The Conservative Vision of Authority

A PDF version of this essay:  TheConservativeVisionOfAuthority

I. The moralization of society
II. The network of dependencies
III. Loyalty and love: the horizontal completion
IV. Authority: the vertical completion
V. The transcendent ground of authority
VI. Contemplative and practical collective acts

I.The moralization of society

For classical liberals, the problem of politics was to find a way of restraining power; for modern liberals, it is how to maximize autonomy; for socialists, how to distribute the benefits of society fairly.  For conservatives, the basic problem is the moralization of society, that is, the attribution of moral significance to the relations of people in community.  For the citizens of a “moralized” society, all the major aspects of existence are colored by ideas of duty, loyalty, and status.   For example, being a man or a woman isn’t just a piece of biological data; it is a calling to the station of mother or father.  Thus people read in their very bodies a summons to socially useful self-giving.  The fact that someone is my parent or mate or child confers automatic rights and duties.  Neighbors become countrymen; power becomes authority; work becomes cooperation in the divine act of creation.  Moralized society secures each man’s dignity in the most profound sense of assuring him that his actions really matter.  As Hegel explained, only a moral (ethical, in his terminology) society can reconcile the limited scope of man’s individual concerns with the universal scope of his reason.   According to the former, the scope of the average man’s actions is necessarily small, and these primarily affect a small number of people close to him.  According to the latter, man is able to formulate general moral principles.  These, however, will be either global or abstract.  The former, such as “pursue the overall happiness or progress of mankind”, give only a small significance to a man’s daily actions, and that in an always indirect and often unclear way.  The latter, such as “love your neighbor” do grant a man’s actions direct significance, but they are too abstract to tell him what he owes to his wife as opposed to his coworkers as opposed to visiting foreigners, etc.  What we need to bridge this gap is a social context which makes it clear what love of a person implies for each recognized relationship.   Ethical society is the conservative, Hegelian solution to the problem of reconciling the universal and the particular sides of man, so that he achieves his full dignity.

Liberalism has sought to free man from these preset roles and duties.  Everywhere we hear the cry that people should not be “restricted” by gender roles, kinship ties, or national loyalties.  People must be free to choose their own meanings.  But to say that a thing can have any meaning we choose to give it is to say that that thing is meaningless in itself.  All of Nature, including our own bodies, has been recast as intrinsically meaningless raw material, to be exploited as we (either individually or collectively) see fit.  This has undoubtedly expanded the realm of human freedom, but at the cost of alienating us from the natural and social world.  We are given more choices, but at the price that our choices lose all real significance.  For conservatives, this is too great a price to pay for freedom.

II.The network of dependencies

The most fundamental fact of life, from which all serious social relations proceed, is man’s dependence.  He relies for his needs on others, and they rely on him.  People have never been independent, nor can they be, nor is independence a healthy ideal.  Nor are most relationships of dependency arbitrary.

50 Responses

  1. This was beautiful. Thank you.

  2. Hello Daniel,

    I’m gratified by your appreciation. I had worried that the authority essay would be too abstract for a weblog, but its topics are really central to what this blog is about.

  3. Recently I copied this quote by Lawrence Auster onto my desktop for when I am writing:

    “Writing should always be aimed at conveying truth, and truth is always interesting and enlivening, even if the substance of it is terrible.”

    In this case the substance of truth is not “terrible,” but rather somewhat “abstract,” as you note. But, as it is also true, it is indeed interesting and enlivening.

  4. […] some ways, it’s very similar to my Conservative Vision of Authority.  Rao emphasizes the role of corporate bodies in embodying truths, in making them visible, and in […]

  5. […] While the nature of being is more important than politics, it does have political implications.  In my telling, the conservative understanding of authority is a sort of practical application of Saint […]

  6. […] called by God or a people devoted to God.  In the lingo of this blog, a community’s “horizontal completion“ should be conceptually prior to its “vertical completion“.  Jacob should come […]

  7. Monseigneur le Vicomte,

    I have a great interest in Counter-Enlightenment thought, and I was very interested to read both this article and the others on this site.

    I write a blog comprising reviews of books and articles, and I have just posted a review of this site on it:

    As you will see, I am coming from an adversarial, liberal perspective, but I am a great believer in being able to disagree intelligently without being disagreeable.

    You may also enjoy my Counter-Enlightenment blog at and my Religious Studies blog at

    Best wishes


  8. Dear Reggie,

    I am honored by your interest in my blog. I’ve just finished reading your review of “Throne and Altar”, and I’m impressed by how thoroughly you’ve studied my writings. (I hope you don’t regret the loss of so much time!) Your summary of my beliefs seems quite fair. Of course, I believe that your objections to them can be answered, but that can be a matter for another time. For now, let me just say that I’m pleased to meet you.



  9. You’re very welcome, Bonald.

    Like I said, I have an interest in this subject and I always hope it’s possible to disagree strongly without being strongly disagreeable. Your articles make a refreshing change from some of the angry ranting that one sometimes sees (both on the left and on the right).

