What are the basic tenets of modernity? What is the mind and temper of modern man? I would feel rather foolish to try to reply in a few paragraphs if I did not think that the spirit of modernity boils down eventually to only one idea that reappears constantly under an indefinite variety of guises.
This basic principle may be phrased in the following way: Modernity was born when God disappeared behind man (when mankind became the true god, as Auguste Comte would have said), which means when (since there is no reason why a man as a man should be superior to any other) every man thought of himself as a god in his own right. Anyone who doubts that there is flesh to that idea might reflect upon Rene Descartes’ avowed ambition: to discard anything he may have learned and, relying solely on his intellect and judgment, all by himself, build a new science, both of himself and of the world, through which he could become an immortal being, master and owner of the whole universe. By and by, that amounted to creating a man and a world anew. Descartes was not deranged —unless all moderns, whether stupid or brilliant, were also, in taking Descartes as a model.
The same attitude is apparent in the widespread idea that every man was born and is endowed with an unfettered freedom, with an absolute right to think and act as he wishes. (“Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” said Rousseau.) There are no legitimate limits to that freedom unless man has an interest in abiding by them (which does not mean, therefore, that he is not entitled to break them when it becomes his personal interest to do so). When there is no God, man is a law unto himself Again, before anyone thinks this is a totally abstract notion, let me mention that it is the basic principle of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, which all modern societies claim and boast to embody. But that is what the very fabric of modern societies shows even more clearly.
Is not democracy the predominant political model for all modern societies? But what does democracy mean to the average citizen, if not government by the people, meaning by each citizen (i.e., by himself), for the people (i.e., a government that cannot decide anything detrimental to him), and, of course, of the people (i.e., the others)? What is democracy if not sovereignty of the people, and what is this sovereignty if not the sum total of all individual sovereignties, meaning the absolute rejection by every citizen of any sort of submission to any man other than himself? Is not the general will supposed to be my will? Democracy is not the antithesis of monarchy; it is the democratizing of monarchy. Democracy differs from simple anarchy because it recognizes, as a most regrettable drawback, the necessity for each citizen not to do unto others what one would not want others to do to oneself; but this principle becomes agreeable to democracy when it is understood as not doing it unless it can be done without being caught. Democracy does not leave any room for morals; the only absolute it acknowledges is the will of the individual. There is no such thing as a republican democracy, for democracy excludes any res publica.
The same principle appears in that other predominant feature of our societies: our devotion to economic matters. The obsession with the economy is not exclusively the product of a desire to butter one’s bread. It is also born out of the very simple fact that the economy is the only common ground that is left among individuals who are separate worlds unto themselves. For the core of the modern economy is not so much production or industry as it is exchange or trade: Production increases only as much as there are opportunities for trading what is produced. But, while exchange is natural when it is only occasional, to rely on exchange as a way to support oneself, either by selling or by having to buy, which is the basic characteristic of modern societies, is an altogether different thing. Individuals who base their relationship exclusively or primarily on exchange do not really relate: Who cares about the shoe-shop owner, provided he has the pair of shoes you like? There are no friends when you do business. Exchange is the only human relation that establishes a semblance of society when everyone is too free to accept any kind of social ties. Economy, therefore, prevails necessarily in a society in which everyone cares only about himself and has no need for others except for his personal use. In other words, a society based on its economy is a society whose only god is the individual.
But there is more. Since, in modern society, there is no respect for others, it is obvious that, in any exchange, everyone has a natural proclivity to get more and give less. If the human gods cannot afford solitude, they have to be either good gods or good fighters, the object of the game being for each to put the other at his mercy. Hence, the third belief of the modern mentality: Society is always bound to be the pitfall of mankind unless redeemed by one of two things: either what Jean-Jacques Rousseau called the “renaturation” of man (which meant depriving him altogether of any self-interest, an operation that ended up requesting the assistance of the good Dr. Guillotine) or the manufacturing of such a quantity of material goods that men would not have to fight over them. (The horrible Mr. Hobbes was not, after all, entirely mistaken —though hardly fair to wolves—provided one only considers a condition of scarcity: Any animal will go wild when starving; so will men.) In other words, if the latter is true, man will be good to man when everyone has a washing machine; unlike children, he will be lovable, loving, and loved when he is spoiled. Opulence is the key to sociable living.
