A Straussian, Chestertonian Conservatism

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.


The Virtue of Suffering

I was reflecting this morning and something strange occurred to me. There is a surprising overlap between biblical faith, Socratic philosophy, and the doctrine of Nietzsche, a place where all three meet and have some kind of agreement.

It is in their exhortation to an acceptance, or even an embrace, or celebration, of sorrow and pain.

People raised in a Catholic context (and also other religious groups from the Abrahamic faiths) are often portrayed in popular depictions as holding an almost fatalistic resignation to the inevitability of misfortunes and unhappiness. This stereotype grows ultimately from deep and ancient theological reflections on the beneficial place of suffering in the spiritual life.

Socrates says that a rhetorician with a true understanding of what is good would go about persuading juries to indict him and punish him for his failings and turn him toward virtue.
And the phrase of Nietzsche that is most ubiquitous in at least the English-speaking world, is, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

On one level, we might say this fact means only that all three seek to encourage bravery and discourage cowardice, and there is some truth to that. But I think it merits some unpacking as well.

Someone could also seek to draw out the incompatibilities of how each arrived at its similar conclusion. Christians interpret pain typologically, as a participation in Christ’s suffering. A Platonist might degrade physical pain as inhabiting a lower, non-intellectual plane of reality. Perhaps the Nietzschean sees pain as a necessary feature of the road to power.

That sort of differentiation is a very basic step in the process of thinking through these relationships, and although it’s an important step, it’s not all that interesting to me here and so I won’t dwell on it.

The image that is most enticing to me as I reflect on these three intersecting viewpoints, is the accomplishment of the Renaissance.

In his book The Antichrist, Nietzsche speaks approvingly of the Italian Renaissance. He believes that its legacy was spoiled by the interruption of the Reformation, but that for an instant it was a thing of glory. He says that the Christian faith strained to become something great in the Renaissance, in that moment of flourishing culture brought about in large part by the recovery of classical learning.

The Renaissance was, in the main, a deeply Christian movement. It had a powerful fascination with the Socratic philosophical tradition as it was elaborated throughout the Greek and Latin classical literary tradition. And it was an event that, according to Nietzsche, nearly accomplished in itself precisely what Nietzsche claimed to be seeking to bring about in the modern world.

Perhaps, then, it shouldn’t be so surprising that there would be at least one area of profound agreement (or possible agreement) between the three.

But then, what does pain have to do with anything? Why do they meet on this point?

Here’s something that comes to mind: If we believe that pain is the worst thing that can happen, then we make pain our master. It is almost the essence of nobility, in contrast with what is ignoble, to know there are things that are worse than pain, things that must be avoided at all costs, things that can relativize pain and open us to a larger perspective.


PS: It is fair to comment that we could probably expand this investigation and say that the question of pain is a central concern of Buddhism and Hinduism and Taoism etc as well, but as I’m not knowledgeable enough about them to speak intelligently, I’ve tried to stick to subjects where my observations might have some worth.

Laws for Virtue

There’s something that I find really striking about Thomistic legal theory — that is, about St. Thomas Aquinas’s teaching about positive law, the law prescribed by the state.

St. Thomas holds that laws exist to help people become more virtuous.

Isn’t that kind of wild? I suspect that that is, for the most part, far, far away from the way most of us tend to think of the law today.

Here, take a look at what he actually says:

The purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue, not suddenly, but gradually. Wherefore it does not lay upon the multitude of imperfect men the burdens of those who are already virtuous, viz. that they should abstain from all evil. Otherwise these imperfect ones, being unable to bear such precepts, would break out into yet greater evils.

ST I-II q. 96, a. 2.

You’ll note in the first place that this is clearly not the teaching of some sort of Puritanical bigot, who wants to put to the torch anyone who has the slightest hint of sin or impropriety. That’s a very important point.

You’ll notice also, however, how Aquinas begins that passage: “The purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue”!

(N.B. that “men” here is of course “homines” in the Latin, rather than the specifically masculine “vir,” and so a more modern translation would properly render it as “people,” or “humans,” or something along those lines.)

