Friday, August 29, 2014

Conservative Humanism

Bradley Birzer, the second person to hold the University of Colorado's visiting chair of conservatism, had this to say about his own beliefs:
But, what about that label, “conservative”? Well, let me explain—as I see it—what a conservative is NOT.
  • A real conservative is not a loud, platinized, remade and plastically remolded talking head on Fox.
  • A real conservative is not that guy on the radio who seems to hate everything and everyone.
  • And, a real conservative never wants to bomb another people “back to the stone age.”
My own tradition of conservatism—whether I live up to it or do it justice—is one that is, for all intents and purposes, humanist. I believe there is a line of continuity from Heraclitus to Socrates to Zeno to Cicero to Virgil to St. John to St. Augustine to the Venerable Bede, Alcuin, and the Beowulf poet, to Thomas Aquinas to Petrach to Thomas More to Edmund Burke. The last one hundred years saw a fierce and mighty revival of the humanist tradition, embracing and unifying (more or less) T.E. Hulme, Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt, Willa Cather, G.K. Chesterton, Christopher Dawson, Sigrid Unset, Nicholas Berdayeev, Sister Madeleva Wolff, T.S. Eliot, Romano Guardini, Dorothy Day, Gabriel Marcel, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Leo Strauss, Flannery O’Connor, and Russell Kirk, to name a few.

George Orwell, both shocked and impressed by the movement, noted in December 1943 that it was nothing more than neo-reactionary: a strange mix of traditionalism in poetry and literature, religious orthodoxy in ethics, and anarchy in politics and economics. I must admit, though I have never called myself a neo-reactionary, almost all those who Orwell reluctantly admired are certainly heroes of mine.

But as I see it, the conservative or humanist—or, the conservative humanist, if you will—only possesses one job and one duty, when all is said and done, and she or he performs it to the best of her or his ability: A conservative attempts to conserve what is most humane in all spheres of life: in economics, in education, in the military, in the culture, in faith, in business, in government, and in community. The conservative is, at the most fundamental level, a humanist, reminding each and every one of us what it means to be human.
Interesting, although that omnium gatherum of past intellectuals has some strange bedfellows, with some outright authoritarian monsters thrown in.

My broader critique would be to say that humanism as I understand it —I also consider myself a humanist — requires belief in the possibility of making things better. I obviously do not think that all change is for the better, and I rather dislike change for its own sake. The cult of Revolution, meaning the radical overthrow of the whole social order and its replacement with something completely new, has proved to be one of the worst ideas ever. By all means, let us preserve what is best and most humane about the past. But if you believe in humanity, you must believe in our power to reason and experiment and find new ways of doing things that improve on the old. If you deny this — if you insist the people cannot be trusted to find their own way and must always be guided by tradition — do you really have any faith in humanity? Some of the thinkers on Birzer's list, such as St. Augustine and Leo Strauss, had no faith in the human mass; in fact if I compiled a list of people I consider anti-humanist thinkers they might both be on it. To me, humanism means believing that human reason is profoundly powerful. It may often go astray, but to dismiss its power is to dismiss the potential of the modern world, and that seems to me a grave mistake.


G. Verloren said...

While I can respect the notion that there are people who identify as conservative who disagree with various thorny qualities attached to the complicated epithet, I have to laugh at the thought that Birzer is essentially invoking the "No True Scotsman" logical fallacy as the basis of his argument. He's not wrong per se, in that the heart of conservatism is not truly based sheerly in the horrible behaviors that are the stereotype of the philosophy (at least within the US), but the fact is that being part of the "conservative" world of politics means being bedfellows with the good and the bad elements alike. Like it or not, horrible conservatives are still conservatives, in the same way that hate-spewing, ignorant, Fundamentalist Christians are technically still Christians - even if they completely misunderstand and go against the teachings of the Galilean Carpenter at nearly every turn.

That said, I think a part of the problem is undoubtedly that language is weird, and it gets transmuted in bizarre ways. "Democrats" aren't truly democratic, in the sense that they don't have any problem with employing Representation over total suffrage and counting every single vote of every single citizen in every single matter of importance. "Republican" is technically accurate, in that yes, we operate in a republic - but really, we're a mixed Democratic Republic. And neither terms really tells you anything at all about the beliefs of the party involved.

The same problems exist with "Liberal" and "Conservative". Despite being presented as opposites, they technically exist on two separate conceptual spectrums. The opposite of "Liberalism" is in fact "Authoritarianism", and the direct counter to a "Conservative" is actually a "Radical" or a "Revolutionary". Desiring freedoms and liberties, and wishing to limit or restrict change, are in no way mutually exclusive.

Ultimately, what I think matters for anyone who is conservative is their reasons for opposing change. A person striving to prevent change purely out of adherance to tradition or out of fear is entirely different that a person who bases their conservatism on rational thought and empirical evidence.

I absolutely believe that the language used to describe philosophies does deserve more exacting divisions and terminology. I'd rather Birzer identify as a "Conservative Humanist" than a "Humanist Conservative", but at least the beginnings of proper naming conventions are clearly there. We could even subdivide our political parties in this manner, to more exactly represent differing viewpoints.

But perhaps it is overly optimistic to expect people to properly understand and internalize all the different spectrums of thought they each fall into. There are just so many categories to keep track of, and our extant terminology is already so muddled and oversimplified.

I mean, could the average person honestly be expected to make sense of someone who states they are a "Conservative Socialist Liberal Republican Humanist"? (Someone who advocates Reform over Revolt, Minimal Wealth Disparity and Non-Competitive Economics, Maximal Personal Freedoms, Representative Government, and Human-Centric Rationality) The Cynic in me points out that people already reduce discussion to the level of "Us Vs. Them" tribalism, while the Humanist in me wants to believe we can work to educate people and promote rationality and intelligence among even the least advantaged or obstinate amongst us.

John said...

I also wonder about the power of how we name our beliefs. Consider Rick Perry, who became a "conservative" because he loves small Texas towns and the Boy Scouts, then decided that this means he must support bank deregulation and an aggressive foreign policy because those are parts of contemporary conservatism. A century ago he would probably have been an isolationist and ranted against Wall Street.