December 29, 2008


The Future of Conservatism: Hopeful Possibilities (Patrick Deneen, remarks delivered at the ISI Regional Leadership Conference at Yale University, November 2008)

[T]he universities are today configured, for the most part, as the very antithesis of an embodiment of conservation of this past. Viewing themselves as agents of progress and social justice, the universities are predominantly an obstacle to the deep and transformative encounter with the ideas and words of the figures portrayed around this room. Yet, still this room exists: the buildings of the university are often like a palimpsest, an ancient document whose original words could not be thoroughly erased in spite of the effort to obscure and write over the ancient wisdom. This is as true in the world of ideas as it is in the buildings that adorn our campuses. The very monolithic strength of the modern university also constitutes its greatest weakness—its self-assurance in its progressivity makes it blinkered to its own philosophical presuppositions, and largely incapable of articulating the grounds for its own commitments. Indeed, its commitment to progress inclines the modern university to a neglect of the past and its own sources, and thus results in a set of intellectual commitments that are, more often than not, half-baked and half-cocked if not outright incoherent. We are surrounded by Kantians who ardently defend human dignity without a clue of where such a concept of dignity arises; with secularists who argue for a separation of Church and State without knowing the origin for that view; with multiculturalists who haven’t stopped to think about the nature of culture; and so on.

All of these—and I could mention many more—were originally “conservative” concepts that became unmoored from their traditional and (most often) religious origins. The unmooring served an important tactical purpose, which was to unlink those concepts from the constraining religious sources from which they originated. But this very tactic also destabilized these concepts, lending to them a high degree of incoherence and, increasingly, a great degree of indefensibility, leading philosophers like Richard Rorty to endorse liberalism just because it’s there. This very weakness presents a distinct opportunity. [...]

Perhaps it is the moment for a younger generation of conservatives, less shaped and less beholden to the political exigencies of the past half-century, who can begin a process of recovery of the great storehouse—and the great strength—of conservatism, those very underarticulated commitments of so many of our students today. I could provide a long list of particulars, but let me afford one example that seems to most conservatives a tremendous obstacle among a younger generation—and seems to me to be an area of great promise. It is the remarkable rise of a commitment to the environment, that hallmark of “Left” politics for so many years, yet, to my mind, a deeply conservative commitment that we are allowing to go underarticulated and thus by default permit our students to believe to be the very antithesis of conservative.

After all, we need only point out that the root of the very word “conservative” is “conserve” and “conservation,” meaning “to maintain” or “to keep.” In clinging to their own incoherent orthodoxies, conservatives have ceded this concept to the Left and thereby lost the ability to articulate the deepest sources of conservatism. Instead, we should wrest the many noble and praiseworthy commitments of our young people back to their true origin, insisting on the right definition of things. We would do well to insist on the rejection of the word “environment”—which, after all, places human beings at the center of something that surrounds US—but rather articulate that our commitments lie with NATURE. Nature implies and requires the recognition of a CREATED ORDER of which we are a part. Nature is closely related to culture—those forms and ways of life that arise from the human effort to live alongside nature, at once using and preserving the natural world—and thus rejecting the tendency of the language of environmentalism to fall easily into a deracinated and abstract understanding of the human relationship to the natural world. Nature is at once particular—manifested in many particularities (desert and forest, plain and mountain, ocean and river . . . ) while also always a universal whole—pointing out that we always perceive the universal through the particular. NATURE has a temporal dimension, implying the centrality of generations among living things, of the centrality of fecundity and the inevitability of death, and keeps close to mind our relationship to the past and to the future. Only a time when we have so thoroughly rejected the place and centrality of nature would allow us to become as presentist as we have become, oblivious to the past and negligent of the future. A fuller embrace of the spectrum of time, and a reflection of our place in that spectrum, allows for a respectful consideration of the requirements of obligation and duty, of gratitude and fidelity, of memorial to generations past who sought to convey their own best efforts to live alongside nature, and our duty to leave the world as a good and fruitful place for our children. Putting in the forefront conservatism’s deep commitments to the natural order allows us to present arguments and teachings on behalf of governance of appetite, of self-control of our instincts and impulses, of a culture that necessarily prohibits—and understands such self-governance to be a profound form of liberty. And all of this—pointing to a created order, expanding our temporal sense, fostering the liberty of self-governance, inculcating a reverence for the world and for life, points ultimately to our deepest religious longings and aspirations, exemplifying that God is at once demanding and loving, He giveth and taketh, and that it is our nature to seek to understand and ultimately to love and worship Him.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 29, 2008 9:39 AM
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