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Each quarter, Counterpoint asks Students, Faculty, and Alumni to answer a Symposium topic dealing with conservative politics and philosophy.


For Autumn 2010, we present the Symposium on:


Reopening the Conservative Canon


There are many conservatives who have been forgotten today, along with many non-conservatives, from whom conservatives should learn and perhaps claim. Tell us about one.


Jane Austen by Joseph Bingham

Jane Austen bears a mixed reputation in modern America. To a sizeable portion of Americans, she is either an early lightweight chick-lit romance novelist, an early feminist progressive heroine, or both. Both perceptions are deeply misguided.

Austen is neither Romantic nor progressive; she is the prototypical social conservative—defending a way of life that embraces social mores and traditions as the proper boundaries within which to seek fulfillment. Against the visions of sentimentalist and Romantic contemporaries who glorified passion, nature, and unconventionality, Austen advocated rationality, control, and thoughtful conformity as the proper way to virtue.

Sense and Sensibility is the simplest example of Austen's critique of sensibility (understood as the ideal of a Werther-esque capacity for depth of feeling) at the expense of sense. Marianne Dashwood is a near-caricature of the Romantic ideal, constantly frustrated by social mores and expectations. On the other hand, her older sister Elinor, while she feels similar passion, typifies reason, self-restraint, and consciousness of propriety. Marianne's rebellion in the face of social disapproval threatens to lead to her emotional and social undoing; Elinor's control assures that even if she does not achieve her ideal romantic match, she will be a moral heroine, because she has behaved honorably and discretely. The chief crime of the villain of the tale is his violation of sexual norms, and the truly virtuous character of a love object is revealed when he chooses to honor a loveless engagement.

Pride and Prejudice offers a similar narrative evaluation of social convention, if less neatly arranged. The novel makes no bones about assuming that libertinism and the brazen flaunting of public morality are wrong (Sandra Tsing Loh could never have been an Austin heroine). But it also offers subtler moral lessons. The protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet, is admirable for her character, but particularly for her judgment—her ability to discern the best course of action as dictated by considerations of ethics and social norms, and her ability to discern others' successes and failures. Social failings may be tolerated, but they should not be ignored. Thus when Mary sits at the piano too long, or when Lydia converses indiscreetly with the young men, Elizabeth recognizes these social faux pas as potential moral failings, not just because they may lead to moral errors of greater gravity, but because social conventions impose their own independent moral obligations. They exist for a reason—ladies are expected to limit their playing time in the interests of charity or fairness, so that each person may display her accomplishments without unpleasantness, and discretion and restraint in interaction between the sexes protect against—well, read Pride and Prejudice; it's precisely what happens to Lydia. Austen believes that once these judgments about prophylactic boundaries become social norms, they become moral obligations not fully contingent on the dangers against which they guard.

Even in Austen's portrayal of scenery, one may detect her skepticism of Romantic excess. For example, upon visiting the Pemberly estate, Elizabeth Bennet is "delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste." The beautiful house and the surrounding landscape are arranged in a perfect marriage of human ingenuity and design with natural beauty—each tempering the other to mutual advantage. The relationship between the wildness of nature and the influence of human design, like the relationship between passion and reason, or between personal judgment and social propriety, is best negotiated cautiously, with reason and restraint ruling impulse at every turn.

For the modern reader, Austen's most difficult work tends to be Mansfield Park. The protagonist, Fanny Price, is exceptionally meek and soft-spoken, if not timid. The qualities that recommend her are her judgment and backbone, demonstrated only gradually and under duress. A pivotal episode involves various characters' decision to put on a play in the family's home, a decision that Fanny sees as deeply improper, both because of the play's subject matter and the inadvisability of single young men and women acting out intimate romantic roles. To the modern reader, this episode verges on incomprehensible. As we have no sense of the impropriety of any relationship between single people, it is hard to fathom a problem with interactions between the sexes that fall short of sex. But Austen's judgment is firm that Fanny, the only character in her cohort to stand against the performance, is in the right, further emphasizing her view that standards of propriety are there to protect important social and moral values, and carry their own moral mandate. Once acting is publicly deemed an indiscrete or sexually suggestive endeavor, the judgment becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy—young people participating in the theater, a forbidden fruit, will feel sexual exhilaration and thrills tending in dangerous directions. The effect may be, in the words of Thomas Gisborn (an 18th-century writer whose pamphlet condemning home theater Austen had read) "to destroy diffidence, by the unrestrained familiarity with the persons of the other sex, which inevitably results from being joined with them in the drama[...]". In the end, the same impropriety she recognizes in the decision to hold the play results in the ruin of two of the would-be performers. The causal relationship is not clear—did the flirtation begun in rehearsals spark the future affair, or is it simply the characters' same impropriety making itself known in a different situation? In any case, "Fanny," says her cousin, "is the only one who has judged rightly throughout; who has been consistent. Her feelings have been steadily against it from first to last." Modern readers who condemn Fanny for her meek personality fail Austen's moral test: it is Fanny's passion, her discerning judgment, and her moral backbone which recommend her as a strong character. She does not skewer people with her wit, but she stands up to them with her convictions.