    You may be interested in the website of a friend of mine (another Brit), who is interested in reactionary ideas from the perspective of the pre-1688 British monarchy (the Jacobite succession) and the traditional Anglican Church. His home on the web is Unlike me, he actually understands philosophy!

    Best wishes


  10. i love the tiny smiley on the far right (eww, the pun) of the blog page (:

    keep the good writing and salutes from Lebanon

    facebook: stop destroying your heritage

  11. It is self evident that the power of authority and tradition has failed to provide the ‘moralization of society’ in anything but a relative sense and continues to fail today. And this failure underpins a reality few conservatives are honest enough to accept. Not only is our species not moral by nature, it’s potential for moral advancement is both limited and fixed. Human nature does not contain the potential to create the “Just Society’ and it remains the most destructive and self destructive species on the planet. The means to transcend this condition is what ultimate religious truth should have provided. Unfortunately, all tradition can offer is a theological counterfeit of revealed truth. I suspect God is not amused?

  12. I find very little in your discussion to conflict with the vision of society urged by islamists. They also aim at a society based on a version of Justice as asserted in the imperatives of the Quran, the Hadith, and in Sharia. They also claim authority as god’s representatives and a unified community in which every individual’s role in the family, clan, tribe, and ummah is strictly defined and proscribed. In consequence, as Martin Amis observed, islam becomes an armed doctrine that is “racist, misogynistic, homophobic, totalitarian, inquisitional, imperialist, and genocidal.” I can’t imagine this is the sort of social order you have in mind, but I see nothing in your assumptions and premises to preclude it unless it is some vague notion of your god as not only amenable but subject to reason in the sense suggested by Pope Benedict at Regensberg, a view of the divine nature which is an anathema to islam as the Pope was wrongly condemned for pointing out in that speech.

    Humanity has been led down many blind (an accurate description on numerous levels of meaning) alleys in human history whenever someone in authority has claimed to rule as God’s representative. And in every one, the Church and the State have become inseparable. Therein lies the fatal flaw. You’re naive to think they will ever remain distinct when their mutual survival is so linked.

    While sympathizing with your view that duty and loyalty have lost their value in current society and that absolute, unfettered individualism is destructive, I sense there are underlying, unstated and unexamined premises in your arguments about human nature, God’s nature, the Good, the Just, and a host of other expressions without which your interpretation of authority leads quite naturally and easily to a social order like islam or facism.

  13. Hello Mr. Kindler,

    I’m afraid I must disagree with everything you say.

    Islam does have a valid conception of authority, so I don’t regard consistency with Muslim doctrine as something to be embarrassed about for this essay. Most of those insults thrown out by Amis are just Leftist smear terms for things that are not really bad, but actually good. Abhorring the sin of sodomy is a good thing, a sign of moral sanity. Affection for one’s own ethnic group is a good thing, although it’s actually not true that Islam is “racist”–it’s an explicitly universalistic creed. And the “totalitarian…genocidal” stuff just shows that Amis doesn’t know what those words mean. Run of the mill liberal bigotry.

    God is not subject to reason in the sense of something outside of Himself. He is Logos. You are gravely mistaken to assume that reason dictates the current order of atheist hedonism.

    Through all of human history, authority has claimed divine sanction, and it was these centuries that built the great world civilisations. In Europe, Church and State collaborated from 380 to 1905 AD without either disappearing into the other. Surely these weren’t centuries of complete darkness.

    It’s perverse and ignorant to equate the traditional conception of authority with fascism. The great theorists of fascism like Gentile explicitly rejected the traditional conception because of its ordering to an object that transcends the nation, an aspect of the traditional doctrine that I have treated as key.

  14. I see you are also content with a little name calling. Whether Amis is a Leftist or not is beside the point and a red herring as far as his comments are concerned. Actually, you seem to be a bit confused about which side of the political spectrum is rushing to defend islam. It is the political Left which does so in the name of multiculturalism and diversity. Instead of addressing the issues raised by Amis, you engage in your own ad hominem smear tactics. But the question remains whether he is correct in calling an ideology that denigrates and oppresses women, that condones wife beating and marital rape, that enforces inequality and inferiority of women within its legal code deserves to be called misogynistic. The question is not whether sodomy is a sin and should be condemned but whether executing and murdering homosexuals is an acceptable and valid exercise of authority and a sign of “moral sanity.”

    Affection for one’s ethnicity may very well be good but not when it comes with the command to thereby hate everyone not belonging to one’s group. In point of fact, the distinction in islam is not between one ethnic group or race and another. In this sense, you are correct that islam is not, strictly speaking, “racist” but this has nothing to do with its being “universalistic.” Islam preaches bigotry, bias, discrimination, and violent hatred for infidels based on religion. It instructs its followers not to befriend or associate with non-muslims and to kill all non-believers (See Quran 2:191, 5:51, 9:5, 9:29). It divides the world into two warring camps, the House of Peace and the House of War and commands its followers to wage holy war until the world is conquered and submits to islam. If you do not regard such an ideology as totalitarian, genocidal, imperialistic, then I must wonder whether it is not you who doesn’t know what those words mean. And if you aren’t embarrassed by the association with this murderous doctrine, you have my sympathies.

