How I became a reactionary

When you think about it, my fellow reactionaries, it’s really something of a miracle that there are any of us at all.  Once upon a time, many people grew up traditionalist, but not any more.  We all started out as Liberals of some sort.  Like most of you, I started out as a classical Liberal, meaning belief in democracy, the social contract, sexual equality, and stuff like that.  I was never brainwashed into being passionate about it; it’s just that I was never made aware of the fact that there was any alternative to these ideas except outright despotism and slavery.  One doesn’t get passionate about the obvious.  It is quite easy in today’s world to go through life without questioning the basic premisses of Liberalism, or even imagining that they can be rationally doubted.  It’s very difficult to recognize and escape this mental prison.  Here’s how I did it.

Had someone asked me during high school, I would have expressed complete confidence in the following principles:

  1. It’s okay to do something as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.
  2. We should always be suspicious of authority and see that it is properly checked and monitored.

Just about everyone agrees with these principles, but together they constitute the Leftist worldview that has desacralized the world, decimated the family, and eviscerated the Church.

Even though I agreed with these principles, I did have certain intuitions–hardly distinct enough to be thoughts–whose incompatibility with them I had begun to suspect.  The first was my romantic view of the proper relations between the sexes.  This probably came from the fact that, being physically unattractive and socially awkward, girls were unattainable to me.  They never lost the aura of enchantment and mystery for me.  I never became a cynic like so many of my peers whose sensibility to women was destroyed by easy conquest.  I remember having a desperate, years-long crush on a girl in my class.  It was utterly hopeless, of course.  I became fascinated with stories about unrequited love.  A proper ending always involved the hero’s death.  The idea of him moving on to another girl seemed obscene.  A Tale of Two Cities was one of my favorite books at the time.  Given my later interests, it’s surprising that I ignored the stuff about the French Revolution and just concentrated on the love story.  Sydney Carton sacrificing his life to save Lucy’s husband–that was my idea of love.  The essence of love, as I saw it, was throwing one’s life away for one’s beloved.  For this reason, the only arrangement for lovers that seemed right to me (that didn’t involve death) was the Catholic arrangement of indissolveable marriage.  Through its irrevocability, it was able to capture this “thowing away”, this complete donation of one’s life.  Catholic marriage is like death, and that recommended it to me.  And if a couple decides that they (or at least one of them) would be happier splitting up?  By principle #1 above, I should have to accept this, but I couldn’t.  The idea was revolting.  It took a beautiful thing and made it meaningless.  Add the possibility of divorce, and this sacred realm is profaned by the spirit of calculation.  How could I resolve this clash between belief and intuition?  For many years, by just not thinking about it.

The other issue on which my feelings clashed with liberalism was over the issue of fatherhood and filial piety.  I remember once catching part of a television show on PBS about the spread of domestic abuse legislation.  The show was very Liberal triumphalist:  a hundred years ago, it implied, most fathers were brutal torturers, and they would be again except that the State now monitors them closely to protect poor, innocent wives and children.  As I watched, I became more and more enraged, but not in the way I was supposed to be.  I was supposed to be enraged by the brutality of fathers.  But while I have always disapproved of child abuse, what upset me what the disrespectful attitude towards fathers.  “They should not be talking about fathers this way.  They’re throwing dirt on something beautiful.  If the State does have to intervene to stop child abuse, it should do so discretely, and not boast about it, because it is wrong for people to even think this way about fatherhood.”  I had the same sense, which I had before on the issue of divorce, that something sacred was being treated irreverently.  This is, I later came to appreciate, the core conservative intuition.

