Conservatives in the 21st century lead subterranean lives, taking refuge in their obscurity and finding comfort only in the virtual memories of better times, memories all too often implanted from misleading books and films. Like aristocratic pagans in the afterglow of the Roman Empire, they are a despised minority who fight symbolic battles. In 382, the emperor Gratian ordered the removal of the pagan statue of Victory from the senate. Symmachus, an aristocratic pagan and urban prefect (in 384), petitioned for the return of the statue. The new emperor, Valentinian II, refused to see him, and his measure was strongly opposed by Ambrose, the equally aristocratic bishop of Milan, whose hauteur was bolstered by the conviction that he was right. Symmachus believed in Rome, but his gods were no better than morale-boosting fictions.
Like Symmachus, American conservatives can only demonstrate against the destruction of Confederate monuments or mount futile crusades for the restoration of the Ten Commandments on courthouse walls, whispering furtively that all the ills of modern life date from the removal of a pre-Christian moral code. If they really are Christians, I wonder why conservatives do not demonstrate in favor of putting up Christ’s two Great Commandments, on which hang all the Law and the Prophets. But, marginalized by an anti-Christian revolution, conservatives believe so little in their God that they are unable to pass on their outworn creed to their children, whose minds are nourished on the thin poisons of FOX Television and the Wall Street Journal.
How far we have fallen, and how fast! Less than 60 years ago, some conservatives dared to hope that the American people might be induced to take a stand on the political principles of the Constitution, on economic liberty, on the cultural traditions of our ancestors, and on the Faith of our fathers. In Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver thought the rallying point could be the right of private property, which he described as “the last metaphysical right.” Today, so far from aspiring to any metaphysical rights, Americans would be content if their governments would only spell out the terms on which they may confiscate our property.
I have never entirely understood why Weaver used the expression “metaphysical right,” unless he thought it a fine rhetorical flourish, which it is. In a deservedly celebrated passage, he argued that
the right of private property is metaphysical because it does not depend on any test of social usefulness. . . . It is a self-justifying right, which until lately was not called upon to show in the forum how its “services” warranted its continuance in a state dedicated to collective well-being.
The phrase “collective well-being” reminds us that, in Weaver’s day, the threat of communism was real, not only in the form of the bellicose Soviet Union and its rapidly growing empire, but also within the New Deal wing of the Democratic Party (with its liberal Republican allies) that was eagerly converting every last remnant of a free republic into a centralized state that reduced its citizens to servility. From our vantage point, we can see (as many of us saw 30 years ago) that communism per se offered less of a threat to our liberties than the revolutionary tradition that had spawned not only Marxist communism and gradualist socialism but the classical liberalism which, even in Weaver’s day, was usurping the title of conservatism.
From Weaver’s perspective, the greatest danger lay in the state’s presumption that it could confiscate both income and property in the name of the public good. The Roosevelt administration had done both, by withholding federal income taxes from employees’ salaries and by confiscating and flooding some 600,000 acres of private land in the upper South in the name of flood control. And the New Deal state was a republican minnow compared with the vast Leviathan, which, with its equally pernicious brood in our states and counties, wages offensive wars, imports and subsidizes illegal aliens, and provides abortions to teenage girls who will soon have to be vaccinated to protect them from the consequences of the sexual irresponsibility indoctrinated by the monster’s schools.
Weaver deserves his reputation as a prophet, but his argument is historically shallow, and that shallowness is the result of his abstract and a priori approach to private property, which is, after all, not a metaphysical absolute but an attribute of historical man. Though every society, including communist states, has some concept of ownership, there is no such thing as a universal right to property that fits every historical circumstance, any more than there is one single (much less ideal) form of the family or social hierarchy or the marketplace. If we were to consider possession as a metaphysical abstraction, then we should also have to consider regulations on marriage and incest, theft and murder, as metaphysical abstractions, though such rules, in fact, vary from place to place and time to time. The Romans could consider marriage with your uncle’s adopted daughter to be incest. We would see nothing wrong. In most societies, men cut or dress their hair to mark an important transition (maturity or the death of a relative), but no one, I think, would attribute a metaphysical status to barbering.
The word metaphysics is, in its most literal sense, nothing more than a reference to Aristotle’s book that followed the Physics in the standard edition. As a more general term, it denotes that which transcends the natural universe. Metaphysics is, in other words, a theology not rooted in faith. What possible application could metaphysics have to a legal institution such as marriage or property except insofar as we believe them to be of divine institution? Christians are often blamed for introducing socialist ideas, but, despite the propaganda of leftist Christians, private property has always been defended by the Church. The brief and limited experiment in voluntary communalism described in the Acts of the Apostles quickly disappears except as a part of the discipline of monastic life, and, in the second century, Christians are boasting of how normal they are, as we read in the Epistle of “Mathetes” (the learner) to Diognetus:
For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity . . . and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life . . . They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives.
The burdens of communism and celibacy were reserved for men and women with a special vocation, though heretics and troublemakers have periodically called for revolutions in marriage and property.
In Genesis 1, the creation of man in the likeness of God is coupled with the dominion he has been given over the creatures of the earth. Saint Thomas cited this as proof of his contention that the natural creatures of the earth belong to man. Thomas’ insightful connection of dominion (the Vulgate uses the verb dominari, “to have power over”) with property may well have been helped by the fact that the noun dominium (literally, “authority over a household”) was frequently used to mean legitimate ownership of property. Beyond that general statement, we are not permitted to go, and, when we pass those Pillars of Hercules, we are sure to meet with the monsters of political abstraction against which every sane political thinker, from Aristotle to Oakeshott, has warned us.