This is no figment of my imagination; this is the philosophy of Progress, the unwritten law of our lives, and the fountainhead of all enlightened policies. This is all that Marxism is about—but it is also what liberalism is about. Scarcity is the root of evil; productivity, the answer. Why is there violence in our cities? Because not everybody can afford to play tennis or take ski holidays. This is why the masses hail science, the real god that can multiply bread.
There is one drawback, though. Before everyone has everything (according to his needs), there are all those times when everyone will try to take advantage of everyone else, and some will obviously succeed better. So everyone agrees (with a guilty conscience for the winners, and resentment and envy for the losers, who feel cheated out of their due) that everyone should share wealth, which is always somehow illegitimate when unevenly distributed, and which, therefore, must be redistributed. That is the real Rights of Man, as Marx very well understood: If men are born with equal rights, they have a right to anything their fellow men have that they do not have.
This is why true conservatism is so relevant to our times. Unless one is addicted to liberal or socialist philosophy, one should not have much difficulty ascertaining the shortcomings of the world this philosophy has begotten. A world of gods, each claiming to be the center of the world, is not viable, pure and simple. It is actually a very sick world. He who wants to play the angel will act as a beast; our societies are ridden with war, tyranny, injustice, and affliction—and with the particularly vicious propensity that moves the hydropic to drink the water that will kill him.
War? That is all too blatant. Hobbes was not hallucinating when he saw men naturally at perpetual war with one another; he was only a modern, thinking in modern terms. For how can two atoms, each a world unto itself, go their particular way and not end up colliding as soon as their orbits get too close? It is actually a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is no society between animals that have nothing in common except their respective cravings. One may also put it this way: Whatever the available goods, no god likes to have equals or to have exactly the same amount as his neighbor. Opulence is an empty word. One may argue that there is a lot more compassion these days than ever before. That may be, but is that love for others, is that charity, or is that the kind of transient sensitivity that self-centered individuals are so prone to? (I do not mention solidarity, which is too obviously a way for the richer to ease their consciences and buy social peace.) Logic has it that, in a society whose heart is the economy, individuals may feel pity but no disinterested love for their fellow men. They feel pity when they feel unharmed by some evil that might threaten them, which shows in the way they prefer to send help to those that are not too close to them.
Tyranny? It is equally obvious that, the more men claim to be equal (the more they refuse to acknowledge any natural superiority of anyone over others), the more they are unable to live in society unless some physical power forces them to do so. Equality breeds constraint or disintegration; a sand castle needs an external agent to hold it together. Now, of course, democrats claim there is no legitimate power but the one that belongs to all. Yet nobody has ever answered how it came to be possible for Peter to think himself his own master while having to obey Paul, just because Paul claims his will is not actually his own but Peter’s. Democratic tyranny would be obvious if most citizens’ vanity did not find some satisfaction in that sham. Marx was right to despise democracy as formal, but is it not flattering, even formally, to be considered as a sovereign?
Injustice? How could there be any justice when most social relationships are grounded on sheer force? When two social individuals are at war, what can regulate their intercourse but force? When something is offered at a given price, is it because the manufacturer thinks it a just reward for his work, or because he does not think he could sell his product for more? How could there be justice in a democratic society in which the standards of justice themselves are superseded by the sovereignty of the people, which consists in declaring just what the sovereign people think is just? Am I kidding? Just think of abortion being legalized by several Western parliaments: Doesn’t that amount to having the right of life or death over fellow men?
