Magazine June 22, 2020, Issue

The Conservative Intellectual Tradition: Recovering Old Wisdom

The full moon rises above the Statue of Liberty, Jersey City, N.J., May 7, 2020. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
American Conservatism: Reclaiming an Intellectual Tradition, edited by Andrew J. Bacevich (Library of America, 663 pp., $29.95)

Conservatism forms a vigorous intellectual tradition in the United States, rich, diverse, yet eminently recognizable. The editor of this welcome if idiosyncratic anthology, Andrew J. Bacevich, is right to characterize American conservatism as more an “ethos or a disposition” than a “fixed ideology.” In fact, the most penetrating conservative thinkers have always insisted on conservatism as an antidote to ideology. By “ideology” they have meant a systematic disregard for the unchanging features of human nature, a propensity to reckless utopianism and draconian social engineering, and a misplaced confidence that scientific and technological progress always and everywhere entails moral progress.

Bacevich is more an opinionated guide than a sure and equitable one. This former high-ranking military officer, professor, and public intellectual identifies conservatism too much with localism and anti-modernism, and he confuses prudence in foreign policy with a rather ideological anti-militarism. Bacevich denies that there is anything conservative about the current president of the United States or conservative figures in the mass media, especially those associated with Fox News. But surely their defense of American patriotism and American borders, support for constitutionalist judges, and opposition to political correctness and “woke” culture have something to do with conservatism, even if they reveal its rough edges. Bacevich is right that one does not want Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, or Sean Hannity to show up in an anthology on the American conservative intellectual tradition. But it is unjust to identify the existing conservative political movement almost exclusively with “meanness, bigotry, and retrograde attitudes,” as he does.

Bacevich also fulminates against neoconservatives, identifying them solely with the war party of the early 2000s. But that is to accept the most superficial categories and labels of the mass media. Earlier neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol and Jeane Kirkpatrick, thinkers and actors of some stature, never supported naïve and ideologically charged crusades in behalf of global democracy. Kristol, for example, wrote in The National Interest upon the conclusion of the Cold War that NATO had admirably served its purposes during a long civilizational emergency and that it might be wise to disband it in our new historical situation. Kristol père’s views on foreign policy were not remotely those of Bill Kristol or the once fantastically militaristic Max Boot.

The original neoconservatives were not sanguine about muscular Wilsonianism or attempts to bring democracy to political cultures where its crucial prerequisites were largely absent. Bacevich acknowledges no such distinctions. He says that neoconservatives have no legitimate place in a volume such as his. Yet he ends up including a lovely essay by Irving Kristol from the early 1970s that draws on Tocqueville and the spirit of classical political philosophy. Kristol’s lyrical essay points out that “capitalism” ultimately depends on a morally serious bourgeois order that has little or nothing to do with an indiscriminately “free society” that recognizes no shared public distinctions between good and evil, the noble and the base. The so-called godfather of neoconservatism was a conservative in the best sense of the term. His was a politics of prudence that could still speak of moral, intellectual, and spiritual elevation.

Bacevich includes a range of thinkers who are only incidentally conservative but who nonetheless ought to be of sympathetic interest to intellectually minded conservatives. Some of these choices work well: A beautiful selection by the African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston splendidly conveys the spirit of a free black woman who refuses to be held back by the legacy of slavery or by a permanent paternalistic relegation to the camp of victimhood. Reading Hurston, one witnesses a vibrant soul who would never succumb to the tyranny of identity politics. There is certainly nobility and grace in Wendell Berry’s paeans to localism, as well as an artful prose that lifts the spirit. Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1952 book The Irony of American History conveys the spirit of Christian realism in a way that perhaps owes more to sober conservative wisdom than to anything “progressive” in orientation. But Walter Lippmann is represented by a selection from 1920 in which he is still recognizably, even obviously, progressive. Why not include a selection from his The Public Philosophy (1955), a judicious defense of popularized natural law, inspired by Saint Thomas Aquinas and Edmund Burke, against Jacobin- or Bolshevik-style “totalitarian democracy”? That would have been a much better fit.

