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How to Be a Postmodern Conservative

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Conservatives can be (perhaps the only) genuinely postmodern thinkers because we see that modernity's attempt to transform human nature has failed.

This essay originally appeared in Fall 2002 issue of the Intercollegiate Review. It has been excerpted below. Read the full article here.

Astute thinkers from Hegel onward have claimed that we live at the end of the modern world. That does not mean the modern world is about to disappear: the world, in truth, is more modern than ever. So we must contest Hegel’s assertion that the modern world is the end, the fulfillment, of history. The longings of human beings have neither been satisfied nor have they disappeared. Modern strivings continue to be fueled by a progressively more restless and anxious human discontent. But if the modern world were to be succeeded by another—as it eventually will be—human beings would continue to be human, beings with souls or capabilities and longings not shared by, and higher, than those of other animals.

What has distinguished the modern world, above all, is a particular definition of what a human being is. That definition does not describe a real or complete human being. It was not even meant to be completely true, but mainly to be useful as a fiction in the pursuit of unprecedented freedom, justice, and prosperity. Modern thought has held that a human being is an individual, and the modern individual is an abstraction, an invention of the human mind. That individual is made more free from social and political constraints, and less directed toward duty and goodness by God and nature, than a real human being ever could be. The modern individual is distinguished from the political animals—the citizens, statesmen, and philosophers—described by the Greek and Roman philosophers, and from the social, familial creatures described by Christian theologians. The modern individual is liberated from the philosopher’s duty to know the truth about nature, from the citizen’s selfless devotion to his country, from the creature’s love and fear of God, and even from the loving responsibilities that are inseparable from family life. Conservatives today oppose liberal individualism both because its understanding of the human being is untrue and because that definition erodes all that is good about distinctively human existence.

The modern world has now ended only in the sense that we have now seen enough of it to judge it. Although we have reason to be grateful for the wealth, health, freedom, and power that modern achievements have given us, we know that the individual’s pursuits of security and happiness will remain always pursuits—and not possessions. So even as the modern world continues to develop, we can be free of its characteristic delusion, its utopianism. We can speak of its strengths and its limitations from a perspective “outside” modernity, and that perspective is the foundation of conservatism today. Conservatives can be (perhaps the only) genuinely postmodern thinkers. The reason we can see beyond the modern world is that its intention to transform human nature has failed. Its project of transforming the human person into the autonomous individual was and remains unrealistic; we can now see the limits of being an individual because we remain more than individuals. The world created by modern individuals to make themselves fully at home turns out to have made human beings less at home than ever.

Conservative thought today is authentic postmodernism, but it is, obviously, not postmodernism as it is usually understood. Most allegedly postmodern thought emphasizes the arbitrary character of all human authority, the freedom of each human being from all standards but his own will or creativity, and the death not only of God but of nature. These allegedly postmodern characteristics are really hypermodern; they aim to “deconstruct” as incoherent and so incredible any residual modern faith in reason or nature. They shout that everything modern—in fact, everything human—is nothing but a construction.

Postmodernists in the usual sense often do well in exposing liberal hypocrisy, but they can only do so in the name of completing the modern project of liberating the individual’s subjective or willful and whimsical perspective from all external constraints. Conservative postmodernism, by acknowledging and affirming as good what we can really know about our natural possibilities and limitations, is radically opposed to liberated postmodernism—and to the modern premises it radicalizes.

The driving intention of modern thought is not to understand nature or human nature, but to guide action to transform nature freely in accordance with human desire. According to the modern philosophers, we have very little reason to be grateful for what we have been given by God and nature. Nature, according to modern scientists, chooses for life, not death—but not for my life in particular. For life’s sake, nature intends each of us to be born, reproduce, raise our young, and quickly die. Both God and nature seem callously and cruelly indifferent to the lives of particular human individuals. So we individuals need to move as far as we can from the miserable life of poverty, contingency, and early death that nature intends for us.

Our lives, objectively speaking, are not really more contingent and doomed to death than those of the other animals. We have it better by nature, for example, than the bees and the ants, not to mention the fruit flies that live for only a few days. But the other animals are not conscious of, and so not animated by, awareness of their own deaths. We are human because we are the self-conscious animal. We are animals that restlessly and anxiously rebel against death. We are technological animals. We alone have the capability to resist with considerable success our natural fate: we will not go blindly to our deaths as so many bees and ants have done. We experience ourselves as free individuals, as (to some extent) ungoverned by instinct or the requirements of our social existence. We are, quite mysteriously, not only intelligent but free.

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Yet actual enjoyment or happiness is contrary to the modern individual’s view of his freedom. He is free because he can oppose himself to nature; the moment he gives way to some natural enjoyment he surrenders his freedom. His freedom is freedom from nature for nothing in particular, except not suffering or death. We can even say, with Tocqueville, that the individual perversely takes pride in his inability really to enjoy. The individual is a materialist insofar as he rejects all non-materialistic human goals as illusions, but his disparagement of real human enjoyment makes him an equally extreme anti-materialist. We might say that his single-minded pursuit of material goals while being conscious of that pursuit’s futility is undeniable evidence that he has a soul. No other animal could be so perversely screwed up, and Tocqueville was subtle or Christian enough to see the greatness in such human misery.

