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Erudite Conservativism

Dan Mahoney’s latest book brings together two of the preeminent liberal conservative thinkers of the post–Cold War era. Coming of the intellectual age during the Cold War, the grim possibility of dictatorship is never far from the surface in the copious writings of Sir Roger Scruton (1944–2020) and Pierre Manent (1949–). However, both are thinkers for our age, an age in which confidence in Western civilization has cratered and we have lost a healthy understanding of ourselves. Recovering Politics, Civilization, and the Soul is well titled, since all three elements have been marginalized in the West.

We are still free, our politics as contentious as ever. Debates in state houses, online, and in magazines are fierce, yet the “severe moralists” (Hume) grow in force: expressing some political positions and arguments that were standard fare a few years ago, today could cost you your job. It would be suicidal for a job candidate at a university to make a principled case for gun ownership or invoke Plato’s Laws for restrictions on immigration. Toleration, the hallmark of liberal democratic politics, barely clings on.

Few countries best Russia in having refined the arts of high civilization—opera, ballet, painting, literature—yet the Russo-Ukraine War of 2022 led to the cancellation of Russian arts. Another hallmark of Western civilization, a free press, has been eroded even further as honest reporting about that war evaporated.

The natural sciences and the “data” of contemporary psychology have little time for anything so nuanced as the life of the soul. Moral agency, whether resulting in virtuous habits or a guilty conscience, has been jettisoned for a Manicheanism in which speech and reason are only ever a hair’s breadth away from the accusation of unconscious racism.

At the close of his life, while enduring cancer, Sir Roger was publicly condemned after a journalist maliciously published a fictitious story about him in the New Statesman. Promptly abandoned by the Conservative Party for which he had done so much, it took well-placed friends to clear his name of the charges of anti-Semitism and homophobia. Why was a man whose writings had linked the love of the Wiltshire countryside with the love of opera targeted? Sir Roger was a victim of a phenomenon he had long since so memorably tagged “the culture of repudiation.”

How did “the culture of repudiation” become a default of the West?

A Common Front

The writings of Scruton and Manent are sensitive to the frailty of civilization. Both appreciate the tremendous Enlightenment achievement of isolating the truth of personal dignity underlying modern equality. They also appreciate the value of the great liberal separations: separation of powers, the division of labor, Church and State, and civil society and state administration. Scruton celebrates Western secularism as it secures the independence of the common law tradition, the root of English liberties.

Manent, an enthusiast of natural law, is nonetheless “at best a demi-Thomist,” for he thinks the starting point of political analysis must be a phenomenology of shared life, not deductions from political theology. Recently, Pope Francis has argued that city walls contradict charity, but in The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith observed that rule of law began behind city walls. Manent thinks it is this kind of political history that must orient our thinking. In short, Scruton and Manent love the modern West.

However, their writings sound a shared caution. The dissociative propensities of liberal democracy must be moderated, for “human beings cannot live without an experience of the whole.” Good politics, contend Scruton and Manent, must prudently manage both our modern appetite for self-determination and the ancient desire we have “to unite the various realms of human existence.” Their conservatism, therefore, champions full humanism.

If liberalism shirks the responsibility of fully grasping what it means to be human, totalitarianism lurks. The totalitarian movements of the twentieth century promised to restore the whole and, worryingly, our “politics of recognition,” wherein every iteration of human psychology demands ratification by the state, peddles another amped distortion of the ancient hope. Liberal democracy took its bearings from the Enlightenment’s sensitivity to the divisions in human life, but “radical modernity” squanders the great promise of that insight, pushing voluntarism into all human relations, intensifying the contingency of every identity and commitment, for the state must bow to “the categorical imperative of choice.”

The trick conservatism must pull off is to both affirm the genuine worth of modern equality and “refuse to identify it with indeterminate or groundless freedom.” The liberal project, conclude Scruton and Manent, has morphed into an unsustainable liberty without command, a city without citizens, and states without leadership.

Against libertarianism, Scruton insists that conservatism “has something to say about the civilized ends and purposes of human freedom.” For him, “conservatism should be a defense of government, against its abuse by liberals.” This requires conservatism to support the welfare state and environmentalism as properly conservative goals: “Conservatives conserve civilization. They conserve the government of free men and women. As such, they ought to be committed to conserving nature.” Defending the welfare state and the environment is “quintessential” conservatism because such foci must approximate Burke’s “partnership between the dead, the living, and the unborn, which Burke defended as the conservative archetype.”

Consequently, a signature Scruton contention is that the goal of conservatism is “to conserve what is best about home.” Manent and Scruton defend loyalty to the nation-state—the “only viable instrument for keeping justice and force together”—for it is the most effective continuation of humans holding one another to account. Politics cannot be healthy or competent if it abstracts itself from “common sense and common experience.” This brings a nuance. An essential part of the common is the religious, which both thinkers believe is inescapable.

Modern democracy has richer resources than many imagine and is not as dissociative as critics contend.

However, for Scruton, the religious are at the “edge of things,” enveloping the political, but discreetly. “The holy, the forbidden, the sacred, the profane, and the sentimental” are sui generis: they resist all reduction to the categories of natural science and orient politics by showing that the Good is supported by the nature of things. He thought the contemporary mildness of the Church of England pretty much ideal. Its liturgies a beautiful reminder of the transcendent, and its parsons knowing not to meddle.

