Magazine June 2, 2014, Issue

The Tory Imagination

(Roman Genn)
Reflections on the limits of Whiggery

Earlier this spring I was trying to write an article about Francis Bacon, a chief architect of our modern prosperities, when I went into New York to hear Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Bach’s hero is a philosopher who said that man cannot live by bread alone; Bacon ordained a revolution that has enabled us to make — an inconceivable number of different kinds of bread.

I don’t know whose version of truth was keener, but certainly in New York on that spring afternoon Bacon’s influence was more palpable. Bacon preached the virtues of the inductive method, which, by disclosing “all that is most hidden and secret in the world,” would “endow the life of man with infinite commodities.” And he was right: The revolution he foresaw, after it was given practical effect by the Whig thinkers and statesmen of a later age, has so far transformed our material life that when asked for forecasts of what is to be, we can but repeat Bacon’s own words — that the “knowledge which we now possess will not teach a man even what to wish.”

If I sought Bacon’s monument, I had only to look about me as I rode the subway up from Grand Central. One straphanger was indeed reading a newspaper, but most of my fellow passengers were busily fingering devices that, though undreamt of a decade or two ago, offered them instant initiation into quantities of knowledge vastly greater than that in all the libraries in the world in Bacon’s time — or might have done, if apps like Flappy Bird and Bridge Baron didn’t get in the way.

Bacon practically invented our modern Whig world of progress and commodity, yet he saw that the new empire of inductive truth would have vexations of its own. Truth, he wrote, “is a naked and open day-light, that doth not shew the masques and mummeries and triumphs of the world, half so stately and daintily as candle-lights.” It “may perhaps come to the price of a pearl, that sheweth best by day, but it will not rise to the price of a diamond or carbuncle, that sheweth best in varied lights.”

I got off the subway and walked up Lexington Avenue to St. Jean Baptiste, where in the April sunshine black-stoled choristers were going into the church, exchanging the “naked and open day-light” Bacon identified with truth for the shadow and candlelight he associated with the pleasures and deceptions of the imagination:

A mixture of a Lie doth ever add pleasure. Doth any man doubt that if there were taken out of men’s minds vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like, but it would leave the minds of a number of men poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?

Bacon, for all his genius, never rose to Edmund Burke’s apprehension that the imagination, if it is often a source of delusion, is also sometimes an agent of truth. Burke argued that our imaginative perceptions, when consecrated by experience and tradition, give us access to truths that would otherwise be hidden from us. In what must be the most famous sentence in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, he deplored the dethronement of the imagination by the “new conquering empire of light”:

All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded, as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.

Surely if ever writer risked oxymoron, Burke did when he brought the words “moral” and “imagination” together in a single phrase. Imagination (the conjuring in the mind of something not present to the senses) would seem on the face of it remote from the practical work of devising mores (manners, morals, habits of living) suitable to the realities of everyday life. If anything, we indulge the imagination when we would play truant from real life, and amuse or console ourselves with what is unreal.

Burke, to the contrary, argued that it is precisely because of its fantastic qualities that the imagination is essential in any humane effort to regulate real life, for it alone can cover the demoralizing truth of “our naked, shivering nature.” A deception, to be sure, this imaginative act of clothing our nudities — but a deception Burke believed necessary if we were to grasp what was for him the higher truth that man is something more than a chance concatenation of atoms.

Had Burke been an obscurantist, his defense of the imagination would carry little weight. He was, in fact, a progressive Whig, one who happily chucked notions like the medieval “just price” that empirical data had rendered untenable. But if he valued the practical results of the Baconian revolution, he insisted that inductive knowledge was not the only road to truth, much as another eminently modern man, the physicist Max Planck, was later to do. Having “devoted his whole life to the most clear-headed science, to the study of matter,” Planck concluded that science “cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.”

In my own mental shorthand, I think of this apprehension of truth by means of the imagination as the Tory way. I do not mean, by Tory, the English conservative impulse narrowly construed, but the broader instinct that led John Ruskin to profess himself “a violent Tory of the old school; — Walter Scott’s school, that is to say, and Homer’s.” This is the Toryism that habitually cherishes old usages not simply on account of their utility, their antiquity, or their beauty, but because they are hedged with images and symbols that so enchant our imaginations that we take them to be avatars of a high and venerable, though always mysterious, wisdom.

