3. Reason, Sentiment, and Tradition

Skeptical of propaganda and the sentimentalism of human rights and progress, palaeoconservatives might be attacked for their cold-blooded rationality.  Instead, they are more typically criticized for their supposedly romantic attachment to tradition and for their rejection of the “science” of politics preached by the highly unscientific followers of Leo Strauss and other foreign-born political gurus.


Following the insights of profound political thinkers from Aristotle to Michael Oakshott, we distinguish between subjects that are the proper subject of entirely rational analysis, e.g., mathematics, logic, physics, astronomy, and most of the natural sciences, and subjects that involve the complexities of the human person and the vagaries of the human will, such as art, literature, ethics, and politics.  In the latter case, reason is constrained to work on material that is neither abstract nor entirely subject to rational analysis.

In this vein, I have written several times of “irrational rationality,” the attempt that has been made (since Descartes and the thinkers of the Enlightenment) to reduce the organic and complicated affairs of human life down to the level of universal rules and to a “moral algebra” in which all persons (P) are required to behave toward all other persons (P…..) according to formulas x, y, and z, without any consideration of the relationship that holds between the two persons.  I wish I were making this nonsense up, but the concept of moral algebra can be found in Leibniz and Locke and worked out in absurd detail in the works of the otherwise sensible Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson, but the granddaddy of this style of thinking is René Descartes.

There is nothing authentically rational about reducing the variables of human existence to simplistic formulas that are as scientific as phrenology or the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard.  It is highly irrational to pretend that I owe the same duties to my wife as I owe to my children and still more irrational to pretend that what I owe to my family I owe to families in China.  Families matter, and so do communities, nations, ethnicities, religions, and cultural traditions.  To sort out one’s duties to all these is not a simple task, and to pretend that it is only dampens our willingness to take care of our own family or defend the interests of our country.

But that pretense is at the heart of all liberal political thinking, and in this important respect, there is no significant difference between classical liberals—whom we now think of as conservative—and Marxists.  Human nature being what it is, not all liberals and leftists have been completely insane.  One can learn a great deal from philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, from Hutcheson, Thomas Reid, and Adam Smith—but it is important to keep an eye out, because liberals like Smith (especially in The Theory of Moral Sentiments) start from entirely false premises.  Talking about practical things, such liberals often have useful things to say, but you should never trust them not to slip some dangerous nonsense into their argument.  They are like talented cooks who like to slip in a little arsenic for flavoring.

What philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment sometimes referred to as moral sentiments are part of the outfit of toolkit we use in everyday life.  No one can think his way, rationally, through every conflict of duty or interest.  We have to rely on natural impulses and affections—the desire for food and sex, a man’s reaction to defend himself–and the lessons we learned at our mother’s knee, from Sunday School, and from our mentors.     Those who wish to change the conditions human life and launch revolutions against human nature, describe these lessons as irrational prejudices, but it is by means of such prejudices, such as not playing with a loaded gun or walking backward into the street while talking on a cell phone or sticking pins into an electrical socket, that parents teach their children to stay alive until they can begin to think rationally—if they ever do.

If a tradition goes back far enough, it is generally likely to be more or less true.  Steve Goldberg once wrote a good essay in Chronicles, arguing that ethnic stereotypes were statistically accurate.  Speaking of his own background, he said many gentiles regard Jews as pushy, while Jews tend to think of themselves more as merely enterprising, but whichever word we prefer, the phenomenon is the same.  Of course, not all Jews are enterprising—some are as lazy and unambitious as I am—but the stereotype, which was arrived at after centuries, even millennia of experience, is a good basis for predicting future behavior.

Some traditions that we accept without reflection are of fairly recent, though they are taught as revealed wisdom in school.  This is, more or less, the whole body of liberal thought:  Human beings are basically good; men are all the same everywhere and racial and ethnic differences are trivial, though (paradoxically) there are many cultures where marriage does not exist and female chastity is not admired much less enforced; religion encourages ignorance, bigotry, and violence; the Western traditions of male dominance, free enterprise, and personal responsibility are inherently and uniquely evil.

Where it turns out such “traditional” lessons are wrong or immoral, as is the case of much of what we have been taught in school, we can, of course, correct the mistakes by turning both to higher authorities (the Bible, the great classics of our literature) and to our own observation of human life.  No matter how many times Marxists might try to convince us that private property, monogamy, and the family are evil inventions of patriarchal males, we can look around the world and see that they are wrong.  No matter how many times that Libertarians tell us we are all free individuals, we can look at real human beings and conclude they are more likely to be slaves.

No single human being can find out everything important on his own.  Even in matters of science, we take most of what we think we know on faith.  We think, for example, that we know that the spheroid earth goes around the sun, but, prisoners of older traditions, we continue, doggedly, to say that the sun rises in the East, and we often refer to the four corners of the world.  This is harmless enough, because as valuable as the advances in science and mathematics have been, they affect our lives only indirectly through science and technology.  When I was headmaster of a private school, I used to ask the teachers questions like this:  If one and a half bottles of wine contain 38 ounces, how many ounces are in a body of wine?  Left with pencil and paper for 10 minutes, they could gradually figure it out, but they had forgotten the simple formula they had been taught in sixth grade:  If 3/2= 38, then 1=2/3 of 38.  An Alexandrian shopkeeper 200 years ago could do the math more rapidly than most educated Americans.

We are forever saying things like, “according to scientists…,” because in fact, rather few of us would know how to go about proving that our world is a globular planet of roughly 25,000 miles in circumference, though we are taught to laugh at the churchmen who told Columbus that he could never reach China before running out of food and water, because the earth is too big.  Churchmen had to be wrong because they accepted an ancient scientific tradition (going back to Eratosthenes) as true, while Columbus had to be right because in the liberal legend, he was a bold individualist who challenged authority.

We typically take things as Darwinian evolution, the Big Bang and the expanding universe, and the structure—or even the existence–of DNA on faith.  They are handed down by a tradition that goes back, sometimes only to a generation ago but sometimes all the way back to the ancient world, as in the case of Eratosthenes’ brilliant calculation of the earth’s circumference.  According to some scientists, by the way, a majority of the medical studies cited in the press are bogus.  It is better not to read anything than to read an AP article on a study of the dangers—or benefits—of drinking coffee.

But if science depends on the acceptance of tradition, then how much more do we depend on the traditions of our culture to tell us our moral and social responsibilities.  A brilliant man might devote his life to moral philosophy without contributing one sound or irrefutable idea that people can use in their daily lives.  The obscure terminology and improbable theories of academic philosophers do not constitute an advance in human wisdom, and if we were tempted to believe they did, we have only to look at the miserable lives led by so many academic philosophers.  But even when a brilliant moral philosopher makes a break-through, he is only building on a far greater tradition of wisdom handed down by his predecessors……