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Sunday, January 9, 2011

Why Are American Conservatives Not Conservatives?

Why Are American Conservatives Not Conservatives?

Today many Americans --including would-be members of the Tea Party and almost all who identify themselves as members of the Republican Party -- insist upon describing themselves as conservatives, even though the core values that they profess, in fact, owe their debt more to the liberalism of John Locke rather than to the political ideas of Thomas Aquinas or Edmund Burke. Ironically, those whom these self-described conservatives often derisively dismiss as liberals are those who generally share the same commitment to Locke's ideas and his political legacy as they, although they may differ about specific policy prescriptions and the proper role of government. This confusion is so pervasive that Herbert Hoover, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush and his father, to cite recent examples, are invariably described as conservatives, although each of these individuals have expressed political ideas that have little in common with the tradition of conservatism as a political philosophy.

By contrast, conservatism as a political philosophy has been exemplified by a set of values and ideas that have been transmitted down through the centuries of Western intellectual history since the time of Aristotle. One wonders, for example, what kind of sense Russ Limbaugh, George Will or other contemporary, self-proclaimed American conservatives would make of the following statements by Eric Vogelein in his book, The New Science of Politics:

" The existence of man in political society is historical existence; and a theory of
politics, if it penetrates to principles, must at the same time be a theory of history."


"A political society [is]....a cosmion illuminated from within...the cosmion has its
inner realm of meaning; but this realm exists tangibly in the external world in
human beings who have bodies through their bodies participate in the organic and
inorganic externality of the world. A political society can dissolve not only through
the disintegration of the beliefs that make it an acting unit in history; it can also be
destroyed through the dispersion of its members in such manner that
communication between them becomes physically impossible..."

Prior to the Renaissance and Reformation, the politics of the Western world was governed by traditional ideas about the nature of man and society. These ideas were, at root, the provenance of the ancient Greeks and Romans and were subsequently nurtured and elaborated upon over a millennia by prominent Catholic thinkers, most especially St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. For Plato, who was Aristotle's teacher, knowledge of the Form of the Good was the ultimate object of dialectical inquiry and was the apogee of knowledge. "What sort of knowledge is there which would draw the soul from becoming to being? Plato asked, and he answered. "Until the person is able to abstract and define rationally the idea of the good...he apprehends only shadows." For St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas knowledge of the Form of the Good was identical to knowledge of God Himself and of His eternal law.

In contrast to later philosophies of Hobbes and Locke, who developed an epistemology based entirely upon sensory perceptions and inputs, the ancients as well as the Medieval Catholic scholars were persuaded that the body and its senses were impediments to the acquisition of true knowledge; that knowledge, which was innate, was "discovered"or apprehended by rational reflection and discussion which, to use Plato's metaphor, enabled one to leave the shadows of the Cave and to enter into the sunlight.

The glue which held the universe together--and which bound each of God's subjects to one another in this Great Chain of Being--was the concept of natural law. The Greeks simply described this set of precepts as Nature--or natural right. This concept of natural law is as old and venerable as Western civilization itself. As Cicero described natural right:

"There is in fact a true law--namely, right reason--which is in accordance with
nature, applies to all men, and is unchangeable and eternal. By its commands
this law summons men to the performance of their duties; by its prohibitions it
restrains them from doing wrong. Its commands and prohibitions always
influence good men, but are without effect upon the bad...To invalidate this law
by human legislation is never morally right, nor is it permissible ever to restrict
its operation, and to annul it wholly is impossible."

As a second core value, the Greeks and Romans embraced a concept of society and the political community which is conceptually different, and fundamentally at odds, with that the concept of society which most self-styled American "conservatives" accept. Thus, classical conservative political tradition denies that men are mere social atoms, that social and political arrangements are the result of mere contractual arrangements, and that society is merely the aggregate of individuals, each of whom seeks within its confines to maximize his own opportunities. Rather, as Aristotle taught, "man...is by nature a political animal, and a man that is by nature and not merely by fortune citiless is either low on the scale of humanity or above it...inasmuch as he resembles an isolated piece at draughts..."