I don’t want to overstate my point. Obviously people today will understand the law to have some role in funnelling citizens toward a life of virtue, insofar as we believe in anything in the ballpark of virtue. For instance, we generally want the law to help the impoverished become hard-working wage-earners, rather than listless beneficiaries of government handouts.

However, I don’t believe that is the central way that we think of the law today. To our minds, the law protects us. It keeps our society orderly, and minimizes the crimes that would interfere with the peaceful living of our lives. For us, law essentially provides the framework within which capitalism and governmental support can function most efficiently, in a way that is least destructive of human wellbeing.

St. Thomas has a much more exalted view of human law. I think it wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that he sees law as a civilizational road to sainthood. The true goal of a good law is to increase human virtue in the world.

The increase of human virtue is more important than an improvement of the economy, or an increase of knowledge, or an expansion of power. Human virtue is the central purpose of the law, and also of the government, and of the economy, and of our educational institutions. Everything is oriented toward virtue, or it is pointless.

Don’t think that this is a sectarian or fundamentalist approach to society, either. St. Thomas gets this from his philosophical guide, Aristotle. He appeals to the Nicomachean Ethics, book five, where Aristotle is discussing the different meanings of justice, and brings in the question of the relationship of law and virtue.

What if we recalibrated our world to begin thinking in these ways again? I wish there were a political party that thought in this way. Both the political right and the political left today claim to care about good and evil, and both try to smear their opponents as amoralists.

The right says that they represent morality, and religious freedom, and that the left is trying to destroy every last vestige of our capacity to discriminate between good and bad.

The left says that they are the ones who stand up for what is good for people, as opposed to the conservatives who only care about corporations and power and military might and financial profits.

Both are correct in their denunciations of the other side, as far as I can tell. I do not have confidence, however, that either tells the truth when it is praising itself.

I wish there were a political party that would say, we care most of all about good and bad, right and wrong, virtue and vice, and we want to structure society to help people become the best they can be.

If such a party existed, then I could get excited about partisan politics.

Until then, I will try to do the best I can, at least, for myself and my family and my friends.

Remembering Plato

For a long time, Christians in the West have had a greater openness to Aristotle’s philosophical thought than to Plato’s.

It was never really a fair contest.

We had little enough of either Aristotle’s or Plato’s writings in the early Middle Ages of the Latin West. When we did recover more of their texts, we received Aristotle quite a bit earlier than Plato, and for the interpretation of Aristotle we had in St. Thomas Aquinas a thinker of unquestionable brilliance and holiness.

Plato was restored to us at a later time, after Aristotle had come to possess a great philosophical importance for us, and Plato came associated with Western interpreters who were not named as Doctors of the Church, or even, for the most part, as canonized saints.

Besides all this, there is something about Aristotle that is not so troubling for the religious mind, compared to Plato’s writing.

Aristotle’s thought is able to be isolated, to focus on one topic at a time. This means we can learn from Aristotle’s wisdom without being forced to wonder what relationship these insights might have to the faith we profess.

The nature of Plato’s approach to philosophy, by contrast, makes it is always no more than one or two steps removed from questions about morality, God, the afterlife, and the invisible realm. Furthermore, explicit answers to these questions are frequently being proposed, many of which will seem strange or even abhorrent to the person who finds a home in Christian doctrine. Early on, reading Plato can be a very unsettling experience for the religious reader. I speak from experience.

Now, I’ve touched on too many interesting controversies for me to try to give an account of them all in this one blog post. Instead, all I want to do is leave this reflection as a reminder of the perpetual imbalance in our philosophical heritage.

When we look to Greek philosophy, if we look to it at all, we do so with a bias against Plato, and toward Aristotle.

If we wish to approach the study of philosophy at all philosophically, we should seek to counterbalance that bias.

Let’s remember that Plato will feel more foreign to us than Aristotle, for historical reasons, and that we have more of a tendency to reject the strangeness of Plato’s philosophical mythmaking. Let’s just remember that truth, and respond to our bias with a renewed effort at being open to the instruction that proceeds from one of the most insightful and charming thinkers that the world has ever produced.

