There is nothing irrational about accepting the moral, political, and cultural traditions that have been handed down to us as part of the conditions of life in the European-American world. Many of these traditions—washing before eating, respecting parents, working for a living—have been tried and tested for thousands of years, while the opposite—bad hygiene, filial disobedience, and welfare dependency–seem, after only a generation or two of experimentation, doomed to failure.
Some traditions, as Walter Burkert observed, go back to the Stone Age; others derive from our cultural ancestors, the Greeks and Romans; still others come from the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. Others are the gift of our mostly barbarian ancestors.
Much of our culture, while hearkening back to antiquity, has more recently taken on new forms. Classical music, representational oil painting, familiar literary forms like the novel and the sonnet, and the rational enquiries of science, are among the great products of the past five or six centuries. Palaeoconservatives, while neither deaf nor blind to the possibly great art being produced in our own time, respect the art and literature handed down to us from our ancestors, partly because we have learned to recognize their greatness and partly because we know that in every generation the greatest human accomplishments are an extension of an age-old tradition. If we reject the genius of Aristotle or the wisdom of Shakespeare or the beauty of Haydn, we are showing contempt for our ancestors. These aesthetic revolutionaries who put Homer and Vergil on the same level as Mayan pictographs (or even lower) are violating the principle that underlies the commandment to honor our father and mother.
“But,” some progressive usually objects, “all the old precepts, forms, and styles have been rendered obsolete by…” You can fill in the blank with any word used to preface “Revolution”: The Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, the Scientific Revolution, the Sexual Revolution, the Computer Revolution, and now the genetic revolution.” My friend George Gilder once actually opined that the computer chip had enabled humanity to transcend the limitations of human nature. Today we are just as likely to hear that the iPhone or Twitter had done even more.
Nietzsche, I think in Zarathustra, saw a great deal of this before it happened, and he observed that if a lame man mounted a horse and rode to the top of a mountain, would still, once he dismounted, limp. All these liberating revolutions have the effect of enslaving us to the revolutionary state or the revolutionary technology. We think, because we can look things up on Wikipedia, that we actually know something, when in fact we do not even know how to find anything out. Just see how empowered the modern proletariat is, when the electricity fails at Best Buy or the Apple Store. You cannot buy anything, because they cannot add up the bill, much less figure tax without a computerized cash register. Knowledge consists of what you have in your head when the lights go out or you are on a desert island, in the woods, or lying at death’s door in a hospital bed.
When I cannot sleep, I go over irregular verbs in Italian or Serbian or ancient Greek, and, when that trick fails, I run over the Roman emperors. I sometimes recite longish poems, like Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” or Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” or the beginning of the Iliad. Entering old age, I am going back to the poets. I fear my children and grandchildren will have nothing but jingles and claptrap to alleviate the insomnia some of them will have inherited from me.
Surface are always changing, almost always for the worse, but the deep structures of human nature stay the same. As big-brained apes, we still long for life in a small tribe or village, still long to be admired, loved or feared, by or fellow, still crave the material immortality of our descendants, still seek satisfaction in mastering a skill. Because there is so little outlet for our natural impulses, we settle for the third-best alternatives offered by commercial culture. Instead of acquiring technical skill in making and throwing spears, we become a whizz at video games or spend money on watching strangers throw a football. Instead of going to the fire to hear the village story teller or singer recount the deeds of our ancestors, we the History Channel or, worse, attend the annual professional storytellers festival where people play pretend at belonging to a traditional culture. Instead of finding a mate and begetting children and grandchildren who will honor us, we try to score as many orgasms with strangers as we can, and if we go have children, we content ourselves with a trip to Disney World or Two Flags Over Fuquay.
Circumstances change, but the realities of human life do not. It is Marxists, not conservatives, who believe that human nature is a function of circumstances that man is free to change. Progress is at the center of the revolutionary creed, while the very word “conservative” suggests resistance to change and skepticism of the whole idea of progress. The arch-conservative Metternich once said that a reactionary is reluctant to change the year of his calendar, but after several centuries of dogged conservative rejection of progress, the mystical theory of ceaseless change and infinite perfectibility is now one of the few beliefs shared by people who call themselves conservatives.
Even incorrigible optimists should have understood that American conservatism had been replaced by an evil double, when every movement hack began to enthuse over Robert Pinkerton’s “new paradigm,” which was only the old paradigm of democratic socialism with an overlay of the even older gush about opportunity.
One inevitable consequence of this is that in embracing progress and liberation, conservatives almost must adopt the progressive frame of mind in which life consists of problems crying out for solutions. Solutions always mean more government programs, and government programs inevitably mean a cancerous growth of political power that eats away at the authority of natural and legitimate institutions of kinship and community.
The bitter truth is that for most so-called human problems—immorality, unhappiness, selfishness—the only solution is the common fate of mankind, namely death. One of James Burnham’s wisest insights is that if there is no solution, there is no problem. The poor, we are assured by the highest authority, was shall always have with us, but we shall also always have adulterers and cuckolds, conmen and dupes, masters and slaves. Equip the slave with an iPad, a Facebook account, and a government make-work job teaching school or minding other people’s business, and he is still a slave, only a less happy slave.
In liberating humanity from the need work and in striking off the shackles of tradition, the revolutionary left has so degraded men and women that there is no community or body of traditional institutions where they can find refuge. For some number of people able and willing to make the effort, there is a long and hard (albeit enjoyable) road out of the ghetto, and that is to embrace the life of the mind, whether as a profession or as an alternative to the servile entertainments of the mass media. We need to distinguish, however, the essential food and drink of our Western traditions from the exotic fare of alien traditions.
Some palaeoconservative intellectuals are scientists; others are experts in Asian or Middle Eastern literary and intellectual traditions; but all understand the primacy that must be accorded the artistic, literary, and intellectual traditions of the European Christian West. Far from deriding or denigrating other great traditions, we salute them, as we ought to, and if we have time and curiosity we may devote our lives to studying them. We understand, however, that the basic need of a humane education, from the age of five to the age of 21, is not to acquire a lot of quaint and curious lore about other cultures, but to be instructed in the fundamentals of our own civilization. That is why we emphasize the necessity of a classical education and the study of the Christian religion.
If the term “conservative” means anything, that meaning must include a sense of humility about one’s own generation and a respect for the accumulated wisdom of dozens of generations. Conservatives are fond of quoting the proverb that we are dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants. It is usually attributed to Sir Isaac Newton, who for all his genius and eccentricities, knew how much he owed to the past, but Newton was himself quoting John of Salisbury, a Medieval philosopher who explicitly claims to have got it from the twelfth century Platonist, Bernard of Chartres. Progressives, by contrast, are so myopic that, when they look down at the giants on whom they rest, see only a confused blur which they mistake for a jumbled troop of dwarfs.