Friday, March 10, 2006

America, Conservatives, and The Enlightenment

Via Paul Cella, I see that our midwestern Rabelaisian friends over at The New Pantagruel have an interesting article up. It's on the supposed disconnect between American conservatism and the Enlightenment, of which conservatives wrongly consider themselves to be heirs, and how to put American conservatism on a surer, more Christian footing. Daniel Larison makes a lot of assumptions, duly noted as such, and proceeds to lay out his case. It's a solid read, and I won't presume to try to summarize it further.

But I've gotta confess: even though I'm as prone to rose-colored nostalgia as anyone else, I don't feel comfortable with the impulse to build a better yesterday.

Where American conservatism could not go, and where its founders did not want to take it, was towards a thoroughgoing repudiation of the entire liberal tradition all the way back to its seventeenth-century champions.

That may not have been a tactical mistake, so much as a function of the blunt fact that All Passes, Nothing Returns. Ideas germinate, grow, spew their spores, and sink back into the loam. Can't reverse the process.

The accommodation of Enlightenment liberalism and Christianity only seems plausible provided that neither is taken to its logical conclusions and only so long as one does not think too hard about what both must imply about the nature of man and society.

But what if this very inconsistency is one of the wellsprings of the dynamic nature of the American character? It seems to me that holding this type of contradiction (if it really is a contradiction) in suspension has produced much of what is valuable and enduring in America.

Besides, just as force should not always be exerted to its uttermost extreme, so ideas should not always be followed to their logical conclusions.

So go read it, and see what you think. I'm too much the moderate Protestant to go along with his prescriptions, YMMV.

The piece did remind me of this great quote, though:

Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, "Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good..." At this point he is somewhat excusable knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp post, the lamp post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmedieval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, today, tomorrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.
--G. K. Chesterton, Heretics, 1905

That GKC--how does someone so dead manage to stay so contemporary?


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