Taking Shortcuts

A stitch in time saves nine, they say. More haste, less speed.

These are worthy proverbs, and it’s good to be mindful of them. Most often, as they teach us, an attempted shortcut will end up costing more time than it saves.

Just the other day I was in a hurry to get home, so I took what I thought would be a faster route. Sure enough, I found my way blocked before long, and I had to retrace my steps and then follow the path that I always took.

I agree that most of the time, it is worth doing things the right way rather than just trying to get them done the fast way. Most of the time, but not always.

There is one major exception, in my mind. Virtue.

When it comes to virtue, it is always worth it to take the shortest, fastest path.

Any choice that brings to closer to being the most virtuous person you can be, any decision that increases your share of virtue, is a good decision, and the faster, the better.

It’s not laziness. It’s not carelessness.

It is honourable to grow in virtue, no matter whether you make it hard for yourself or easy. The person who becomes perfectly chaste in a convent is no less honourable than the person who pursues chastity within the walls of a brothel.

There’s no shame in making your path to virtue as easy as possible. In fact, the person who designs a life that will help them become the virtuous person, a life that will decrease the probability of growing in vice, is taking the most honourable and praiseworthy path I can imagine.

Greatness of Soul, or Magnanimity

An important aspect of the journey toward virtue is the understanding of what is called greatness of soul, or from the Latin, magnanimity, or in the Greek, megalopsuchia.

For a significant portion of my young adulthood, I lived in or around the city of Moose Jaw, in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. The name does not suggest a beautiful city, but it is one.

When I lived in Moose Jaw I didn’t have a car, and I walked anywhere I needed to go when I didn’t have access to a ride, even though the walk could be an hour or more in a single direction.

For the most part I didn’t mind the walking. It was, as I’ve said, a beautiful city, full of good people. One person in particular sticks out in my mind.

I never met him. I only ever saw him from a distance. He was a young person, around my age, in his twenties or at most his thirties, and he was a giant of a man. I’m not short, but my best guess is that he was at least a head taller than I am.

Whenever I saw him, it almost seemed to bend reality. He was like an optical illusion, making the buildings around him smaller than they ought to be.

This is because he was proportionate. He wasn’t the sort of tall man you’ll meet who’s all gangly limbs, or with a head that is too large or too small, or a torso that is oddly slender or carrying all its weight in the belly. No, his proportions were the same that you would see in a five-foot tall boxer, or a five-and-a-half foot tall rower, except that he was probably closer to seven feet tall.

He dressed in a way that suggested a possible military background, somehow, and he seemed quiet, watchful.

To see a person who is built on a grand scale like that is awe-inspiring, somehow. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone else who was so large and yet of such normal proportions in head and arm and chest.

To see someone like that is inevitably, irresistibly, to feel as if you have encountered a demigod come to earth.

I could not see him without wishing I could have what he had, and be what he was, and I’m sure that I wasn’t the only one.

Of course, I can’t change my height. I can’t change the proportion of my long torso to my limbs. That’s just how I was born.

But a similar effect may exist on the level of the soul, and in that arena we have much more freedom to shape ourselves.

We’ve all met people whose characters are “larger than life” in some aspect or another, people who are overflowing with intellect, or compassion, or fervour, or self-control, or wit, or a sense of fairness and justice.

Someone who is unexpectedly exaggerated in some aspect or another might come across as entertaining, or impressive, or off-putting.

Someone, however, who has a whole host of virtues, each possessed in greater quantity than is normally seen, has the most perfect treasure. According to Aristotle, such souls are the product of a person being rightly oriented toward honour. He speaks of magnanimity as seeming to be characteristic of “greatness in every virtue,” and even as a “sort of crown of the virtues.”

I have met only a couple of these people in my life, whose souls are built on an uncommonly grand scale, each part proportionate to all the others. I admired them a hundred times more than the nameless man that I occasionally saw in the streets of Moose Jaw.

Greatness of soul is a prize that can be attained by any who are truly able to commit themselves to the pursuit of it. What could be a better goal?

