Conservatism and progress

Near the end of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov, the eldest brother Dmitri is wrongly accused of his father Fyodor’s murder. Spectators at the trial had mostly assumed Dmitri’s guilt, and many in the crowd felt that Dmitri’s personal wrongs against them were being avenged. Only the reader has witnessed the scene in which Dmitri, seething with rage at his wretched adulterer of a father, grasps a pestle in his pocket—and then, mastering himself, swallows his anger and backs out of his plan to kill his forebear. Only the reader has seen Fyodor’s illegitimate son Smerdyakov admit to the murder.

The Brothers Karamozov concludes, some months after Dmitri’s trial, with the funeral of a peasant boy named Ilyusha. Earlier, Dmitri had learned that Ilyusha’s impoverished father, the “Captain,” was involved in Fyodor Karamozov’s illicit business dealings. Dmitri, who had been swindled by the Captain, exacted a humiliating revenge, dragging him through the street by his beard as his son and neighbors looked on. Ilyusha’s schoolmates teased him violently for the incident, throwing stones that hit him hard in his chest. Ilyusha died from his wounds two days after Dmitri was found guilty for a murder he did not commit.

No court could ever convict Dmitri for Ilyusha’s death. The legal system can only sentence the person immediately responsible for a murder. But Dostoevsky’s genius shines a floodlight on the intricate and thorny web of moral cause and effect. Continue reading Conservatism and progress

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

Part 2 of 3

In my first essay of this series, I asserted that Alpha-Wolfe Conservative Edmund Burke deserved careful reassessment in light of impoverished tradition. Now I want to investigate his claims regarding the evolution of culture and institutions. I confess that I will be using that great reactionary romantic G. K. Chesterton as my intellectual crutch in dismantling some problems with Burkean conservatism. Once again I will also assume that my reader is familiar with the general theses of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.

The ever-prudential Edmund is remembered best for rejecting the radicalism of the French Revolution. Whereas Continental ideology encouraged the sans-culottes and the parlor-bound intellectuals to violently turn the world upside down, Burke looked to the slow moderate change of individual nations to organically alter the social order. History not only sifted through wisdom and foolery; it also established the rights of Englishmen. The contract theorists’ abstract “rights of man” and individualist rationalism posed a threat to the easy-going acculturation of reflective reform and historically-rotted progress.

Now, what bothered Chesterton was not Burke’s rebuttal against (most) of the Enlightenment. Instead, it was conservatism’s practical atheism in response to liberalism. In a chapter of the magisterial What’s Wrong with the World called “The Empire of the Insect,” the author observed that “Burke was certainly not an atheist in his conscious cosmic theory” but rather “that in the quarrel over the French Revolution, Burke did stand for the atheistic attitude and mode of argument, as Robespierre stood for the theistic.” He asserted:

[Burke] did not attack the Robespierre doctrine with the old mediaeval doctrine of jus divinum (which, like the Robespierre doctrine, was theistic), he attacked it with the  modern argument of scientific relativity; in short, the argument of evolution. He  suggested that humanity was everywhere molded by or fitted to its environment and  institutions; in fact, that each people practically got, not only the tyrant it deserved, but  the tyrant it ought to have.

In other words, Burke chose Montesquieu over Aquinas. Continue reading The Impossibility of Conservatism; or, Why I am a Reactionary

Commonplace: The Tory Slide

My wife and I have been reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Demons to one another; it is, as the dust jacket says, “a dark comedy of ideas run amok.” One interesting dialogue involves Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky, the anarchist provocateur, and Count von Lembke, the governor, whose wife has taken a fancy to Pyotr Stepanovich and his crew of nihilists. Here we learn that Lembke’s conservatism and Verkhovensky’s nihilism is only a matter of degree:

Von Lembke recalled a conversation he had recently had with Pyotr Stepanovitch. With the innocent object of displaying his Liberal tendencies he had shown him his own private collection of every possible kind of manifesto, Russian and foreign, which he had carefully collected since the year 1859, not simply from a love of collecting but from a laudable interest in them. Pyotr Stepanovitch, seeing his object, expressed the opinion that there was more sense in one line of some manifestoes than in a whole government department, “not even excluding yours, maybe.”

Lembke winced.

“But this is premature among us, premature,” he pronounced almost imploringly, pointing to the manifestoes. Continue reading Commonplace: The Tory Slide