For a long time, I’ve had a particular admiration for fatherhood.  Filial piety comes easily to me.  As a kid, whenever I’d watch movies about rebellious children clashing with their fathers, I always took the fathers’ side, and I was angry when the movies themselves sided with the children.  Why was this?  It must have helped that my father himself is in every way an admirable man.  As a provider, a teacher, and an example, my debt to him is incalculable.  Equally important, though, was that, as the oldest child, I got to help babysit my younger siblings.  I’m about 12 years older than the youngest, so watching and playing with her gave me a taste of the adult’s role as caretaker and protecter for children.  I had no trouble seeing that this is a sacred calling.  Everywhere I looked, I saw parents living sacrificial lives for their children.  Perhaps somewhere in my home town a child was being abused, but shall we let this blind us to the central fact of an institution that elicits self-donation at its finest?

The trouble, again, is that my attitude that we should not even think bad thoughts about fathers was in direct contradiction with principle #2.  If fathers are authorities–and they surely are–then shouldn’t their authority be checked?  Shouldn’t we be suspicious of them and guard against abuses of their authority?  Again, I solved the contradiction by not thinking about it.

One day as an undergraduate I was wandering aimlessly through the university library, and my eyes spotted a book entitled Aristotle for Everyone, by Mortimer Adler.  I remember thinking to myself that it might be nice to know a little philosophy, and since the book was quite short and looked like a very small investment of effort, I checked it out.  Exposure to Aristotle, even in this popularized form, turned out to be a major event for me, because it showed me that one could make a credible ethical system out of something other than the “no-hurt” principle, and one could make a credible political theory out of something other than the “social contract” and suspicion of authority.  From the reasonable idea that things have natures, Aristotle reasoned that they could have natural ends.  Human nature finds its fulfillment in the polis; therefore, the state is not an artifice designed to further the wishes of the governed, but a natural means through which we find our natural fulfillment.  “Consent of the governed” is never invoked, but the Aristotelian state is nevertheless both reasonable and humane.  The social contract can be questioned, and once it could be questioned, I quickly found it repugnant–a replacement of noble patriotism with mercenary calculations of self-interest.

Soon afterward, I read Frederick Copleston’s introduction to Thomas Aquinas, and I was surprised to find that classical theistic metaphysics actually has strong arguments in its favor, arguments that modern science has done nothing to discredit.  In time, I would read some of the primary sources, the major works of Aristotle and St. Thomas themselves.  Thomism gave me a richer mental framework, one that accommodated far more of my intuitions about human nature and morality than the utilitarianism we all pick up from the surrounding culture.

Still, there were lingering problems with my new philosophy.  The emphasis on intrinsic teleology had the great advantage of giving morality and objective ground, but it had the disadvantage that morality still seems to be reduced to a higher form of self-interest.  One easily gets the impression that morality, virtue, and even God Himself are reduced to means for fullfilling one’s telos.  I don’t remember if this concern came to me from reading Kant; more likely it had been with me all along.  There are answers to this criticism of course, e.g. that by making the apprehension and indwelling of God to be man’s end, God is lifted from the realm of mere means.  Then there is Aristotle’s writings on friendship, and Thomas’ on charity.  Still, the emphasis in teleological morality seemed off.

One day, I came across a review of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Man and Woman on a Catholic weblog.  It sounded good, and I managed to find it in the university library.  (Like many great reactionary books, it’s out of print, but I later found and ordered a used copy.)  Von Hildebrand had the same problems with Aristotle that I did, so he formulated a different ethical theory based on value response.  Reading this book, and later his Christian Ethics, I finally found an ethics that gave due centrality to the claims of reverence as I had intuited them.  Values are not means to ends, but things recognized for their own sake.  Von Hildebrand also had developed a rich philosophy of love that captured and exceeded my intuitions about self-donation.  He also defended without apology the goodness of distinct gender roles.  My only criticism of von Hildebrand’s writings on marital love is that they give too little emphasis to parenthood, to the paternal and maternal roles, an oversight I try to correct in my Defense of Patriarchy.

