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Philosopher Prince

The revolutionary anti-modernism of Britain's heir apparent

To most Americans, the Prince of Wales is best known as a pop-culture icon and tabloid figure, a royal celebrity who married (and divorced) Diana Spencer, fathered Prince William, and gallivanted scandalously with Camilla Parker-Bowles, now his wife. What is less known, at least in this country, is that Prince Charles, 63, has spent much of his life, and indeed his fortune, supporting, sometimes provocatively, traditionalist ideals and causes.

The heir to one of the world’s oldest monarchies, a traditionalist? You don’t say. But Charles’s traditionalism is far from the stuffy, bland, institutional conservatism typical of a man of his rank. Charles, in fact, is a philosophical traditionalist, which is a rather more radical position to hold.

He is an anti-modernist to the marrow, which doesn’t always put him onside with the Conservative Party. Charles’s support for organic agriculture and other green causes, his sympathetic view of Islam, and his disdain for liberal economic thinking have earned him skepticism from some on the British right. (“Is Prince Charles ill-advised, or merely idiotic?” the Tory libertarian writer James Delingpole once asked in print.) And some Tories fear that the prince’s unusually forceful advocacy endangers the most traditional British institution of all: the monarchy itself.

Others, though, see in Charles a visionary of the cultural right, one whose worldview is far broader, historically and otherwise, than those of his contemporaries on either side of the political spectrum. In this reading, Charles’s thinking is not determined by post-Enlightenment categories but rather draws on older ways of seeing and understanding that conservatives ought to recover. “All in all, the criticisms of Prince Charles from self-styled ‘Tories’ show just how little they understand about the philosophy they claim to represent,” says the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton.

Scruton’s observation highlights a fault line bisecting latter-day Anglo-American conservatism: the philosophical split between traditionalists and libertarians. In this way, what you think of the Prince of Wales reveals whether you think conservatism, to paraphrase the historian George H. Nash, is essentially about the rights of individuals to be what they want to be or the duties of individuals to be what they ought to be.

The most complete statement of Charles’s worldview is his 2010 book Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World, co-written by Tony Juniper and Ian Skelly. In its opening line, England’s future king declares, “This is a call to revolution.” Against what? Nothing less than “the current orthodoxy and conventional way of thinking, much of it stemming from the 1960s but with its origins going back over 200 years.” Charles believes Western civilization took a wrong turn at the Enlightenment, is headed toward destruction (especially environmental), and cannot save itself without an abrupt change of intellectual and spiritual course.

His criticism of the Enlightenment has nothing apparently to do with monarchical politics. It is chiefly a matter of philosophy. According to the prince, modernity occasioned a loss of vital wisdom that had been discovered, developed, and preserved in a number of ancient civilizations. The essence of this wisdom lay in seeing the world as cosmos—characterized by order, hierarchy, and intrinsic meaning. Moreover, the cosmos has a spiritual dimension, the existence of which is intuitively present in natural man. These principles are denied by modernity, which recognizes no meaning in the natural world aside from what man imposes on it, and the empiricism of which marginalizes “the non-material side to our humanity.” Writes Charles:

Modernism deliberately abstracted Nature and glamorized convenience, and this is why we have ended up seeing the natural world as some sort of gigantic production system seemingly capable of ever-increasing outputs for our benefit. … We have become semi-detached bystanders, empirically correct spectators, rather than what the ancients understood us to be, which is participants in creation. This ideology was far from benign or just a matter of fashion. The Marxism of the Bolshevik regime totally absorbed, adopted and extended the whole concept of Modernism to create the profoundly soulless, vicious, dehumanized ideology which eventually engineered the coldly calculated death of countless millions of its own citizens as well as entire living traditions, all for the simple reason that the end justified the means in the great ‘historic struggle’ to turn people against their true nature and into ideological, indoctrinated ‘machines.’

Strong stuff from the future king of one of the world’s great industrial powers. The Prince of Wales says the West reached a turning point in the High Middle Ages, when integrative scholasticism gave way to nominalism and Western man began to think of God as separate from Creation and humanity distinct from nature—a point also made by the American conservative Richard Weaver in his landmark 1948 book, Ideas Have Consequences. Though Charles concedes this paradigm shift paved the way for the emergence of science, it also “effectively shattered the organic unity of reality.”