Contemporary “therapeutic” thought invites the modern individual to surrender his soul or his obsessions in the name of immediate enjoyment. Experts advise him to give up his singular freedom and become just one of the animals again. All he has to do is not be moved by what he knows to be true, by what he really knows about his own death and the nature that is out to kill him. The goal of therapy is to engender what Allan Bloom calls flatness of soul, a disposition to be unmoved by love or death and so to be no longer open to the truth. The therapists have mainly won linguistic victories: Americans speak in their easygoing and amoral language more than ever before. Those victories are impressive enough that experts such as Bloom and the sociologist James Davison Hunter mistake what people say today for what they actually experience. It takes postmodern conservative outsiders like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (and Mother Teresa of Calcutta) to both notice and have the courage to say that Americans are more lonely and death-obsessed than ever before. Like Tocqueville, what Solzhenitsyn hears just beneath the surface in the lives of free, restless, enlightened, and prosperous Americans is the “howl” of existentialism.

People are more screwed up than ever, as the philosophical novelist Walker Percy said, because they have been deprived of the language to express the longings of a real human being. But they are also now screwed up because they have lost even the language of the individual. The modern individual, although abstracted from and so less than a real human being, is more than the being described by the therapeutic experts. Therapeutic language is particularly alienating because it is two steps removed from corresponding to the longings of a real human being. The modern individual is moved by death but not by love; the entirely imaginary therapeutic being is moved by neither. But the truth is that, whatever they say, human beings remain moved by both. The alleged therapeutic solution to the misery of individuality actually exaggerates the problem—and we should notice that most, though not all, contemporary “communitarianism” is therapeutic in intention. Our therapists actually produce pathetic human beings who can neither be good nor feel good. People today know they need help because, as the lapidary Canadian thinker George Grant observed, they know they have been deprived of something—but they usually get no help in figuring out what.

We live at the end of the modern world because we now see the consequences of the modern reduction of the real human being to an individual. What began as a fiction to limit government has redefined more and more of human life. If human beings really believe they are merely individuals, they perversely work to empty human life of the contents that make it worth living. A life defined only by avoiding death and misery is, in fact, supremely miserable. So, today, our sophisticated individuals sometimes spend their time envying the other animals—at least they’re content. But the individual really knows that the dog’s life is not for him. The individual wrongly believes that his choice is between subhuman contentment and human unhappiness, and in his freedom he sometimes talks nostalgically about the former—the “simple life”—but still consistently chooses the latter.

Not only are Americans more individualistic than ever, the biotechnological revolution promises to give them new weapons of unprecedented power in their war against nature. The victories they win—like most of the victories won on behalf of the modern individual—will probably be at the expense of the distinctively human goods: love, family, friends, country, virtue, art, spiritual life, and, most generally, living responsibly in light of what we really know about what we have been given. The biotechnological revolution will be driven by individualistic obsession, and we can limit and direct it only if we can recover the truth that we are more than individuals.

Postmodernism rightly understood begins with the realization that we should, in fact, be grateful for what we have been given. We have been given not only self-conscious mortality and a mysterious freedom to negate nature, but all sorts of natural compensations for our distinctively human misery. Love is not an illusion, and we have been fitted by nature to know the truth. Both love of each other and love of the truth depend, as far as we can tell, on the inevitability of death. As far as we can tell, self-consciousness—with all the virtues and distinctively human enjoyments it makes possible—depends on our having corruptible bodies. The fact that despite all that nature has given us we remain somewhat alienated might reasonably be seen as evidence that our true home lies elsewhere, and that it is in our nature to long for a personal God. As Saint Thomas Aquinas said, what we know through revelation completes—but does not contradict—what we know through reason. Even if we are, for now, not ready to be grateful for the gift of faith, we can still reasonably believe that our homelessness is a price worth paying for all that we can know, love, and do in our lives. Because we can be ambiguously at home, or at home with our homelessness, we can abandon the modern obsession with making ourselves fully at home in this world.

It is no longer enough for Americans to be abstracted modern individuals most of the time and full human creatures only in fleeting private moments. All of our institutions must be consistently understood in light of what we really know about human nature. We have religious liberty because human beings, by nature, really are open to God, and because what we really know about nature points to the real possibility that we are created. We have political liberty because we are more than citizens, but that liberty is compatible with political responsibility because we are, among other things, citizens. Because human freedom and human responsibilities make possible and necessary both virtue and spiritual life, we can live well with death. The beginning of the postmodern world is the replacement of the individual by the whole human being, and the using of our natural capabilities for thought and action to make the world worthy of him. This is not to say that any particular changes to our form of government are now necessary. Our constitutionalism might actually be better defended from the perspective of the created human being than that of the abstract individual—as Orestes Brownson in the nineteenth century and Robert Kraynak and Carey McWilliams very recently have explained. Postmodern conservatism is quite compatible with liberal or limited and democratic government, and it certainly has a higher view than does liberal individualism of the capacity of the ordinary person to choose truth and virtue over security and comfort.

Conservatives today rightly attack so-called postmodernists for their attacks on truth, science, virtue, and God. But those attacks on our ability to perceive the truth and goodness of nature and human nature are actually modern in origin. The promiscuously ironic professor of philosophy Richard Rorty once described himself as a postmodernist bourgeois liberal. That particular self-description turns out to be neither irony nor an oxymoron. Postmodernism as it is usually understood, Rorty appreciates, does not really offer any challenge at all to modern or liberal individualism. Because we conservatives aim to conserve the full truth about human and natural reality, we have no interest in conserving the modern error of mistaking the abstract individual for the real human being.

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