Conservatism with a new face

There are invaluable treasures buried in old books that few people read or comprehend today. And yet there’s a simultaneous prejudice against the ideas of the past, and especially against any appearance of love toward old ideas. What then can be done?

Many of us are convinced that there is value in looking to the past and seeking to learn from it, that previous generations had access to understandings and insights that are no longer so well grasped. For people in that situation, it is a wrenching experience to see all turning their backs on the accumulated wisdom of centuries without any serious consideration.

We can waste a lot of time trying to convince people that old ideas have just as much claim to our attention and respect and curiosity as new ideas do, if not more. In rare cases we might convince a person and change an entire way of looking at the world, but on its own it will not make much of a difference in the way things are done.

But something struck me with a new clarity a while back. We don’t need to convince everyone that it is good to look to the past for wisdom. We don’t need to make anyone else interested in the past, in order for the past to speak through us.

We need to focus less on convincing people to have the right attitude toward the oldness of an idea, and more on convincing people of the idea itself on its own merits. It doesn’t matter how smart the ideas’ originators were or how eloquent their early defenders. What matters today is how smart and eloquent their contemporary defenders are.

Most of us understand this on some level, but it’s so easy to forget, so hard to be disciplined enough to follow through on.

Maybe we need to find new names for old ideas, to introduce them in a way that is sensible for today rather than in the ways they were previously spoken of.

Might this be true of the word virtue? That’s a hard pill for me to swallow. It’s hard to find an equivalent word or phrase today that captures the resonances of virtue. Then again, I suppose the word doesn’t resonate for most people in quite the way it does for me. Virtue is so central for the way I think about the world. I suspect this question is something I need to give some more thought to.

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