Eric Voegelin spoke of the danger of immanentizing the eschaton—that is, of the Gnostic aspiration to construct the Kingdom of God here on earth—but there is also a concomitant danger of eschatizing the immanent (that is, of treating human things, however noble and essential, as transcendent). Once conservatives decide to walk down that road, we shall be following in the footsteps of Robespierre, John Brown, and Pol Pot as we embark on our crusade to restore property rights or Roman law or the Tridentine Mass. Singing “Glory, glory, hallelujah,” we shall cheerfully slaughter oppressors and oppressed, landowners and the landless, in an orgy of self-righteousness. The first person killed at Harpers Ferry was a free Negro, and hundreds of thousands of Southern blacks died during and after the war that liberated them only from life and security.
We have to deal with historical man, not the abstract man projected by libertarian economists, Marxist-Straussian theorists, or City-on-a-Hill religious fanatics. As conservatives or reactionaries, we must always be on guard against the presumption that we have all the answers. As a foe of communism and an ally of classical liberals, Richard Weaver quite correctly detected the stench of Marx in the phrase “collective well-being,” but long before there were collectivists, people spoke of the commonweal or the res publica as the institutional foundation of our social life. It is simply not true that, historically considered, there is no connection between property rights and the common good. Even the briefest glance at feudal land tenure is enough to show that, in the Middle Ages, land was often—perhaps typically—held on a contingent basis. The possessor (often not, strictly speaking, the owner) had to perform services in exchange for his land and could not automatically pass it on to his heirs. Feudal property law is ultimately the source of the principle of eminent domain, by which the sovereign is the actual owner of the realm’s land, which he may take back, as he sees fit, and devote to the public good.
Ancient societies are more complex. While Greeks, Jews, and Romans tenaciously protected their property rights, these rights were held more often by a family than by an individual. In other words, they tended to be collective rather than individual, traditional rather than abstract. Today, we tend to think of property as an abstract bundle of rights and duties, whose most obvious characteristic is that it can be bought and sold. Ancient Athenians, however, would have found it difficult to sell the family homestead, thus dispossessing the heirs. In the Old Testament, a man driven by poverty to sell his property has the right to buy it back according to a formula, and every 50 years (that is, in a Jubilee Year), the property will revert to its original owner. Property and family, in other words, are interrelated, and the function of real property was to provide support and shelter for the kinfolk.
Those who attach too much significance to wealth, even in the form of property, more easily fall prey to covetousness. Nonetheless, as Aristotle was at some pains to show (in both the Politics and the Ethics), it is also dangerous to define man in exclusively spiritual terms. In a powerful argument, adopted later by Saint Thomas, Aristotle proves that property (unlike money) is natural because it serves the natural needs of the human race. Without a house, we are exposed to the elements; without land, we cannot feed ourselves and our family. While mere physical survival and comfort represent a very low form of the good, for most of us, they are the foundation from which we aim at higher things.
There is no imaginable human condition in which some form of property is not necessary. The most primitive peoples—e.g., the Bushmen of the Kalahari—have private possessions. Because they have no fixed habitation, Bushman families do not own land, but their kin groups do exercise inherited privileges over certain useful locations, such as watering holes. At the other end of the social spectrum, Catholic and Orthodox monks give up private possessions, but the monastery or the order collectively owns lands and buildings and may even possess great wealth. Even communists retain a sense of property: The state, controlled by party leaders, theoretically owns everything. Milovan Djilas was shrewd enough to point out that communists eliminate every form of property but their own.
While there are no natural rights, there are natural necessities: providing for our natural existence (food, in particular); defending our existence (fighting and resisting aggression); continuing our existence beyond the grave (that is, by procreation). In each of these spheres, we have a duty to look out for us and ours, and, “whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of those ends,” it is acting illegitimately. When, for example, the Third Reich murdered its citizens, and when Jacobins and communists seized food or food-producing land from farmers and peasants, they were behaving tyrannically. If private property is, as Aristotle and Saint Thomas have argued, a natural necessity, then governments that take property without justification are tyrannies.
Even though the possession of property fulfills natural necessities, it is not automatically a natural, much less a metaphysical, right. The mere fact that I need something does not necessarily mean that I have a right to it. If I set fire to my house and burn everything in it, I shall need shelter, food, and clothing, but do I have a right to take them from my neighbor (or from the insurance company or the taxpayers)? The human need for property cannot be converted into a right, because, in our world, that would inevitably imply a universal obligation to provide (through confiscation, agrarian laws) land to the landless. A natural right would end up meaning that everybody else on the planet has some claim on my property, whereas we all know that my property belongs to the bank and to the governments that can seize it for nonpayment of taxes.
If we defend property as an abstraction, we must either dissolve society into the war of all owners against all owners and nonowners alike, or else be content with the minimum property rights enjoyed by Bushmen or communist apparatchiks. The peculiar forms of property rights that evolved in the modern West, while they are not entirely satisfactory, are the basis not only of our political liberty but of our entire civilization. To weaken, much less eliminate, them will have disastrous consequences. Gibbon believed that the nomadic and warlike habits of the ancient Germans kept them in a state of cultural infancy. “The possession and the enjoyment of property are the pledges which bind a civilized people to an improved country.”
Gibbon was a pagan, who saw property as a strictly natural good. For the Christian, however, property can be both a temptation and an opportunity to do good. Saint Thomas quotes approvingly Saint Paul’s admonition to the rich (in 1 Timothy) “That they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate; laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life.” The Christian view of property, then, is neither capitalist nor communist; it is the anti-thesis of these and all other heretical isms that misjudge the nature and ends of human life. Property is a natural necessity, and the civil rights of the owner or possessor will be respected by any state that is not tyrannical, but we must beware of turning natural goods into idols to which we sacrifice at the cost of our souls.