    Your grasp of European history is astonishingly weak. Rather than the long period of “collaboration” between Church and State you envision, this history is characterized by a growing conflict and antagonism between secular and ecclesiastical power leading, among other things, to the Reformation and an acceleration of the separation of Church and State. Moreover, much of the learning and advancement in human knowledge, starting in the 12th and 13th centuries, focused in the growth of the sciences but encompassing other fields of study, arose in spite of the Church and its claims to divine sanction.

    Finally, your claim, “Through all of human history, authority has claimed divine sanction, and it was these centuries that built the great world civilisations” (sic) is a classic example of the post hoc ergo prompter hoc fallacy and an example of what is fundamentally illogical in much of your argument, relying as it does on unexamined premises and assumptions.

  15. Hello again Mr. Kindler,

    Henceforth I will delete any comments from you that I deem disrespectful. I don’t have to put up with your abuse.

    We are both guilty of grossly oversimplifying history, which is probably inevitable in mere blog posts. You’ve gone from saying that Church and State in nonliberal societies always become inseparable–which means a degree of fusion and collaboration if it means anything–to saying that Christian Church/State relations have been unceasingly antagonistic. As we both know, relations between Church and State have been marked by both through these centuries.

    The claim that learning advanced in Europe in spite of the Church–the main organ of education and patron of arts, law, and philosophy–is very nearly the opposite of the truth. One could with more truth say that Western culture is a creation of the Catholic Church, but that too would be an oversimplification.

    I certainly don’t feel bad about insulting Amis, since he has made an ass of himself by describing one of the world’s great civilisations in terms no one who has read the Koran would recognise. What’s more, he did it using terms of abuse, like “racist”, “sexist” and “homophobic”, that are pure Leftist claptrap, names for things that are only sins in the warped moral universe of liberalism. You yourself have done a better job criticising Islam than he did. I recommend you let him go; he’s dragging your side down.

  16. Whether you print this is or not is immaterial and irrelevant to me. But it is interesting and revealing that you find my comments disrespectful and abusive and worthy of censorship but you have no reservations or compunctions about insulting Amis. Yet again, you dismiss his criticisms by disparaging the man.

    As for his describing “one of the world’s great civilisations (sic) in terms no one who has read the Koran would recognise” (sic), I am left to conclude that you are not one of those who has read the Quran, else you would not claim that the terms sexist, racist, homophobic, totalitarian, etc. are inapplicable to that ideology. Since you dislike Amis for saying so, I suggest you examine the statements of others whose experiences with this ideology are more direct. Wafa Sultan, Hirsi Ali, or Ibn Warraq come to mind. Better yet, pay attention to what is currently happening to non-believers such as the Copts in Egypt or the Christian communities in Iraq, Indonesia,

    As for islam being a great civilization, I shudder to consider on what grounds you make this claim. Certainly it cannot be in terms of any progress in science, art, music, literature, or a dozen other fields of human knowledge over, oh – let us say, the past 1,000 years. Even today, a country like Spain publishes more books in a year than all Arab muslim countries combined. And even granting that there ever was a “golden age” of learning in islamic culture, or that the West is indebted to islam for preserving and transmitting a body of learning otherwise lost in the so-called “Dark Ages” of Europe, both claims now disputed by recent scholarship, it begs the question why islamic societies did not continue to develop, why they did not make further contributions to human enlightenment, why today, they remain backward in virtually every measure of a society’s success. And I am not the one making this last observation. The evidence is derived from the several Arab Human Development Reports produced periodically since 2002 by the UN and written by Arab academics and experts in various fields.

    But beyond all of these points, I am truly astonished by your statement that “racist”, “sexist” and “homophobic” (and I’d assume a good many other terms like “totalitarian”, “genocidal” and others that you labelled Leftist) are only “names for things that are only sins in the warped moral universe of liberalism.” By your own logic then, I conclude that “racism”, “sexism”, “genocide”, “homophobia”, “misogyny” and so forth are not sins in your moral universe. And that is both sad, frightening, and truly warped.

  17. Bonald: Thanks for this great essay.

  18. Thank you.

  19. […] Bonald – In Defense of Tradition Bonald – The Meaning of Conservatism Bonald – The Conservative Vision of Authority Metternich (Svein Sellanraa) – A Genealogy of the Right Bonald – A taxonomy of the […]

  20. I know it is not common to barge into the middle of an intellectual duel, but I find a certain fine point here rather annoying and thus have seen the need to address it. Hi, I’m John. Bonald, great essays. You give substance to my philosophy, and that of my father’s, which mine is closely modeled after. Your explanation of your views towards marriage and love is, frankly, excellent, and one I strongly identify with, although I’m too soft-hearted to see anyone die. But I digress. I’d just like to comment on the common liberal smear word of ‘homophobe’:


    Those opposed to homosexual behavior are often charged with “homophobia”—that they hold the position they do because they are “afraid” of homosexuals. Sometimes the charge is even made that these same people are perhaps homosexuals themselves and are overcompensating to hide this fact, even from themselves, by condemning other homosexuals.

