The Stabat Mater, a medieval poem, teaches human beings how to suffer well.
In his 1950 defense of American liberalism, Lionel Trilling famously said that conservatives expressed themselves in “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” In his recently published The Reactionary Mind: Why “Conservative” Isn’t Enough, Michael Warren Davis seems to celebrate this charge. His book is, at its heart, a series of irritable mental gestures aimed at contemporary liberal and mainstream conservatism nostrums. One will find individual critiques but no sweeping ideological program or synthesis of data. The book appears at a time when reactionaries are experiencing something of a boomlet. From Catholic integralism to Bronze Age Pervert, some on the American Right seem fed up with defending American republicanism and existing political institutions. What is odd is that Davis’s particular reactionary position is one that has had much less of a share in this boomlet—the old Chestertonian distributist living on his farm, smoking his pipe, and working only to live a modest, cultured life.
The book is difficult to review. On the one hand, Davis does not seem to take himself very seriously, but, on the other hand, he wants to write a serious book. The reviewer is left in a bind. To write a review, it is necessary to take both the author and his book seriously. I have no choice but to treat the entire book as a serious effort, but in doing so I place myself at risk of taking Davis too seriously, to wit, “Come on, man, it’s not that serious.” I can only say, in my defense, that if Davis was serious enough to write this book, then I owe him a serious review.
The Reactionary Mind has two parts. The first part addresses the history and development of reactionary ideas, and the second is a reactionary prescription for contemporary ills.
Davis is an example of what I have heard described as a “Chesterbro,” or a twenty-first-century man attempting to recover the worldview of early twentieth-century British conservative authors like C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and G. K. Chesterton. For Davis, the best life is that lived in a village of farmers and craftsmen capable of living out happy lives unbothered by the excess of industrial capitalism and the secular, bureaucratic state. Such a life is the life of a Hobbit in Hobbiton, eating bread and cheese, drinking at the pub, and working honest work with one’s hands. It is a thoroughly apolitical vision, especially for the purported reactionary. “The whole point of reactionary politics,” Davis says, “is to minimize the political.” Davis seems to be speaking for himself; other reactionaries like Joseph de Maistre and Carl Schmitt stoked a friend and enemy distinction precisely to restore the political to its central position and then foment conflict between friends and enemies to yield a result. Davis, on the other hand, is an oddly liberal version of a reactionary.
Reactionary politics historically has sought to use industry and the state to reconstruct a traditional order like the Salazar propaganda poster, “A Lição de Salazar” (Salazar’s Lesson) in which a man enters his house with a knapsack over his shoulder, his wife at the hearth, and his children rushing to greet him. The bottom of the poster says, “Deus, Pátria, Família: A Trilogia da Educação Nacional” (God, Fatherland, Family: The National Education Trilogy). The content of the poster is deeply traditional, but the method of its production was industrial, as many of the same posters were printed and distributed, and it was under the sponsorship of an authoritarian state led by António de Oliveira Salazar. In essence, Davis wants the poster without the regime behind it. More precisely, he wants to live in the poster.
Moreover, Davis believes that the world in this poster was once the world people like Davis lived in. While Catholic integralists imagine Christendom from the commanding heights, Davis imagines it as a contented peasant, which is perhaps why Davis dismisses Catholic integralism as an anachronistic reading of modern politics back into the Catholic Middle Ages. Davis favors the medieval social order himself but not because of its Church-State relations but rather because “the locus of power wasn’t those great castles or cathedrals. Real authority was found in the avenues of common life: minor liege-lords and humble parish priests, guilds, and fraternities. … All government was local government, and all businesses were small businesses.”
Given Davis’s love of medieval Europe, the reader should not be surprised that the first half of the book is replete with arguments about the deforming influences of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, industrialism, capitalism, and socialism. Davis prefers the hierarchical unity of the peasant under the lord and both under the Church. The dramatic changes to this order are purely external, like plagues or famine. How could they not be? Everyone in medieval Christendom already lived the best life; no one in the hierarchical order would want any other life.