#page#The mind of the Tory is essentially figurative; he begins with the proposition that any profound feeling for which we have found an exact verbal equivalent is dead already in our hearts. Our deepest experience, the Tory believes, lies beyond the literal reality to which our commonplace language refers. True, the Tory cannot forgo the use of words when he invokes these inarticulable aspects of his being; but precisely because he is trying to describe a spiritual reality that is not present to the senses, he resorts to metaphors and symbols to convey the truth of the experience.

Try to render a fragment of the old Tory knowing into a modern Whig dialect and you get a sense of what separates the two. Here is the language of that old knower, the Psalmist, courtesy of King James:

I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert. I watch, and am as a sparrow alone upon the house top . . . .

Translated into a Whig-materialist idiom, the passage would read something like this:

I am sad and lonely because ten million years of natural selection produced these traits in me in order that my species might better compete with rival organisms. On the other hand, there are some new pills coming on the market that promise to mitigate my despair 🙂

The Psalmist uses figurative language to convey a truth of his spiritual life. The Whig uses matter-of-fact language to dismiss the spiritual experience by reducing it to a problem of matter: It is for him merely an artifact of evolution, or an anomaly in the neurochemistry of the brain.

The fault line between the two ways of knowing, if it has split the larger civilization, runs, too, through the heart of English letters, which in the last few hundred years has been divided not, as Cyril Connolly maintained in Enemies of Promise, between the style of the “Mandarins” and that of the “Realists,” but between the Toryism of the old knowers and the matter-of-fact writing of the new Whigs. Hobbes, Locke, Gibbon, Jefferson, Bentham, Hazlitt, Macaulay, Strachey, and Orwell are, to greater and lesser degrees, Whiggish, and repudiate the old knowing as a mass of archaic nonsense. Sir Thomas Browne, Dr. Johnson, Burke, De Quincey, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Carlyle, Newman, and T. S. Eliot are Tory old knowers, enchanted by what Walter Pater called “the unconscious mysticism” of the English language.

The style of the Tories is touched with Gothic shadow; Whig prose (there is no Whig poetry) knows only the common light of day. As Burke is the master thoughtsman of the one camp, so Hobbes is of the other. Hobbes, who believed matter alone to be real, could never have accepted Burke’s notion of a moral imagination; indeed he classified all such language as “insignificant speech,” congeries of words that, having no correlatives in the material world, are “but insignificant sounds.”

We cannot reason of these things; destiny or genetics — take your pick — has predisposed you to one side or the other. But it is remarkable that very few of us are consistently faithful to our chosen side. In every Whig there is what the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon called “a Delphian priestess who sees visions” signaling to be let out. Marx himself smuggled an ersatz God into his equations and adored it as the Dialectic. Bacon indulged, in his writing, a voluptuousness of imagery that would seem to belong rather to the Tory imaginations of the poet than to the soberer vision of a Whig prosemaster. “Suspicions amongst thoughts,” he says in the Essays, “are like bats amongst birds, they ever fly by twilight.” This is not a commonsense way of putting the matter; Bacon is thinking here with his imagination, like a Tory.

In the same way, every Tory has his Whiggish moods. New York never fails to bring out the skeptical materialist in me. Walking the streets of the East Seventies on the evening of my recent visit, I found myself unable to summon the Tory wisdom I had been preaching in the solitude of my mind. In the emporium of commodity, Hobbes trumped Burke; matter alone was real. All else was vapor and “insignificant speech.”

A little before eight o’clock I went into St. Jean Baptiste for the performance. Rows of votive candles gave off the light Bacon said lent the poetry of the imagination a specious credibility. The candles, on closer inspection, proved to be electric, a concession, doubtless, to the insurance company, happily doing nothing to detract from the effect. St. Jean Baptiste is a beautiful church, formed in the style of antique classicism, with touches of baroque. As I took in the Corinthian capitals, with their stylized acanthus leaves, and raised my eyes to the hieratic designs of the vault, I thought of the challenge the old artisans confronted when they attempted to pour the spiritual truths of the old knowing into the material molds of a concrete art. Tasked with giving their vision a worldly form without diminishing its otherworldly power, they emulated the strange connections and abrupt transitions we find in dreams, which enchant us precisely because their logic is so different from that of our waking life.