Austen is aware that being bound by limiting considerations does not always lead to an ideal result—in Persuasion, the protagonist has lived a life of loneliness following her rejection of a marriage proposal on the advice of an older woman, whose judgment she trusted more than her own. Yet a policy (deferring to those with more experience) that does not always lead to optimal results may yet be the proper policy ex ante—given the chance to go back, knowing only what she knew then, Anne would make the same decision again.

Sense and Sensibility's John Dashwood, is not legally obligated to provide for his sisters, and social convention is ambiguous. However, when he fails to provide generously for his sisters, it is wrong not as a failure to properly conform with social norms, but as a failure to conform with a particular moral understanding of social norms—a failure of charity, which dictates a particular interpretation of his social duties. Further, Austen clearly judges social failures to be potentially less severe than other moral failure; in Pride and Prejudice, it is the socially adept character who is despicable, and the socially misguided character who is honorable—though he is perfected only when he acknowledges and corrects his social failings. And it is clear that Austen was uncomfortable with elements of the social structure of her day—while she presents Mrs. Bennet's moaning about the inheritance system's potential mistreatment of women as improper, the unfairness itself is made painfully clear. In addition, Austen regularly pokes fun at conventional wisdom (consider Pride and Prejudice's famous opening line). But, while the individual's role may be to critique, chide, or even mock social mores, it is never to flout them. To do so is to violate the moral contract through which we assist each other in virtuous living.

Austen is not famous for her moral teachings; she is famous for her dry wit. It is her deliciously snarky humor that makes her books impossible to put down, and impossible not to pick up again. But the same wit and perceptiveness that make her so adept at recognizing, sketching, and skewering people and their foibles make her especially suited for recognizing the wisdom behind a strong system of social mores. People are weak, self-excusing, and fallible. But a shared moral culture is—or can be—a means of shoring each other up against our own easy errors.

Austen teaches us that people flourish best when they seek fulfillment within society as it is structured according to the accumulated wisdom of tradition. To disregard convention as morally and practically inferior to "fulfillment" in the lesser sense of impulse-satisfaction is to risk attaining neither the satisfaction of our desires nor the fulfillment that comes with a tempered moral character. Austen herself, as far as we know, never found love; she certainly never found marriage, and dwelt in the least desirable position in her social strata—a woman without a husband or inheritance. Yet every reader must be grateful that Jane Austen's life went precisely as it did: her loss was our gain. Her wisdom, like her wit, was her gift to us.


Martin Diamond by Josh Lerner

Perhaps the single greatest uniting intellectual belief held by those in the right of center coalition is the primacy of the Constitution in defining the relationship between Americans and their government. The wisdom of the Founders generally, and of the Constitution in particular, is not merely viewed to be of anthropological or historical importance. Rather, it provides an indispensible framework from which to understand our nation and her laws.

This view, often referred to as Originialism, has been one of the major areas of intellectual vitality within the conservative movement. And when telling the story of Originalism, rightfully or wrongfully, most conservatives begin with the role of the legal thinkers and organizers, from Robert Bork, AB'48 JD'53, to Antonin Scalia to Theodore Olsen to Edwin Meese. But this picture is only half complete. The great intellectual revival of the founders occurred two decades before the birth of the Federalist Society. Started, not by lawyers and legal scholars, but by political philosophers, these scholars were concerned with the conflict between America's founding principles and the state of modern American politics. Four young scholars, Harry Jaffa, Herbert Storing, PhD '56, Walter Berns, PhD '53, and Martin Diamond, PhD '58, all students of the political philosopher Leo Strauss, helped revive academic and political interest in the thought of founders.

