trump for giving the news media hell in his press conference yesterday. As I’ve said, I simply don’t get why so many conservatives think that performance is anything to be proud of. It was not the performance of a strong man, but rather of a weak one. What brought it to mind specifically was reading an advance copy of The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Beauty, and Goodness in the Western Tradition, by James Matthew Wilson, who teaches literature at Villanova. It will be published in June. This book will undoubtedly propel Wilson into the first rank of conservative public intellectuals.
The Vision of the Soul is a defense of Christian Platonism, which Wilson says is at the core of the Western intellectual tradition. What he sets out to do is to go to the fundamentals of thought that today we call culturally conservative, but which is really an attempt to keep faith with Western civilization in modernity. I don’t want to say too much about it so far out from publication, but I will say here that Wilson’s book gives a defense of the Western tradition that is breathtaking in its depth and clarity, conveyed in prose that genuinely delights with its elegance, lucidity, and splendor. I have never read a book in which content so profound takes flight with such lightness and style. It’s like watching a 747 maneuver with the grace and precision of a hummingbird. Future generations of conservatives will look back to their encounter with The Vision of the Soul with the same sense of gratitude and awe that we today remember the first time we read Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk. This book is not only true and good, but also beautiful. I know that I will be reading it, and re-reading it, for the rest of my life. The Vision of the Soul should be a cornerstone for every classical school. This is one of the ten books you take to your Benedict Option monastery, and around which you build the rest of your intellectual life.
Why do I bring it up here. Because you only have to read a few pages of Wilson to exult in what the conservative intellectual and artistic tradition has been and can be, but to despair over what it has been reduced to in our time. This is not a book about politics, or rather, it’s a book in which politics are but one expression of deeper convictions about the nature of things. But exulting in the book also induces despair at how far from our roots we have fallen. Trump is not in this book, but in a way, he’s all over this book. He is a symbol of decadence — as is the establishment against which he rails (and yes, this includes the media establishment). In classical culture, disorder of the soul produces disorder in the polis. This is why, most fundamentally, we are in the trouble we’re in today.
Lukacs, the historian, proudly calls himself a “reactionary,” and a decade ago, he foresaw the rise of populism displacing the institutions and customs that had served our Republic for over two centuries. From an interview he did in 2006 with Jeet Heer:
In conversation, he’s willing to grant praise to a certain form of populism, citing the mass movements that have brought democracy to Central and Eastern Europe. ”The people are often right,” he notes. ”Just think of my country. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was a real popular uprising. Although it was defeated it had very salutary consequences in the long run. It was the Stalingrad of international communism. The repression in Hungary afterward was much less. They did not quite restore 100 percent terror. That is why in 1989 the change of the regime came along without bloodshed.”
But even when pressed, Lukacs has difficulty finding any good words for populism, American-style. To him, the rise of right-wing populism here is troubling because it means that the conservatives no longer serve as a shield against the dangers of mass politics. Instead, ”conservative” has come to mean simply ”antiliberal.”
”Nationalism is a very low and cheap common denominator that unites people,” he says. ”It is hatred that unites people. People take satisfaction from the idea that we are good because our enemies are evil. This is a very American syndrome but it is also universally true of mankind.”
”In this country the Republicans are the nationalist party,” he continues. ”That’s why they won the election-on the basis of symbols. I think the importance of economics in people’s political choice of vote is vastly exaggerated. We live in such an age of intellectual stupidity that people use the wrong terms. People think this is a ‘cultural issue’ or a ‘moral issue.’ These are half-truths.”
Although Lukacs has won his share of esteem in a career that spans more than five decades, he now finds himself oddly isolated as someone who criticizes the Republican party from a traditionalist vantage point.
”What is there traditional in George Bush?” he asks with exasperation. ”Nothing. Nothing.”
The old reactionary’s point, you might say, is that Trump didn’t come from nowhere. George W. Bush, the Republican Party, and movement conservatism bulldozed the field for Trump without even knowing what they were doing.
Anyway, for those for whom conservatism means something more than anti-liberalism, for those who wish to dive deep into the conservative tradition in search of pearls, pre-order The Vision of the Soul. We’re going to need it. Here’s a snapshot from its introduction:
Traditional conservatism, in contrast, strikes the contemporary breast only in those brief moments when the loneliness of the modern individual breaks forth and leads him to question the normally unquestioned good of technological and media-saturation; when he sees for a moment that the material ugliness of our civilization cannot be solved by “green” technology but only by a fundamental readjustment of the human person’s attitude toward creation and acquisition to antique standards; when, ever more rarely, he reads a book that stirs in him an image of genuine heroism unmotivated by mere trauma and realized in a form more lasting than the bloody phantasmagorias of contemporary Hollywood; or when he senses that the heart’s deepest longing is for a permanent happiness, and that happiness is possible only in an extended natural community with ties that bind but ties that uphold as well.
At these margins, and in these fugitive moments, can some restored literary conservatism be revived? Does our age have within it a Burke, a Coleridge, an Eliot? The historical record does not give us cause for optimism, and the present age of relativist skepticism and consumer spectacle, of pornographic anti-culture and enthralled senses, gives us positive grounds for doubt. But the chapters that follow are founded on hope: hope that the defense they make of a culture of truth, goodness, and beauty—and indeed, of the reality of that trinity as ordering reality as such—will resonate with the sensibility of its readers and help them on their sundry roads to living well in the world; hope that its arguments will be sufficiently compelling to cause a few souls to rethink our present cultural regime; and hope, finally, that its resources may help the conservative voices of today and tomorrow to find a language adequate to express the passions of their breast.