The American home-mortgage crisis, though it is only a little less urgent than it was a year ago, has taken second place, in the ambulance-chasing media, to ObamaCare, same-sex “marriage,” and even the wars in Syria and Afghanistan. We have all been informed that the Great Recession was caused in large part by high rates of mortgages in default, which was in turn the result of a housing bubble created by the proliferation of subprime mortgages and the deregulation of the banking “industry.”
Leftists inevitably blame what they inevitably call the “meltdown” on the insatiable greed of the bankers, while conservatives speak, albeit in more cautious tones, of government abuses and the recklessness of low-income home-buyers, all the while admitting that governments have the right and duty to encourage home ownership. There may be merit in both sets of arguments, but generally missing from the debate is the ethical dimension: How in the world did the family home get converted first into an asset and then into an investment vehicle?
The need for a stable home base seems to be one of those essentials of human nature we cannot entirely eliminate. Even our cousins the orangutans and chimpanzees build nests, and, while these nests are used only for one-night stands, chimpanzees return repeatedly to preferred areas in which they have previously built nests. Humans have taken the necessary next step in establishing long-term settlements.
It is sometimes said that the most primitive hunter-gathering peoples of Africa and the New World did not have either a sense of home place or the concept of property. This is simply not true. Individually, they had exclusive possession of weapons and ornaments and tribal rights to watering holes. They did not wander aimlessly across the Kalahari desert or through the frozen archipelagos of Patagonia but made seasonal circuits of familiar places. To be sure, more highly developed peoples (Celts, Germans, Slavs) will pull up stakes, whether to find better land and warmer climate or merely to loot a higher civilization, but the most successful raiders nearly always end up settling down, as the Vikings did, on conquered land.
If an enduring home, no less than heterosexual marriage and private property, responds to some essential human need, it is probably very unwise to think (much less to act on the thought) that government can play a constructive role in providing a home, any more than government can play a constructive role in fixing wages and prices, telling us how to rear and educate our children, or defining marriage. Home is human reality; government-backed mortgages are part of a revolutionary system to make us all wards of the state.
Home is a primary human reality, but it also serves as a metaphor for a stable social order in which men and women live, grow old, and die within the seasonal rhythms of the community and in which one generation passes down its wisdom and traditions to another. This vision, whether in the medieval form of the peasant village or in its classical form—the hundreds of Greek poleis in which our civilization was created—was always at the heart of the old conservative vision of Edmund Burke, T.S. Eliot, Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, and M.E. Bradford. If we go back far enough, we shall find a similar concern expressed by Aristotle in his account of political evolution from the household to the village to the polis. And it is not for nothing that both Paul and Peter refer to the Church as the house or home of God.
The haunting vision of a stable home has its dangers, too, and can be made to serve the warped notions of the Hog Farm Commune or the Manson Family or, worse, the national-socialist fantasies of the American left in the two parties of the left. (The best discussion of this remains Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community.) But what basic human need has not been routinely exploited, propositioned? Many revolutionary projects, such as German National Socialism, flew the banner of home and family, giving the appearance of legitimacy to every communist who has ever cried “Fascist!” when he heard the word marriage or family.
There are one or two rough-and-ready criteria for distinguishing between true and false movements to restore the home. The easiest is the test of revolution: If advocates of home and hearth use the conventional language of subversion and disruption, such as the radical return to a distant Golden Age or the need for a vast social transformation, they are revolutionaries and not conservative. It follows that we should beware of any pro-family advocate who calls upon government to restore the family or encourage household formation. Even when these movements are labeled as “conservative,” they more resemble the socialist pro-natalism of the Myrdals or the nostalgic flights of fancy of Hitler’s National Socialist Women’s Organization.
