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Conservatism and the Cultural Roots of Ordered Liberty

Summer/Fall 2009 - Vol. 51, Nos. 3 - 4

A recent Modern Age introduction (Summer 2008) emphasized "The Range and Originality of Conservative Reflection," and the introduction to this double issue might do so as well. Instead, it will focus on the contribution made by the varied pieces brought together here towards an apprehension of the principle of ordered liberty. Conservatives of every attitude and inclination value freedom of thought and action as the mark and privilege of rational human beings, but liberty only has meaning when it is experienced and lived by an ordered soul in an ordered society. Unless it is guided by prudence and justice and moderated by temperance, liberty becomes mere license, and a polity in which licentious men and women predominate will eventually descend into anarchy, the breeding ground of tyrants. It is crucial, therefore, that we continually recall the cultural roots of this authentic liberty in the mind and heart. Political arrangements, however wise, cannot produce virtuous men and women, but personal vice, sooner or later, will undermine any polity. In their diverse ways, all the authors in this issue provide a means for considering the cultivation of spirit that makes liberty worth having and preserving.

Nothing is more crucial to our regard for personal freedom than our understanding of human nature and the human condition. In "Between Realities: Dawkins vs. Voegelin," Meins Coetsier applies the insights of one of conservatism's seminal twentieth-century thinkers to a perniciously reductive but widely and respectfully received account of mankind's origin and destiny. Coetsier maintains that Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, one of the chief polemics of an increasingly powerful "global atheism," depends upon ignoring what Voegelin terms the "flow of presence"— the experienced spiritual reality that permeates and transforms the world of meter readings and mathematical formulae, a world that only exists in terms of abstraction and mechanistic reduction that serve the convenience of human analysis and manipulation. When we see ourselves, however, as no more than a sum of such analytic elements, then we are neither worthy nor even capable of real liberty.

Improvement of the status of impoverished nations is a reasonable concern for the United States, since peoples living in truly degraded physical conditions are impeded from developing the various social and spiritual goods—including liberty—necessary for human dignity and flourishing. Seth Kaplan observes that "failed states" pose a threat to our security as well as a challenge to our consciences, but he maintains that genuine, lasting development can only come by respecting and enhancing the social and religious traditions of the communities that we seek to succor. A conservative way of development, he argues, will be better received and more effective than the efforts of bureaucratic internationalists to remake every society in the image of Western liberal democracies.

In "Back to the Shire," Arthur Hunt makes use of J. R. R. Tolkien's magnificent fable of "Middle Earth," unfolded in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, to question the prospects of our "developed" Western society, which has neglected its own moral and religious traditions and degraded the integrity of its communities for the sake of material prosperity. Professor Hunt provides a fine example of the value of a powerful literary representation in furnishing a basis for reflection on our deepest needs and most persistent aspirations as human beings and the extent to which they are met by our economic and political arrangements. Fiction, then, can sometimes focus our attention and sharpen our insight more efficaciously than an array of facts.

Hence the justification—should justification be required—for the extensive attention to modern fiction in this issue in essays that explore acute dramatizations of the superficiality and fragility of the civilization that stands between us and barbaric violence. Concentrating on the arresting story, "A Good Man is Hard to Find," T. W. Hendricks highlights Flannery O'Connor's preoccupation with the "Spoiled Prophet," a figure that embodies her vision of how a degraded culture distorts religious inspiration without wholly erasing it. Thomas Bertonneau and Jeffrey Folks both unpack V. S. Naipaul's subtle treatment of the threat that barbarism poses to civilization at the turn of the twenty-first century. The latter two essays are especially timely, since a recent authorized, but exceedingly unflattering, biography of Naipaul (Patrick French, The World Is What It Is, 2008) has called the value of his fiction into question for some readers. Reviewing the biography in The Weekly Standard (17 November 2008), Joseph Bottum laments that "we can no longer read . . . [his novels] the way we used to," that "his semi-autobiographical stories . . . are now ruined for us." Fortunately, Professors Bertonneau and Folks can still read Naipaul's fiction (and journalism) on its own terms and thus highlight the importance of distinguishing the art from the artist.

The two final articles in this issue deal with the fate of literature in the hands of practitioners of postmodern theory, and confront precisely the relationship between the author and his work. Hugh Mercer Curtler, in "Political Correctness and the Attack on Great Literature," defends Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness from Chinua Achebe's notorious tirade accusing the novella and novelist of racism. Professor Curtler shows, first, that Mr. Achebe confuses Conrad with his fictitious narrator Marlow, and, second, that even if either the one or the other could plausibly be denounced as a racist (and neither can), this would not diminish the virtue of Heart of Darkness as a vivid portrayal of the imperialist enterprise and, in effect, a withering critique of racism. My own essay on the criticism of Stephen Greenblatt is the third in a series that began, before I assumed the editorship of Modern Age, with a discussion of Stanley Fish (Summer 2003) and Harold Bloom (Winter 2005) and will continue as the occasion arises. Professor Curtler attacks a polemical critical method that reads imaginative works in ploddingly literal terms and identifies each utterance with the settled opinion of the author; I challenge a view that submerges both work and writer in the ideological matrix of the writer's society and obliterates the distinction between literature and other forms of writing.

Two of our reviews mark centenaries. John Vella's review-essay of a new biography of Henry VIII assesses with some dismay the five-hundredth anniversary of the accession of that monarch to the throne of England, while R. J. Stove finds more reasons to rejoice in the bicentenary of the birth of Felix Mendelssohn than in that of Charles Darwin, who has captured most of the attention. Other reviews take up a collection of verse by David Middleton, the poetry editor of Modern Age, a book about the influence of fascism among important Southern writers, and a new defense of moral absolutes.

The poetry in this issue by William Baer and Robert Wakefield contributes to cultural renewal in a fundamental way by enriching the depth and texture of our imaginative world. In the "Commentary" section, Paul Gottfried pays tribute to a stalwart of German conservatism, and David Kubiak recalls a meeting with a man who played a small but important role in the fashioning of one of the twentieth century's most luminous novels, Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. Harold Acton could be taken for an altogether frivolous individual, but this would be to miss his significance. He was not an heroic figure, to be sure, but, as Professor Kubiak points out, he succeeded not only in conserving but also in sharing those goods that Providence had placed in his care. In other words, he "tended his garden," figuratively as well as literally.

In closing, I advert once more to the urgency of restoring our cultural roots. The political and economic conditions of our country and its current standing among the nations of the world are assuredly causes for alarm, and we expect our governmental leaders to provide answers to these problems. It seems clear, however, that what is required is a program of austerity and retrenchment, so we must ask ourselves how probable it is that a populace such as ours will elect men and women with the wisdom and fortitude to propose and implement the necessary changes. After all, the irresponsibility and profligacy of recent governments is merely a reflection of a people among whom large numbers fill their minds and imaginations with entertainment that ranges from trivial to depraved, and who run up massive credit card debt and purchase lavish homes and extravagant vehicles with no real prospect of paying for them. The cultural and moral reconstruction needed to reverse our slide into decadence will be arduous and slow. This issue of Modern Age is offered as admonition but also encouragement and, indeed, solace to those laboring in this weed-infested vineyard.

—R. V. Young