October 26, 2014


Conservative Postmodernism, Postmodern Conservatism (Peter Augustine Lawler, Fall 2002, Intercollegiate Review)

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.

Conservative thought today is authentic postmodernism, but it is, obviously, not postmodernism as it is usually understood. Most allegedly postmodern thought emphasizes the arbitrary character of all human authority, the freedom of each human being from all standards but his own will or creativity, and the death not only of God but of nature. These allegedly postmodern characteristics are really hypermodern; they aim to "deconstruct" as incoherent and so incredible any residual modern faith in reason or nature. They shout that everything modern--in fact, everything human--is nothing but a construction.

Postmodernists in the usual sense often do well in exposing liberal hypocrisy, but they can only do so in the name of completing the modern project of liberating the individual's subjective or willful and whimsical perspective from all external constraints. Conservative postmodernism, by acknowledging and affirming as good what we can really know about our natural possibilities and limitations, is radically opposed to liberated postmodernism--and to the modern premises it radicalizes.

I'm currently reading Mr. Lawler's newest collection, Allergic to Crazy: Quick Thoughts on Politics, Education, and Culture, Rightly Understood, which is, typically, terrific. We've said before that you could take away all the other regular essayists going and if you left us him, Mark Steyn, Spengler, Andrew Ferguson, Terry Teachout and Joseph Epstein that would be sufficient.   Indeed, we've linked to several of the pieces contained herein and read nearly all before.

But one frustration has been the entire discussion of "Postmodern Conservatism," the main idea he's organized his writing around and the title of the blog he's carried from First Things on to National Review.   The definition above covers the bases, but lacks a certain eloquence and brevity.  The definition that accompanies the webite is a bit elliptical:

Postmodern conservatism is nothing but 21st century realism. As Walker Percy and Alexandre Solzhenitsyn explained, the genuinely postmodern challenge is to integrate what's true about premodern, or classical, and Christian thought with what's true about modern thought, including the modern view of freedom and the achievements of modern technology. It's also, as Percy put it, to put back together what's true about Anglo-American empiricism and European existentialism with the Christian discovery that logos is irreducibly personal in mind.

One would like to have a working definition and I think I've found the basis for one in, of all places, a review of True Grit:

Postmodernists...say that people have narratives by which they make sense of the world, but there's no objective way of privileging one narrative over another.  

Postmodern Conservatism then is simply the assertion that, while it is accurate to say that we make sense of the world by narratives, one narrative is objectively worthy of privilege over the others. 

Of course, I've repeatedly argued that this is actually the basis of "Premodern" philosophy in the Anglosphere and that the reason we of the English-speaking world so easily avoided the ideological excesses of the Age of Reason, which tore apart continental Europe and thence the Third World, is that we never fell into the trap of caring much that the one story could not be proven true rationally.  In the words of David Hume, after he has demonstrated logically that there is no basis for believing anything to be true:

But what have I here said, that reflections very refin'd and metaphysical have little or no influence upon us? This opinion I can scarce forbear retracting, and condemning from my present feeling and experience. The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another. Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? and on whom have I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, inviron'd with the deepest darkness, and utterly depriv'd of the use of every member and faculty.

Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours' amusement, I wou'd return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain'd, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.

We, uniquely, accept that while the application of pure Reason does not justify our Judeo-Christian understanding of the world, neither can it justify a Rational understanding of the world.  And this recognition that Reason refutes itself liberates us from applying it to our belief system, our narrative (the One Story).  And if no narrative is supported by Reason then we are free to choose a different standard to choose among the narratives and have chosen to retain our faith in the one that is the most aesthetically pleasing.  Given a range of stories Man could tell himself about himself and about existence, we adhere to the most beautiful narrative : that we are Created, that each individual matters to that Creator, that the Creator has set forth standards of behavior for enjoying His Creation that we are expected to follow, and that even though we have proved ourselves incapable of meeting those standards, He loves us still.  

Postmodern Conservatism is then Premodern Conservatism is then Conservatism. Or, as phrased by Russell Kirk, conservative thought is premised in the "[b]elief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience, forging an eternal chain of right and duty which links great and obscure, living and dead."  It is the privileging of the Narrative.

The Power of Narrative (Jonah Goldberg, October 25, 2014, RCP)

There is an enormous amount of whining these days about our ideological debates. This gets the problem wrong. Ideological debates are fought over ideas, but politics is more often about competing stories, or, as the eggheads call them, "narratives."

Much has been written about the power of ideas. "The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood," John Maynard Keynes famously wrote. "Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist." 

Victor Hugo even more famously declared, "There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come."

Maybe so, but the only reason an idea's time ever arrives is that some story gives birth to it.

Of course, the two overlap. You may boil down your beliefs to a series of ideas, but odds are that every lesson you ever learned came at the end of a story, either one you lived or one you watched unfold. All great religions are taught to us as stories. Every great journalistic exposé came in the form of a story. We evolved to learn through stories. We may as well be called homo relator, or storytelling man.

Catholic Author Peter Kreeft: To Save Your Soul, You Must Opt Out of the "Culture of Death" : Boston College professor warns of eternal consequences of "going with the flow." (THOMAS KEENAN, 10/22/14, Aleteia)

"Non-Christians almost always have a different problem [than Protestants] with the Church," he said. "Its morality, especially its sexual morality. It is thought to be repressive, Puritanical, and impossibly idealistic. Here, too, the concept of the sacredness of something material is not understood. I think a serious study of the Theology of the Body by Pope John Paul II would be a powerful antidote to both misunderstandings."

Kreeft does not align himself with others of his profession.

"I try to build bridges between ordinary people and scholars and philosophers," he said. "Academia has always been a sort of scholarly ivory tower, but more so in modern times, with increasing specialization. In my own field, philosophy, I find that most 'great books' in philosophy were written for ordinary intelligent people, until the 20th century, when philosophers started to write for other philosophers. This is why they are ignored ... I think God must love ordinary people best--that's why He made so many of them."

Kreeft positions himself opposite most intellectuals on the general direction of American morality.

"Let's be very clear and candid," he said. "It's not an option to opt out of the culture of death, it's a necessity for survival of your soul. The simplest way to lose your soul is to go with the flow because the flow is naturally down. Only live fish can swim against the current. Dead ones just conform to it."

Kreeft identified abortion as the gravest moral evil that the "culture of death" promotes.

Secular society is no alternative to faith for Kreeft, either.

"I find it very significant that just about all the robustly Catholic students and teachers I know at BC are very happy and all the anti-Catholics are very unhappy and angry," he said. "Deep happiness is a winsome and unanswerable argument."

Posted by at October 26, 2014 8:39 AM

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