By contrast, the historical record convinces Manent that religion obtrudes directly into politics. Every successful politics has had to make a conscious accommodation of religion and constantly manage what Manent dubs the “theologico-political” problem. For this reason, Manent departs from Scruton, far less sure than the Englishman that Christianity is more politically benign than other faiths. Eamon Duffy’s seminal The Stripping of the Altars shows that the English did not rush into the arms of the Protestant Reformation and that it took the consistent application of raw power to change the established customs of the people. The Manentian point is that today’s Anglican mildness is, like every religious settlement, a product of political management.

French Logic

French philosophy is known for its conceptual dexterity and Manent is a master of the fine distinctions needed to tease apart our current predicament. “Scruton is more concerned with saving the residues of high culture and our inherited tradition; Manent with renewing the possibilities of human action and practical reason.” Manent’s many books chronicle the history of ideas and his interest in action makes him cleave to the writings of the Greeks.

Influenced by Leo Strauss, he is skeptical that Christianity can do justice to the political nature of man as it is in tension with pagan ideas of ambition and pride in self. Liberalism took form in the Early Modern period when Western thinkers became preoccupied once more with ancient ideals of political action. “In Manent’s view, there is a “noble risk” in accepting our liberal “temporal order” and bringing Christian conscience and classical wisdom to bear in humanizing and elevating it.”

Perhaps more than Scruton, Manent is sensitive to the fact that Christian charity loosened our attachment not merely to tribe but also to place and nation. It made the idea of an earthly home problematic, which, as Manent adroitly shows, accomplished two things. The universalism of Christian love weakened the bonds of the city—it marginalized the Greek polis—and made consent the basis of marriage and oath of allegiance. Conscience—and modern liberty—developed at the cost of fierce loyalty to community. The obtruding of religion into politics, therefore, fostered the refinements in humanism that we all enjoy now.

The downsides, of course, are very real. Western tradition might be our home, but it seems to be optional. If I want to give my loyalty to Asian culture or Islam, I’m at liberty to do so. The state has also been put on notice: I can withdraw consent at any time. I have no boss. Hence the sickening spectacle of political chumminess.

Mahoney observes so well “the ostentatious search for democratic informality,” evident in the cloying bonhomie of a Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, or Jacques Chirac. At its worst, this fraudulent sentimentality bespeaks depoliticization and collusion in a fantasy that in the modern democratic order there are no rulers, no risks, and no decisions. Chronicling the history of ideas strengthens Manent’s theorizing: he recalls to our politics the discipline of antique republicanism that liberty is “by no means incompatible with an affirmation of ontological and political limits.”

Reservations

Following Manent, Mahoney thinks Sir Roger was overly anxious to separate the West from other world polities and overplayed the thoroughgoingness of its secularism. The history of ideas shows that Scruton overstates as uniquely liberal the great bargain in which citizens gained security and freedom in exchange for their consent. Furthermore, Scruton spoke powerfully about the need for trust and forgiveness in politics but his attachment to secularism obscures the essential role of religion’s development of conscience—which even Nietzsche commended—that makes trust and forgiveness possible.

In fairness, Mahoney concedes, the early Manent had, like Scruton, overstressed the uniqueness of liberalism and obscured the uneasy genetic connection it shares with Christian belief. Mahoney points out that this genetic connection is, in fact, a warning to more radical Christian political theorists, like Carl Schmitt, and today’s integralists: consent can generate voluntary and lasting attachments. Modern democracy has richer resources than many imagine and is not as dissociative as critics contend.

Recovering Politics, Civilization, and the Soul is a collection of essays written over the last few years. The essays alternate between Scruton and Manent. Most are short, which makes the book easy to dip into and “chapters” end with suggested readings. This is a good structure and there is little repetition. Together, the essays make an excellent on-ramp for readers to further mine the riches of these thinkers.

Happily, the volume begins with a synoptic essay but, the journey traveled, I wish there had been a similar concluding essay, recapping comparisons and contrasts. Two of the essays are not especially relevant: one reviews French thinkers in and around Manent and another surveys resistance writings in the Eastern bloc during the Cold War. Both our thinkers were influenced by these writings. Neither of these chapters are irrelevant exactly, but they perhaps take space away from other more urgent themes.

Personally, I think the volume is weakened by not having an essay on what Scruton and Manent think about the economy. Both have plenty to say on the topic and ours is a time when the erudite left is resuscitating Marx and the popular right is demanding a more just industrial policy. Partisans of the hard left and hard right will outflank liberal conservatives if the phenomenology of our current shared life is not honestly addressed, such as horrible levels of poverty in the richest country that has ever existed. Sir Roger and Pierre Manent could be useful guides out of the mess.

Another chapter might have been along the lines of “writer meets critics.” There seems to be a need. Manent shows that a politics of consent arose in the Middle Ages but post-liberals of left and right harken to another continuation of the Middle Ages. Modernity, they contend, is a political theology, inauthentically trading on the play, ritual, liturgies, festivals, and acclamations of old. The left bemoans that we are not sincerely free for this reason and the right mocks the irrationalism wantonly relished by we “oh-so-ever-sophisticated” moderns: the Passion Plays attending the George Floyd rallies and the jesters of the January 6th escapade are not signs of political health.

These “modern” impulses can only be redirected by the austerity of rituals derived from the rationality of orthodox theology, contends the post-liberal right. The left does not entirely disagree: authenticity and political hygiene demand an excavation of what really drives us moderns and then a proper exorcism of all theologies can start. A useful chapter would show how Scruton’s personalist aesthetics speaks directly to these impulses and how Manent’s conceptual virtuosity delivers a tolerant but disciplined political rationality.

But even without these wished-for chapters, Mahoney’s latest volume is a timely on-ramp to access the vital resources these theorists have to offer conservative humanism.

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