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Conservatism and the Challenge of the “Modern Age”

Spring 2008 - Vol. 50, No. 2

This issue of Modern Age begins with anintense focus on the concept of place,which is a crucial element in any truly conservativeconsideration of the moral and culturalwellbeing of society. Mark Malvasireflects upon the enduring enigma of theAmerican South. Conservatives especiallyare bound to come to terms with the equivocallegacy of the South, which more than anyother region of our country embodies devotionto a particular land and the distinctivecustoms and preoccupations of its people.The exemplary value of this adherence totradition is qualified for many modern observers,however, by the South's clinging toits "peculiar institution" of slavery and thesegregation of the freed slaves and their descendantsfor several generations after theCivil War. Professor Malvasi highlights thetension between the conservative preferencefor local cultures with their distinctive traditionsand mores and the demands of universalmoral imperatives that may seem to transcendtraditional practices and prejudices of particularcommunities. This is a vexing issue forconservatives for whom both the preservationof stable, traditional societies and theacknowledgment of the moral absolutes ofnatural law are priorities. The South providesa compelling test case for a consideration ofefforts to resolve this dilemma.

F. Roger Devlin approaches the problemof the preservation of local tradition in theface of progressive efforts of reform from adifferent angle and on a different continent.Adalbert Stifter (1805–1868) is hardly knownat all in English-speaking countries, but he isregarded as a classic of German prose style.Association with the Biedermeier tendency inGerman literature of the earlier nineteenthcentury has diminished Stifter's reputationbecause this literary approach is treated as theantithesis of the romantic idealism of the"Young Germany" movement, whichexplicity opposed the authoritarian regimesof Austria and Prussia between 1815 and1848. As Dr. Devlin points out, however, thedichotomy between the "progressive" Romanticsand the "reactionary" Biedermeierauthors is misconceived from the start. Thelatter figures did not oppose the vociferouspolitical commitments of the Romantics bysupporting the represssive governments establishedby the Congress of Vienna; theysimply ignored politics and concentrated onthe perennial themes of human life that operatebeyond the sphere of politics. Stifter'snovels and stories thus embody the paradoxthat what is truly of universal and unchangingsignificance may be found in the daily lives ofordinary men and women.

The essays by Professor Malvasi and Dr.Devlin thus provide concrete examples forthe issue debated by Adam K. Webb and hisinterlocutors in our "Cosmopolis" symposium.In "Taking Back the Cosmopolis," Dr.Webb challenges conservatives to afford lessattention to what is local and particular and toconfront liberals on their own ground. Liberals,he maintains, have without oppositionoccupied the territory of sophisticated cosmopolitanismand claim exclusively the rôleof mediating among the competing traditionsof the world's various local communities,thrown into dangerous proximity, both physicaland virtual, by technological revolutionsin transportation and communication. In orderto join this battle on equal terms, Dr. Webbargues, conservatives must make forays out oftheir bastions of local tradition by recoveringthe thought of cosmopolitan conservativeswho are respectful of the customs of particularcommunities, while transcending theirlimitations. Professors Tracy Rowland, R.R. Reno, and Mark Shiffman offer diversecritiques of Professor Webb's proposal—allfocused on the crucial point of what constitutesand makes possible human flourishing.

Another challenge to conservatives, withsimilar implications, is offered by PeterHodgson. In the first of four articles on theenergy crisis to appear in successive issues ofModern Age, Professor Hodgson, an eminentphysicist, reminds us that our conservativeprinciples—our commitment to the preservationof ordered liberty, cultural tradition,and natural beauty—must take into accountthe practical problems that threaten thesegoods. In the course of four articles, he willoffer his assessment of the severity of the crisisand the effectiveness of several proposedsolutions.

Like the articles that precede it in thisissue, Professor Hodgson's may well provecontroversial. It is, however, the goal ofModern Age to provide a forum for sharplycontrasting views—maintained with reasonableness,clarity, and civility. Conservatism isnot an ideological template with a set ofprescribed answers to every question; it furnishesinstead, in Russell Kirk's fine phrase, apolitics of prudence, which requires serious andsober reflection on specific problems as theyarise. Vigorous debate among men and womenwho share the conservative vision is undoubtedlythe best means of discovering the mostprudent course of action in each situation.

Our final major essay will, however, notprove at all controversial: Joseph Amato offersan appreciation of his mentor StephenTonsor as a scholar and as a key contributorto the rise of conservatism in the latter half ofthe twentieth century. Nothing is more naturalto conservatives than the acknowledgmentof the part played by the example ofresponsible, virtuous teachers in the formationof a new generation. We are pleased topresent this fine tribute to a longstandingstalwart of conservatism and associate editorof Modern Age.

Equally uncontroversial will be the selectionof poems in this issue. It is a mingling ofwork by well-established figures and emergenttalents. This is a mix that we hope tomaintain. The support of contemporary poetryof high quality and traditional vision is acritical aspect of the conservative culturalmission.

The books reviewed in this issue cover awide spectrum: European and American history,international relations, religion, Southernliterature, and music. The final piece, atranslation of an interview with René Girardfrom the Italian journal Foglio adds anotherdimension to our offerings. Girard is wellknown among postmodern academic theoristsand is a formidable figure on the internationalintellectual scene. This interview isanother indication of the affinity of originaland profound thinkers for the conservativeperspective.

We must close on a sad note: while thisissue was in press, we received the news of thedeath of Mark Royden Winchell, the authorof the lead review. A later issue of Modern Agewill offer a more substantial commemoration;let it suffice for now to say that hecombined a graceful style with careful scholarship,and he is already sorely missed at thisjournal. We extend our deepest sympathiesto his family and friends.

R. V. Young