In Praise of Cynics

In the generations after the death of Socrates, there was a profusion of philosophical and quasi-philosophical schools that sought to follow in his footsteps. Plato began his Academy, and Isocrates around the same time began a much more influential program training people in writing and rhetoric and public life. Aristotle started the school known as the Lyceum, and then came the Cynics, the Epicureans, the Stoics, some groups of Skeptics, and eventually the Middle Platonists and the Neoplatonists.

I’m reflecting today on one of these groups that is often neglected: the Cynics.

When I think of the Cynics, there are two things I’ve heard about them which especially shape how I think of them. (No, the two things are not that the word “cynicism” comes from the Greek word for dog, and that one of the early Cynics was caught shamelessly doing something in public that should probably not be done in public, even if those are probably the two things you hear most often about them!)

  • The Cynics, who lived in poverty and went around exhorting listeners to live a life of radical virtue, were inspired by a wish to be like Socrates. There were many ancient thinkers who wanted to think like Socrates, but the Cynics were unique and interesting in thinking that the life of Socrates was an important consequence of Socrates’ thinking and was worth imitating and even seeking to outdo.
  • The Cynics, who lived in poverty and went around exhorting listeners to live a life of radical virtue, may have been an inspiration for the ministry of Jesus and his disciples. I don’t want to make too much of this, since it has attracted no end of controversy among Christian and anti-Christian disputants, but it is true that there was a city with a great deal of Cynic activity over the course of several centuries which was located very, very near to Nazareth where Jesus grew up. More importantly, though, the very fact that some scholars are able to argue that there was a Cynic influence on the ministry of Jesus does help us picture what Cynicism was like, for those of us who are more familiar with early Christianity than with obscure Greek philosophical schools (which is probably most of us!).

The Cynics were compared to dogs, because they embraced a somewhat animal existence rather than the more civilized human life that their contemporaries (and we ourselves) would be more familiar with. They chose a hard life, and they did so in order to pursue the best sort of life they could attain.

They didn’t want to be distracted by money or honour or pleasures or fears. They gave up everything that could pull their attention away from the life of virtue, and then they used the freedom that came from that choice to share an exhortation toward virtue with anyone who would listen.

It is a praiseworthy path. This sort of life would resurface among the early centuries of Christian saints: the anchorites, the stylites, the later mendicant orders, all share this same willingness to embrace poverty in order to pursue virtue and to preach the glories of virtue.

There aren’t many who will choose that path today. But there are some. As far as I’m concerned, the more there are, the better off the whole world will be.

And even for those of us who cannot take on that form of life completely, it is important that we should all seek to embrace that approach to the world, as far as is possible from within the duties required by our state in life. In every way that we can, we need to put virtue above all the lesser concerns that present themselves to us without end.

Motivation for Virtue

Virtue can bring many superficial benefits to the virtuous person.

What if people who know you start to think of you as virtuous, trustworthy, praiseworthy? What if they begin to speak of you in that way too? That will affect how you’re treated. It will make you feel good to know that people think of you and speak of you approvingly, because that’s how we’re wired. That excellent reputation might cause you to have more friends, to receive more gifts and favours, to advance further in the world.

That’s a possible outcome of a virtuous life, and it’s even a likely outcome. But it’s not the only outcome, either.

The virtuous person might become the object of envy. It’s good for the virtuous to be admired and imitated, but envious people actively want their enemies to be deprived of the good things they possess, and it’s not impossible for virtuous people to become the enemies of the envious.

The virtuous person, who is unwilling to descend into vice and falsehood and injustices, could also be taken advantage of. If two people are in competition and only one is willing to break the rules, the better person might end up worse off.

My point is this:

The beneficial outcomes of a virtuous life are not a good enough motivation for becoming virtuous.

Never mind that those are what actually tend to be the motivation. “Honesty is the best policy” means that you should do the right thing because it will benefit you.

But very often it is not the one who acts rightly that seems to have the best outcome. The people who become wealthiest and most powerful and most famous don’t necessarily get there because they were the most morally upright people in the race.

A desire to seem virtuous, to be seen and celebrated and remembered, might be a good starting point on the path to virtue, but it won’t carry a person far.