As a result, he concludes, we are living in a Faustian crisis. We have become blindly proud of our power, in thrall to the ideal of progress based on extending our mastery of the material world through science and technology. We have forgotten that we are not gods. We do not long for harmony with the natural world, including learning to live within “Nature’s necessary limits,” as Charles puts it, but rather seek to conquer Nature and to impose our own will upon it, free from any obligation beyond satisfying our own desires. And, following Faust, we are bound for destruction if we do not turn back to tradition.

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British royals today do not, as a constitutional matter, engage in political activism. But Charles has dramatically made his anti-modernist mark through speeches, books, and the panoply of philanthropic initiatives under his patronage. An ardent localist, he has supported historical preservation and restoration projects in the UK and abroad, most notably for medieval Saxon villages in Romania. Charles founded a London school to teach traditional arts and backs the revival of rural crafts in England. (For example, he hosts an annual hedgelaying competition on his Gloucestershire farm.) He founded The Prince’s Teaching Institute to train teachers to instruct British schoolchildren in their national history and culture, subjects he believes are dangerously neglected owing to multicultural faddishness and trendy pedagogy.

Charles is most controversial for his environmentalism, which has generally irritated the right, and his architectural activism, which has generally (but not exclusively) annoyed the left. The prince has been a forceful opponent of capital-M architectural Modernism, condemning Modernist buildings and urban planning as ugly and inhumane. In 1984, Charles scandalized Britain’s elite architects with a speech denouncing a planned expansion of London’s National Gallery as a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.” In 1987, he walloped the Modernist claque again, quipping at a dinner, “You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe: when it knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble.”

Not satisfied merely to condemn Modernist vapidity, Charles has put his money behind alternatives. He founded a pedestrian-friendly New Urbanist community Poundbury, in Dorset, to revive old-fashioned village patterns. Critics trashed it as a Disneyesque sham, but it has won favor with the public. The prince has also established a number of charities for teaching traditional architecture and design and demonstrating how they can revitalize blighted urban areas.

Whatever one thinks of Charles’s own tastes, one cannot accuse him here of simple fogeyism. His thoughts on architecture and town planning come from a deep philosophical consideration of what the architect Christopher Alexander calls the “pattern language” found throughout traditional buildings and towns the world over. He holds that beauty is not a matter of subjective taste, but what we find beautiful are shapes and patterns that put us “in direct contact with the archetypal patterns of creation.” If that sounds suspiciously New Age, take it up with the architects of medieval cathedrals, who built their masterpieces according to principles of design they believed existed in the cosmos.

More controversial, among conservatives at least, has been the prince’s environmentalism. He was widely mocked a generation ago for turning over his thousand-acre farm to organic production—because he believes that the industrialization of British agriculture has been harmful to the land and to the sensibility of modern people, who have lost a sense of connectivity to the land on which their food is raised and grown.

David Wilson, the man Charles hired to manage the property, told me on a visit there last summer that he was initially skeptical of the boss’s convictions about organics. Twenty-five years later, Duchy Home Farm has proven a stunning success, economically and otherwise. In 1999, the farm launched its own profitable line of organic foods, and through their sale has raised millions for charity. What was once regarded as the prince’s fringey folly is now mainstream.

Then there is prince’s attitude toward environmentalism, especially climate change. This is one subject on which the Prince of Wales is all in with modern science. On a moral and spiritual level, Charles believes that civilization isn’t sustainable unless humanity finds a way to live in balance with nature. For him, climate change is the ultimate judgment on a civilization that has rejected limits and fetishized economic growth and material prosperity over spiritual values. If the coal-based Industrial Revolution and its 20th-century petroleum-fueled successor were hubris, then climate change, in Charles’s view, is nemesis. In 2009, he told an audience in Brazil that the world stood on the brink of catastrophe and stopping global warming is “the central challenge of the 21st century.”