The elements of a new worldview were now falling into place.  There was only one piece missing:  an understanding of the distinct essence of social authority.  My thinking at this point was still overly individualistic; it was entirely focused on value responses by individuals and ignored the possibility of value responses by an organic community.  About this time, I picked up an old copy of Fustel de Coulagnes’ The Ancient City in a used bookstore.  This book impressed me by showing how an entire civilization can be built up from an idea of the sacred.  I think I was rather fonder of the pagan religion of the Greeks and Romans than was the author.  About the same time, I read Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics and Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane, which tried to show that all societies are built upon sacred symbols.  From Abbot Vonier, I learned that understanding the signification of symbols is the key to understanding the sacraments.  Just as Aristotle had taught me to see human fulfillment as an objective thing, Eliade and Vonier led me to see the meaning of symbols as objective and not merely conventional.  Putting these together, a vision of society started to emerge–the social order is a sort of icon, a language of symbols, that helps us see God in the world.

With all the pieces available, I set out to put them together.  This is what I’ve been doing on this weblog.

In retrospect, the most important thing that led me to this point was my refusal to reject my intuitions to acheive logical consistency with my beliefs.  I was unusually willing to be unreasonable, perhaps because of the intellectual laziness of my youth.  This whole journey could have been easily short-circuited if I had just dismissed my feelings about romance and parenthood as bigotry, superstition, and the like.  I am convinced, though, that it’s better to endure temporary contradiction than risk missing out on an integral part of the truth.

To any reader patient enough to make it this far:  I would be very interested to hear your story.

10 Responses

  1. Well, before I read Nicolás Gómez Dávila, one of the most important influences on my thinking was a class on early modern philosophy (Bacon through Kant). The professor was an Aristotelian, and the most intriguing theme was: We’ve seen all these modern errors before, and Aristotle has already dealt with them.

  2. Neat. I wish I would have taken a class like that.

  3. I’ve been interested in American politics for a long time, and have always measured my political beliefs chiefly by American standards rather than Scandinavian or European ones, even though I’m Norwegian. For quite a long time, my political beliefs consisted of about 40% American movement conservatism and 60% libertarianism — this in a country where anyone who utters the word “privatization” or suggests immigration restrictions is considered an idiot and/or fascist and/or evil monster and every major political party is to the left of the left wing of the Democratic Party.

    My move to traditionalism began when, at about the same time, I encountered Patrick Allitt’s Teaching Company course The Conservative Tradition and an online video of Roger Scruton’s speech Harming Oneself and Harming Others. Scruton gave me an “a-ha moment” similar to the one Aristotle gave you, and I realized for the first time that there are actually intellectually respectable arguments for social conservatism and against utilitarianism. Allitt, meanwhile, showed me that conservatism, contrary to what National Review would have me believe, had historically been anti-capitalist, anti-modernist, and anti-democratic.

    It dawned on me just how hegemonic was liberalism’s control over the West, and I was also coming to realize that liberalism is a philosophically weak system which fails to account for any of the things that make life beautiful and worthwhile. This as well as other influences, among them this blog, led me even farther to the Right, towards the continental counterrevolutionary tradition in which I place myself today.

  4. First I returned to the Catholic Church (I had been a poorly-catechised cradle Catholic who had lapsed), and the most intellectual of the factors leading towards my re-conversion was that I had been groping blindly towards distributivist ideas, and when I learned that Chesterton and Belloc and Rerum Novarum had been there first, that motivated me to take Catholics and the Church much more seriously.

    At some point, I began thinking of myself as a conservative, but I only really started becoming a conservative when I read Roger Scuton’s The Meaning of COnservatism and realised what a paradigm shift it was for me. It’s a short book, but I had to read it several times, in conjunction with articles on traditionalist/conservative websites, before I started understanding it.

  5. The class was taught by a Straussian, but he was actually quite good.

    I too read Voegelin’s New Science of Politics and Eliade’s Myth and Reality and was impressed, though I certainly didn’t understand them fully. Another very good book, and one that is much easier to understood, is Robert Kraynak’s Christian Faith and Modern Democracy.