In fact, the root of the English word civilization is derived from the Latin civitas. The Roman notion of the civitas was endowed with the same mystical meaning which the Greeks attributed to the polis: As a member of the civitas, the Romans, like the Greeks before them, believed that a man fulfilled himself and achieved his destiny--which was to discharge his responsibilities in the life of the republic--as a citizen. Through the civitas, therefore, one became a sociable, functioning human being and thus distinguished oneself from lower forms of life or from barbarians, who because of their lack of knowledge of politics could not create political institutions which would enable them to emerge from their servile state. In contrast to liberal political philosophy, which questions the state and defends the individual's essential right to be left alone, and to participate or to not participate in the political process, the classical conservative tradition emphasizes obligation as a correlative of right. Thus, its emphasis upon citizenship, of conscious, willing deliberation and participation in the political process, is an essential part of this second core value.

Because the Greeks insisted that man was essentially a social being, it was also axiomatic that the Greeks argued that the state preceded the existence of individual and that man had never lived in isolation as an individual. In contrast to Hobbes and Locke, Aristotle denied the existence of some mythical state of nature since man was never a solitary being capable of subsistence solely by himself: "...the state is also prior by nature to the individual; for if each individual when separate is not self-sufficient, he must be related to the whole state as other parts are to the whole, while a man who is incapable of entering into partnership is so self-sufficing that he has no need to do so, is no part of a state, so that he must be either a lower animal or a god."

Expressed in a slightly different way, Miguel de Unamuno, in his Tragic Sense of Life denied that individuals could lead meaningful lives apart from society:

"Human society, as a society, possesses senses which the individual, but for his
existence in society, would lack, just as the individual man, who is in turn a kind
of society, possesses senses lacking in the cells of which he is composed."

Unamuno asserted that the self is an abstraction and he rejects the argument that one's ability to reason and the quality of that reasoning are unique attributes which belong to the solitary self as opposed to the social self. If man is a reasoning being, his ability to reason is incontrovertible evidence that he is a social being:

"But man does not live alone; he is not an isolated individual, but a member of
society. There is a little truth in the saying that the individual, like the atom, is an
abstraction. Yes, the atom apart from the universe is as much an abstraction as
the universe apart from the atom. And if the individual maintains his existence by
the instinct of self-preservation, society owes its being and maintenance to the
individual's instinct of perpetuation. And from this instinct, or rather from society,
springs reason. Reason, that which we call reason, reflex and reflective
knowledge, the distinguishing mark of man, is a social product. "

To the Greeks, the state, as the organized expression of civil society, was a public good rather than something to be feared or reigned in, as liberals later asserted.This is a third core value of the conservative tradition. For Thomas Aquinas as for Augustine, the state is a part of a universal empire of which God is the ruler and maker: "since every part is ordained to the whole, as imperfect to perfect; and since one man is a part of the perfect community, the law must need regard properly the relationship to universal happiness..."

To Aristotle and the medieval Catholic churchman also, the state (the polis) is an organic entity and not an artificial construct. As a consequence, government was viewed by the ancients and is still viewed today by adherents of the tradition of conservatism as a res publica, a public thing:

"For what is government except the people's affair. Hence, it is a common affair,
that is, an affair belonging to a state. And what is a state except a
considerable number of men brought together in a certain bond of harmony?"

Since the state exists to serve the needs of civil society--and not, as liberals would have it, the needs of the individual--the state should not be viewed as a passive instrument designed solely to protect private property or to protect rights, as distinguished from obligations.

As a fourth core value, the ancients expressed a preference for public discussion, a commitment to understanding and continuing dialogue among citizens, to discover the "truth" of politics. Consistent with the teaching of Aristotle, conservative political philosophy views man as a social being who fulfills himself as a member and participant in political society--i.e. as a citizen. The object of civility is to discern by right reason the proper means to achieve the proper end, i.e. happiness, which, in the realm of politics, is the common good. "Every state is as we see a sort of partnership and every partnership is formed with a view to some good....It is therefore evident that the...partnership which is the most supreme of all...and aims at the most supreme of all goods; and this is the partnership entitled the state, the political association."

Because of the self's ephemeral nature, the knowledge, customs, and habits contained within a given political culture are essential guideposts to properly orient the self to its social self and to other social selves and to bind each of us as persons to our ancestors and our descendants. It was Edmund Burke who contended that political society exists as an historical project into which individuals enter and depart while sharing a common destiny:

"...society is indeed, a contract....It is to be looked on with reverence; because
it is not a partnership in things...It is a partnership in all science, a partnership
in all art, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of
such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a
partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are
living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born..."