Others would argue that contending with radical Islam is this century’s chief problem. Not Charles, who is Britain’s most famous Islamophile. Though he is a prayerful and devoted Anglican communicant—a source close to his circle tells me the prince receives the Eucharist kneeling on the stone floor of his private chapel at his Highgrove estate—Charles is also an enthusiast for religious practice within other venerable traditions. He regularly visits the Greek Orthodox monastic enclave on Mount Athos (his father, Prince Philip, was Greek Orthodox) and is so respectful of Tibetan Buddhism he once caused a diplomatic incident by boycotting a state dinner for Chinese premier Jiang Zemin out of solidarity with the Dalai Lama.

But it is his fondness for Islam that is most pronounced—and, given the times, the most controversial—of his religious enthusiasms. What Charles appears to admire about Islam is its insistence on the essential unity of all things. It’s impossible to read his words on Islam without recalling the thought of René Guénon (1886-1951), the French traditionalist who converted to Sufi Islam and died as a sheikh in Cairo. Historian Mark Sedgwick describes Guénon and his community as driven by

a conviction that European civilization was in terminal decline, having lost even the memory of those eternal religious truths that are the only real basis for civilization. Guénon and his followers were convinced that these truths could be recovered from surviving non-Western religions, principally Hinduism, and that individual Westerners could achieve real spiritual progress only by joining such surviving living repositories of spiritual truths as Sufi orders.

In fact, Charles is a devotee of the so-called “perennial philosophy” espoused by Guénon’s traditionalists, and this is the key to understanding his worldview. The perennial philosophy teaches that there is a unified sacred order to all existence and its eternal truths express themselves through various religions and cultures. It does not deny differences among particular traditions, but it emphasizes their essential unity and the indissoluble mystical connection of all things to Divinity. In a 2006 address to a traditionalist conference, the prince favorably quoted Guénon, then said:

…the teachings of the traditionalists should not, in any sense, be taken to mean that they seek, as it were, to repeat the past—or, indeed, simply to draw a distinction between the present and the past. Theirs is not a nostalgia for the past, but a yearning for the sacred and, if they defend the past, it is because in the pre-modern world all civilizations were marked by the presence of the sacred. As I understand it, in referring to Tradition they refer to a metaphysical reality and to underlying principles that are timeless—as true now as they have ever been and will be.

For Charles, whatever the divisions between world religions may be, they are, or should be, united in their opposition to humanity’s greatest enemy: the godless, hedonistic materialism of the modern age.

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Though there is plainly much in his worldview consonant with contemporary conservatism, Charles has his critics on the British right. Charles Moore, former editor of the Daily Telegraph and The Spectator, says those who criticize Charles from the right “tend to be the more tough-minded people in conservatism, who think he is what we call ‘wet,’ and too inclined to be sentimental about old things instead of recognizing the necessity of new things.”

Moore, who calls himself an admirer of the prince, nevertheless faults him for a “romantic” view of the natural world, which has made him insufficiently skeptical of global-warming claims and too quick to curb individual liberty. He also cites Charles’s naïveté about the good intentions of particular Islamic leaders and his “dangerous” ignorance of economics.

“He is fond of saying that we have an obsession with economic growth, which he says is bad,” explains Moore. “I would say another way of putting it is that you would like people to be poorer. If you say you are concerned with the poor—and I believe he is—what he’s doing is supporting policies that would tend to make poor people poorer. There’s a lot of impracticality there and an almost hippie-type rebellion against modern economic reality.”

The polemicist James Delingpole is scathing in his disregard for Charles and his enthusiasms. Delingpole regards the prince’s ecumenism as fatuous, particularly his indulgence of Islam, which Delingpole sarcastically calls “the Religion of Peace.” Delingpole, like many conservatives, shares the prince’s negative opinions on architectural modernism—but he scorns Poundbury as “impossibly twee” and Charles’s tastes as “almost as bad as the modernist horrors he criticizes.”