Davis’s romantic view of the Middle Ages is taken for granted despite piles of documentary evidence to the contrary. Peasants were often unhappy conscripts in pointless territorial disputes and suffered all kinds of abuse. He affirms that there were no massive conflicts like those of modern warfare, as if the Crusades suffered no casualties, and that the Middle Ages lacked genocides—as if the Rhineland Massacres never happened. Many enterprising, untitled men struggled to ply a trade as guilds tightly controlled the market for skilled labor, and merchants constantly fought with the Church and aristocracy over their practice. Does the rise of early market economies in the Hanseatic League count as one of the scourges of modernity or the scenery of the imagined halcyon days of medieval Christendom? Davis praises book reading as a reactionary practice, but what was more of a revolutionary cultural event than the invention of the printing press? These arguments amount to the reactionary social media memes calling us to “RETVRN TO TRADITION,” which often feature propaganda posters like those Salazar printed.
Perhaps the best critique of this view comes not from scholarship but from an old stand-up routine by Patton Oswalt from his 2007 special, My Weakness Is Strong, in which he says the following about giving birth before modern medicine: “Ah, yes, the pioneer women having their babies out in a little cabin they made out of bison poop or whatever wood was left over after the stagecoach went into the gully. Do you know what they were dreaming about then? Hospitals!”
Living like the Postmodern Peasant
The second half of the book concerns how to live one’s life as a Chestertonian reactionary. The first is to resist the call of the modern economy, wherein women and men work in large industries and abandon hearth and home to pursue frivolous consumption. To that end, he recommends Americans establish a protectionist economic regime, eschew reading journalism, abandon public education, reduce dependence on technology for leisure time, protect the environment, and avoid the gym in favor of long, strenuous walks. This section of the book is much more fun since it is less bogged down with the pastoral imaginary he presupposes medieval Englishmen enjoyed.
The case for protectionism amounts to slowing down the rapid economic growth responsible for dissolving natural communities. The blame he rests on industrial capitalism is mostly emotional, drawing the reader’s attention to unpopular COVID-19 responses while recommending universal basic income. There is good reason to suppose that American welfare policy has, in fact, added to the misery of Americans who experience a bare existence on the public dole without working with their hands. There is something deeply contradictory in wishing to create Hobbiton by honest work and finding a fibromyalgia diagnosis to qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance.
His criticisms of journalism and technology are good, though a little naïve. For example, he says, “It was the peasants, in their simplicity, piety, and common sense who saw through all the made theories” of their day. These same peasants also massacred cats because of their association with evil and witchcraft. Abolishing public schools seems like a non-starter, although creating alternatives has been incredibly good for people of faith seeking alternatives to increasing ideological education in many public schools.
The chapter on protecting the environment finds Davis praising two very unlikely statesmen, Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson. While I suppose they incidentally share some ideas with Davis—such as Roosevelt’s conservation efforts and Jefferson’s love of yeomanry—the celebration of warrior progressive and a child of the Enlightenment is a contradiction left unaddressed.
Finally, the love of nature and the call for more time spent exercising in it is a great idea, but I’m not sure if this is something that really needs explaining. Hiking, skiing, mountain biking, and all manner of outdoor hobbies are huge industries, and their practice is actually linked historically to environmentalism. As my friend Joshua Bowman reminded us in his recent talk at Ave Maria University, the Sierra Club began as a hiking club!
One area where Davis is flat wrong is his condemnation of cigars in favor of pipes. He calls pipe-smoking a “secular ritual” that enhances conversation and contemplation while cigars are “disgusting.” I will not tolerate this kind of slander against the cigar, although I do prefer a pipe myself sometimes.
A Conversation Among Friends
As the reader may have noticed, I have had some difficulty in taking Davis too seriously in his book, as I set out to do. Perhaps this is for the best. Davis has written down his thoughts on the good life and his opinions about how to improve it. Some of these are poorly supported and others are more considered. He is more interested in inviting the reader to consider things from his point of view than he is in indoctrinating or building a public policy program. It is unfair to ask this from the kind of reactionary politics he supports.
Perhaps the problem is with his choice of term. Davis no longer counts as a “reactionary” anymore, given how politics has shifted in American conservatism. His defense of the local, the relational, and the sense of place is deeply compelling, even if his political recommendations need reconsidering. In fact, I wish today’s reactionaries were more like Davis, since he is someone I could certainly sit down with to talk things out while smoking a pipe—or a cigar!