Unfortunately, and unjustly, Martin Diamond’s major intellectual contributions remain unrecognized and obscured. This is partially due to the scarcity of his output—a dozen or so academic articles and three books—and his untimely death. Yet Diamond’s scholarship cannot be ignored. His efforts led to the rediscovery of a conservatism grounded in the principles of the American Founding during the intellectual transitions taking place in the 1970s. Diamond is not an Originalist per se: he was a philosopher, not a lawyer, but Diamond laid the intellectual foundations necessary for originalism to flourish. Representative of his work are his fantastic book, Founding of the Democratic Republic, his essay on the Federalist papers for the Strauss-Cropsey History of Political Philosophy, and the essays "The Declaration and the Constitution: Liberty, Democracy, and the Founders" and "Ethics and Politics: the American Way."

Diamond, in good Straussian tradition, viewed the Founding as something largely built upon the primacy of ideas. His work can be seen as a response to arguments put forth by prominent progressive historians, particularly Charles Beard, who emphasized a materialistic reading of the founding, one that was built on "discovering" the economic advantages built into the Constitution. These progressive historians ultimately conclude that the Constitution betrayed the democratic spirit of the Declaration and established a pseudo oligarchy. Diamond's view, in contrast, was of the Constitution as much democratic as it was republican. For Diamond, the ultimate form of the Constitution could be derived wholly from the principles and ideas of the Founders themselves.

"create a system of institutions and procedures that would satisfy their complex aim [which was] powerful and yet free government resting on majority rule?" Diamond understood that "for the founding generation it was liberty that was the comprehensive good, the end against which political things had to be measured; and democracy was only a form of government which, like any other form of government, had to prove itself adequately instrumental to the securing of liberty." The Constitution provided the proper mechanism for ensuring this liberty, and the democratic republicanism of the Constitution became the only workable system through which such an end could be achieved.

In other words, understanding the Constitution as the framers themselves understood it was key to understanding the American polity. Even with regards to the "enormous social and economic change, the constitutional system imparts to America a remarkable political continuity. Accordingly, it is not merely filial piety but sound political science to study carefully the Constitution (emphasis in the original)."

Diamond recognized that the Constitution is important in that it was, at the time, the most radically democratic system yet conceived that had not devolved into rank majoritarianism or tyranny. "Democracy" Diamond argued "had to be made safe for the world, not the other way around." The insights of the founders and of the constitutional system they created was to minimize the pernicious effects of an unrestrained demos, all the while maintaining the ordered liberty necessary for the flourishing of our "commercial republic." Federalism was the mechanism created, which, when combined with a separation of powers, allowed for the single best tempering of legislative or executive tyranny.

A constant theme throughout all of Diamond's work on the framers is his emphasis on the virtue of the types of compromises often struck by the founders. The compromises sought were based on a fundamental agreement over the basic principles of the Constitution, and the act of compromising sought to mediate all of the major regional concerns with the general welfare of the polity writ large. These compromises, over things like the size of the House of Representatives or the term length of Senators, reflected their general principled agreement, and these compromises, far from being capricious or arbitrary were rather dialectical in their design; the moderation espoused in the great constitutional compromises embodied the "Aristotelian wisdom" of the founders. Diamond looks to compromises like the 3/5ths compromise, however, as unfortunate defects of the political situations at the time. Diamond emphasizes that "politics is the art of the possible," and in that, for the Constitution to move forward, unfortunate compromises had to be made.

Diamond recognizes the American founding as the culmination of the best amalgamation of post-Machiavellian thought, namely Lockean liberalism tempered by a Montesquiean fear of unadulterated power. Thus Diamond's vision of American modernity differs greatly from the conceptualization of the more-famous Allan Bloom, namely that this very Lockean modernity sows the seeds of its own demise and can perhaps lead to a milder version of the same sort of nihilism that lead Germany into the intellectual arms of the Third Reich. Unlike Bloom, Diamond sees something particularly virtuous in this version of modernity, and that the American project, with its inherent skepticism of centralized authority and its respect of an ordered liberty, is the best means to oppose such tyrannical devolution. In this regard, Diamond modifies the usual Straussian condemnation of the modern political project and instead tempers it with an American exception, one built on the "moral and political strength" of our founding documents. Considering the dual tendencies of progress and return, Diamond suggests that the Founders engaged in a stark embrace of both—progress in that it was the new science of politics leading the way, but also return, in that the Founders recalled the thought and modes of Athens and Rome.