And why include Charles Beard in an anthology of American conservative thought? His Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913) reduces the American Founding to a crude economic determinism, one decisively refuted by scholars such as Forrest McDonald and Martin Diamond. Such para-Marxism as Beard’s, in which the Founders are said to have defended narrow economic interests rather than reasoned as prudent and humane designers of a new political order, is hardly conservative. Bacevich’s selection from Beard is on foreign policy, but it is no better: In an excerpt from his 1939 book Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels, Beard inveighs against calls for the United States to intervene in the struggle against Hitler’s lupine imperialism. But a Nazified Europe would surely have brought with it what Winston Churchill called in his “Finest Hour” speech of June 18, 1940, “the abyss of a new Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.” Why this preference for Beard’s nonchalance toward the totalitarian threat, his militant anti-militarism, rather than for great conservatives such as Churchill and de Gaulle, who appreciated that liberal and Christian civilization must be forthrightly defended against both Brown and Red totalitarianism?

Still, there are excellent foreign-policy counter-selections, including works by Niebuhr and James Burnham, and the eloquent and prophetic speech that President Ronald Reagan delivered to the British Parliament on June 8, 1982. Inspired by the Solidarity movement in Poland, Reagan held out hope that free men and women could leave behind the “terrible inhumanities” produced by totalitarianism, “the great purge, Auschwitz and Dachau, the Gulag, and Cambodia.”

In his introduction to the anthology, Bacevich accurately and eloquently defines those features that hold the best conservative thought together: a “commitment to individual liberty” paired with a sense of self-restraint; a belief in limited government, fiscal responsibility, and the rule of law; a suspicion of social engineering and abstract schemes to “discard or tamper with traditional social arrangements”; support for the market economy informed by humane values and virtues; and a “deep suspicion of utopian promises” along with a palpable sense of “humankind’s recurring susceptibility to hubris.” Guided by these criteria, Bacevich often chooses his selections quite well indeed.

One that stands out is a striking 1930 essay by Irving Babbitt, “What I Believe: Rousseau and Religion.” Babbitt, a professor of French at Harvard University and a classical humanist of some fame, represented a high-minded intellectual sensibility that has nearly disappeared from the contemporary world. Not exactly a religious man, he nonetheless saw no real substitute for those two guiding lights of Western civilization highlighted by Burke: “the spirit of a gentleman” and “the spirit of religion.” Without the elevation and restraint made possible by gentlemen, and men of faith and self-control, civilization gives way to a humanitarian sensibility profoundly indebted to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and an accompanying utilitarian spirit whose prophet par excellence was the 17th-century English philosopher-statesman Francis Bacon. Babbitt acknowledges that Rousseau was a subtle thinker who would undoubtedly have had serious reservations about the vulgate created in his name. But it was Rousseau who insisted, as early as 1749, that “man is naturally good and that it is by institutions alone that men become wicked.”

When this forthright denial of the existence of evil in the human soul is paired with a crude substitution of the “kingdom of man for the traditional Kingdom of God,” of technology for soulcraft, one has all the materials for the subversion of classical and Judeo-Christian wisdom. A thoughtful and adamant opponent of what he called “the utilitarian-sentimental” movement and sensibility, Babbitt defended self-restraint and “poised and proportionate living” according to the “law of measure.” Babbitt is a thinker worth seriously reconsidering in an age when authentic humanism has given way to humanitarian sentimentality, and when the very idea of the “law of measure,” of an “inner check” guided by civilized values and virtues, is all but a distant memory. And he was surely right that authentic humanism and traditional religion stand or fall with “the will to refrain.”

The intellectual heavy hitters associated with National Review are well represented in this volume. Right at the beginning, the reader confronts Russell Kirk’s humane defense of prudence, the statesman’s virtue par excellence, and political principles rooted in “a knowledge of human nature and of the past.” For the Burkean Kirk, principles are diametrically opposed to abstractions or a priori notions that run roughshod over practical reason and human experience. Kirk emphasized the roots of American liberty in the common law and the broader inheritance of Western civilization. For him, the enemy was always ideology, the effort to impose inhuman abstractions on lived experience and the common sense of a free people. Kirk saw no real affinities between authentic American republicanism and “totalitarian democracy” of the Jacobin sort, which owed so much to the fanaticism of the radical Enlightenment.