    Both of these arguments attempt to stop rational discussion of an issue by shifting the focus to one of the participants. In doing so, they dismiss another person’s arguments based on some real or supposed attribute of the person. In this case, the supposed attribute is a fear of homosexuals.

    Like similar attempts to avoid rational discussion of an issue, the homophobia argument completely misses the point. Even if a person were afraid of homosexuals, that would not diminish his arguments against their behavior. The fact that a person is afraid of handguns would not nullify arguments against handguns, nor would the fact that a person might be afraid of handgun control diminish arguments against handgun control.

    Furthermore, the homophobia charge rings false. The vast majority of those who oppose homosexual behavior are in no way “afraid” of homosexuals. A disagreement is not the same as a fear. One can disagree with something without fearing it, and the attempt to shut down rational discussion by crying “homophobe!” falls flat. It is an attempt to divert attention from the arguments against one’s position by focusing attention on the one who made the arguments, while trying to claim the moral high ground against him.


    Additionally, a phobia is defined as an irrational fear of something. To say that it is irrational to fear presumes that the general consensus is that homosexuality is perfectly alright, and that there’s nothing to fear about it (This is an opinion I strongly doubt is correct, but that’s besides the point). That the general consensus is such is hardly the truth; for one thing, much of the Muslim world thinks its bollocks, as does the One Holy (Roman) Catholic and Apostolic Church, to name a few. “Homophobia” is a hubristic presumption of correctness, and therefore a biased, subjective misnomer for the general position of opposition to homosexuality.

  21. Ah, yes, another point. This one is rather tangential to the issue at hand, but this page is still the most relevant place to discuss it.

    When people speak of conflict between love and duty, they speak of, in your formulation, a conflict between two loves. We can go by the classic ‘you-love-your-mom-and-your-wife-very-much-but-they-are-both-in-a-burning-house-and-you-can-only-save-one” or we can go by the Shakespearean example: Romeo and Juliet.. Juliet, it is obvious, has duties toward and love for her family. But she, without her parents’ consent, marries Romeo, a member of the enemy house, and protests when obliged out of duty to her family to marry Paris. In other words, she had to choose betweeen the good of her family and her love for Romeo. Distilled further, it is the conflict between a person she loves very much, and her family, whom she has both love (albeit to a much lesser degree; disowning herself in her famous balcony scene), and duty. In this scenario, in your framework, with which faction do her greater loyalties lie? And also, in the mom-and-wife scenario above, who should you save?

  22. […] said that, for the conservative, authoritative communities are collective affirmations of God and His Law.  They do serve the end […]

  23. Mr. Boland,

    I wonder if you (or anyone else) is still following this thread. I only just discovered your blog & find it quite fascinating. The debate between yourself and Kindler above is particularly interesting, though I think real substance got blurry in all the acrimony.

    In particular, this blurriness led to a muddling of normative, descriptive, and speculative claims that prevented the conversation from coming to a point. If we set aside the descriptive debates about Islam and church-state relations prior to the 20th century, there are two very rich lines of inquiry that I’d love to see you pursue.

    First, there’s the question of the normative value of terms like “racism,” “sexism,” “misogyny,” and so on. You describe these as “names for things that are only sins in the warped moral universe of liberalism.” But because of the simultaneous descriptive debate, I’m not sure what you mean by this. For example, based on your posts, I would assume that you believe that much of what is called sexism or misogyny in our society is not actually sexist or misogynistic, because you believe in traditional gender roles; indeed, you believe that traditional gender roles dignify and empower and ennoble both sexes. But this is very different from claiming that misogyny doesn’t exist or isn’t a sin. “Misogyny” refers to “Hatred or dislike of, or prejudice against women” (OED). Are you claiming that there are no men who hate, dislike, or are prejudiced against women? Are you claiming that it’s not sinful for a man to insult or physically abuse his wife if she doesn’t do as he says? Are you suggesting that husbands always wield their authority justly and virtuously? These would seem to be absurd claims. A similar set of questions could be asked about each of the terms that you refer to as “liberal claptrap.”

    The question is, if you accept that there are sinful forms of sexism, racism, and so on that do actually exist in society, then what is the relationship between those real forms of sexism, racism, etc. and the behaviors that you view as healthy that are commonly mistaken for sexism, racism, etc. (traditional gender roles, affection for ones ethnicity, etc.) You could claim that the two categories are generally confused because of sheer intellectual laziness on the part of mainstream & liberal culture, but I think that would intellectually lazy. Indeed, for a race of beings easily tempted by sins of cruelty, hubris, power lust, xenophobia, and scapegoating, don’t we need to concern ourselves with the slippery relationship between affection for ones ethnicity and fear/hatred/abuse of other ethnicities? Surely, you’re saying ethnic cleansing is moral behavior.

