How Dante Can Save Conservative Intellectuals
Ross Douthat has a good column up on “What the Right’s Intellectuals Did Wrong” regarding the woebegone state that conservatism finds itself in today. Excerpt:
The second failure was a failure of recognition and self-critique, in which the right’s best minds deceived themselves about (or made excuses for) the toxic tendencies of populism, which were manifest in various hysterias long before Sean Hannity swooned for Donald Trump. What the intellectuals did not see clearly enough was that Fox News and talk radio and the internet had made right-wing populism more powerful, relative to conservatism’s small elite, than it had been during the Nixon or Reagan eras, without necessarily making it more serious or sober than its Bircher-era antecedents.
Some conservatives told themselves that Fox and Drudge and Breitbart were just the evolving right-of-center alternative to the liberal mainstream media, when in reality they were more fact-averse and irresponsible. Others (myself included) told ourselves that this irresponsibility could be mitigated by effective statesmanship, when in reality political conservatism’s leaders — including high-minded figures like Paul Ryan — turned out to have no strategy save self-preservation.
Douthat concludes the essay like this:
History does not stand still; crises do not last forever. Eventually a path for conservative intellectuals will open.
>But for now we find ourselves in a dark wood, with the straight way lost.
That last line, of course, refers to the opening of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and the condition the pilgrim finds himself in when the poem opens. So, let’s go with that for this post. Let’s imagine what the road back to the straight way would be for conservative intellectuals if they used the Commedia as a guide.
The Commedia is a journey in three parts. The Inferno is the pilgrim Dante’s visit to the abode of the damned, which occasions intense self-reflection on his own errors. The Purgatorio is about rebuilding through the hard work of repentance. The Paradiso is about what life in community would be if everyone were living in perfect harmony with God and each other. In that sense, the Commedia is a highly political work, and not simply because in it, the poet Dante offers strong opinions about how Italy is governed, and how it should be governed.
What would the Inferno stage — the merciless self-reflection — be like for conservative intellectuals? What you discover in the Inferno is that all the damned are there because they made idols of particular things, treating contingent goods as ultimate goods, and giving their lives over to achieving those goals.
For example, Farinata degli Uberti is in Hell because he denied that there was life after death, and was therefore a heretic. What you discover, though, is that Farinata’s believing that this world was all there is led him to worship family, honor, and worldly achievement. The point is not that family, honor, and worldly achievement are bad things. The point is that when they are ultimate ends, they distort everything, and can lead one to Hell.
Another example: Brunetto Latini was a statesman, man of letters, and tutor of Dante who is in Hell for sodomy (which was quite common in late medieval and Renaissance Florence). Sex never comes up in the quite tender exchange Dante and Brunetto have in the Inferno. Instead, they talk about literary fame. Brunetto advises Dante to write for the sake of worldly fame. Later in the Commedia, the pilgrim Dante learns that this is exactly the wrong advice, that fame is fleeting. The point the poet Dante is making with the Brunetto in Hell scene is to connect artistic creation as a form of self-worship with infertility. Because in real life, Dante Alighieri looked up to Brunetto Latini as a mentor, this scene is the poet’s way of criticizing his younger self for using his poetic gifts for self-glorification.
Those are just two examples. A third is Pier della Vigna, a real-life figure who had been a top adviser to the Holy Roman Emperor before falling out of his favor and committing suicide. Dante has Pier in Hell as a suicide, but what you learn in their exchange is that Pier wrongly saw all the meaning in his life in terms of worshiping power. When the Emperor, Frederick II, imprisoned him (after a false accusation, in Pier’s account), Pier lost his reason to live, and killed himself. This episode is Dante’s commentary on the corrupting nature of power-worship.
(There are many more examples of the damned that may be relevant to the plight of conservative intellectuals. I just wanted to mention three as a way to show you what Dante is up to. I welcome readers of the Commedia to offer others.)
If conservative intellectuals put themselves through an Inferno walk, what would they discover about themselves and their errors? Off the top of my head, I can think of a few, based on the above characters:
Farinata‘s example should compel conservative intellectuals to reflect on how they lost sight of higher truths for the sake of serving temporal power. Farinata is also a symbol of the destructive power of factionalism, and how anybody who devotes themselves wholly to serving factions (versus the truth, and the common good) will not end well. Intellectuals on the Right who cared more about serving the causes of the Republican Party than the truth need to reckon with this mistake.