What distinguishes Diamond's thought from that of other contemporary Struassians was not merely his reluctant embrace of what Strauss called "first wave modernity" but with it a rejection of doing politics in a theoretical way. Just as generations of conservative thinkers had found much to worry about the utopianism of Rousseau and Marx, Diamond found similar trends buried within the Classics. Or, more accurately, Diamond recognized the great virtue of a tempered, liberal "science of politics" of the modern sort if it recognizes classical criticisms of democracy. Diamond embraces the vision of human nature—"greed and vainglory [to rule] under the guise of virtue of piety"— found in the Framer's writings.

Diamond embraces the anti-utopianism of the Framers not simply as building a nation on top of amoral Hobbesian grounds, but as something that "rises repeatedly high enough above the vulgar level of mere self interest in the direction of virtue." These "modern virtues are lower than the ancient virtues, but they are uniquely achieved in the American regime." Tocqueville's doctrine of "self interest rightly understood" provides for Diamond the corollary to the Framers which allows their work to shine in its proper light: morality and civic virtue exist in the American polity before government, and it is essentially the role of the Constitution to enshrine these and to not dilute or interfere with them. This was the dramatic intellectual turn Diamond had made late in his life: understanding the Founders as they understood themselves implied going beyond the limitations of the Enlightenment and into their writings.

In spite of the conservative slant of much of his later writing, Diamond always hesitated to embrace the conservative label. It was not because his ideas themselves weren't very similar to those of American conservatives—although it must be stressed that conservatism before the 1970s was not nearly as Constitution oriented as it is currently—but rather that he felt the American political tradition should not be the purview of one ideological group over another. The fact that many of Diamond's ideas regarding the founders have been so fully embraced by today's conservative movement would both greatly please and yet dishearten him, pleased that his project of trying to understand the founders as they saw themselves has continued in such a serious manner, but saddened that it has become an ideological talking point. For a man that considered himself a teacher first and foremost, we can say that an entire generation of conservative scholars are, whether they know it or not, his students.


Hans Jonas by Jeremy Rozansky

The division of "left" and "right" in our political discourse quite literally began with the arrangement of chairs during the French Revolution. On the left stood the Jacobins, revolutionaries ready to wreak havoc in the name of syllogism and abstraction. On the right stood the conservatives, skeptics of human imaginings, defenders of the old order, supporters of moderation. Since then, the right, when at its best, has embodied a "first, do no harm" kind of politics. Yet while caution is certainly a helpful policymaking disposition, not all things are equally worthy of conservation, so conservatives need principled direction to buttress this disposition. Conservatives must do their best to answer the question, "First, do no harm to what?"

Hans Jonas might be an unlikely source for a compelling answer to this question. A pupil of Heidegger and member of Hannah Arendt's cohort, Jonas' perspective on matters of practical politics were almost universally anathema to what we see as the conservative line. He was suspicious of capitalism, opposed the Vietnam War, considered the atomic arsenal a starting point from which to criticize the modern age, and even published a work, The Imperative of Responsibility (1984), that has since become a foundational text for European Greens. His influence on present-day conservatives is generally limited to a few concerned with topics of bioethics.

Still, Hans Jonas is not a philosopher who can be boiled down into a few axioms, or who was only interested in a few themes. Jonas wrote incisive, touchstone works about an array of topics from Gnosticism to post-Holocaust theology that are difficult to corral at first glance into a coherent oeuvre. There is, however, a trajectory to his works that suggests a larger project conservatives would do well to consider.

The Gnostic Religion (I 1934, II 1954) was an ambitious work that delineated the relation between that ancient cult and the premises of modernity. Gnosticism, put simply, believes the world to be ruled by an evil demiurge, and goodness only possible through the shirking of material interests and human conventions. One then attains transcendent gnosis (knowledge) and unites with God. In Gnosticism, Jonas found a nerve shared with Heideggerian existentialism. Both worldviews are characterized by a dualism that sets human beings over and against the world because of the absence of God. This correlates with the basic belief of both the Gnostic and the existentialist that the universe is not ordered for the good. Jonas therefore warned of the Gnostic elements latent or fully-fledged in the modern age: nihilism, abandonment of convention, finding freedom only in death, abiding pessimism, and absolute separation of the transcendent and the immanent. The origins of these ideas could all be traced to the challenge posed by the revolution wrought by Bacon and Copernicus: if humans do not belong to a sacred order, then where are the grounds not only for belief in God, but in nature or meaning?

