Once a believer in the blessings of modernity and classical liberalism, Dutch philosopher Andreas Kinneging now considers himself a “convert” to traditional thinking.  He believes that the Enlightenment and Romanticism have brought “decline and deterioration, instead of progress and improvement.”  Today, public discourse, directed by shallow pragmatists, reveals an historically illiterate ruling class.  “Because we no longer consult our ancestors,” he notes, “our thinking in ethics and law has become perfunctory and superficial.”  Many of our current problems stem from the Enlightenment; these include a “form of hubris,” against which can be pitted conservatism, “a conscious defense of the Christian and classical legacies.”  At the heart of this conservatism lies the conviction that one’s happiness and freedom mostly depend “on a disposition achieved by an inner struggle against all sorts of primary impulses that lead him astray.”  To curb these inclinations, Enlightenment thinking can offer only the state, public opinion, and modern education, all of which seem to have failed.  Conservatism, by returning to time-tested ways, can correct these failings.  Although Kinneging’s enthusiasm is welcome, here in the United States conservatism has largely failed as a bulwark to Enlightenment thinking.  In fact, through the influence of neoconservatives, Enlightenment platitudes are repackaged and peddled to the public as “conservative.”

Kinneging argues for a synthesis of the classical cardinal virtues (wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance) and the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love.  Whereas the classical virtues are oriented toward the public domain, Christian virtues, he notes, are concerned with the private one.  Combined, the two cover most aspects of our lives.

In the most promising part of his book, Kinneging presents a lengthy discussion of the various virtues and their subsets, and teases nuances from them.  Of the ancient virtues, only tolerance, he notes, is respected today, but respect for it is nominal, and it is largely misunderstood and mistaken for indifference.  Tolerare in Latin means “to endure”; and tolerance actually means “putting up with those of whom and that of which we disapprove when we are in a position to change the situation.”  Regarding the virtue of loyalty, Kinneging laments that people today regard partiality as injustice and think that “family ties, bonds of friendship, and common citizenship are on principle no grounds for discrimination.”  In a traditional understanding of loyalty, we have the primary “obligation to help those belonging to ‘us.’”

Part of the path to recovery, Kinneging argues, is the recognition of the family, not the individual, as the foundation of society.  Yet marriage, the central institution of the family, is in decline.  We largely view marriage as being contractual in nature.  Kinneging notes that if marriage is only a contract, there are no grounds to discriminate against homosexual or polygamous marriages.  In addition, the Romantics have taught us to view romantic love as the basis of marriage.  But Kinneging does not offer an alternative, more realistic understanding of marriage.  (The Latin maritare, whence we derive the word marriage, means both to marry and to impregnate.)

Unfortunately, Kinneging’s treatment of the decline of Europe includes almost no mention of Third World immigration, which, unchecked, must irrevocably alter Europe’s demographics and traditions.  And he barely discusses classical natural law.  Cicero, the inspiration for Kinneging’s conservative conversion, noted that natural law in a certain sense is universal, the “mind of God,” but that it manifests itself in the mos maiorum (ancestral tradition) of different peoples.  Natural law demands greater obligations to kith and kin, thus undercutting the misguided obligations of Enlightenment egalitarianism.

While Kinneging’s book is thought-provoking, as a critique of what has become of our civilization in the last few centuries, it falls short of Thomas Fleming’s Morality of Everyday Life.


[The Geography of Good and Evil: Philosophical Investigations, by Andreas Kinneging (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books) 300 pp., $28.00]