Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Conserving America? Essays On Present Discontents, Patrick J. Deneen (VIII)

Dr. Deneen asks, "What is conservatism?" in this essay of the same name. He asserts that what we know as an ascendant conservatism in the US since 1980 isn't conservatism at all, in fact, but another form of liberalism. Noting that the program we can identify in politics is achievable but incoherent, he cites Edmund Burke's opinion that the very notion that the goods to be achieved ought to be sought primarily in politics is fundamentally anti-conservative.

Indeed, Deneen appeals to four thinkers that define and promote the type of conservatism he commends: Aristotle, Vico, Burke, and Tocqueville. In the main, they concur with one another (and with Deneen) that to separate people from their families and communities in favor of a new political arrangement, centered around the alleged autonomous individual, is to ultimately frustrate his happiness in the fullest sense.

In the case of Tocqueville, we have already seen through his eyes how democratic government plays to man's baser instincts, his restiveness, and discontentment. Tocqueville believes that all this is a manifestation of man's fear of death.

Vico, a lesser-known Italian theorist, critiqued the truncated sense of moral obligation arising from the thought of especially John Locke, and Descartes. One could speculate that Descartes' epistemology drives his political theory. If man cannot trust his sense data, but must ground what he knows in his ability to think, then there is no discernible reality or law to which the man, or any political organization of men, is subject.

Tocqueville, says Deneen, believed that "forms," or for lack of a better term, manners, could maintain a meaningful connection to the virtues that maintain society. But in fact, that impatience with forms he mentions as characteristic of democracy has accelerated. As a result, I can't see how the maintenance of aristocracy, at least with respect to virtue, is possible. I lament that I have written such a morose sentence, and even so, that it accurately reflects my assessment of the situation.

I sense the positivism of John Rawls lurking as an end-point to Deneen's accounting of what has been lost, and I haven't even read Rawls. I also recall more than twenty years ago, when the mere mention of natural law was supposed to doom the nomination of a Supreme Court justice. In recent days, I lament that Judge Gorsuch (or anyone, for that matter) can't say, "I would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, because it violates natural law, and jurists have no authority outside of natural law." If I may, should I be pleased that great intellectuals have to provide cover for nominated judges, to the effect that "of course he thinks Roe is settled law, don't be ridiculous"?

Doubtless, Deneen will say (echoing Plato) that because politics is downstream from culture, as it were, we cannot expect politics to be an area where virtue can be modeled in the present situation. That is, in the short-term. But it might be said that perhaps politics has accelerated cultural decay, and is not merely reflective of that decay. In that event, we could still use some courageous politicians.

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