To Jonas, the crisis of modern times was vividly evidenced by the abandonment of concern for fellow man, and the gaping "ethical vacuum" left in its aftermath. This vacuum was made possible because humans saw their accumulated obligations and laws as mere human inventions. They saw knowledge as a tool for man to homogenize, subordinate, and mechanize nature. The world around them became worthy only for what it could offer them—not for what it was. For humans gazing at the world around them in the centuries since Francis Bacon, there was no essence. This was articulated well in a letter to Jonas by his Weimar-Jewish contemporary, Leo Strauss: "Gnosticism is the most radical rebellion against physis. Our problem now is to recover physis." Physis, from Ancient Greek, means the essence-purpose of the organic. The project was to recover the teleological understanding of nature in which ethics could be grounded.

Leo Strauss made his contribution with the magnificent Natural Right and History, which argued for the reviving of the teleological understanding of human affairs. Jonas provided The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology, the subtitle indicating that the project was only in gestation. This book (begun in 1950 and finally collected in 1966), is a masterful account of the teleology of the organic, carefully deducing "the emergent essence" of human life in several essays. It is here that Jonas' mastery and passion are most on display. In my favorite essay, "Is God a Mathematician? The Meanings of Metabolism," Jonas demonstrates how the raw churnings of the gut belie appetite, awareness, and action and that therefore, correspondingly, beings have freedom to meet these needs, sensitivity to the surrounding world, and selfhood. The Phenomenon of Life contains many articles like this one and, in concert, they begin to sketch the contours of the human essence—that core to which our actions should, first, not harm.

Sensing the moral decay of modern politics, Jonas retrieved something old, very old, as a check against modern impulses and inclinations. But Jonas does not complete the deduction of a human essence. There is no QED after the final essay. Instead, he puts forward the imperative of responsibility, a sort of prudent and humble caretaking of our inheritance. Jonas sums the imperative up by stating, "unless the present state is intolerable, the melioristic goal is in a sense gratuitous." That is to say, do not make the perfect the enemy of the good—a Burkean statement in post-Heideggerian vocabulary.

I bring up the thesis of The Imperative of Responsibility for another reason. Jonas is valuable to conservatives because he provides a rigorous, teleological argument for conservatism, especially in the realm of bioethical controversy. But Jonas can also be a corrective to contemporary thinking about humans and the outside world, more generally. Our debates about the environment often pit human-forgetting utopians against an avowed economism—both ride roughshod over the world of essences. Conservatives would do well to consider the works of Jonas, specifically The Imperative of Responsibility, that seem most challenging to their present political commitments. Perhaps conservatives could change their stripes and offer a more compelling case in debates about the environment by emphasizing conservation against the shallow utopia of the environmentalists, invoking the persistent warning, "first, do no harm." Reading Hans Jonas would be a deserved first step.


Christopher Lasch by Ajay Ravichandran

The intellectual and social historian Christopher Lasch began his career as an Old Left historian and ended it, with his death in 1994, as a self-proclaimed populist avowedly hostile to both Left and Right. A superficial glance at Lasch's work is likely to inspire at least as much doubt as confidence about his potential as a source of conservative insights. The most obvious sign of his heterodoxy, when viewed in the context of a Right that sometimes seems to be defined by Tea Party activists and Republican back-benchers railing against the Obama administration's hatred of free enterprise, is his lifelong opposition to capitalism. However, the anti-capitalism displayed in Lasch's mature period, which is expressed most fully in the magisterial intellectual history The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics and the essays collected in The Revolt of the Elites: and the Betrayal of Democracy, has much to offer conservatives. Lasch's mature anti-capitalism and the commitments which underlie it provide correctives to certain conservative positions and help to deepen our understanding of some of our most fundamental principles.

Lasch's anti-capitalism derives in large part from a deeply conservative concern, namely his fear of the free market's tendency to undermine the civic virtue necessary for a well-ordered society. His sharpest attacks on capitalism concern the way in which it makes it difficult for the typical person to manage a small property holding or practice a craft. Capitalism institutes an increasingly complex division of labor that turns most work into menial drudgery and deprives the typical person of meaningful ownership of and responsibility for his or her economic life. Lasch sees the judgment and sense of responsibility these nearly-vanished modes of life require as necessary prerequisites of good citizenship. He also points out that once the free market has liberated acquisitive individualism from societal restraint to some degree, it does not remain confined to an economic sphere designed to channel it constructively. Instead, it spreads beyond its proper limits to invade institutions like the family, institutions that play an important role in cultivating the virtues that make a democratic-capitalist society possible.

