Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Heard on the Front Porch: The Romance of Conservatism

I like to check in at the Front Porch Republic from time to time. Ted V. McAllister recently posted The Romance of Conservatism, the transcript of a paper delivered at a conference focusing on Russell Kirk. He speaks eloquently of a number of things--romanticism, mystery, liberty, imagination and abstraction—with Chesterton and Kirk as his touchstones. I found it all to be exquisitely done. I highly recommend the post, as well as the comments. A few selections, below:

G. K. Chesterton declared that faith is romantic, that materialism is not only dull but produces a boredom that leads to madness. Humans are born romantics and they can never fulfill their better natures without cultivating an imagination that accepts and embraces mystery....we need this life of practical romance: the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure. We need to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable.

Conservatives reject—more properly, they fear—simplifications. Simplifications are usually a result of isolating something, tearing that something from the whole of which it is a part. Simplification is a form of abstraction....The romantic rejects the middle as he demands all extremes—he demands the extremes as they were meant to be, bound together.

The lust for complete freedom produces nihilism. But choice, in the context of order, is liberty....any liberty that is not ordered liberty is just another word for slavery.

Spiritual slavery, which includes being enslaved to one’s most base desires, to be addicted to the satisfaction of easily attained earthly things, is a result of boredom. Boredom is the final and most enervating human disease. It can produce ideological madness, expressed in efforts to remake the world, to deify humans as the authors of their own reality, or it can result in an intense privatism, an indifference to all things public, to all beings outside of one’s pinched world.

A romantic is never bored
[emphasis mine], for he occupies a world full of mystery and surprise, a reality understood in complex forms, in traditions, in liturgies, in myths, in complex social fabrics that bind humans together in community and that bind communities together across time. To inhabit such a reality is to see in all simple things the wonder of the universe, to see patterns, to feel connections, to relish in the particular, because in the particular one witnesses, but does not possess, the universal.

A liberty...emerged in a particular historical context to address particular human needs. Liberties were always part of duties, obligations, and even more important, expectations. Liberties that emerge from a long experience, from habits and cultural forms, are part of a much larger moral economy that is reasonably suited to a people. Liberties, understood this way, are not abstract, not disconnected, not due people as a result of some abstract human dignity. They are particular expressions of a particular people.

By contrast, Freedom is a universalist claim, a claim about the human understood abstractly rather than historically. Freedom leads to imperialism—a la George Bush. Freedom is simple, clear—it is a moral slogan that substitutes for the moral imagination.

Because abstract reason is disconnected from imagination, it does not understand beauty. Efficiency, of one sort or another, becomes its master. The drive to simplify is part of this desire for the most efficient means of organizing our lives. Defending equality simply or freedom simply is much easier to do than to talk of ordered liberty or of spiritual equality. The tyranny of efficiency means that the human goods found in our aesthetic nature, our spiritual need for beauty, are sacrificed.

In other words, a bland and efficient architecture atrophies the very imagination that helps people to find their ancestors, to think ahead to posterity and to recognize their moral obligations before a creator.

I particularly noted McAllister's assertion that a "romantic is never bored." A number of years ago, I realized that about myself--that I never recall being bored. As a child, I never had (or expected) to be entertained. As an adult, I could be stuck in a deadly-dull seminar, but my mind would be elsewhere. I am seldom more than an arm's reach away from something to read. Yesterday, my job required that I drive 120 miles into a largely unfamiliar part of the state to me--a region noted for being flat, plain and not at all scenic. And yet, I found it to be a fascinating drive. I made innumerable stops or detours to have a better look at a house, a barn, a field, or to check out a small town. I used to think it odd that I never complained of being bored. Now I know--I'm guess I am just a romantic.


Steve Hayes said...

And yet G.K. Chesterton was a Liberal: "as much as I ever did, more than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism; yet there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals".

Milton T. Burton said...

"The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected." --- G.K. Chesterton