    I bring all this up because it points towards what I see as the greatest difficulty facing your conception of moral authority, as laid out in this post: human frailty. That is, your conception works beautifully so long as those entrusted with authority continue to serve the divine purposes for which they were granted that authority. You seem to be outlining a perfect world with no reference to the ugly realities of the world we actually live in. I think it’s worth considering that the entire liberal ideological rejection of moral authority that you’re critiquing actually originates not in a rejection of morality or even of moral authority, but in a fear of the abuse of power. Indeed, what liberalism rejects, it seems to me, is not moral authority but moral authority in human hands; it seeks to place moral authority in abstract principles. After all, we humans are quite ravenous for power.

    I wonder if what you’re really arguing, then, is that it’s worth the risk; that the abandonment of humans as conduits of moral authority leads to a moral dissipation far worse than even the worst excesses of the abuse of power; that you would rather have the Inquisition than amoral consumerism. An interesting claim, no doubt, but I think you need to address the risks and gains of this gamble. It seems to me that at the moment you’re just ducking it.

  24. Hello,

    This is an excellent question, and I’m sorry I’ve been too busy to address it. Even now, I can only afford a brief reply. Authority figures don’t have to be especially virtuous to function in the way I described. It is what they symbolize, not their personal qualities, to which their subjects respond. A traditional authoritative society can function with a certain degree of private vice and even abuse of power. These are bad things, of course, and too much of them will cause problems, but nothing I’ve written assumes or requires rule by saints.

  25. Hi Boland,

    Thanks for your reply. I’m not in any hurry, but if you do have a chance to elaborate at some point, I’ll be interested to read what you have to say, whenever you get around to it. I turned on the email-notifications, so I’ll know whenever you reply to this.

    Your last comment leaves some room for interpretation, but I think you’re invoking the moral/spiritual value of submission to authority, where the essential experience is the submission not the specific commands given by the authority. I’m not ignorant of the value of such a submission, but the value is obtained only so long as the authority figure actually does convincingly symbolize the kind of moral authority you’re talking about. Thus, I see how you could argue that “a traditional authoritative society can function with a certain degree of private vice and even abuse of power” but the phrase in that is “a certain degree.” As soon as the abuse of power becomes too blatant or the private vice too visible, the authority figure ceases to symbolize moral authority & begins to symbolize sheer tyranny. This seems to me kind of a big problem, because, when people without very strong personal virtues attain power, they tend to want more and more of it. If these people are smart, they understand that the perceived moral legitimacy of their power is necessary to maintain it, and so they come up with schemes to make their expanding powers appear part of the moral order of the world. One such scheme is liberal economics.

    (After all, economics is, in fact, a moral code, despite its masquerade of being a descriptive science. Its moral precepts are: whatever the market does is good; whatever is imposed upon the market is bad. Thus, the wealthy & powerful deserve to be wealthy & powerful; they were ordained by the market. Despite the incoherence of this moral code, it’s proved pretty convincing to a lot of people, and one could even ask how modern Americans’ submission to the will of the market is spiritually distinct from a medieval peasant’s submission to the will of a their lord. But that’s kind of a secondary point which I bring up mainly to underscore the broader point: that the mess we’re in is the long-term result of the same abuses of power by authority that, on a small scale, you’re saying are acceptable.)

    This is all a specific case of a question that I think any coherent conservative vision of society needs to address: how do you repeat the past without then going on to repeat the present?

    Thanks for indulging me in this line of questioning. I’m a bit new to conservative & reactionary philosophy.


  26. I would like to interject and say that this was precisely my biggest obstacle to agreeing with your ideas.

    The most convincing argument for liberalism isn’t the appeal of granting men freedom, it’s the danger of entrusting them with power. A traditionalist conservative can get around this to some extent by locating power in institutions which are hedged round with ingrained expectations and taboos. This provides some safeguard against the unrestrained tyranny of idealist systems like communism and Nazism, but it only gets you so far. If you build a rigorously patriarchal society, you will get some men abusing women in a way that they simply couldn’t get away with in the modern West. If you put society under an absolute monarch, you will get kings behaving in an oppressive, rapacious and violent way that wouldn’t be tolerated in a constitutional democracy (cf. 1 Samuel 8.10-18). I can’t articulate these things with your philosophical sophistication, but they are the lessons of history and experience.

    If you entrust human beings with power, they will abuse it. It is an absolute certainty. Western democracies with liberal legal protections may be rather decadent in some ways – but they aren’t the worst thing.

  27. But power gets abused right and left (no pun intended) in modern so-called liberal democracies. The abuses are more hidden, but that only makes them harder to address. In fact, the powers themselves are more hidden; they’re also more distributed, but that doesn’t necessarily make them any less prone to abuse. Plus, because the forms of power are so effectively disguised, they are not burdened with even the semblance of any kind of moral obligations to the public– indeed, they explicitly reject any such moral obligations. The effect of this, in both practical terms, viz the actions of those in power, and spiritual/psychological terms, viz the experience of being subject to such amoral powers, seems quite pernicious to me.