Lasch's critique of capitalism is linked to another important strand of conservative thought: its discomfort with optimism about the future of human societies. He is quite skeptical of the claims by supporters of free markets that their system can regulate itself merely by appealing to the rational self-interest of economic agents and produce abundance for all in the long-term by providing disproportionate gains to the few in the short-term. Lasch sees these notions as two among many of the utopian fantasies peddled by believers in progress, which he understands as the idea that struggle and difficulty can be eliminated entirely from human life. He sees this sort of optimism as blind to both the unpredictable vicissitudes of history and the flaws in human nature, which can only be ameliorated through the difficult work of cultivating both personal and civic virtue in oneself and others. In Lasch's view, belief in progress is an error that can lead to two undesirable outcomes. It can produce an unwarranted confidence in inevitable improvement, whose frustration then creates a bitter disillusionment that leads to near-withdrawal from life altogether. He finds both attitudes objectionable because they show no regard for the satisfactions that can only be had in a world where struggle and endeavor are necessary. These include the dignity and meaning that come only from the sense that one has triumphed in the face of obstacles and the self-transcendence that can result from intense and sustained engagement in a difficult task. Lasch therefore rejects both optimism and pessimism in favor of a disposition he calls hope, which he characterizes as a willingness to "[assert] the goodness of life in the very face of its limits."

Finally, Lasch has a distinctive understanding of the American political tradition which cuts across conventional categories and has much to offer conservatives. He traces this vision to the praise many of the Founders lavished on small farmers and craftsmen for their genuine independence and the character-forming potential of their trades. Lasch finds it exemplified most fully, however, in view widely held during 19th-century debates over industrialization and wage labor that the American experiment could not survive if a large class of citizens were made entirely dependent on others for their livelihood. These people would thereby be deprived of the dignified autonomy and close ties to family and community necessary for both a flourishing life and the discharge of civic responsibilities. Lasch takes these examples and others to show that the dominant political ideal in our history has not been the absolute negative freedom from state power which many contemporary conservatives exalt. Instead, he sees the American ideal as a society which offers every citizen substantial scope to exercise responsibility in both political and economic life as well as opportunities to form strong connections with his or her fellows. In Lasch's view, fulfilling this ideal requires the creation of an economic order that gives people real control over their work and strong families and communities which both allow for genuine interpersonal relationships and cultivate the civic virtues needed for equal participation in political life. Such a society must be protected both from intrusive public bureaucracies, since they hamper personal initiative, and market forces, which destroy community and meaningful work.

In these three strands of his mature thought, Lasch both points to tensions in the conservative political tradition that are often overlooked and provides more substantive accounts of central conservative positions. By arguing against capitalism using substantially conservative premises, he points out fundamental conflicts among some of our central commitments - conflicts that even the Right's most ardent defenders of the free market would do well to take seriously. His treatment of progress goes beyond dour skepticism about the possibility of improvement, a worldview that leads many to find conservatism dull and uninspiring, to offer a positive defense of the world that believers in progress seek to destroy. This approach provides the materials for a deeper and more nuanced opposition to the progressive impulse. And his understanding of the American political tradition provides a way for conservatives to speak to the genuine economic anxieties that many of our fellow citizens feel without lapsing into me-too-ism. Conservatives who are troubled by their ideological allies' entirely unqualified praise of laissez-faire capitalism and the simplistic certitudes that pervade much right-of-center commentary would do well to deepen and nuance these dogmatic positions by rediscovering the mature work of Christopher Lasch.


Lionel Trilling by Yiftach Ofek

Lionel Trilling (1905-1975) would probably have been surprised to find his name mentioned in a symposium dedicated to forgotten conservative writers. Apart from a youthful affiliation with the more radical ideas not uncommon in Jewish intellectual circles in the 1930's, Trilling adhered for most of his life to what was known as "anti-Communist Liberalism." Liberalism—as he himself described it in the preface to the book that brought him fame and renown, fittingly entitled The Liberal Imagination (1950)—was to Trilling "not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition" in the United States. From his point of view, at the time there were "no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation", there were merely conservative or reactionary "impulses." Still, for his consistent adherence to political liberalism, Trilling remained a great skeptic. Had he lived, he may even have gone as far as announcing a public break with liberalism itself. But he never quite went that far. That task was left to his students, writers like Norman Podhoretz and Gertrude Himmelfarb, who, heeding to their teachers' critique of both liberalism and the "conservative or reactionary ideas" that opposed it, created a new conservatism that changed forever the face of politics in this country and beyond.

