Monday, July 13, 2009

Refuting the Canons of Conservatism, Part II

The second of Russell Kirk's six canons of conservatism identifies the second major component of conservative ideology as follows:

Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems; conservatives resist what Robert Graves calls “Logicalism” in society. This prejudice has been called "the conservatism of enjoyment"--a sense that life is worth living, according to Walter Bagehot "the proper source of an animated conservatism."

Like my previous post, I will focus on interpreting each sentence in order to make this philosophical statement less intimidating.

Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems

The major contrast highlighted in this statement is between the "variety and mystery of human existence" and "narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims." To put the contrast in simpler terms, the conservative philosophical argument claims that the pursuit of greater equality (what Kirk calls "egalitarianism") leads to a society of "narrowing uniformity" in which everyone is pressured to be the same. Historical experience shows that this is not true. In the United States, equality has increased over time, with the expansion of civil rights to previously unrepresented groups, such as Native Americans, blacks, and women. At the same time, this increase in equality has not led to blandness and uniformity, but rather this has made our society more pluralistic and diverse. Instead of limiting themselves to meat and potatoes, the citizen of an increasingly egalitarian American society has the option of choosing anything from chow mein to soul food to burritos. Instead of the monochromatic gray flannel suit of the pre-civil-rights era of the 1950s, our egalitarian American society has become more colorful, not less. Conservatives claim to defend the "variety and mystery" in life, yet somehow when increasing multiculturalism and diversity create new forms of "variety and mystery" in our lives, the conservatives are typically multiculturalism's most steadfast opponents.

Another argument hidden in the previous sentence is the belief that increasing equality (i.e., "egalitarianism") promotes narrow "utilitarian aims." In other words, this conservative philosophical position argues that greater equality leads to a distressingly utilitarian society that judges people according to usefulness, not their inherent worth as human beings. Again, this argument does not hold up when contrasted against historical examples. When American society was at its most unequal, it tolerated both the slavery of African-Americans and the genocide of Native Americans. In both slavery and Indian genocide, an inegalitarian society denied the inherent worth and dignity of human beings for utilitarian reasons. Enslaved African-Americans were judged based on their ability to pick cotton or plow fields, not for their value as human beings. Similarly, Native Americans were murdered through a program of systematic genocide, because settlers considered Indian tribal lands more valuable than the people who originally lived on them. If anything, increasing equality in American society has forced everyone to confer worth on a greater array of people than when society had less equality.

conservatives resist what Robert Graves calls “Logicalism” in society.

Robert Graves is best known for the book, I, Claudius, and his memoir of World War I, Goodbye to All That, but the reference to "Logicalism" comes from a science fiction novel Graves wrote called Watch the North Wind. The book is now out of print, but Russell Kirk discusses Robert Graves and Logicalism at length in a lecture he gave entitled Civilization Without Religion?:
The author of my parable, however, is not Chesterton, but a quite different writer, the late Robert Graves, whom I once visited in Mallorca I have in mind Graves's romance Seven Days in New Crete-published in America under the title Watch the North Wind Rise.

In that highly readable romance of a possible future, we are told that by the close of the "Late Christian epoch" the world will have fallen altogether, after a catastrophic war and devastation, under a collectivistic domination, a variant of Communism. Religion, the moral imagination, and nearly everything that makes life worth living have been virtually extirpated by ideology and nuclear war. A system of thought and government called Logicalism, "pantisocratic economics divorced from any religious or national theory," rules the world-for a brief time.

In Graves's words:

Logicalism, hinged on international science, ushered in a gloomy and anti-poetic age. It lasted only a generation or two and ended with a grand defeatism, a sense of perfect futility, that slowly crept over the directors and managers of the regime. The common man had triumphed over his spiritual betters at last, but what was to follow? To what could he look forward with either hope or fear? By the abolition of sovereign states and the disarming of even the police forces, war had become impossible. No one who cherished any religious beliefs whatever, or was interested in sport, poetry, or the arts, was allowed to hold a position of public responsibility. "Ice-cold logic" was the most valued civic quality, and those who could not pretend to it were held of no account. Science continued laboriously to expand its over-large corpus of information, and the subjects of research grew more and more beautifully remote and abstract; yet the scientific obsession, so strong at the beginning of the third millennium A. D., was on the wane. Logicalist officials who were neither defeatist nor secretly religious and who kept their noses to the grindstone from a sense of duty, fell prey to colobromania, a mental disturbance....

Rates of abortion and infanticide, of suicide, and other indices of social boredom rise with terrifying speed under this Logicalist regime. Gangs of young people go about robbing, beating, and murdering, for the sake of excitement. It appears that the human race will become extinct if such tendencies continue; for men and women find life not worth living under such a domination. The deeper longings of humanity have been outraged, so that the soul and the state stagger on the verge of final darkness. But in this crisis an Israeli Sophocrat writes a book called A Critique of Utopias, in which he examines seventy Utopian writings, from Plato to Aldous Huxley. "We must retrace our steps," he concludes, "or perish." Only by the resurrection of religious faith, the Sophocrats discover, can mankind be kept from total destruction; and that religion, as Graves describes it in his romance, springs from the primitive soil of myth and symbol.

