Postmodern Conservative

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.

Postmodern Conservatism — Between Absolutism and Skepticism


— Or: Postmodern Conservatism and the Question of Foundations, Continued

Can reason discover and articulate moral and political foundations? Or, to put the question another way, are there foundations in nature for moral and political order? Can natural law or natural right guide and ground our most far-reaching and consequential moral and political deliberations? 

Let us first briefly consider the implications of a negative response to such questions. If reason has no access to natural principles on the basis of which to guide us, then where does that leave us? There seem to be two options: History and God.

History can appear in various political guises: revolutionary, progressive, conservative, and even libertarian. It can be seen as (1) carrying us toward some cataclysmic dawning of a new age, as (2) gradually evolving toward ever more equal freedom and free equality, as (3) passing down to us the wisdom of the past (experienced but never fully articulate), or as (4) working through a “spontaneous order” to direct individual interests toward ever-increasing prosperity for all. (I invite the reader to consider which of these four options can be — and have been — embraced in some combination.) But however “History” is understood, it operates as an idol that does not answer but only suppresses our questions; it points to or begs for some ground of justification beyond itself — either God or Nature (and therefore reason). Hegel’s mad and fantastic ambition to ground History in itself is the only serious candidate for an exception to this critique: He proposed a kind of absorption of nature into a synthesis of God and Man — Man become God. Such a relentless, exhaustive attempt to gain access to a principle that is at once historical (produced by human action) and grounded in ultimate or Divine reality commands a certain respect. Progressives especially should respect it and study it, because, although they do not know it, the coherence of their project would depend on Hegel’s — for how can they claim to know that change is good, that it is “progress,” unless they also claim, like Hegel, to stand at the end of History, in possession of the Final Truth? In any case: If Hegel, in insisting on identifying God with Human History, was from the beginning on a fool’s errand, then this deepest and most coherent attempt to make History a standard was indeed mad and fantastic.

And so we are left with two serious options: God and Reason. If God is real (as I believe He is), and is our Creator — that is, the Creator of Nature and of our natures — then God Himself has left us to some degree dependent on our own reason, on our capacity to know, to understand, to deliberate, to reason together concerning the best way to live and the best community. Thus, what Leo Strauss said with somewhat impious emphasis seems to me in principle valid for believers, or at least for Christians: “Man cannot abandon the question of the good society, . . . he cannot free himself from the responsibility for answering it by deferring to History or to any other power different from his own reason” (“What Is Political Philosophy?”).

My postmodern conservatism (I invite others to speak for themselves on this point) is thus a form of rationalism — in a chastened, circumspect, postmodern sense. It recognizes the insuperable responsibility of reason for moral and political insight, but it thoroughly rejects the modern pretension, the pretension of morally blind modern “rationalism,” to found a new society and a new world on the rejection of traditional and religious moral limits and the promise of technology. To repeat: Postmodern conservatism (as I understand it) rejects the technological foundations of modern “rationalism” (in Descartes, Hobbes, and, yes, Locke, for example), but it does not — it cannot —reject the responsibility of reason.

 The obvious alternative to modern, technological rationalism would seem to be classical political rationalism as understood by Leo Strauss. This invites a very long (and to me very interesting) discussion, but here I will say only this: Strauss’s defense of classical natural right in anchored finally in the self-sufficient goodness of the philosophic life, in the zetetic (“seeking”) life of relentless questioning, and in the philosopher’s sense of superiority to those ordinary mortals whose horizon is defined by moral beliefs, and by hopes and fears, that reason cannot validate. This Straussian boast of philosophic autonomy serves a noble purpose in countering the technological project of modern “reason,” but it is not finally sustainable. Postmodern conservatism questions the adequacy of the life of pure questioning. Even in Plato’s Socrates’ Apology we can see that the goodness of questioning depends on some goodness that is implicitly held beyond question, and that has something to do with the moral horizon of the city. “I do know,” Socrates says (letting down his zetetic guard, at least for a moment), “that injustice and disobedience to a better, whether God or man, is evil and dishonorable.”

Postmodern conservatism appeals neither to the foundations of modern rationalism (a technological view of nature) nor to those of classical rationalism (the autonomy and superiority of the pure philosophic life). So in this sense it is skeptical of foundationalisms, which justifies the somewhat playful and retro name “postmodern.” At the same time, it recognizes the responsibility of reason and so cannot concede the adequacy of appeals to History, including Tradition. In this sense postmodern conservatism is neither Absolutist (dogmatic) nor relativist-historicist (skeptical); let us say it has a certain confidence in reason, or, in particular, in politics as reasoning together, but it does not claim to appeal beyond such reasoning to some finished system of reason, either modern or classical.

For example (and this is obviously not just any example): The question of the meaning of marriage (for me a vital question that may decide our fate as a civilization — and it’s not looking good) cannot be (1) disposed of by a blind faith in egalitarian-libertarian “Progress,” but nor can it be (2) answered definitively by an appeal to some universally demonstrable “natural law.” Yet reason must guide us, including a reasonable respect for our religious and moral traditions and the social and personal goods these traditions have supported. But finally our arguments and deliberations must come to terms, beyond appeals to traditions and to scripture, with these goods themselves — that is, with our actual, natural experience of these goods (and not just, notably, with social-scientific evidence of benefits to “society”). And a dimension of such postmodern conservative reasoning, moreover, would be founded on reason’s own awareness of the goods conserved by opinions guarded by tradition and scripture. 

All this has been necessarily very general and abstract, in order to survey a big and deep topic as briefly as possible. I assume the reader is hungry for a more developed example, and I am eager to oblige. So I propose in the near future to illustrate postmodern conservatism more fully through a consideration of the marriage question.

Meanwhile, I invite questions and objections, particularly (but not only) from my fellow Pomocons.

Tags: Reason , Natural Law , Leo Strauss , Rationalism , Socrates , History , Hegel


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