July 31, 2008


Conservative Critics of Modernity: Can They Turn Back the Clock? (Robert P. Kraynak, Fall 2001, First Principles)

It is not easy to be a conservative in the modern world. In fact, it takes a high degree of moral courage, for conservatives are almost always on the defensive, fighting for causes that seem hopeless or lost because they go against the most powerful currents of the modern age.

In praising the courage of conservatives, I am referring primarily to cultural rather than to economic or political conservatives. The proponents of free-market capitalism and limited government that are today called conservatives (in the economic and political sense) actually enjoy a certain momentum in their favor so they need not think of themselves as defenders of lost causes. But cultural conservatives are different. They are die-hard adherents of religious, philosophical, and artistic traditions that are out of place in the modern world. They are like dinosaurs who inexplicably missed the mass extinction sixty-five million years ago. As creatures from another era, cultural conservatives were not made for modern civilization and do not fit into the universe of respectable opinion. This gives them the distinction of being the last genuine radicals, and usually makes them the most interesting figures in today’s intellectual circles. To these wonderful pre-historic creatures, I would like to offer some words of encouragement by sketching a broad picture of modern culture that indicates why History is not as overpowering as it sometimes seems to be and why, in the long run, traditional patterns of culture are favored by the natural order of things and even by divine providence.

Let me begin with a simple definition: Cultural conservatives are those daring thinkers who are willing to question the basic assumption of historical progress—the assumption that the modern world as it has developed over the last four hundred years in the West (and now around the globe) is superior in decisive respects to all the civilizations of the past. This question has been raised by many great cultural conservatives and answered in a variety of provocative ways.

One striking example is the Russian writer and former dissident, Alexander Solzhenitsyn; he is a cultural conservative who shocked his audience during the Harvard Commencement Address of 1978 by asking if Western civilization took a wrong turn at the time of the Renaissance when it replaced God-centered societies with Man-centered societies, producing a world of secular humanism that now appears to be spiritually exhausted. Another great thinker who could be classified as a cultural conservative is Leo Strauss whose scholarly writings are dedicated to reviving classical Greek philosophy as a genuine alternative to modern philosophy—a proposal that implies no real progress in philosophy has occurred since its peak 2,400 years ago.

Other cultural conservatives look to the Middle Ages as the high point of Western civilization: For example, Henry Adams, who preferred Gothic cathedrals dedicated to the Virgin Mary to the dynamo of the industrial revolution. Or traditional Catholics, who think that Latin Scholasticism is the peak of Christendom. Or Eastern Orthodox believers, who believe that monasticism and the centuries-old liturgy are the authentic sources of Christian spirituality. Orthodox Jews are also cultural conservatives because they believe that traditional Judaism, faithful to the divinely revealed Mosaic Law, is superior to Reform Judaism. And one should not forget America’s Southern Agrarians, including Richard Weaver, who held fast to the conviction that the Old South, despite the evil of slavery, represented a higher civilization than the more “progressive” industrial and commercial society of the North.

Reflecting on these examples, one may infer that cultural conservatives are driven by a profound dissatisfaction with the modern world and look to the pre-modern world for sources of inspiration, especially for models of lost greatness. The root of their dissatisfaction is the belief that modernity does not constitute unmixed “progress” over the past because the advances in freedom, material prosperity, and technology that we presently enjoy are offset by a decline in the highest aspirations of the human soul—in the aspirations for heroic virtue, spiritual perfection, philosophical truth, and artistic beauty. Seen in this light, modernity is not superior to past civilizations because it has ushered in an un-heroic age. It has sacrificed the highest achievements of culture for a more equitable and secure but more prosaic existence that, in the last analysis, is not justified because it has lowered the overall aim of life and debased the human spirit. [...]

To illustrate the way cultural conservatives might challenge the present order and recover enduring patterns of human nature, I would like to speculate about four idols of the modern age—democracy, women’s “liberation,” modern art, and modern science. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I doubt that these phenomena are as inevitable or as desirable as most people have been led to believe by the dogma of historical progress.

Heck, three of the icons have already been clast, but while Europe demonstrates the reason monarchical republics are preferable to democracies, we're not going to win that one.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at July 31, 2008 12:16 PM

Like all Americans, I'm a conformist, so I'm happy to be a victim. On the other hand, anyone who thinks that this isn't a conservative age is smoking dope.

Posted by: Ibid at July 31, 2008 1:54 PM

Or, I suppose, like Prof. Kraynak teaches at a small, liberal arts college in the northeast.

Posted by: Ibid at July 31, 2008 1:56 PM

ano real progress in philosophy has occurred since its peak 2,400 years ago.

Anyone who's dealt with someone who has a Ph.D. in Philosophy has already figured that out. (I think it was an A.B.D. I worked with at the U.of Chicago who pointed this out.)

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at July 31, 2008 2:09 PM


I think it was Whitehead who said that all subsequent philosophy is just footnotes to Plato.


depends on the definition of conservatism. Almost all Americans are liberals in the broad, historical, scheme of things, and would certainly appear that way to, say, the "throne and altar" conservatives of 19th c Europe. Of course the caveat is, as oj points out so often, our religion and specifically belief in the fall keep us moored to a morality, and a tradition, in the midst of modern flux, and differentiates ours from more destructive forms of liberalism.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at July 31, 2008 3:13 PM
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