September 5, 2013
THE END OF HISTORY IS JUST THE BEGINNING:
Conservative Postmodernism, Postmodern Conservatism (Peter Augustine Lawler, 9/05/13, Imaginative Conservative)
Astute thinkers from Hegel onward have claimed that we live at the end of the modern world. That does not mean the modern world is about to disappear: the world, in truth, is more modern than ever. So we must contest Hegel's assertion that the modern world is the end, the fulﬁllment, of history. The longings of human beings have neither been satisﬁed nor have they disappeared. Modern strivings continue to be fueled by a progressively more restless and anxious human discontent. But if the modern world were to be succeeded by another--as it eventually will be--human beings would continue to be human, beings with souls or capabilities and longings not shared by, and higher, than those of other animals.
What has distinguished the modern world, above all, is a particular deﬁnition of what a human being is. That deﬁnition does not describe a real or complete human being. It was not even meant to be completely true, but mainly to be useful as a ﬁction in the pursuit of unprecedented freedom, justice, and prosperity. Modern thought has held that a human being is an individual, and the modern individual is an abstraction, an invention of the human mind. That individual is made more free from social and political constraints, and less directed toward duty and goodness by God and nature, than a real human being ever could be. The modern individual is distinguished from the political animals--the citizens, statesmen, and philosophers--described by the Greek and Roman philosophers, and from the social, familial creatures described by Christian theologians. The modern individual is liberated from the philosopher's duty to know the truth about nature, from the citizen's selﬂess devotion to his country, from the creature's love and fear of God, and even from the loving responsibilities that are inseparable from family life. Conservatives today oppose liberal individualism both because its understanding of the human being is untrue and because that deﬁnition erodes all that is good about distinctively human existence.
The modern world has now ended only in the sense that we have now seen enough of it to judge it. Although we have reason to be grateful for the wealth, health, freedom, and power that modern achievements have given us, we know that the individual's pursuits of security and happiness will remain always pursuits--and not possessions. So even as the modern world continues to develop, we can be free of its characteristic delusion, its utopianism. We can speak of its strengths and its limitations from a perspective "outside" modernity, and that perspective is the foundation of conservatism today. Conservatives can be (perhaps the only) genuinely postmodern thinkers. The reason we can see beyond the modern world is that its intention to transform human nature has failed. Its project of transforming the human person into the autonomous individual was and remains unrealistic; we can now see the limits of being an individual because we remain more than individuals. The world created by modern individuals to make themselves fully at home turns out to have made human beings less at home than ever. [...]
Getting the political, economic and religious structures universally right doesn't change what we are, just creates a climate in which we are freer to try and achieve what we can be. Of course, the sad reality of being human is that too few will.It is no longer enough for Americans to be abstracted modern individuals most of the time and full human creatures only in ﬂeeting private moments. All of our institutions must be consistently understood in light of what we really know about human nature. We have religious liberty because human beings, by nature, really are open to God, and because what we really know about nature points to the real possibility that we are created. We have political liberty because we are more than citizens, but that liberty is compatible with political responsibility because we are, among other things, citizens. Because human freedom and human responsibilities make possible and necessary both virtue and spiritual life, we can live well with death. The beginning of the postmodern world is the replacement of the individual by the whole human being, and the using of our natural capabilities for thought and action to make the world worthy of him. This is not to say that any particular changes to our form of government are now necessary. Our constitutionalism might actually be better defended from the perspective of the created human being than that of the abstract individual--as Orestes Brownson in the nineteenth century and Robert Kraynak and Carey McWilliams very recently have explained. Postmodern conservatism is quite compatible with liberal or limited and democratic government, and it certainly has a higher view than does liberal individualism of the capacity of the ordinary person to choose truth and virtue over security and comfort.
Posted by Orrin Judd at September 5, 2013 5:42 PM