The role of a conservative intellectual

We are not fighters, much less leaders of fighters.  The wars happened long before we were born, and our side lost.  We therefore have no need for allies.  Readers once told me that my criticisms of the manosphere were unhelpful, since we are broadly speaking on the same side.  I agreed that if the manosphere was a third political party with hope of gaining power, and I through my blog could sway 10% of the electorate, it might be best to steer them toward what would be by far the lesser evil.  In the real world, both the manosphere and the orthosphere are utterly marginal internet groups, and the obfuscation of differences is not justified by such political considerations.  Nor do we have any responsibility for preserving the morale of our imaginary fighters.  If I were a bishop with care of souls, it might be irresponsible for me to speak too clearly about the hopelessly wretched state of the contemporary Catholic Church, but the conservative intellectual does not claim to offer spiritual guidance, only clarity.  Let us then hear no more against “defeatism”, and let us demand evidence and rigorous arguments when fellow conservatives assure us that liberalism is on the verge of an inevitable self-destruction.  Conservatives have been saying this since the French Revolution, and their predictions have a poor track record.  We often underestimate the resilience of liberalism, its ability to profit even from crises arguably of its own making.

What we are is professors, and like our academic counterparts, our job of professing has two parts:  teaching and research.  (Thank God we don’t have to write proposals or serve on committees.  Being a conservative intellectual just means the fun parts of being a professor.)  Both of these are usually futile endeavors.  Most students will not learn, and most new ideas turn out to be duds.  But occasionally we do clarify things for our students and ourselves.  While we have no need for allies, our research does benefit from collaborators, intelligent critics, and friends.  While we have no ideological duty to sell the cause, we do have a pedagogical duty to be clear and accessible to new students.

While our enemies pursue novelty, it falls to us to articulate the common wisdom of mankind, that which men throughout the ages have tacitly recognized but have not needed to explain or defend.  The conservative intellectual must maintain a permanent attitude of openness for identifying distinct categories or dimensions of moral concern already invoked by men but not yet recognized in political theory.  Hence our concern to validate the friend-enemy, native-foreigner, and masculine-feminine categories as both valid and irreducible.  Rather than imposing a theory on all of life, the conservative intellectual allows common sense to expand his theory.

We must remain in a certain sense unsystematic philosophers, unless we embrace a system like those of Aristotle or Husserl that teach us to be constantly alert to distinct essences.  Missteps in conservative theory often come from over-reliance on general ideas–not that we are more guilty of this than others, but that it is more damaging to our work.  One example is a sociological conservatism’s craze for “mediating institutions” which ignored the all-important distinctions between a family, a church, and a sports team.  Another is the clumsy attempts one often sees to explain sexual morality in Hegelian terms of “objectification” [1].

Without being blinded by a system, the conservative intellectual must always return to first principles.  See nearly any post at Oz Conservative to see how this is done.  Mr. Richardson reports some new liberal craziness.  Then he argues that this is a consequence of liberalism’s commitment to autonomy before all else.  This shows that we require conservatism’s fuller set of human goods to live by.

Because conservatives expound the common knowledge of mankind, it is crucial that we eschew any claim to possess esoteric knowledge.  In the last century, there was an unfortunate tendency to defend traditions in terms of unknown functions and the extreme complexity of social systems, from which it would follow that the meaning people do find in their traditions is illusory, not the “real” reasons for them.  Today, such trends comes more from followers on the Right of esoteric doctrines such as those of Leo Strauss, Julius Evola, and Rene Girard.  One danger is that the tendency to impute hidden meanings onto dead authors cuts us off from the wisdom of old books–at least the wisdom most useful to us, namely that which we do not already possess.  The other danger is that this talk of hidden social realities devalues the lived surface of social life which is the conservative’s primary concern [2].

The other side of this hocus-pocus about esoteric truths is the disparagement one finds, especially today in Catholic circles, toward the goal of clarity.  I don’t here mean the reasonable discontent many have toward the goal of making liturgy “accessible” in a banal sense.  However, it’s hard not to cringe when one hears of a senior prelate saying that in theology 2+2 can equal 5 or when the pope calls a desire for doctrinal clarity a spiritual failing.  Here, of course, it is the liberal modernists who are primarily at fault, but the implications are a sort of esotericism wherein the content of revelation is something entirely beyond the reach of public scrutiny and logical analysis.

Lastly, the conservative intellectual is locked in discourse with liberalism, even if the flow of ideas only goes one way because our adversaries don’t acknowledge us.  We can’t help it that our adversaries set our agenda.  Improved articulations of the liberal position actually provide a strong stimulus to our side.  Early-to-mid 20th century conservative thought suffered from its focus on socialism, drawing our attention to economic matters which are not our primary concern.  Arguably, the subsequent flourishing of conservative political theory owes more to John Rawls than to anyone else, because by drawing liberals back to their own first principles and explaining them clearly, he drew us back to our first principles, which clash with theirs at this fundamental level.  Even if it were true that dealing with restatements of liberalism, each hoping to avoid the contradictions of previous statements of liberalism, is an intellectual game of whack-a-mole, with no permanent victory, it would still be our job, just as any professor deals with the same set of student misconceptions every semester.  In fact, dealing with the best arguments for liberalism is how our own theory advances.

That being said, some types of engagement with liberalism are unhelpful.  Engaging shoddy Leftist arguments may be pedagogically necessary, but it contributes little to our own theory-building.  I once decided to understand feminism better by reading The Second Sex, but the argumentation–such as it was–was so blatantly bad that this time was not well spent.  More importantly, conservative intellectuals should spend no time dealing with liberals’ accusations against us.  Trying to prove that one is not racist, for example, is wasted effort.  Liberals should give us some reason to believe they have the ability to read souls before we treat their claims about ours as worthy of reply.  Liberal arguments against our beliefs could be useful to us but are seldom offered, because it would mean acknowledging our concerns if only to dismiss them.  For the most part, liberals are useful to us when they are talking about themselves, not when they are talking about us.


[1] The problem here is not that phenomenology is being used, but that it is being used badly, i.e. falsely to the actual experience of lust.  (The man is aroused by the woman’s pleasure; the woman by the man’s desire.  Audiences ignore the subjectivity of porn actresses, but only in the same way that a competent actor always disappears behind his character to the audience.  Anyway, treating a person as an object isn’t necessarily immoral.)  One cannot properly understand sexual morality without attending to what is distinct about it–the awesome potential of procreation, so oddly missing from phenomenological theories about sex but certainly not from our lived experience with it.

[2]  For example, in Girard’s system, the desirability we think we find in things is an illusion of mimesis, the danger we think we identify in particular persons is an illusion of the scapegoat mechanism, our sense of the sacred is an illusion of the relief we feel from engaging in mob homicide, and the myths and stories of mankind are really just restatements of this elaborate thesis.


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