We must think, if we are to survive
The enunciation of first principles has always been obnoxious to the English mind.
— Winston Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (vol. III, p. 243)
English conservatism, as first articulated by Edmund Burke, has always mainly been a matter of an appeal to particulars—the particulars of the historic traditions of a people and a way of life, or the particulars of a certain class, say the land-owning class or the bourgeois class. But, as I have stated repeatedly at this site (and it is an idea that I myself first encountered here), Burkean conservatism is an insufficient bulwark against leftism when leftism has already gained a dominant influence over a people, because by that point leftism itself has become, to a significant extent, the way of life of that people. The only effective way to oppose such leftism is by appeal to first principles, the first principles of true order as opposed to the false principles of leftism.
I would say that to a large extent the preservation and recovery of Western civilization depends upon the ability of the English people—and of the English-speaking peoples who inherited many of their thought-forms from the English—to transcend their instinctive dislike for first principles. This is their Toynbean challenge. They must rise to a new intellectual level, if they are to survive.
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When I speak of Burkean conservatism, I really mean not Burke but the way his ideas are generally taken and applied. Over and over, Burke is presented as holding that whatever has become widely accepted in a society, ought to be supported. In other words, Burkean conservatism lacks any appeal to objective moral principles and is a form of relativism. But this was not true of Burke himself. For example, he said: “the effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do as they please; we ought to see what it will please them to do before we risk congratulations.”
Cary J. writes:
“The only effective way to oppose such leftism is by appeal to first principles, the first principles of true order as opposed to the false principles of leftism.”
Actually, the only way to oppose the advances of leftism will be to reverse its progress incrementally. An appeal to well-reasoned conservative principles is all very well, but leftism will be overthrown by carefully designed incremental campaigns.
For example, abortion will be reversed and limited by continuing to find exceptions to the overall rule (a lot like the very late abortions issue) and pound those exceptions home.
I doubt one person in a thousand cares about philosophical consistency. The continuing unfolding of liberalism, showing no mercy to any particulars, should be enough to scare anyone simply as an example of destruction without limits whatsoever. If that uber-principle doesn’t cause moral panic in the public, nothing ever will.
There is no objection to maintaining an honest, public philosophy of true first principles, but that will never awaken the people. Only specific instances of overzealous application of liberal thought will do that.
Let’s call it the Fabian cure for the Fabian creep.
Well put. Details about where the Fabian approach will work, and where recourse to first principles are indispensable, can be discussed.
Mencius Moldbug writes:
Cary J.’s comment illustrates exactly the reason conservatives have spent the last 200 years losing. There is no incremental or Fabian way to overthrow leftism. There is no symmetry between left and right. Left is destructive; right is preservative, restorative, and/or creative. It is sometimes possible to incrementally preserve, seldom to incrementally restore, never to incrementally create. Larry’s whole point is that the only possibility at present is creation, as the old America is destroyed quite some distance beyond repair. Ie, it’s totaled.
The only appropriate right-wing approach to regime change, especially in a totaled state, is to create a new government which is worthy of governing. If it is done right, the new regime will simply assume power in a “velvet reaction.” This is exactly what was done in 1787-89—a rare historical example of successful right-wing regime change in North America. No wonder we revere it.
Mencius Moldbug writes:
“We must think.”
Right. This is why I find your sentimental attachment to, say, FDR, so completely misconceived. [LA replies: And I find your sentimental attachment to the idea that I have a sentimental attachment to FDR to be misconceived. When’s the last time I even mentioned FDR? What have I ever said to praise him, except that in 1936 he made two speeches about immigration that were infinitely better than anything we would hear from a “conservative” politician today?]
First principles? The first principle is that we are not “Americans”—we are Englishmen in America. [LA replies: that’s an oversimplified, off-base way of putting it, and shows your lack of ability to think in relation to the nuanced reality in which we live. Most thinking people who have read American history (and you claim to be the most historically informed person on the planet) would probably agree that in some respects Americans are “Englishmen in America,” but that in other respects the colonists became distinct from Englishmen as soon as the colonial experience began. It’s a highly mixed picture, and the job of the intellect is to articulate that picture. You don’t do that. You just throw out “big concepts,” which in reality are oversimplified and false concepts of the type associated with the left.] It’s often forgotten that Burke was a neocon—as the head intellectual of the Rockingham Whigs, he spent the first half of his career orchestrating and promoting the American Revolution. Whig is a technical term in English politics, meaning “liberal,” ie, left-wing. It is not the likes of Burke we need to seek—but Sir Robert Filmer. [LA replies: Hey, Filmer is a better model and authority for us than Henry VII! You’re making progress, man.]
Human historical reality is simply well to the right of the American tradition, liberal and conservative, and the pro-American tradition overseas. To be safe, go back before 1750. To be really safe, precede the English Civil War. I guarantee you that there were many very able and intelligent thinkers in the English language, whose words remain perfectly readable for any educated American today, before Oliver Cromwell—not that we can’t learn quite a bit from Cromwell himself.
The great right-wing thinkers, ie the great thinkers, of almost all periods are generally unknown in our liberal age, for obvious reasons. Why should we expect liberals to point them to us? Even if they do, should we rely on liberals to tell us who is great and who not-so-great, or which works are superior? But if we simply ignore them, out of ignorance, indolence or incapacity, and think from first principles without reference to the fact that others before us—often far better educated—have thought from first principles as well, we are pygmies standing on the toes of pygmies. Even if through ignorance, we commit the mortal sin of arrogance. Think, by all means, think! But also, read.
Have you seen the aphorisms of Nicolas Gomez Davila? Like few 20C works, they will live for millennia.
One of Davila’s reactionary aphorisms: anyone who thinks he is original, is really just ignorant. It is easy to be original in our extremely ignorant era. Those who would think must struggle hard to exceed this trap.
This is the way I have always put it, that America from the start was a mixture of conservative and liberal, or, as the liberal historian Page Smith has usefully put it, of the “Classical-Christian consciousness” and of the “Secular-Democratic consciousness.” Over time, the secular democratic has pushed aside the classical-Christian until the secular democratic is entirely in charge, as decisively shown by conservatives’ limpwristed and indifferent surrender to the homosexualization of the military. That, to me, is a more true, nuanced, and useful way of understanding American history than your highly simplistic view which says that America has been simply leftist virtually from the start. (I gather that you exclude the Constitution from the charge of leftism.)
Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 06, 2011 10:52 AM | Send
In any case, you and I agree that America is now a leftist country, in terms of its ruling ideas, and in terms of much else as well. Why, I ask you (as I’ve asked before) can’t we start from that common ground, instead of having to deal over and over with your tiresome rant about how I don’t understand the Moldbug Interpretation of History?
Second, once you have consented to start from that common ground, the next thing is to present useful ideas of a new politics that have something to do with the planet earth. Don’t give me Henry VII, the first Tudor despot, and his son, the first all-out modern-style, tradition-crushing despot, as models for us to follow.