    So I’m not arguing that the modern liberal democracy is a solution to the problem of power abuse. In fact, I don’t think you can effectively address the problem of power abuse without a fundamental rearrangement of society towards small-scale interdependent communities, so I do agree with large pieces of Boland’s vision. But I worry that his untempered embrace of top-down, theologically legitimated, masculine authority is going open the door to abuses so ugly that they’re going to unravel the whole spiritual/psychological force of his system.

  28. But power gets abused right and left (no pun intended) in modern so-called liberal democracies.

    I completely agree. There is no panacea here.

    Plus, because the forms of power are so effectively disguised, they are not burdened with even the semblance of any kind of moral obligations to the public– indeed, they explicitly reject any such moral obligations.

    This is a weighty objection. The loss of a sense of moral obligation is a serious impoverishment of democratic governance – but, as you say, Bonald’s alternative of top-down theocratic monarchy is so risky that it is liable to be self-delegitimising in moral terms. At worst, it would turn into a bad joke. Best case scenario: Salazar. Worst case scenario: Caligula.

    So I’m not arguing that the modern liberal democracy is a solution to the problem of power abuse

    No, nor am I. My view is that there is no solution. One of the more attractive doctrines of classical conservatism is that not every problem has a solution. I agree with Sir Winston Churchill that democracy is the worst possible system of government, apart from all the others that have been tried over the years.

  29. Hello themethodisthemessage and Reggie,

    I would like to reply in several pieces.

    First, let’s focus on what the stakes are for the reactionary creed as a whole. It is certainly true that the abuse of power is not as large a concern in reactionary political philosophy as it is in liberal political philosophy. Protecting subjects from arbitrary power is arguably the core concern of liberalism. One could say that liberals have other blind spots, and one could question the ways the try to tame power, but there’s no doubting that they’ve thought long and hard about the issues. The conservative’s primary concern is elsewhere, e.g. with maintaining their community’s spiritual consensus. Shall we then say that conservatism might be true but incomplete, that the questions it asks it answers correctly but that there are others it doesn’t address? We certainly don’t expect a political philosophy to address every practical issue. It might even be healthy for a political creed to have room for disagreement on prudential matters. To take the example at hand, Burke emphasized how the mischief of rulers would be limited by tradition, while Maistre emphasized how they could be checked by the authority of the pope. Nisbet liked to argue that the plurality of authorities conservatism fosters would provide a check to power. Is this healthy pluralism?

    I expect you will not let me off the hook so easily. Your claim is that not addressing this issue in the core reactionary dogmas evidences a fatal flaw, because in fact the core positions of authoritarian conservatism make it impossible to effectively keep authority figures from misbehaving, that by empowering abuse conservatism inevitably leads to its own downfall. Suppose this were true, and everything I wrote about authority and community is also true. This is logically possible. Then it would mean that there is a sort of tragic logic at the heart of politics. A moral community can choose throne and altar and be brought to ruin by their abuse, or it can choose liberalism and be brought to ruin by its irreligious and individualistic tendencies. It would certainly be depressing if this were true, but we shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand. Perhaps we could be more charitable to our opponents if we came to realize that we’re all trying to solve an unsolvable problem.

    However, that nonliberal authority is inherently unstable is a very strong claim to make, and the fact that humanity got along so long without liberalism should make us suspicious. In the thousands of years of civilization before liberalism, we see a lot of corruption, public immorality, palace revolts, intrigue, contested successions, and civil wars, but for the public to lose faith in the government’s basic legitimacy is quite rare. In fact, the only examples I can think of involve chiliastic cults. So legitimacy must be a pretty robust thing. It is often transferred, but seldom discarded. For example, it would sometimes happen that the king’s adulteries were more or less an open secret, and this led neither to a loss of allegiance in the king nor a loss of belief in the sinfulness of adultery. Or to take Reggie’s example, the Roman Empire went along fine after Caligula, at it was a very reasonable thing for Rome’s subjects to overlook their leader’s imperfections. Caligula’s lunacy didn’t have much affect on people outside of the city of Rome, or at least it caused much less mischief than experiments in self-determination would have. A certain amount of misbehaviour at the top must be endured, and it can be endured.

    However, a reactionary society does have resources for making illegitimate use of power less likely (nothing can keep it from happening altogether) and for making its effects less damaging. I’ll discuss this next.

  30. The means a conservative society has to ensure power is used well are the same any other society has at its disposal: indoctrination and punishment. There is, however, a big difference in the way conservative and liberal regimes wield these devices. Even while stamping out the same misbehaviors, the conservative is working to preserve the mystique of authority, while the liberal is working to undermine it.