  6. I wasn’t much of anything during high school–although I was dutifully homeschooled by my mom, I didn’t really learn that much from the philosophy I read. I did know of someone older than me, however, who was a monarchist, to which doctrine I unreasoningly adhered–and have continued to do so, albeit slightly less unreasoningly.

    Then I went to Christendom College, where I met a number of teachers who have inspired me. Dr. Christopher Blum–who has translated a number of your works, Bonald, from French–was somewhat of an inspiration for me, both in the ideals he espoused and in the manner of life he seemed to live. Another teacher, Dr. Cuddeback, acted similarly. Sadly, Dr. Blum left after my Sophomore year, so I never was able to take his critics of the Enlightenment class.

    In any event, Christendom gave me a very Thomistic and Aristotelian grounding, with a great idea of the importance of the political order vis-a-vis virtue, the imagination, and some basic metaphysics. I got a smattering of the Carlist movement, ultramontanism, agrarianism, distributism, and other things while I was there as well.

    Unfortunately, I was an intern at Heritage for a summer. This resulted in about six months of anarcho-capitalism–thankfully, I bounced back fully from that, and gained a greater understanding of the necessity of certain things by looking at the flaws of von Mises.

    My voracious reading of works by my nom-de-plume, Dr. Wilhelmsen, whose metaphysics I now mostly follow, also influenced me–these seem to be essentially those of Norris Clarke, S.J., whom I am now reading more of. I suppose listing my metaphysical predilections may seem unnecessary to some, but I think existential Thomistic metaphysics has important implications. But that is an aside.

    Wilhelmsen also influenced my political views, as did his friend, Brent Bozell; both of them fought the doomed fight against the big tent pseudo-conservative libertarian movement, and doomed themselves to obscurity by it.

  7. I notice that both rkirk and Brock pointed to Roger Scruton as a big influence. He was for me too…eventually. I remember when I first read “The Meaning of Conservatism” it completely baffled me; I couldn’t make anything of it. I guess I wasn’t far enough along the road to reaction, and Scruton’s ways of thinking were just too alien to me. Plus, where was nothing about religion, abortion, sexual morality, or fighting the communists, the things I thought conservatism was about. (And it parly is–we do a lot of “God and sex” material here.)

    On rereading the book, I was really impressed by Scruton’s phenomenological approach, his idea that it’s okay to be concerned with how people experience things and not just with what they are “deep down”. His “law of appearances” has had a big affect on my approach to social problems.

  8. Nice to meet you, Mr. Wilhelmsen. So you’ve actually met Christopher Blum? That’s awesome. Those of us who think of ourselves as followers of continental European conservatism but don’t actually speak French owe him a big debt. Christendom College sounds like a reactionary’s dream. I wonder why Blum left.

    I believe that it was from Norris Clarke that I was first exposed to the idea that Thomas Aquinas did more than just parrot Aristotle. Still, Barry Miller’s metaphysics trilogy is, I think, the strongest argument for (basically) the Thomist position that I’ve come across. The pseudo-conservative libertarian movement apparently did a good job effacing the reputation of Dr. Wilhelmsen, because I’ve never heard of him.

  9. Dr. Blum and Dr. Fahey, Thomas More College’s current president, both emigrated from Christendom at the same time–I think at least one of them may have had family near there, and I’m sure that, as two of Christendom’s more conservative professors, they planned on supporting each other there, but I’m not sure of all their motivations. Since they arrived TMC seems to have been undergoing some rather significant changes

    Unfortunately haven’t read all of Miller’s metaphysics trilogy–just the Fullness of Being. A Most Unlikely God is sitting on my shelf, and, sadly, seems likely to do so for some time. tells you a little bit about Wilhelmsen. He wasn’t perfect in his personal life . . . but no one is. He was also connected with the magazine Triumph, which was connected with the founding of Christendom College, so I feel I ought to hold him in honor in some way.

  10. F. Wilhelmsen,

    Thanks for the link. There is still a lot I have to learn about the intellectual history of the Right.

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