For many years I’ve been disillusioned with many aspects of what is called conservatism.
But there is one thing that could be called conservatism which strongly appeals to me, and which G K Chesterton and Leo Strauss both illuminate by a similarly counterintuitive line of reasoning.
They both approached this particular strand of conservative thought by asking what made the great revolutionary thinkers of the past great. Those gigantic personalities who could imagine and begin to bring about a genuinely new and strange future order — what made them capable of such feats?
Leo Strauss speaks of how,
We cannot expect that liberal education will lead all who benefit from it to understand their civic responsibility in the same way or to agree politically. Karl Marx, the father of communism, and Friedrich Nietzsche, the step-grandfather of fascism, were liberally educated on a level to which we cannot even hope to aspire.Leo Strauss, “What Is Liberal Education?”
Strauss goes on to suggest that Marx and Nietzsche failed to practice moderation in how they used the advantages received in their classical studies. And yet still, you can’t read him without having a sense that their classical learning is praiseworthy, and that it even somehow explains and ennobles whatever mangled legacy they have managed to leave behind themselves.
Those who are familiar with Strauss’s work will recognize that Strauss credits early modern thinkers like Machiavelli with a similarly impressive grasp of the classical heritage.
Chesterton looks back even further and brings forth a wider array of examples:
The originality of Michael Angelo and Shakespeare began with the digging up of old vases and manuscripts. The mildness of poets absolutely arose out of the mildness of antiquaries. So the great mediaeval revival was a memory of the Roman Empire. So the Reformation looked back to the Bible and Bible times. So the modern Catholic movement has looked back to patristic times. But that modern movement which many would count the most anarchic of all is in this sense the most conservative of all. Never was the past more venerated by men than it was by the French Revolutionists. They invoked the little republics of antiquity with the complete confidence of one who invokes the gods.G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With the World?
Chesterton appears to be rather less concerned about moderation than Strauss was, but he links even more tightly and clearly the capacity to shape the future with a profound familiarity with the best of the past.
For my part, I think also of Sigmund Freud. In his book On the Interpretation of Dreams, he gives a knowledgeable account of some of the architectural and archaeological history of the city of Rome, simply to illustrate some points about the relationship of the conscious and the unconscious mind.
Freud also describes a dream of his own, a dream about the Punic wars, in which he is Hannibal, come to tear down the civilization founded upon Rome. Clearly it is noteworthy that he describes himself as the enemy of the West, but surely it is also important that his dreams are saturated with stories of ancient Rome.
Today, left and right are divided between progressive and regressive, revolutionary and reactive, and conservatism is identified with the regressive and reactive right. That is not my conservatism.
I believe we should indeed be straining constantly toward a more just, more virtuous, more peaceful and more flourishing future, whether rapidly with Chesterton or slowly with Strauss, and not simply trying to return to a golden age of sixty or six hundred or six thousand years ago.
However, the only way to know what that future could look like, and how that future could grow out of our present, and the only way to have a chance of succeeding in those efforts, against the powerful forces of economic and political and military self-interest — is to look to the past. The inspirations of the greatest thinkers and greatest lessons humanity has ever produced are available to us, if we will only look. It is the only path, really.
As Chesterton says so charmingly in the same section of that book of his which I quoted from a moment ago:
For some strange reason man must always thus plant his fruit trees in a graveyard. Man can only find life among the dead. Man is a misshapen monster, with his feet set forward and his face turned back. He can make the future luxuriant and gigantic, so long as he is thinking about the past.Chesterton