Affliction? How can a society avert calamity when it considers mankind entitled to play at will with the natural fabric of things, to build below sea level with no regard for possible flooding, to duplicate individuals and create freaks that are both one person and another at the same time, to unleash primeval energy that runs amok, to manufacture medicine without knowing its longterm effects—in a word, to behave like a child starting a car without knowing how to drive it? On a deeper level, if happiness is the fulfillment of one’s desires, how can any fulfillment be expected for somebody who prides himself on being gifted with an ability to find no limit to his desires, which is exactly what absolute freedom is? No one can fill up a pitcher that has no bottom. If nature is taken as a bond that man is free to break, no one can experience pleasures but passing ones, because there is none that is naturally fulfilling. Hedonism, frenetic consumption, is the absolute reverse of happiness; it actually rests on the inner knowledge that one is chasing after something that will forever elude him, the accomplishment of one’s own self.
Our societies are sick. They need doctors. Now, what is a doctor, if not someone who knows the conditions of health—i.e., who knows what is unnatural (what threatens life) because he knows what is natural, what life requires to go on. And that is what conservatism is all about: True conservatives are neither old hats clinging to their dust, nor privileged people hanging on to the status quo, nor, again, people living in the clouds and dreaming of Utopian cities. Conservatives are no preachers or Utopian do-gooders (you ought to, you have to, and so forth). They are just realistic people saying that things last only as long as they keep being what they are by nature, because their nature is nothing but the way they are made and, therefore, the only way they can last. Conservatives are unable to prevent Icarus from trying to fly; they are just warning him of the natural outcome of his endeavor.
Hence, the general principle and the gist of their diagnosis concerning present Western societies: Everything that can go wrong with them will go wrong, because they have ridiculed the idea that there is a nature of things, whether physical or spiritual (to the point of forgetting what the word may mean), because they live in an utterly unnatural way. What is more fashionable today than going about boasting that man has no nature except to make his own nature? What is more simpleminded nowadays than the notion that there are things you do or do not do just because they are natural or go against nature? Now, does that term turn conservatives into blue-blooded ecologists? It would, if many ecologists were not either like unnatural political radishes, white outside and red inside, or like youngsters too lazy to yearn for toys they would enjoy but would have to work to get.
But then, it might be asked whether having a nature means anything anyway when it seems possible for things to go against their own nature. The answer is simple, though central to conservatism. No inanimate object can go against its own nature by itself Water does not come to a boil and vanish into gas by itself Animated beings such as animals can behave unnaturally, but again by accident, and rarely survive their doing so: It is not because a horse falls off a cliff that he flies. In other words, man has the dubious privilege of being the only creature who not only has a nature like all other beings but is also naturally capable of shunning it. There is nothing mysterious about that natural ability: It is the price he pays for being gifted with consciousness —i.e., with a capacity to dissociate himself from whatever he is conscious of, whether it be his environment or himself Man is the only animal able to see himself otherwise than as what he is, which is why his nature is to himself both what he actually is and what he should be.
In other words, what true conservatism primarily teaches is simply that, by disregarding his own nature as well as nature in general, man is endangering his own existence and can be a self-destructive animal. The lesson is two-sided. On one hand, it is that drinking beyond natural measure destroys the liver and, ultimately, the individual; on the other hand, that, since nature is a principle of conservation, it should always be sought after and respected. That is why conservatives are so attached to prescription. Time appears to them as the voice and test of nature herself: The longer something has lasted, the better chance it stands to be something natural. That is why the conservative will bow to tradition, custom, habit, and old institutions of all sorts—not out of superstition or just plain faintheartedness, but out of steady wisdom and reasoned foresightedness.
What is the nature of man? It is not preposterous to try to answer in a few words, provided one tries to go for the fountainhead of whatever else he may be. For if you assume that man is part of nature and is endowed by nature with consciousness, is it not blindingly obvious that his nature is to be, to the full extent of his ability to do so, a willing part of nature, be it the whole universe, the whole of the living world, or the whole of mankind? This means several things: first that, by nature, he is not a world unto himself, not an end in himself, and is as meaningless, if left to himself as a note without the melody that gives it its true value. This is just the reverse of Rousseau’s famous statement that every man is “a perfect and solitary whole.” For the modern mind, to be only a part is demeaning; for the conservative mind, it is mere sanity. It takes a deranged mind to think of oneself as a self-sufficient being. Only crazy people used to think they were gods: Now, it is pandemic.