    People of all political persuasions agree that it’s important to indoctrinate rulers and ministers to give them a sense of their responsibilities and the shame of failing to execute them properly. Both liberals and conservatives would, for example, teach men that when they marry they should treat their wives and children well and put their own needs second. Otherwise, their teaching is completely opposed. A conservative would try to inspire the father by enhancing his esteem for his role in the family, telling him that the husband-father is the ultimate protector of the family–both bodies and souls of its members–that he is to be the image of Christ’s love for the Church, etc. The liberal would try to chasten the father’s selfishness and pride by degrading his role. The liberal will teach him feminism–that the husband-father role is a shameful legacy of oppression and that therefore he must subordinate all his own needs and those of his children to his wife’s pursuit of “autonomy” and “empowerment”. I suspect both the conservative and the liberal are being a bit dishonest when we say that our indoctrination is for the good of the women and children. The message we’re giving out is the one we wanted to give out anyway. Most men who mistreat their wives or children are doing so for selfish reasons, not because they’re blinded by the wrong ideology. The fault is primarily in the will, not the intellect. Selfless adherence to either patriarchism or feminism would cure manifest abuse, so that itself can’t be used to decide between them. The most important factor must be which is true. A secondary factor–although nothing can override the primary one–is which is more likely to inspire a selfish man to reform. Here I think patriarchy and conservatism hold the advantage. In fact, I can’t imagine why any man would be inspired by feminism’s ideal of marriage in which women have all the rights and men have all the responsibilities. If “autonomy” and “freedom” are ultimate goods for women, why shouldn’t he take them as his ultimate goods as well? The result is not the reform of the family, but its utter dissolution. Another example is the priesthood. Conservative Catholics would like priests to have a very high view of their vocation, especially its sacramental power. Liberal Catholics would like to humble priests and stamp out “clericalism”. Which results in better priests? The answer will depend on which ideology one thinks is true. The evidence is plain, though, that the post-Vatican II trivialization of the religious life has put the priesthood itself on the path to extinction.

    No matter what we teach authority figures or how well we teach it, they will still be sinful men, and some will betray their station so grievously that action must be taken. Everyone agrees about that, but liberals and conservatives have opposite ultimate goals in punishment. Conservatives want to maintain the status of the hierarchy, while liberals want to undermine it. Thus, we differ very much on the appearance we wish to present to the lower orders. The conservative wants punishment to separate the erring father, priest, noble, etc from all other fathers, priests, nobles, etc, while the liberal wants to use it to lower the public’s esteem for all hierarchs. Thus, the conservative favors judgement by ones peers, rather than by an outside estate, whether superior or inferior. Clergy are judged by clerics, nobles by nobles. Thus, the punishment of a bad priest in an ecclesiastic court displays not the criminality of the Church, but the opposite, her ability to rule herself. To have priests and kings judged by lay bureaucrats like common criminals is a humiliation for the ancient estates, which is why liberals love it. Thus we see the media circus that erupts throughout the whole world when a priest anywhere in it is charged by a secular state with some wrongdoing. We see the wisdom of the old tradition of benefit of clergy.

    But won’t this just allow any class of the hierarchy to collectively flout the law? What’s to stop all priests or all nobles from just deciding to make life easy on themselves and never convict one of their own? A healthy traditionalist state will be structured so that each estate has strong incentives to keep this from happening. An individual might ignore the good of his class for personal gain, but the entire class–if organized and self-governing–will not. An estate must make sure to protect the foundations of its own authority. If they can help it, the bishops will not allow the private vices or ineptitude of the clergy to get so out of hand that they don’t effectively instill the religious faith in the populace on which the Church’s authority rests. The nobles and the king, for their own good, must maintain respect for the traditions on which their authority rests. Of course, one thing I like about this system that liberals won’t is that the first and second estates have strong incentives to promote conservatism.

    The mischief of rulers is also limited by the governing apparatus one gives them. Running a genocidal totalitarian state like the Soviet Union requires a large bureaucracy that reactionary states do not have and are not capable of developing. The king can’t set up a Soviet-like state without offending the authority of the Church, local nobility, and communes which is as venerable as his own. What’s more, the king wouldn’t want such an apparatus, because they’re only needed for the sort of fool-errands, like eliminating economic or gender “inequality”, that moderns pursue.

    Liberals can point to one means of government accountability that is uniquely theirs: the institution of a “free press”. A reactionary state has nothing like this, and if religion and traditional morality are to survive at all this century, reactionaries must devote themselves to its utter annihilation. As I’ve written in many places, it is the nature of the press to erode public morals and undermine recognized authority. I therefore don’t want conservatives to just take control of the newspapers and start spewing out our propaganda instead of the Left’s; I want the newspapers outlawed, all of them. Won’t this make authority more powerful and less accountable? Poppycock! By eliminating the most potent means of mental enslavement ever designed by the craft of man, what I’m doing is basically telling rulers to take the One Ring and cast it into the fires of Mount Doom. Liberals think they can tame power with the press, but they forget that opposition between the press, which controls the citizens’ minds, and the state, which controls their bodies, is inherently unstable. Very soon, either the press will have their creature elected head of state or the state will seize control of the press. The outcome in either case is the same: a government-media complex with the power to dictate not only the actions but the very thoughts of its citizens. In the Western world, this has already happened. America is ruled by the New York Times, England by the BBC. It’s not obvious because they don’t advertise their power and because there is a delay between when they issue some abominable new decree and when the state officially ratifies it. Nevertheless, they always get their way in the end. Ideas that were considered outrageous when I was born by everyone but newsmen are now state dogma. There’s no freakish perversion they can’t make the public embrace, no treason against the historical populace and their ways of life they can’t commit with impunity.

