The Chronicle Review on Conservative Violence

I suppose conservatives must take what attention from academia we can get.  In an essay at the Chronicle of Higher Education (linked on Arts and Letters Daily today), Professor Corey Robin argues that conservatives love violence, that our bloodlust derives from core conservative principles, and that glorification of war has been a constant theme in conservative thought.  Before discussing this thesis, let me make some general positive comments about Robin’s article.  First, it does treat conservatism as a body of thought, rather than dismissing it immediately as irrational viciousness.  This is something we would like to encourage.  (True, he despises this body of thought and thinks that its main function is to justify irrational viciousness, but this is still an improvement.)  Second, he quotes two genuinely nonliberal authors, Burke and Schmitt, and alludes to de Maistre (whose Saint Petersburg Dialogues could have given him even better quotes).  What’s more, his excerpt from Burke is from his The Sublime and the Beautiful, not Reflections on the Revolution in France, so he’s making some effort to understand Burke’s overall philosophy, and not just his explicitly conservative arguments.  True, Robin mixes in some liberal authors, such as Francis Fukuyama, whose The End of History and the Last Man celebrates the triumph of democracy and capitalism and joyfully anticipates the final eradication of tradition, authority, and religion, and who Robin inexplicably mistakes for a conservative.  Let us grant that Professor Robin comes as close to studying the Right seriously as one finds in today’s academic environment.

Unfortunately, the result is still quite disappointing.  The writings Robin discusses might have provided readers with their first exposure to the conservative understanding of society, but this opportunity is closed off by the perverse misreadings he applies.  The article’s core piece of evidence concerns Burke’s observation that fearfulness can be an element of the Sublime.  Robin then goes on to speculate that a central preoccupation of conservatism is make a political order that allows people to experience sublimity.  Although he presents no evidence for this, I think it is, in a sense, true.  Conservatives do wish to preserve social forms that give men the sense of participating in a sacred order, thus bringing God’s majesty “down to Earth” through authority and ritual.  This is not what Robin means, however.  He sees two ways that conservatives seek the Sublime.  The first is through hierarchy, which he sees as the overriding of the strong by the weak, giving conservatives the thrill of dominion.  This is indeed the way liberals understand authority and hierarchy–and why they oppose them.  It is not, however, the way conservatives understand these things, and one can’t understand the first thing about conservatives until one understands how we experience hierarchy.  For us, obedience to legitimate authority is an ennobling and not a degrading act.  In any event, Robin realizes that conservatives become bored once we’ve crushed the spirits of our serfs too thoroughly, so we turn to war–our other access to the Sublime.  Or rather, we send other people to war, since danger only maintains its sublimity from a distance.  So, according to Robin, conservatism is a campaign to enslave some of our fellow men while sending the rest off to die in pointless wars.

Needless to say, Burke never said anything about domination or war being a preferred path to spiritual awakening.  The whole argument is based on a profound misunderstanding of sublimity.  First, apprehension of the Sublime is an intentional state, not an emotional thrill or objectless feeling.  It presupposes a certain level of detatchment, an ability to let the object speak to us.  This is why it’s lost when the sublime object becomes an imminent threat.  A lion is an awesome animal, and part of its awe comes from its dangerous power, but you wouldn’t be registering this awe if a lion were actually chasing you.  Then you’d be occupied by more practical concerns.  Burke certainly never recommended sending other people off to die in war so that Tories can get a vicarious thrill.  Nor has any other conservative that I’m aware of.

As I said, the whole thing is quite a missed opportunity.  Robin was right to start with the idea of the Sublime.  A better path might have been from awe to the numinous to the holy.  Then he would have really penetrated the psyche of conservatives.

The quote from Carl Schmitt, his famous idea that the fundamental categories in politics are “friend” and “enemy”, he understands no better.  What is the clarity that Schmitt thought came with the friend/enemy distinction?  Robin assimilates it into his thesis that conservatives are looking for an emotional thrill of non-imminent danger.  However, for Schmitt, as for Burke, the goal was not emotional, but intellectual.  Recognizing the existence of the enemy meant recognizing that the body politic and the order it represents are vulnerable.  It is a call for someone (for Schmitt, a strong executive) to take responsibility for preserving this order.  Politics can never be reduced to following neutral procedures or enforcing “rights”, as he accused the parliamentary democrats and liberals of wishing to do.  Rather than blindly following rules, someone has to look out for the order itself.

Is there a distinctly conservative attitude toward war?  It’s not clear, since the relations between states has never been a central concern of conservative theory.  The latter has most often considered single communities and their traditions, with relations between communities being treated (when at all) as a complication.  More often it’s the conservative’s critic who brings up the issue of other peoples and their different ways.  So far from needing outsiders to kill, conservatism might actually be conceptually easier if there were only one nation.  Nevertheless, conservatives’ vision of internal order may logically spill over into a foreign policy.  Whether this is so is the question Professor Robin raises, and it is an interesting one.  His attempt to answer it was hindered not only by his own evident prejudice, but also by a lack of conservative intellectuals with whom he might have consulted.

2 Responses

  1. “Is there a distinctly conservative attitude toward war?”

    I tend to think there is, in a more practical or political theory manner, but it just hasn’t been expounded on (or maybe it has and I have yet to read the book!) Hasn’t the Church held relatively specific guidelines with regards to war and warring? In which case, such guidelines would have been sure to affect the attitude of war in Catholic Europe (even if some or most of the nobility ignored or “bent” the Church’s “rules” on it). Philosophically speaking though, wouldn’t a conservative see war more as a utlitarian thing, rather than it being an end unto itself? Or perhaps it seems to me that in comparison to the liberal’s idea of war (“avoid at all costs” even if it isn’t in the country’s best interests to do so, or even if it will create greater problems in the future by avoidance, etc.) the conservative would not be as timid or cautious at going to war. Perhaps a type of people’s attitude towards war largely stems from their understanding of masculinity.

  2. Hello trent13,

    A few points on the history of Christianity’s relationship to warfare. You touch on them both, and I’d like to spell them out. The Church’s mission is to subject all aspects of life to Christ, that he may be all in all. This tends to have two moments. First, supressing aspects of the thing that are definitely contrary to the Gospel. Second, reworking the thing from inside so that it becomes not just morally licit, but actually an occasion for grace. In the case of warfare, we have for the first moment the rules of just warfare–formulated soon after Constantine; for the second moment we have the ideal of chivalry–formulated in the eleventh century, which, as you point out, has strongly influenced the Western ideal of masculinity. If war is to be licit at all, the vocation of the soldier must be made agreeable to sanctity.

    I actually lean towards the view that conservatism as such dictates little on these matters. It seems to me that one could be a conservative isolationist or a conservative imperialist without contradiction.

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