Since the time of Burke, free-market economic principles have been incorporated into most conservative ideologies, but such principles, utilized also by revolutionary liberals, were not essential to conservative thought. To the extent that conservatism was not just a warmed-over version of classical liberalism forever pandering to the left—which is pretty much what it has been for 30 years—it preserved this vision of a stable social order based on autonomous households. Russell Kirk (to take only one example) had a deep understanding of the significance of the home base as the essential requirement of a social order. His own home, Piety Hill, was modeled on Walter Scott’s Abbottsford, which was itself a reflection of Scott’s love of the rich traditions of medieval Scotland. In his first—and I should say greatest—novel, Waverley, Scott portrayed the Baron of Bradwardine, a lowland Jacobite, whose medieval hospitality sets young Captain Waverley on his reactionary regression.
An enduring home and a stable home are not static or frozen in time. Like everything organic, they are subject to change, to decay as well as to progress. One vigorous generation grows old and hands on property and power to the next generation that has to meet the crises of its own time in its own way. Developments in philosophy or science, the introduction of a new religion, the migration of alien peoples and alien cultures—all have posed a threat to a stable order. Vigorous and creative peoples rise to the challenge and emerge even stronger from the contest, while feeble and decadent cultures either collapse or refashion themselves in the image of their antagonists.
Periods of moral and spiritual crisis are rich pastures for breeding the eternal Wiseguy, the Greek sophist or the Enlightenment philosophe, who can see no reason for preserving the traditional order. His slogans are progress and revolution, enlightenment and freedom, hope and change. In the early days, the Wiseguy was often a misfit like Voltaire, a mentally unbalanced eccentric like Rousseau, or a criminal like Sade, but, as the revolution wears on, the Wiseguy and his principles become the orthodoxy that must be challenged by a new wave of moral terrorists. Rousseau seems tame, even conservative, when set beside Godwin or Marx.
For the most part—though there are exceptions—the Wiseguy is not a deep thinker. He is more like the village atheist, who may never have thought much about religion but once read one of Robert G. Ingersoll’s pamphlets or slogged his way through Atlas Shrugged. I have met feminists who have never read Simone de Beauvoir, much less Mary Wollstonecraft, because they found everything they needed to justify their misery in a single issue of Cosmopolitan. Universities and high schools are filled with right-thinking people who have no idea of how they came to be homosexualists, pro-black racists, or Marxists. There must be something in the water, or perhaps their brains were pithed by teachers who read The New Republic.
Tradition is not the everything that some disciples of Professor MacIntyre might have us think. Human societies need creative criticism. Ancient Judaism, in its higher forms, was in part the creation of the prophets, who railed against the superstitions and bigotry of their people. The stories of Jonah and Job served to remind the Chosen People that the nations produced good men and women, capable of loving God and repenting of their sins.
From the time of Homer down to the Persian Wars, the Greeks of the so-called archaic age were already creating a finer civilization than the world had known. They had reason to be proud, pious, and conservative. During the Persian Wars, Pan had appeared at Marathon, and the gods of the Greeks had enabled them to prevail. Reread Aeschylus’ Persians, and you will hear the voice not just of patriotism but of piety.
Nonetheless, restless poets and thinkers had already begun questioning the irrational and ethnocentric myths of Greek religion, though some of them at least (Xenophanes, Protagoras) were aiming at a higher conception of divinity. The danger lies in not realizing the effect such criticisms might have on the 90 percent of humanity (an optimistic guess) incapable of rational and independent reflection. For failing to take human frailty into account, Socrates was put to death, and Plato realized his mistake only late in life, when he remarked on the futility of his efforts to reform Sicilian Greeks, who ate all day and fornicated all night.
By the time of Socrates, Athens was filled with itinerant sophists. Some of them were serious men; others, promising to teach rhetoric, were more of the type of success-hucksters (Dale Carnegie, Zig Ziglar), and all too many were like the cynical immoralists who turn up in Plato’s Gorgias and Republic. They harped ceaselessly on the contrast between nature and custom (or law). There was no universal morality in nature; principles of right and wrong were invented by men; and wise is the man who will see through the hypocrisies of his society and grab for the power that will make it possible for him to gratify every whim. Since traditional Greek religion could no longer satisfy the higher aspirations of the best men and women, pious people could only occasionally annoy the skeptics, as in the attacks on Anaxagoras and Socrates.