Russell Kirk has written:
The great line of demarcation in modern politics, Eric Voegelin used to point out, is not a division between liberals on one side and totalitarians on the other. No, on one side of that line are all those men and women who fancy that the temporal order is the only order, and that material needs are their only needs, and that they may do as they like with the human patrimony. On the other side of that line are all those people who recognize an enduring moral order in the universe, a constant human nature, and high duties toward the order spiritual and the order temporal.
To what degree have conservative intellectuals been Farinatas, living, teaching, and writing as if the temporal order is the only order, even if they profess otherwise?
2. Brunetto Latini‘s example is a useful one for conservative intellectuals who placed more value in being TV, talk radio, or Internet stars than in bearing witness to the truth, no matter how difficult it might have been to tell that truth.
3. And Pier della Vigna‘s sad story is relevant to conservative intellectuals who drew a lot of their sense of self-worth from flattering GOP politicians and corporate leaders.
In his piece, Douthat points out that the abandonment of prudential wisdom by conservative intellectuals during the Bush years and what followed contributed to the rise of Trump. He’s right about that. For example, it should not have taken 13 years after Bush launched the Iraq War for senior members of the party to say it was a mistake — and it sure as hell shouldn’t have taken Donald Trump to say it. But it did. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a good analogue in the Inferno to the vice of imprudence. Then again, every sin is in some way an act of imprudence. The inability of conservative intellectuals to admit error in Iraq, and in economic policy, is rooted in the Ur-vice of Pride.
What about Dante’s Purgatorio? The poet presents it as taking a winding and treacherous path up a mountain, moving towards Heaven. In the Inferno, community is impossible. Everyone is eternally alone. But in this second phase, we see people beginning to help each other, to build the rudiments of community.
In the beginning of Purgatorio, Dante meets Cato the Younger at the base of the mountain. Cato was a suicide, and lived and died before Christ. Yet God, in his mercy, has spared him Hell, and placed him at the base of Purgatory as the figure who welcomes the saved. (In the Catholic theology informing the poem, all those in Purgatory will eventually be purified enough for Paradise. They have been saved by God’s mercy, but need to perfect their repentance.) Why is Cato the Younger here? As I wrote a couple of years ago:
Dante’s placing Cato the Younger here and not in Hell seems to indicate the complexity of the poet’s moral vision. Julius Caesar was the kind of figure for which Dante the poet longed: a strong monarch who would put down factionalism and restore order, which is a prerequisite for genuine freedom (remember, the Commedia is in part a poem about the transition from slavery to liberty). He hails Cato, however, as a virtuous man — one of the best pagan statesmen who ever lived — who fought the good fight for liberty, and died as liberty’s martyr. If I’m reading Dante correctly, Cato is a tragic figure — but God, in His mercy and justice, honored Cato’s integrity by sparing him Hell. Cato stood against Caesar not because he was defending his private interests, but because he was standing for righteousness, and defending his doomed Master, the Republic, for pure and noble reasons. That is worth honoring, in Dante.
So, conservative intellectuals may wish to consider their thinking and behavior towards the GOP and American government in light of Cato the Younger’s self-sacrificial idealism for the common good. To what extent have conservative intellectuals’ efforts been in defense of sound ideals, versus the pursuit of power?
In Canto XIX, Virgil instructs Dante on the nature of Sloth, or acedia, presenting it not so much as laziness as an indifference to the world outside of oneself, from which comes a sense of moral torpor about doing what one must do. Douthat writes of conservative intellectuals:
The first failure was a failure of governance and wisdom, under George W. Bush and in the years that followed. Had there been weapons of mass destruction under Iraqi soil and a successful occupation, or had Bush and his advisers chosen a more prudent post-Sept. 11 course, the trust that right-wing populists placed in their elites might not have frayed so quickly. If those same conservative intellectuals had shown more policy imagination over all, if they hadn’t assumed that the solutions of 1980 could simply be recycled a generation later, the right’s blue-collar voters might not have drifted toward a man who spoke, however crudely, to their more immediate anxieties.
That’s a failure of prudence, yes, but it’s also a failure down to Sloth. That is, the conservative intellectual class did not exercise the will to look beyond their own circles, and apply their intellect to discerning the signs of the times, and prescribing how governing policies should be adjusted in light of changing circumstances. This failure of imagination is a matter of laziness.