As a fifth core value, Catholic thinkers who followed in the footsteps of Aristotle asserted that, since God endowed each man in His own image and likeness, man became the steward for the earth, and for all of its creatures and bounty. For that reason the conservative tradition to the present remains deeply skeptical of the liberal arguments for an unregulated market economy dominated by the profit motive and the accumulation of wealth.

Historically, Catholic social doctrine condemned aggrandizement and selfishness. Avitaria (greed) and luxuria (extravagance) were counted as two of the Seven Deadly Sins. Because of their commitment to the concept of stewardship and hostility to the venal accumulation of wealth, the polemics in which Spencer and Sumner engaged in the nineteenth century to promote the doctrine of laissez-faire have continued to elicit only incomprehension or condemnation among adherents to this tradition.

The views of the Catholic thinkers, especially, stand in stark contrast to Locke's views about private property and its individual inviolability: "It is lawful for a man to hold private property" but "Man should not consider his outward possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need..."

As a corollary to this core value, Catholic social doctrine to the present emphasizes the importance of good works and Christian example. Charity remains one of the Church's three cardinal virtues. Over the past two millennia, inspired by the teachings of the Stoics, Catholic doctrine has also come to accept the proposition that all of us, as God's children, are entitled to equal worth and dignity of treatment. As Seneca so persuasively put it, "With a magnanimous disposition we have not shut ourselves within the walls of one city, but we have brought ourselves into communication with the whole world and have professed that the world is our native land in order that we may give virtue a wider field."

Equally important, as a sixth core value, conservative ideology, in contrast to the individualism of Hobbes and Locke and solipsism of David Hume, insists that, with respect to relations among one another, human beings are obliged to seek as the summum bonum--i.e., the highest good, the ultimate end -- which is synonymous with justice. As the primary object of all human aspiration, true justice is something that can be achieved only through the law acting as an instrument of the social order. As Aquinas remarks, quoting Isodore, "Laws are enacted for no private profit, but for the common benefit of citizens." Further, "A law, properly speaking, regards first and foremost the order of the common good..."

In addition, Aquinas asserts that, in contrast to the positive laws enacted by legislatures, which can be repealed or suspended, "...Natural law, so far as it contains general precepts, does not allow of dispensation..." Also, he observes that justice is based upon a notion of proportionality, "Justice is a habit whereby a man renders to each one his due by a constant and perpetual will" and "Just as love of God includes love of one's neighbor...so is the service of God rendering to each one his due." Finally, Aquinas invokes Cicero to the effect that "'the object of justice is to keep men together in society and mutual intercourse.' Now this implies relationship of one man to another. Therefore justice is concerned only about our dealings with others."

Lastly, the conservative worldview to the present has consistently emphasized the importance of social stability. Alfred Zimmern, in his book, The Greek Commonwealth, quoted Aeschylus to the effect, "There is no 'Government' in Athens for the people are the government;" however, Zimmern adds, "But though he has no living master, it is not without control. The fifth-century Athenian did not yet know, either in his individual or his corporate life, what it was to live without control. With all the liberty he enjoyed, obedience was still the law of his being."

Consistent with Plato, the conservative tradition accepts the reality of what politics is, but still seek to find the ideal--the ought--of what politics should be: "By the best political order the classical philosopher understood that political order which is best and everywhere. This does not mean that he conceived of that order as best for every community...But that does mean that the goodness of the political order realized anywhere and at any time can only be judged in terms of that political order which is best absolutely." For that reason, the pursuit of the ought requires prudence as well as wisdom. As Plato admonished, "Men are citizens of the polis, or freemen in it, only if they are wise; their obedience to the law which orders the natural city, to the natural law, is the same thing as prudence."

Lamentably, since fervent beliefs, no matter how delusional, are permitted to trump knowledge of history and political philosophy in the current American political landscape, it is doubtful that the right-wing zealots who currently speak for American "conservatism" will ever understand that the their politics, at its core, is rooted in the eighteenth century anti-social individualism of John Locke and, hence, has little, if anything, in common with the tradition of conservatism.

As eighteenth century liberals, the individualistic and anti-social worldview that informs their consciousness forces them to continue to live in the shadows, unable to comprehend that our needs as citizens-- as members of a political community -- have changed fundamentally during the three centuries that have passed since John Locke's death and the two and a quarter centuries since this republic was founded on Locke's ideas. An ability to focus on the future and a receptivity to new ideas, while still drawing inspiration from the ideas of the past, will serve all of us far better than ritualistic and unthinking invocations of the American Creed.

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