Graves really is writing about our own age, not of some remote future: of life in today's United States and today's Soviet Union. He is saying that culture arises from the cult; and that when belief in the cult has been wretchedly enfeebled, the culture will decay swiftly. The material order rests upon the spiritual order.

For the moment, let's put aside questions about the applicability and advisability of using an out-of-print science fiction novel as a guidebook for designing society. Kirk's basic idea is that, if a society relies excessively on logic and rationality, it will become "anti-poetic" and anything that doesn't have a "rational" value (such as arts or sports or religion) will wither and die. Part of Kirk's fallacy is that he assumes that logic must be cold and impersonal. As feminist philosophers, such as Martha Nussbaum, have argued, the idea that rationality and logic must be "cold" is based on cultural stereotypes about "cold" masculine emotions, which were used to link rationality with masculinity. In reality, logic can function perfectly well in conjunction with emotional warmth and empathy, whether that empathy is expressed by men or by women. The only reason that empathy and logic are often considered mutually exclusive is due to the flawed sexist assumption that "feminine" empathy cannot coexist with rationality.

On the other hand, even if we grant Kirk's assumption that logic is cold and unemotional, we cannot assume that logic destroys the poetic aspects of life. Logic has given us physics, biology, and chemistry, the sciences that have provided us with modern conveniences of life. As a result of these modern conveniences, human beings actually have more space in their lives for arts, sports, poetry, religion etc., instead of whiling away their hours toiling in the dirt for the tiniest scraps of subsistence living.

This prejudice has been called "the conservatism of enjoyment"--a sense that life is worth living, according to Walter Bagehot "the proper source of an animated conservatism.

Tracking down the sources of Russell Kirk's literary allusions can be a full-time job. The constant quotations to the canons of Western literature serve the same purpose in intimidating his secular readers that Biblical quotations do for a more religious readership. In this case, the quotations come from Walter Bagehot, a British essayist of the late Victorian era who was also a fervent cheerleader of the British Conservative party. Here is the relevant source of the term, "the proper source of an animated conservatism."

The political sentiment is part of the character; the essence of Toryism is enjoyment. Talk of the ways of spreading a wholesome Conservatism throughout this country! Give painful lectures, distribute weary tracts (and perhaps this is as well, — you may be able to give an argumentative answer to a few objections, you may diffuse a distinct notion of the dignified dullness of politics); but as far as communicating and establishing your creed are concerned, try a little pleasure. The way to keep up old customs is, to enjoy old customs; the way to be satisfied with the present state of things is, to enjoy that state of things. Over the "Cavalier" mind this world passes with a thrill of delight; there is an exultation in a daily event, zest in the "regular thing," joy at an old feast. Sir Walter Scott is an example of this: every habit and practice of old Scotland was inseparably in his mind associated with genial enjoyment; to propose to touch one of her institutions, to abolish one of those practices, was to touch a personal pleasure,— a point on which his mind reposed, a thing of memory and hope. So long as this world is this world, will a buoyant life bo the proper source of an animated Conservatism.

Bagehot argues that the most effective way to spread conservatism is not "painful lectures," "weary tracts," or "the dignified dullness of politics," but to encourage people to find pleasure in experiencing old customs. The problem with this principle is that some customs (slavery, for example) were built for the enjoyment of one group at the expense of another. I do not know if Bagehot or Kirk would acknowledge this flaw, but if they did, they could come back with this counterargument. Even if some groups suffer from another person's enjoyment of a custom, these customs are embedded in a web of other customs that cannot be separated from one another without destroying all of the customs at once. Again, this counterargument does not hold up to historical evidence. I can enjoy the awe-inspiring beauty of a medieval European building like Chartres Cathedral, yet still deplore the medieval feudalism that built it. I can enjoy the smell of magnolia trees on a Southern plantation, yet deplore the system of slavery that created it.

In fact, there is no evidence that conservatives make better preservationists of the world's cultural legacy than liberals do. If we go back to Part I of this series, you will remember that conservatives believe in a model of Godly order that can be used to justify violence against people and things that are labeled as disordered or un-Godly. When Muslims during the Crusades destroyed the library at Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, they did so because they wanted to keep their culture from being disordered by un-Godly, non-Islamic influences. When Girolamo Savonarola and other Catholic officials burned precious paintings and harpsichords during the Counterreformation in the 15th century (as part of the original "bonfire of the vanities"), they did so because they wanted to ward off un-Godly, non-Catholic influences. Chartres Cathedral is still here for the world to see, but we don't need to oppress the serfs in order to enjoy it.

1 comment:

  1. Why refute an argument that doesn't exist? Kirk is listing egalitarianism and narrowing uniformity as things the conservative opposed. The quote does not state or imply that one entails or causes the other.
    In general you're taking a succinct list of principles that are not argued for (because it's a mere list, and not a series of arguments), making up arguments that aren't there, and then refuting the arguments you invented.