In Canto XX, Dante meditates on how the vice of greed has led to bad government in Italy, and destroyed the common good (I wrote about it here). Have conservative intellectuals praised capitalism in a disordered way, at the expense of the moral and communal structures necessary for the common good? The worship of Wall Street and the free market among the Right’s intellectuals is worth considering here.
The best political advice in Purgatorio, though, is in Canto XVI, when Dante enters upon the Terrace of Wrath. There, amid the choking smoke and sparks meant to symbolize Wrath, he meets Marco the Lombard. The pilgrim Dante wants his advice on how and why the world is in such turmoil. As I wrote in this space once, Marco responds:
“Therefore, if the world around you goes astray,
in you is the cause and in you let it be sought…”
Boom, there it is. If you want a world of peace, order, and virtue, then first conquer your own rebel mind and renegade heart. Quit blaming others for the problems in your life, and take responsibility for yourself, and your own restoration. God is there to help you reach your “better nature,” but because you are free, the decision is in your hands.
But you know Dante: there are always public consequences of private vices. In the next line, Marco turns to political philosophy, explaining that as baabies, we are all driven by unformed and undirected desire. If we are not restrained in the beginning, we continue on this path, until we become ever more corrupt. This is why we have the law to educate and train us, and leaders to help us find our way to virtue. The problem with the world today, Marco avers, is bad government, secular and ecclesial — especially that of Pope Boniface VIII (his name cloaked here), a wicked man who leads his flock astray.
The rest of this canto concerns itself with analyzing great political questions of Dante’s time, in light of what comes before. For us, we should focus on how the failure of authoritative moral leadership in the family, in the church, in the school, and in other institutions, has brought about our current crisis. Remember how on the terrace of Envy, Guido railed against the progressive decline in moral order owing to parents not raising their children to love virtue? We see a similar judgment here. Yes, each person must be held accountable for his own sins. But it is also the case that the abdication of authority and responsibility by those who ought to be teaching, guiding, and forming the consciences of the young plays a role. Ignorance of the moral law is ultimately not an excuse, but as ever in Dante’s vision, we are not only responsible for ourselves, but also for our neighbors in the family of God (notice that Marco began his address by calling Dante “brother”). If society’s institutions fail to govern justly and teach rightly, the consciences of others will not be “rightly nurtured,” and will, therefore, be conquered by vice.
Why is this the best advice? Because it reminds conservative intellectuals that all public vice begins privately, and that this is a reciprocal relationship (i.e., public vice gives rise to private vice). And it reminds them that the first place to start rebuilding a just and workable political order is in one’s own heart.
It is significant that Dante receives this advice on the Terrace of Wrath, where forgiven sinners who had given themselves over to Wrath in the earthly life are purged of that tendency before moving on to heaven. Dante the poet had been a Florentine politician before he was abruptly sent into exile after a coup staged by his political enemies. The entire Commedia is his attempt to answer the questions, “What went wrong?” and “How did I go wrong?” By placing the discourse with Marco on this terrace, the poet is illuminating the role the vice of Wrath played in destroying civil order in Italy. Therefore, conservative intellectuals ought to examine their consciences looking for the ways in which they cooperated with or instigated wrath for the political gain of their allies. This is relevant to the Douthat point I quoted above. (And by the way, once the Social Justice Warriors have had their way in stoking and channeling Wrath, destroying the Democratic Party’s internal order, and setting people at each other’s throats, liberal intellectuals will need to ask themselves the same question.)
It pays to re-read Russell Kirk’s canons of conservatism list. Much of the Commedia‘s political meaning — as well as conservatism’s — is summed up here:
It has been said by liberal intellectuals that the conservative believes all social questions, at heart, to be questions of private morality. Properly understood, this statement is quite true. A society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society—whatever political machinery it may utilize; while a society in which men and women are morally adrift, ignorant of norms, and intent chiefly upon gratification of appetites, will be a bad society—no matter how many people vote and no matter how liberal its formal constitution may be.
The disorder in our polity is a mirror image of the disorder in the souls of its people. That disorder is partly the fault of individuals, but it is also the fault of the institutions that taught us and formed us. It was true in Dante’s day, and it is true in our own.
(Hey, if you like this Dante stuff, consider buying my book, How Dante Can Save Your Life. Also, I will be traveling for much of the day, so please be patient re: my approving comments.)