Second, to be really a part means to take part actively, actually to contribute to the whole. And that is why conservatives are no socialists. Even though the latter extol community among men, their implicit assumption is that there is real community only when individuals may consider society to be somehow indebted to them (which is consistent with the importance the individual has in his own eyes). On the contrary, the conservative will always ask himself what he can do for the others. That is why it is not demeaning to be only a part, any more than it is for a note to be only a component of a chord; without this note, there would not be any chord, but only discord. The weight of the whole does not oppress the individual; it enhances his own weight. But it entails the necessity of bringing something to the whole, bringing something that bears the personal mark of the contributor, and finally bringing it by oneself (in complete contradiction with the modern propensity to be supported by the whole). To do one’s job, to be an autonomous man, is the natural behavior of the citizen of a natural society.
And third, to take part means to do something realK’ useful and meaningful for the whole. If contributing to the whole resembles a note’s contributing to a harmony, not just any note can be added to the melody because it has a whim to be added. Many may disrupt the harmony; onlv certain ones are neeessary. In a similar way, the workings of the whole do not require an indefinite number of more or less arbitrary functions: Nature never does an) thing in yain; no human body can survive long with two heads. Nature is life; life is harmony; harmony is proportion between definite components.
These fundamental principles summarily sketched are not metaphysical, nor even abstract; they are blueprints both for a good individual life and for good social institutions, because they are plainly what history and experience keep proving.
Huge towns and gigantic empires are very unnatural surroundings for men. The latter are on a par with apples; they rot when you pile them up. It was standard speculation in the old dayS to wonder how many citizens a community should comprise; it was also a very wise topic. History has shown in several ways that small is beautiful. One is that there is no way to unite huge numbers of men unless by force; why should they hold together when they are too numerous not to be total strangers to one another? There obviously cannot be any homonoia, any unity from the bottom up, unless between small numbers. There has never been any empire without the will of a despot to frame it. Another way for common sense and experience to prove the same truth is to realize that no man can hold a significant role on a stage where there are also an indefinite number of actors playing at the same time or successively. That means it would not make much sense for an individual to be part of what is usually called the general society of mankind. Of course, man as a man is part of mankind, but to feel he is an actual part of a whole, he needs that whole not to be so big that it will reduce him to a speck. That is why the family, the village, the country always have been such a natural part of man’s surroundings; they are like concentric circles that relate him to mankind—and possibly beyond, to the universe. In other words, nature herself thus shows the artificiality of a universal unified society of mankind. History shows that there is a natural way for this unity to occur, at least inasmuch as it is naturally possible: Thus, when the Greeks thought one of their cities was growing past its natural size, they would simply duplicate it, meaning some of them would emigrate to found a colony. In other words, unity does not result from absorption of small cities by a larger one but evolves out of a similarity of indefinitely multiplied small entities. In a similar vein, even the Founding Fathers, though they needed power for the new American federation, never imagined giving up the diversity of the particular original states.
Nature has another way of showing the artificiality of an organized body of which nations would be the organs. For if man, by nature, tends to be a part of a community, that community has to have enough substance for any part that is played in it also to have substance. To be part of a whole that is not a whole is not to be a part at all. In other words, it is only natural that communities be as much as possible self-sufficient, autarchic. The general society of mankind is by nature made of smaller societies that can help one another but are not meant by nature to meld. That is why autarky was for centuries—until the rise of 17th-century mercantilism—supposed to be the virtue of well-run political bodies.
On the other hand, taking part in the whole of a community presupposes the latter’s unity, which means that the natural city obviously requires the different roles to be complementary. This has not much to do with Adam Smith’s vision of the division of labor. All sorts of work require coordination and cooperation. But work, if it is to be compatible with true social coherence, is by nature an activity profitable not only to one or several individuals but to the whole community. Big corporations that seek their own profit may give work and good salaries to lots of people, but they obviously go against the nature of a community when they become a community within a community, when their service to the community is subordinate to their own prosperity. At the same time, it is only a modern fantasy to promote work whatever it is: This deprives work of its dignity by making it only an unpleasant but inevitable way to earn some means not to work. In other words, the healthier a society is, the more its citizens fulfill some kind of real public service or office. Thus, traditional European societies were organized into corporations (guilds), and that did include, as well as craftsmen, men of arms and men in charge of the souls. I leave aside the question of who is selected to go where but would point out that there is a natural tendency to hereditary holding of lay positions, when there is some natural activity involved. One must observe that the number of functions required for the natural working of a society is therefore limited, which means limited to the basic requirements of material life, on one hand, and spiritual life, on the other. (It is doubtful that rap music is essential to the natural functioning of society, even if it is hugely profitable to its makers.) This is why a healthy society was often referred to as an organism (a body whose every part was instrumental to its survival).
