HUMANITIES: You draw an important distinction between the conservative and the reactionary. What is the difference?
LILLA: Conservatives and liberals argue about politics in terms of human nature, and their dispute is about the proper relationship between individuals and societies. Traditionally, liberals begin with individuals who are endowed with certain rights, and think of the legitimacy of political institutions in terms of consent and the protection of those rights. Conservatives begin with societies and the observation that we all come into them as dependents, incurring obligations as we are protected and nurtured by them. Our rights are conventional, not natural, and are not the essence of politics. Traditions and norms are.
The dispute between revolutionaries and reactionaries is not over human nature. It is, as I’ve been suggesting, over the nature and course of history. And so, in many ways, conservatives and reactionaries are adversaries. The conservative believes that change should happen slowly, but that it is inevitable. He might regret what has happened in history, but he is under no illusion that the past can be recovered or recreated; neither does he believe that society should be reconstructed according to some rational plan inspired by the past. The conservative thinks that while societies differ, human nature stays pretty much the same over time and that the problems of politics are perennial. The reactionary thinks that history has changed human nature and that action in history can restore it to what it should be.
HUMANITIES: You describe political Islamism as a reactionary movement. What makes it so?
LILLA: The reactionary who believes that history has gone wildly off course and that the present is unbearable faces a choice when it comes to political action. One option, call it the Ulysses one, is to try to return home, which the reactionary believes is still possible. There are many currents of Islamism, some political and others not, but the most radical ones claim in their literature that Islam ceased to exist after the rule of Muhammad and the four “rightly guided caliphs.” To become Muslim therefore means to become Muslim again, which means overthrowing the current rulers of ostensibly Muslim nations and reimposing sharia law, in the best circumstances under a new caliph.
Another option, call it the Aeneas one, is to recognize that the past is past and cannot be reconstituted—no more than Troy could be after the Trojan War. And so, the essence of the past must be planted in the future, where it will give rise to a new, magnificent, and conquering force that will overcome the corrupt present and create a future as radiant as what once was. That is the spirit of fascism.
I read Lilla’s recent collection of essays about reaction, and it made me think about where the Benedict Option project fits on the spectrum. Is it conservative, or reactionary? I don’t mind the term “reactionary” attributed to it, but I am not sure it fits.
Let’s work with the definitions Lilla gives above. I certainly believe that human nature pretty much stays the same. I don’t believe that there ever was a postlapsarian paradise, or that we will ever be able to reproduce paradise on earth. By Lilla’s reckoning, this makes me a conservative, not a reactionary.
On the other hand, I agree that we have reached a decisive point in Western history. Conservatism, as it is presently practiced, conserves too little necessary for human thriving according to Christian teaching. The catastrophe that has overtaken the West requires a more or less radical response. We can’t go home again, so to speak, but repentance is central to the Christian story. What I call on is emulating not Ulysses, but the Prodigal Son. And, it is true that the past is past and cannot be reconstituted, but ancient Christianity (or at least pre-modern Christianity) offers us Christians ways to preserve the living truths that have been given to us — ways that are particularly suited to combating the currents of our time. I want to plant the “essence of the past” in the present, so that it can help build (rebuild) a better future.
Is that fascist? I don’t see it. If I believed in restoring some sort of paradise, I suppose it might be. But I don’t, any more than monks believe that their monastic communities are heaven on earth. The best we can realistically hope for is to create conditions in which we can live more peaceful, charitable, Christ-like lives, individually and in community. Again: that’s fascist? I don’t think Lilla would say that it was, but I don’t really know how this fits into his paradigm.
I suppose that the Benedict Option has one foot in conservatism and one foot in reaction, while maintaining Christian skepticism about the difference between the City of God and the City of Man (and therefore strictly limited confidence in politics). That, plus this big dollop of Russell Kirk:
“I did not love cold harmony and perfect regularity of organization; what I sought was variety, mystery, tradition, the venerable, the awful. I despised sophisters and calculators; I was groping for faith, honor, and prescriptive loyalties. I would have given any number of neo-classical pediments for one poor battered gargoyle.”
What do you think? Political scientists and historians, help me out here.
UPDATE: Some good stuff in the comments thread. I especially like this one from Matthew Robare:
I don’t think this analysis has anything to do with the Benedict Option. Lilla is starting with a political paradigm about the organization of society at large — one that assumes a secular liberal representative democracy.
In contrast, the Benedict Option, as I understand it, starts with a paradigm centered on what Dorothy L. Sayers called the “Whole Man” — humans as humans with needs, a place in the cosmos and ultimately a destiny beyond politics and economics.
The point of the BenOp is preservation, not endless growth; the long-term, not apocalyptic immediacy; remembering that we are on a pilgrimage to our heavenly home, not remaking earth in the image of one man; to be a living thing capable of going against the flow and not a dead thing that can only be carried along by it.
It’s not surprising that it’s difficult to write about or describe. In human history I can think of only two things that really show the whole idea: the Catholic Chruch in the early Middle Ages and European Jewry before the 19th century.
Also, I find Lilla’s dualism between conservatism as seeing rights as conventional and based on mutual obligations between the individual and society and liberalism as seeing individuals endowed with rights a false dichotomy. The natural law, the Church and experience teaches that it’s not either/or, but both/and. We do have obligations we incur within society, but we also have rights based on the dignity we have as beings created in God’s image.