To become truly virtuous, it is necessary to investigate our motivations, and go deeper into the question of why we want to become a certain kind of person.

The only way to become virtuous is to make virtue “its own reward,” as they say.

And here’s the thing. If you do make virtue your goal, your motivation, your reward, then no one can ever take your happiness away from you, because for your happiness you won’t be depending on things outside your control, things like wealth or honour or pleasures. You will be depending only on your own virtue, which no one can ever take away from you without your consent.

To make virtue your reward is to be a truly happy person indeed, then.

Straightening Out Priorities

Let’s ask ourselves a challenging hypothetical question:

What would I be willing to give up in exchange for growth in virtue?

I want to quote a couple sentences from a passage that shows up early in Aristotle’s Rhetoric:

“If it be objected that one who uses such power of speech unjustly might do great harm, that is a charge which may be made in common against all good things except virtue, and above all against the things that are most useful, as strength, health, wealth, generalship. A man can confer the greatest of benefits by a right use of these, and inflict the greatest of injuries by using them wrongly.”

Aristotle, Rhetoric (emphasis added)

Good health, financial security, physical strength, persuasive speech — these are all good things, and worth pursuing. But unlike virtue, they can be a source of harm and sorrow, just as much as they can be a source of good. Virtue is the only thing we can seek to gain that will be always unambiguously good for us.

But it’s even more than that, too: virtue is what makes all other good and useful things beneficial and not harmful. If you had every advantage in the world and didn’t have virtue, then all those things would be of no profit to you. On the other side, if you had an abundance of virtue, then even if you lost everything else, you could still be a happy and fortunate human being.

We used to know this, or at least we used to pay lip service to it. In the modern world, we hardly even bother pretending to believe it anymore.

So then let’s entertain the idea. This brings us back to the hypothetical question I posed at the beginning of this reflection.

What might need to be given up for the sake of progress in virtue? Perhaps money or possessions.

Perhaps the good opinion that some friend or some acquaintances might have of you.

Perhaps some hobby or habit or pursuit that gives enjoyment.

I’m not saying that all of those will always need to be given up! There are such things as honourable pleasures. But our priorities need to be clear to us from the beginning. We need to be honest with ourselves about whether we’re willing to do whatever it takes. 

If growth in virtue would inflict many pains on us, over many years, could we still choose it?

If it might cost us friends and reputation, will we pursue it?

If we are faced with a choice between making a pile of money or coming closer to attaining the sort of good character we’re straining toward, which way will we go?

Virtue can’t be pursued halfheartedly. It’s either our focus, or it’s only a polite fiction.

What will it be for you?

How to Think of Virtue

In reaching for a description of what I am calling virtue, I might attempt some phrases like

  • perfection of soul,
  • excellence of the soul,
  • moral beauty,
  • fitness of soul,
  • nobility of soul,
  • moral fineness.

All of those are somewhat close to what I mean by virtue.

But this account of virtue represents only one way to hear the word, and it’s important to keep in mind that it is not necessarily the main way to understand it. To grasp what virtue has popularly connoted through the history of the West, we have to enter two main paradigms, which we could call the masculine sense and the feminine.

Let’s start with the one that will be more familiar to us. Not so long ago, the word virtue would bring to mind a gentle, virginal, pretty young lady. It’s not that this image was held to be the entirety of what “virtue” could mean, but it was the centre of gravity for the word’s other possible meanings, in popular thinking.

Many centuries earlier, the word carried a very different sense. It was originally a warrior’s term. Our word “virtue” is etymologically related to “virility.” To be virtuous was first of all to be manly, courageous in battle, admired among the brave.

For philosophers, however, the word held another sense, from very early on. Virtue meant, more or less, doing with your life what you ought to be doing with it. It meant a commitment to becoming the best human being you could be. In this way it brought with it the question of what it means for a human to be good, which turns out of course to be not such an easy thing to answer.

Philosophers like Plato and Aristotle and Epictetus (and many more) urged that this account of virtue was the most important and most valuable thing for us as humans to focus on. I believe they make a compelling case.

We don’t really hear people talking in this way anymore, but I believe now is as good a time as any to start to return to it.