August 27, 2016


Europe and the Nation State: Thoughts on Ortega y Gasset (DANIEL JOHNSON, September 2016, Standpoint)

What does it mean to be a conservative in Europe today? My answer is simple: to be a conservative means to reject the politics of negativity -- anger, revenge, hatred, guilt and resentment -- and instead to pursue a positive vision: a liberal-minded vision of generosity and justice, of peace and prosperity, of democracy and conviviality under the rule of law. To be a conservative means, in other words, to take the best ideas of the past and apply them to the present: not in a negative spirit of reactionary fear of the future, but embracing this world as we find it, with all its defects and depravity, its opportunities and its glimpses of divine glory, in the hope of improving it before we leave it for a better place. Conservatives are conscious that the material world matters to us all, but that it is not the only one; just as we know, too, that those living in it are not the only people who matter, for we cherish the generations who have come before us and learn from them, while never forgetting that we are but the harbingers of posterity, the generations to come who will inherit the world that we bequeath them. Conservatives feel the weight of history not as a burden, but with gratitude for the responsibilities that have been placed upon us by God. We are responsible for the preservation of the civilisation that has formed us and of which we in turn must endeavour to be worthy. For us European conservatives, our primary duty is to the civilisation of the West; but our responsibilities do not stop there. Wherever in the world the forces of barbarism seek to destroy humanity and liberty, we must resist and overcome them. If we do not, they will seek us out sooner or later. Even if they fail in their attempt to annihilate us, physically and culturally, the barbarians may do great damage. 

Who are the conservative thinkers to whom we should be looking for inspiration? Here in Madrid, such questions spring naturally to mind, for this Most Catholic Kingdom of Spain is and always has been of a naturally conservative disposition, and conservative thought has flourished here at least since Ferdinand and Isabella ushered in the Spanish Golden Age. The grim fundamentalism of the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada and his Dominicans was only one side -- a dark one -- of that glittering coin. This was also the Spain that opened up the New World, that created global markets and trade routes, and to which we owe, perhaps, the very idea of "Western" civilisation. This was the Spain of El Greco and Velázquez, the Spain of Calderón and, above all, of Cervantes. It is worth recalling that the strict censorship of the Spanish Inquisition did not apply to the most popular literary genre of the day, novels and romances of chivalry. My godfather, the historian Hugh Thomas, describes this as "a remarkable toleration". The author of Don Quixote -- whose quatercentenary we celebrate this year along with that of his contemporary, Shakespeare -- was a true Spanish conservative. He loved the past, he revered the old knightly virtues of courtesy and mercy, but he was also a man of action who was wounded at Lepanto, helping to save Christendom from the Ottoman threat. Like Shakespeare, another great conservative, he loved his country more than himself. He believed in God, but his subject was humanity. For Cervantes, we are all, like the Don, muddle-headed fools with lucid intervals. Such is the hard-headed conservative view of politics and especially ideology. To a conservative, the pursuit of a perfect world, the world of which the Left has always dreamt, is at best like tilting at windmills; at worst, it means the abandonment of all the chivalry that mitigates man's savagery to man and especially to woman. We cannot avoid mistakes, but we may hope by the end to emulate the Don's epitaph: "Morir cuerdo, y vivir loco." ("To die in wisdom, having lived in folly.")

One part of this realism concerns the problem of inequality. Unlike many modern writers, including even some conservatives, Cervantes has no illusions about abolishing inequality: "Dos linajes solos hay en el mundo, como decía una abuela mía, que son el tener y el no tener." ("There are only two families in the world, as a grandmother of mine used to say: the Haves and the Have-nots.") This must be the first literary use of the phrase "Haves and Have-nots", more than two centuries before another great conservative, Benjamin Disraeli, wrote in his novel Sybil of "two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy . . . the Rich and the Poor". Because conservatives do not yearn for an egalitarian Utopia, they prefer to address the problem by ameliorating the effects of poverty, rather than demonising the rich. It is as important today as it ever was to avoid class warfare, which is stoked up by the demagogy of the far-Left; but the Right will only be taken seriously if it is seen to take radical measures to open up society and the economy to enable the Have-nots to compete on equal terms with the Haves. The Left will always try to exploit the guilt complexes of the Haves and the resentments of the Have-Nots; and these two emotions, guilt and resentment, are very powerful political factors, today as much as ever. If the centre-Right cannot counter guilt with generosity and resentment with justice, then its place will be taken by the far-Right, which exploits similarly negative emotions to the Left. The far-Right is in the ascendant across Europe today precisely because the conservative cause has allowed itself to abandon liberalism, and with it the positive politics that alone provide a vision of the future that may inspire the young and old alike. 

In its long period of decline from the 17th to the 20th centuries, Spain produced several conservative thinkers of a deeply pessimistic cast of mind, from the great Jesuit Baltasar Gracián, whose Criticón and Oráculo so impressed Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, to the noble diplomat Donoso Cortés, whose Ultramontane polemics against progress exercised a profound influence on Carl Schmitt. We can certainly learn much from these Catholic Cassandras, but in my view the Spanish thinker who should inspire conservatives today is José Ortega y Gasset. In his early tribute to Cervantes, Meditations on Quixote, he declared: "Hatred is the feeling which leads to the extinction of values." That was published in the fateful year 1914. Then came the Great War, from which Spain was fortunate to escape unscathed. In his best-known work, La Rebelión de las Masas (The Revolt of the Masses), published in 1930 as monarchy was replaced by republic in Spain, while Europe was being crushed between the pincers of Fascism and Communism, Ortega developed this thought. "Civilisation," he wrote, "is nothing else than the attempt to reduce the use of force to being the ultima ratio, the last resort." What he called "the revolt of the mass man", the tyranny of the majority and the use of force to resolve political disputes, was "the Magna Carta of barbarism". He went on: "Civilisation is above all the will to live together. A man is uncivilised, a barbarian in so far as he does not take others into account." This is what we see today, in its most extreme form, in the jihad against the West by Isis and other Islamist terrorists. What Ortega held up as his ideal "form of life" he called convivencia, a wonderful Spanish expression which combines the English words "coexistence" and "conviviality", as well as the Latin concordia. Such is the life that is only made possible by civilisation, and such is the true raison d'être of conservative thought and politics.

Posted by at August 27, 2016 7:38 AM