Music of the Week: Beethoven — Symphony #7
A Note On the Culture Wars

Sunday Night Journal — September 7, 2008

Arguing Conservatism

The ISI (Intercollegiate Studies Institute) put me on its list for review copies of their books a while back, and I haven’t held up my end. I haven’t mentioned them here very often, or written any reviews at all for the local paper, because I haven’t had time to read most of them. But a really fascinating one showed up the other day, and I can discuss it without having read much of it: it’s called Arguing Conservatism (Mark C. Henrie, ed.) and is a huge (over 950 pages) anthology of material from the Intercollegiate Review, one of the ISI’s periodicals.

The collection gets off to a great start with a 1968 piece by Will Herberg: “What Is the Moral Crisis of Our Time?”

The moral crisis of our time cannot, it seems to me, be identified merely with the widespread violation of accepted moral standards, for which our time is held to be notorious. There has never been any lack of that at any time…. No—the moral crisis of our time goes deeper, and is much more difficult to define and account for. Briefly, I should say that the moral crisis of our time consists primarily not in the widespread violation of accepted moral standards….but in the repudiation of those very moral standards themselves.

Exactly. I like this point because it’s one I often make. I’ve always seen a lot of wisdom in the somewhat cynical observation that “hypocrisy is the tribute vice plays to virtue.” Hypocrisy is a bad thing, of course. But there’s a tendency these days, a very widespread tendency, to make it the absolute worst crime of all, as if it were worse to do wrong and be ashamed than to do wrong and not be ashamed.

The repudiation of traditional moral standards noted by Herberg does not mean, as might be feared, the disappearance of morals, because we naturally and inevitably think and behave in moral terms. What it does mean is the emergence of new standards, and we get some sense of the change in the intriguing  final piece in the book: “The Fifty Worst (and Best) Books of the Century” (that would be the 20th century, of course—and by the way they limited themselves, for practical reasons, to non-fiction published in English).

There’s something endearingly emblematic of conservative pessimism in the relative emphases of “Worst” and “Best” in that title. Each list of fifty begins with a top five, the worst of the worst and best of the best. The five worst are:

Margaret Mead, Coming of Age in Samoa
Beatrice and Sydney Webb, Soviet Communism: A New Civilization?
Alfred Kinsey, et. al., Sexual Behavior in the Human Male
Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man
John Dewey, Democracy and Education

You can see in these titles the outlines of an approach to moral thinking which is now very common among a large and amorphous but clearly recognizable segment of Americans and Europeans, an approach resting on the principle that the individual has an unlimited license to pleasure, and it is the job of the state to secure that license. The Communism of the Webbs is only outdated because it didn’t do a  good job of providing material welfare; the underlying presumption that ultimate responsibility lies with the state, not the individual, is still very much with us. In the United States it’s less the state than a vague they which encompasses the welfare state, the national security state, and corporate capitalism. The source of most of what goes wrong in the world is seen as a social, not an individual matter; the individual is passive, mostly acted upon rather than acting. They did it, and they must fix it.

The five best books are:

Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams
C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man
Whittaker Chambers, Witness
T.S. Eliot, Selected Essays, 1917-1932
Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History

I note immediately that none of these is a direct response or counter-argument to the five worst, with perhaps the exception of Witness, the work of a one-time Communist. Rather, they speak to the underlying cultural and philosophical movements which produced the bad books. And this is as it should be for a conservative argument which begins with Russell Kirk’s “permanent things.” One of those permanent things is human nature, and it’s on that level that the five good books do constitute a response to the five bad books: they are concerned with the question “What is a human being?” and with correcting the false answer to that question given by the Marxists and hedonists—in other words, by materialists.

Kirk is of course represented in this book, along with many other names on the more philosophical, religious, and culturally-oriented side of conservatism, people who are not necessarily Christian (though many are) but who, at a minimum, have a deep respect for the Western spiritual tradition: Richard Weaver, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Thomas Molnar, Frederick D. Wilhelmsen, Louise Cowan, and a great many more. Perhaps I should describe them rather as being on the conservative side of  philosophy, religion, and culture—conservatives in some sense, but not necessarily part of the ideological and political right wing. This is a distinction which seems ever more important, as the country’s political dialogue sinks further into unreasoning reaction of left and right against each other, one long scream of “he hit me first.”

Of the ten books named here, I’ve read only two, Lewis and Eliot, and I certainly concur with their inclusion. I’ve had a copy of Witness on my bookshelf for over twenty years; perhaps the time has come to give it a go. I’d really like to read the rest of them—the fifty best, at least, if not the fifty worst—but am too busy. I think it’s past time for them to provide me with an income so that I can spend more of my time reading and writing. And playing my guitar. And drinking.

By the way, the ISI has a really fine online journal called First Principles.

Update: Craig Burrell kindly provides a link to the full list.



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)