#page# “Everything in a Greek or Christian building originally signified something,” Nietzsche said, “and indeed something of a higher order of things: This feeling of inexhaustible significance lay about the building like a magical veil.” By a figurative leap, the acanthus leaves of the Corinthian capital were associated, in primeval Greece, with Apollo’s power of regeneration; later, under Christianity, they became a symbol of eternal life. The transmutations and metamorphoses in the old myths and fairy tales have the same structural affinity with the artistry of dreams: They speak to us in what the French scholar Emile Mâle called a “veritably hieroglyphic” language that brings to life, figuratively and imaginatively, the drama of our spiritual existence.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, an exemplar of Cartesian lucidity, could yet wonder whether modern man had not made a mistake in dismissing so much of this heritage as superstitious folly. “But are they really superstitions?” he asked in Tristes Tropiques. “I see these preferences rather as denoting a kind of wisdom which savage races practiced spontaneously and the rejection of which, by the modern world, is the real madness.” It is another way of saying, as Whittaker Chambers did, that man without mysticism is a monster.

The performance began. No sooner did the maestro, Harold Rosenbaum, raise his baton and the choir sing out “Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen” (Come, daughters, help me lament) than I was delivered from my skeptical funk. Here were not candlelit mummeries: The soprano recitative that ends with the words “so liebt er sie bis an das Ende” (just so He loves them to the end) was as true as anything in Euclid or Newton. At the very least, it passed Coleridge’s Tory test of truth: It embodied a truth of our nature, and answered some need or desire of that nature.

When the singers came to the solemn chorale, “Was mein Gott will . . .” (What my God wills always occurs, / His will is the best), I thought of how, during his negotiations with Stalin at the Tehran Conference, Churchill startled his interlocutor by invoking “God’s will.” “God is on your side?” Stalin asked incredulously. “Is He a Conservative? The Devil’s on my side, he’s a good Communist.” Stalin’s position was that of Dr. Johnson, who said that “the first Whig was the Devil.” I think Stalin and Johnson wrong in this; the Whig revolt, which overthrew Tory tyranny by appealing to empirical facts, has been, on the whole, a good thing. But the tables are now turned; if in the past the Tory had a virtual monopoly of the truth, today it is the Whig who has cornered the market and is eager to eliminate such vestiges of competition as remain.

This is not a healthy state of affairs. Even were it proved (as it never can be) that the Tory imagination is a delusion, the vice of Whiggery would still be . . . complacency. Bacon believed that his inductive revolution would prepare the way for a “partial returning of mankind to the state it lived in before the fall.” Winwood Reade, in his Whig tract The Martyrdom of Man, prophesied the coming of a Pelagian paradise in which man will “repress the base instincts and propensities” he has “inherited from the animals below” and “obey the laws that are written on his heart.” The same smug conceit can be found in all our current rhetorics that preach salvation through science or, still more comically, politics.

If, under the Whig dispensation, we suffer less deeply than our forebears did, we live more shallowly. Once we thought ourselves “but little lower than the angels.” Man was a creature crawling between heaven and earth, who, if he descended to abysses — was, in the words of the Book of Job, a “brother to dragons” — lived in the hope that he might eventually reach the heights; everything he saw was shown him for a reason.

Now that the Tory imagination has become, for most practical purposes, as unbelievable as the grimoires of the magicians, man finds himself reduced to a caprice of nature, another beast in the unweeded garden. You observe in him a flattening of soul like the flattening of personality — the numbing of the life-spirit — detectable in those who, to escape the succubae that prey upon them, take medications that reduce them to a uniform mediocrity of temper, a dead level of tranquilizing inanity. It is the tragedy of Whig progress that, if it comforts the body, it dulls the soul — issues in a sedation of spirit that leaves so many of us unable to apprehend the divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.

Mr. Beran, a contributing editor of City Journal, is the author of, among other books, Forge of Empires, 1861–1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made.

Michael Knox Beran — Mr. Beran, a lawyer, is the author of Forge of Empires: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made, 1861–1871, among other books.

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