The new conservatism created under Trilling's influence saw in liberalism a tendency to dehumanize us. By giving us an ever-increasing freedom, it allowed us to cultivate hedonism; by being agnostic about the type of life we should lead, it fostered nihilism; by pushing us always towards an ever greater individualism, it harbored the seeds of anarchy; by emphasizing our right to property, it turned us into property-protecting automatons, content under our mechanistic state apparatus. It was a tendency that was different only in degree from the one found in the tyrannical regime of the Soviet Union. Writing on George Orwell, Trilling celebrated the author's insight that "Russia, with its idealistic social revolution now developed into a police state, is but the image of the impending future and that the ultimate threat to human freedom may well come from a similar and even more massive development of the social idealism of our democratic culture". Yet what prevented the liberal democratic regime from spiraling down the path of tyrannical monstrosity was what Trilling identified as "culture", and culture's most insightful expression was literature.

Thus Trilling turned his gaze away from politics and toward literature, but always stood at what he termed "the bloody crossroads where politics and literature meets." "One does not go there gladly", Trilling dryly told his readers, "but nowadays it is not exactly a matter of free choice." Literature was to Trilling a powerful tool—indeed, a political tool—in exciting what he termed our "moral imagination": that element which is ultimately what makes us human. It was the moral imagination which separated democracy from tyranny, and civilization from barbarity.

But not in all literature could the moral imagination be sought. In fact, most of the literature produced in Trilling's time reflected the very opposite of his ideals. Trilling found contemporary literature characterized by a quality that he identified as "the disenchantment of our culture with culture itself." It seemed to him that "the characteristic element of modern literature, is the bitter line of hostility to civilization which runs through it". It was a reckless, dangerous quality that in the 1960's came to fruition; more powerful in its ambition, more powerful in its destructiveness. Foreseeing its results already in 1940, Trilling told his readers how to resist.

In that year Trilling published his essay "Elements That Are Wanted" in the anti-Stalinist magazine Partisan Review. There he recommended his readers, coming from various leftist backgrounds, to turn their attention to the politics of none other than the conservative T. S. Eliot. In the essay's introduction, he noted how a hundred years earlier, the liberal John Stuart Mill encouraged his similar-minded friends to read the works of—who was then considered - conservative poet S. T. Coleridge, not because of a "romantic" longing, but because Coleridge saw "further into the complexities of the human feelings and intellect." Therefore, Mill continued, Coleridge was able to "[offer] something practical" to add to a "'short and easy' politics."

By recommending conservative literature to his prejudiced readers, Trilling was in fact doing the same thing. He believed that the "individualism at its most anarchic" of Mill's time was "in large part of the ideology with which we today combat"—the anarchic tendencies of a freedom unrestrained. It was thus specifically conservative literature that would enable us to see further into man's soul.

This insight would open us to the possibilities of humanity, and help us in resisting dangerous intellectual currents that liberalism—being open as it is to all ideas and points of view—was bound to let in through the back door. Trilling always knew that liberalism, once the great defender of civilization, contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction. And as the 1960's proved him correct, as he witnessed "the present ideational and ideological status of sex, violence, madness, and art itself," we understand better his meaning in that aforementioned preface: "It has for some time seemed to me that a criticism which has at heart the interests of liberalism might find its most useful work not in confirming liberalism in its sense of general rightness but rather in putting under some degree of pressure the liberal ideas and assumptions of the present time."

As we said, Trilling never followed his own advice to its natural conclusions. The person who should with reason be referred to as the most eminent literary critic of the twentieth century was so preoccupied with liberalism's tenets that he could never admit that he was anything but an adherent. Luckily for us, it doesn't matter. What matters is that we keep reminding ourselves of those "elements that are wanted"; of those qualities of the human spirit that are crushed under tyrannies and threaten to perish under liberalism as well. What matters is that we hold steadfastly to the "moral imagination" that Trilling wrote about in beautiful, eloquent prose, and—in line with his profession—open a book. Preferably, one of Trilling's.



To participate in next quarter's symposium, look out here in the near future for the Winter 2011 topic and submit your contributions to: counterpoint.chicago@gmail.com.