Fitting selections from William F. Buckley Jr. and Whittaker Chambers are also included in this anthology. Chambers’s “Letter to My Children,” the opening section of his great 1952 memoir Witness, beautifully evokes the existential choice that modern man must make between human self-sovereignty, or self-deification, and deference to the sovereignty of the living God. No conservative or true ex-Communist, and Chambers was both if anyone was, can accept the Communist “vision of man without God.” To reject Communism, to truly reject it, is to recover the truth of the soul. For Chambers, the soul had its own logic, its own needs, its own integrity. The Communist who heard screams emanating from the secret-police torture chambers in Moscow in the 1930s broke with Communism because its logic of history and class consciousness could no longer efface the truth and needs of his soul. Chambers famously remarked that political freedom finally depends on “interior freedom,” on the soul as the defining mark of human dignity. For Chambers, political freedom is in the end “only a political reading of the Bible,” as he tells us near the beginning of Witness. Like the great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn a generation after him, Chambers rejected a false humanism, an anthropocentric humanism, that warred on man even as it showed contempt for the divine ground of human existence. To reject totalitarian mendacity is to vindicate both God and man.

In his charming 1963 essay “Notes toward an Empirical Definition of Conservatism,” Buckley credits Chambers with driving Ayn Rand and her Objectivist followers out of the conservative movement. Chambers saw a different kind of godlessness at work in Rand and her followers: a “materialism of technocracy” and limitless self-assertion, a contempt for charity and kindness toward the weak and vulnerable. Most strikingly, Buckley speaks of Rand’s “hard, schematic, implacable, unyielding dogmatism that is itself intrinsically objectionable, whether it comes from the mouth of Ehrenburg [a liberal but ultimately loyal Soviet writer], or Savonarola, or Ayn Rand.” Perfectly said. Buckley makes clear that the conservative need not be a religious believer. But active disdain for the religious sensibility, or the intimations of transcendence and the natural moral law available to human beings, are hardly compatible with a conservatism whose tenets certainly include an acute recognition that “man is not God.” Atheistic dogmatism, or what the 19th-century American Catholic man of letters Orestes Brownson called “political atheism,” has no place in conservatism, rightly understood.

Today, it is fashionable for young Catholic traditionalists and integralists (with their inebriated hopes for a quasi-religious commonwealth in the United States to replace the noble constitution of 1787) to mock fusionism as a dishonorable concession to what they see as the debilitating moral relativism of libertarianism. But Frank Meyer, a long-time NR editor and the most serious theorist attempting to “fuse” conservatism and classical liberalism, made very clear in a 1965 essay on the subject, included in this volume, that virtue is the proper end of human beings in the moral realm. He wisely distinguished between authoritarianism, in which willful men and institutions “suppress the freedom of man,” and the genuine “authority of God and truth.” Meyer’s fusionism was not a halfway house to a moral abyss, even if its historical moment may have passed. It perhaps went too far in accommodating the libertarian dream of an ultra-minimal state as opposed to the Founders’ vision of a limited but robust government, but it was never blind to the specter of moral nihilism haunting the West.

One passage in this nearly 650-page anthology struck me particularly. In an excerpt from his magisterial 1960 book We Hold These Truths, Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., a defender of American religious liberty and perhaps the most eloquent analyst of the natural-law foundations of America, imagined a time in the not-too-distant future when elites would repudiate the universal moral law, reject eternal divine reason as the source of all nonarbitrary law, and mock and reject the great proposition, both American and Catholic, that true liberty, and true authority, is always under God. If that were to occur, and there was much evidence that this assault on the old truths was well advanced by 1960, Father Murray concluded, “the Catholic community would still be speaking in the ethical and political idiom familiar to them as it was familiar to their fathers, both the Fathers of the Church and the Fathers of the American Republic.”

Not for a minute did Murray confuse the moral foundations of the American Republic, or the American proposition, with the moral anarchy that mistakes itself for liberty. But his noble example has been rejected by too many on the left and the right. In the Church that Murray loved, integralists now mock the Catholic conservatism of the past, while humanitarian Catholic progressives turn a blind eye to leftist secular tyrannies and the subversion of the natural moral law. The center, the prudent conservative center upholding liberty under God and the law, has not held. Thinkers such as Murray and Willmoore Kendall, who is also well represented in this volume, beautifully reflected on the “moral consensus” that allowed a free people to also be a decent and virtuous one. This reflection remains as relevant as ever.

Whatever its limits, this capacious anthology brings old wisdom of a broadly conservative cast to new generations transformed by the cultural and intellectual revolutions of the past 60 years. For that, we are all in Andrew Bacevich’s debt.

This article appears as “The Conservative Ethos” in the June 22, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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Daniel J. MahoneyMr. Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass. He is the author, most recently, of The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity

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