“Where he’s a real menace, though, is on environmentalism,” Delingpole continues. “There is nothing wrong with a prince who talks to flowers and can afford to pay his personal gardeners to grow his produce organically. Where it becomes a problem is when his personal hobbyhorses become a public issue. He may not be one yet, but he is about to become a constitutional monarch. Part of the deal here—which his mother has managed brilliantly—is that you don’t speak out on political issues.”

This is perhaps the thing that most bothers British conservatives about Charles: his political maladroitness threatens the prestige of the monarchy. The prince has found himself embroiled in a number of controversies stemming from his activism. He got on the wrong side of the Labour government by speaking out for rural interests during the foot-and-mouth disease crisis in 2001 and for opposing genetically modified crops. And his private intervention to scuttle Modernist urban building projects has infuriated architects and developers, who contend that Charles has no business throwing his royal weight around in such a manner.

Charles Moore insists that the prince is genuinely nonpartisan and simply doesn’t grasp the political implications of his stances. But this royal confusion has consequences. In a bruising 2004 essay in Prospect, the historian Tristram Hunt reserved his strongest criticism of the prince for treading onto risky constitutional ground. Hunt observed that Charles’s longtime passions over issues of the environment, science, and culture have become newly politicized, putting the future British sovereign in a potentially destabilizing position.

“The sovereign’s right to intervene in the parliamentary process is premised upon the crown being an upholder of the constitution, its detachment from day to day politics, and the rarity of its intervention,” Hunt wrote. “Could King Charles be trusted with that supremely important task if he himself has in the past been seen as an interested political participant?”

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This is not, obviously, a concern for American conservatives, for whom Prince Charles will never be more than a cultural icon. But in that role, the prince that we Americans don’t know—Charles the reactionary anti-modernist—is a salutary, instructive, even inspirational figure, one who ought to remind us of our own traditionalism.

Postwar American conservatism is a fusion of traditionalist and libertarian schools. While libertarians focused on questions of economics and the state, traditionalists like Russell Kirk preoccupied themselves with social and cultural issues. As George H. Nash has written, “While libertarians stressed the freedom of the individual in opposition to the State, traditionalists saw in the ‘masterless man’ a threat.”

Today, Kirkian traditionalism is in eclipse on the American right. Kirk is one of the founding fathers of the modern conservative movement, but nearly 60 years after the publication of The Conservative Mind, it’s difficult to imagine a young Russell Kirk – with his love for the natural world, his philosophical skepticism of rationality, and his concern over the cultural degradation from unrestrained capitalism—finding a foothold on the right. It is a sign of conservatism’s intellectual decline that to call someone a “social conservative” today is in most cases to identify a churchgoer who opposes abortion and gay marriage but is otherwise functionally libertarian.

We Americans could use someone like Prince Charles, who has been praised by Roger Scruton as “a traditional conservative of a Burkean persuasion, who believes that the bond of society is one of trusteeship, rather than an agreement to divide the spoils among the living.” Do any prominent American conservatives talk that way? Do they even think that way?

And though, given the particularities of the British system, Charles may have trespassed onto political territory, he offers an instructive example of how conservatives can work creatively for the renewal of culture outside of politics and statism.

“If you believe in conservatism as a force for good rather than just a negative thing, you have to respect Prince Charles,” says Moore. “He doesn’t just say modern buildings are awful. He tries to help people build good modern buildings. We need more people like that, who will work to improve the cultural fabric, the environmental fabric, from a traditional point of view.”

England’s future king is a member of what the American literature professor Robert Inchausti describes as the “orthodox avant-garde.” In his 2005 book Subversive Orthodoxy, a study of modern Christians as diverse as G.K. Chesterton, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Wendell Berry, and Marshall McLuhan, Inchausti argues that the golden thread linking these religious-minded writers is that “each of them does far more than simply say ‘no’ to modernism; they bridge the chasm between our longings for spiritual completion and the techno-scientific world within which we live.”

This is the prophetically countercultural role Charles accepts as his duty and his destiny. In Harmony the Prince declares to his readers, “We are not the masters of creation.” In modern Western civilization, it is hard to imagine a more profoundly conservative statement. Or a more revolutionary one.

Rod Dreher is a TAC senior editor. His blog is www.TheAmericanConservative.com/Dreher.