Now one may ask how to assess which functions are necessary to a community and which are not. The answer lies with what has been said above. If it is man’s nature to be a social animal—i.e., to play a meaningful part in a society—that society must be understood somehow as an end in itself, which means having, whatever other end it may ascribe to itself, a primary goal of being as self-sufficient as possible. Any profession that is necessary to the self-sufficiency of a community is therefore necessary to that community.
Now this entails a consequence undoubtedly horrifying for the modern mind. Such a city has indeed to limit its own material expectations to what it can more or less provide by itself to its citizens. In other words, a natural society is a frugal society. It is no more natural to eat cherries in the winter than to enjoy gadgets that come from the Far East because that is where they can be produced cheaply. The citizen stands to lose whatever goods cannot be produced locally and, particularly, to give up whatever pleasures he may derive from artificial intercourse with more or less exotic providers. He will be offered fewer goods and will probably have to pay more for them. (It is an old wisdom that necessary things should not be too cheap: The physiocrats still remembered it in the middle of the 18th century.) The individual who feels endowed with a right to universal consumption will not be pleased. But the conservative might argue, as an aside, that he would rather pay a little more for savory local food than less for mass-produced fast food.
Let us remember that the conservative—life-conserving, health conscious—view of man is that of a creature endowed with a double nature, a sociable and an unsociable one, a life promoting one and a self-destructive one. Hence, it is logical for conservatives to advocate the natural necessity to combat the latter and encourage the former; to combat the individual’s tendency to consider himself as an end for the others; and to educate him—literally, to draw out into the open and turn into habit the individual’s propensity to play a role in the entity he inhabits. No man, unless he has lost his right to that qualification, can totally ignore what is natural to him. (Educating a man is not training a horse.) That inner core may be smothered by neglect or by folly, however. Talking is the privilege of man; but if a newborn were to live among animals, his ability to talk would wither away. (Such kids have been discovered here and there in the past—for instance, Victor de l’Aveyron, a child discovered in the Aveyron region of France in the 19th century. He was living like an animal, unable to speak at the approximate age of eight or ten.) Health is natural to man, but it takes a doctor to teach man what is bad for him. Thus, ever since the Greeks, at least in the Western world, all those who concern themselves with the health of political bodies have always considered it their paramount duty to teach the best ways (whether technical or moral) for an individual to take part in the general concert of things, which is to say, to inculcate him with a spirit of service (the reverse of the contemporary obsession with the self). For centuries, this task was supposed to be entrusted to men who had the time to learn the ways of nature: men of experience, of learning, knowledgeable about history, curious about what things are, able to take a disinterested look at the torrent of current events—all of which points to older men. Just think of what moderns condescendingly call primitive societies. They all had a common feature: respect for their wise men. their elders.
Now, are conservatives dreaming? Certainly, they are made to look like dreamers, if not dusty old fools hating youth and progress. But another thing is certain: Conservatism is all about what is natural and what is not. Conservatism is the voice of nature, pure and simple. Assuredly, men are free to go against nature. So either the idea of nature is hollow, and contemporaries stand to prove they can escape chaos—which is what mankind has unsuccessfully tried to do ever since the erection of the Tower of Babel—or conservatism is right and there is no man who can fail to hear the voice of nature, and then it is just a question of having enough people to dare to appear as dusty old fools and go about with their universal message. Unless, of course, the Western man has lived too long without education, and, like Victor de l’Aveyron, he is too old to learn, even though he is still young enough to run to his death.
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