The philosophes of the French Enlightenment were up against an apparently tougher adversary than civic paganism—the Catholic hierarchy—but the Church, in preaching chastity and denouncing fornication and adultery, gave Her enemies a weapon unknown to pagans. The clever philosophes—from Montaigne to Voltaire and after—preached the always attractive doctrines of sexual liberation and free love. Since most of us—including many men of the cloth—are all too susceptible to these blandishments, the European hierarchy has lost ground to sexual liberationists in every generation—and continues to do so in our own age of transgendered couples. (I sometimes wonder if it is more or less perverse when a trousered lesbian has a fling with a man.)
The response that Socrates and his gang—Plato, Aristotle, Theophrastus, Plotinus—gave to the Wiseguys was not, primarily, an assertion of Greek tradition but a reach toward a moral authority that lay beyond mere custom and tradition. (Aristotle was exceptional in taking Greek traditions quite seriously.) Their success can be measured by the influence of the philosophical schools—not just Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum but also Zeno’s Stoa and the Garden of Epicurus—on Greek and Roman moral thought and behavior. Absorbed by Christianity, their teachings have taught every Christian generation since at least the time of Justin Martyr.
Unfortunately, the Christian response to the false Enlightenment has been a good deal less successful than that of ancient philosophers. In every generation, our apologists and preachers have rung the changes on a very few themes that only work with believers: the infallibility of the Scriptures or the pope, the authority of tradition, and the terrible punishments awaiting those who refuse to heed the call, though this last theme is sounded rarely, and even then weakly. The example of Christian thinkers who did grapple with the challenges of Descartes or Darwin only to be trapped by those intellectual tar babies has been discouraging. Those of us who have tried to show the compatibility of science and Christianity have been quite successfully ignored.
Many of us have been misled by Aristotle’s declaration that men by nature strive to know. The philosopher, alas, was talking about Greeks and not Americans (or Englishmen). The modern European and American mind is the mind formed by wave after wave of Wiseguy revolutionaries. Talk-radio conservatives who blow the war trumpets for democratic revolution at home and abroad and celebrate the wisdom of the people are well to the left of Robespierre.
It is not that the distinctions between left and right are necessarily important, but what is important to acknowledge is the plain fact that, for hundreds of years, the Wiseguys have won every round, and so long as conservatives continue to hold up Descartes, Montaigne, Voltaire, and Adam Smith as their heroes, they can never escape from their trammels. In this sense, the fundamentalists—Catholic as well as Protestant—have a point: It is more important to keep the Faith than to understand it. Unfortunately, every form of obscurantism is condemned to be repudiated by the brightest children who are brought up in it. I well recall my Southern Baptist friends who cleaved to their religion until they took their first course in college biology.
If, as Christians, we have to be stupid, then let us be, as Péguy declared, stupid once and for all. This means rejecting out of hand all the bright new ideas that have been shoved down our throats for the past century. Nearly of them are really stale old ideas marketed in new bottles with alluring labels. Let us have no truck with finding the conservative elements in Montaigne or defending Adam Smith as a moral philosopher or exploring the Christian allegory in the Star Wars franchise or getting our Gospel from the latest “Christian” rock pop tart.
If we are going to mind our own business as Christians and to stay home, literally as well as figuratively, let us make sure it is really a home and not a condominium apartment we intend to sell—along with wife and children—as soon as we get a good offer. When “conservative” Christian intellectuals cobble together their latest manifesto, creed, or declaration, just tell them you do not sign your name to anything you have not written. And when political gurus or pop theologians sashay through the streets of your hometown or traipse from website to website crying, “New ideas for old, new ideas for old,” just close the window and go back to living.