  31. Don’t quite understand how the threading works on these comments. Enjoyed part I of your reply, Bonald. Looking forward to more.


  32. Thanks for the reply, Bonald – thoughtful and considered as always. I certainly think you’re right about this:

    we’re all trying to solve an unsolvable problem.

    I think that the key question is:

    can one maintain a “spiritual consensus” while still restraining power?

    I think it’s been done. It was done in most of 20th century Ireland, where a conservative Catholic culture functioned under an elected government, a liberal constitution and a free press. The same things subsisted in Britain from 1688 to the 20th century (Burke himself was a Whig, and Victorian Britain was mostly ruled by the Liberal Party). These things cannot be inherently incompatible. because they have demonstrably coexisted. The reason why they fail to coexist in modern society can be debated, but it can’t be blamed on liberal constitutionalism per se. As always, I’m probably unduly swayed by the rather unusual history of our little islands, rather than the bloody battles of left and right in France or the incomprehensible politics of the great republic beyond the western seas – but then I’m sure you won’t castigate me for having a loyalty to the particular.

  33. Hi Reggie,

    It makes sense for you to focus on the British experience. It’s just weird that my imagination is so dominated by French history. I can’t explain it even to myself. Now, one could say, as I have in the past, that these countries just took slightly different paths to reach the same destination. On the other hand, I’m also given to saying that religious communities are all doomed anyway, so if something can work for a couple of centuries, that should be chalked up as a victory.

  34. Mr Perrin,

    If you entrust human beings with power, they will abuse it.

    Aren’t you moving the ball underneath the cup a bit here? As I read Bonald, the disagreement is not over whether or not humans are to be entrusted with power–power is wielded no less in a liberal than conservative state–but rather, whether they are to be entrusted with authority.

  35. As a Christian of orthodox views, I view and content that:
    1. Islam is profane.
    2. Mohammed is a false prophet.
    3. The Quran is the product of a demon, and
    4. Every Muslim is bound for the lake of fire.
    End of story.
    And quite reasonable too.

  36. sorry for the typo: that is, contend.
    You cannot be a Christian, you cannot hold the Quicumque Vult as sacred and call Islam sacred at the same time.
    Choose life.
    Reject Islam, Mohammed and all evil.
    Matthew 7, Ps. 50, and Revelation 20 are all directly applicable to Islam, and warn us against false prophets.
    Judge them by their fruits.
    You have every right to condemn Islam.

  37. eib,

    You’re perfectly entitled to make those claims, but they seem to be part of a different discourse. Bonald’s post is a philosophical exploration of the concept of authority; it proceeds from universal experiences (of the sacred, of parental authority, etc.) through reasoned argument. If you abandon this sort of discourse, in favor of one based on strict adherence to a set of prescribed doctrines, you cease to be able to have a conversation with people who don’t already agree with you. It then becomes hard to see why it’s worth having a conversation at all.

  38. Thanks. I also thought that comment was off-topic. I don’t remember talking about Islam in it at all.

  39. Islam came up earlier in this comment thread & you gave a defense of the vision of authority that it presents. That’s what eib was responding to. Still, the form of his argument seems out of place.

  40. The reply by ‘eib’ is a fine example of ideologically induced sociopathy.
    An Islamic fundamentalist would agree completely; except the Islamic lakes of fire will be filled with christians and other lost souls.

  41. A very interesting site indeed. Although I am not Catholic or even of the Christian faith, as believer in tlof God as well as the traditional family and societal structure, I applaud what you are trying to do here. Have you read any of Spenglers writings and how do you feel about his theories regarding then” the coming ceasarism”.

  42. Mr. Lord,

    I’m sorry for not replying to this earlier. Being so pessimistic, my impression of The Decline of the West is that it was actually an optimistic book, with its certainty that materialism and money wouldn’t be dominant forever.

  43. […] my Conservative Vision of Authority, I distinguish two types of authoritative pronouncements, basically those that expound truths and […]

  44. […] said that, for the conservative, authoritative communities are collective affirmations of God and His Law.  They do serve the end […]

  45. Have you ever considered gathering/organizing your posts into a book?? I think your succinct and clear style would be ideal especially for those of us who would like to introduce true conservatism to our classical liberal and neo-con friends. Or could you recommend a book that covers the same material as the core of your blog??

  46. > could you recommend a book that covers the same material as the core of your blog?

    I agree that such a thing would be useful. Unfortunately, while there are some good books on conservatism, I don’t think any of them is an adequate one-volume summary of conservatism.

  47. I have gathered some of my essays in PDF format. There’s no plans to gather them together in a book. People aren’t even reading them for free anymore.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: