The Impossibility of Conservatism; or, Why I am a Reactionary

Part 3 of 3 (see also parts one and two)

All good things come to an end, they say, and so must this series on the limits of Burkean conservatism. First, we discussed how the landscape of tradition has changed: what was revolutionary and inimical to the great heritage of mankind has since become “traditional” while even more radically progressive features dot the minds of many men. Thus, the moderate change championed by fair Edmund would simply be part of the problem—to assert the truth, goodness, and beauty with which Burke himself was trying to preserve makes one into a sort of radical himself, often contrary to the tastes and policies of his immediate predecessors. Similarly, we looked at Chesterton’s critique, where there’s a sort of Social 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. We must not simply accept evolutionary politics—if something is a universal truth or goodness, then it needs to be restored, often against the tide of fans of moderating inertia. In many ways, the eternal God and His Law cannot be kicked out of the equation. One sometimes has to willfully fight against a kind of political and social entropy—a practice that is not easily gathered from Burke’s corpus of thought.

On the other hand, something has changed through history. I am different from the ancient as well as the medieval man, in a way similar to how I am different from a foreigner. What has changed—especially for Western contemporary man—when contrasted with his ancestors?

It is this: our consciousness has changed and will continue to do so. To put it another way, mankind’s way of knowing has indeed evolved. Here I reference the genius of Owen Barfield, Inkling and C. S. Lewis’s “Second Friend.” In his Poetic Diction and Saving the Appearances, Barfield explores how this change takes place. For example, in Poetic Diction, he explained how early human language and, thus, acquisition of meaning was unique. His great example is the Greek word pneuma, which means “breath,” “wind,” or “spirit.” The common perception of many linguists and anthropologists was that primitive man (let us call him “Ug”) had a limited vocabulary that was blunt and incapable of catching all the nuances of meaning we have now. Similarly, in Saving the Appearances, Barfield talked about how gods and other mythological characters stood in for natural phenomena, such as the Iris personifying the rainbow. The assumption by the experts, again, takes on the Darwinian bent: Ug, in his primitive, fearful, and superstitious emergence from the mud personified various things around him. A world full of spirits was the best way that Ug could explain all these weird events and objects around him.

Barfield has none of this. Pneuma has three meanings because breath, wind,  and spirit were indeed tied in the ancient consciousness. The three concepts were in fact fused in a sort of primordial unity. It is other men with evolving consciousnesses who have since delineated, separated, distinguished, split up, and perhaps even fractured (?) these meanings through abstraction and other means. On the same note, ancient man personified nature because he had a different perceptual system: he participated in the representations before him. It was not a thing outside him nor was all of reality relativistically malleable to his own whims. The Cartesian subject/object distinction is pretty much thrown out the window (or rather, doesn’t exist yet).

When Barfield says “representations,” he means what we sense as a human being. Often, the bare “stuff” of matter is unrepresented. He refers to the rainbow: scientists tell us that water droplets (made up of molecules, atoms, and quarks) are suspended in air as visible electromagnetic radiation (light) pours through. But that hardly means much—it is an explanation, not meaning. Similarly, we can share this representation collectively with other human beings (helping us distinguish between illusion and reality). Sure, particles and the bare cosmos exist without human beings, but once man is on the scene and his consciousness begins to interact with the particles, a “world” is produced. In this case, bare sense-perception isn’t enough to cope and engage with the chaotic world—much of the human being is needed (habits of thought, memory, imagination, feelings, volition, etc.).

Humans can simply experience representations, think about them, or think about the nature of them. These three functions are not isolated—they interact with one another in important ways. This is the stuff of history, and it is the development of historical consciousness itself that has allowed us to explore this theme with significant insight (as Barfield disciple John Lukacs would argue).

I speak of this whole consciousness phenomenon not just as an unqualified good, but as something that simply happens. Indeed, our current imaginations seem quite deracinated for a variety of reasons. We objectify the world and thus populate it with idols, which make participation impossible. Certain important ways of knowing seem cut off from us, but perhaps they could be recovered. However, as Lewis argues in That Hideous Strength, it seems as if the world is narrowing and hardening, making the rift between good and evil more extreme (among other things). Also, the rise of individualism—a product of the seemingly-harmful Cartesian turn—also makes a higher level of introspection available to us.

So this is what changes and will change. It’s not necessarily a progress with an inevitable end. Lots of potentialities haunt the historical and poetical corridors. When I look back at this article, I can’t help thinking that I have done an insufficient job of exploring these important realities. Barfield and his students (such as Lukacs) merit much more conversation and exploration. But don’t worry, my fellow Hipstercons—I’ll be back again someday.

[Editor’s Note: That conclusion would have been much more intriguing had this issue been published during Christmastide.]

5 thoughts on “The Impossibility of Conservatism; or, Why I am a Reactionary”

  1. Bede,

    Love the idea behind this blog. I was wondering if you are familiar with Corey Robin’s “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke To Sarah Palin”? In the book, Robin (yes, he’s a lefty), insists that contrary to what many intellectuals insist, conservativism has never been about conserving anything nor has it been about gradual reform. Instead, he turns Burke on his head by drawing quotes from his essay on the Sublime and Beautiful and concludes that Burke’s statements repeatedly contradict his insistence on gradual reform, tradition, and rejection of revolution. Why did Burke claim that our “most salutary and most beautiful institutions yield nothing but dust and smut”? Why did he claim that in every respect “the Jacobins are our superiors?” Robin concludes that conservatives have at heart always been radical reactionaries who are often social outsiders (Burke was Irish, Disraeli was a Jew, Rand was a Russian atheist, etc) who have critiqued the status quo and ruling powers of their host society insofar as they are deemed too weak and pathetic to fight off liberalism. Demaistre and Burke alike had nothing but scorn for the monarchs or Europe and insisted that only a reactionary vanguard of the rightwing could level the playing field. In many respects, the right has always been more revolutionary than the left and often mimics the rhetoric and tactics of the left (think of the rightwing libertarians co-opting classical liberalism, or how the fascists copied the trappings and pagentry of the communists).

    If you can roll your eyes through the leftwing tripe in Robin’s prose, you might find that the book is really rewarding. As a fellow reactionary, I say to keep up the good work.

    1. I’m a fan of Corey Robin. Generally speaking, few self-identified conservatives would see their primary purpose as conserving. I have a strong tendency in myself to want to conserve things, whether in terms of conservation or moderation. It is for that very reason that I don’t see myself as a conservative. We live in a time that it is easy to become radicalized, but i try to resist it. I don’t have the personality to be a radical, both in terms of reactionary and revolutionary politics.

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