To be human is to be lost. Whether we admit it or insist on pretending otherwise makes no difference. At the core of our nature is an undeniable alienation from the world in which we find ourselves. Even when we try to deny the poor fit between the world we inhabit and the world we long for, the gap comes bounding out of the shadows, demanding a confrontation: the room is too cold, the tomatoes won’t grow, our beloved dog runs away, wars devastate millions. The real world is always at odds with the way we intuit it ought to be. When peace and rest do come, they rarely last. We are, none of us, long at ease; rather, we are all, in myriad ways and at all times, quite dis-eased.
We can respond to our situation in one of two ways. We can look for and cultivate those things which root us and console us by hinting at some other, finer world beyond; or we can determine to create for ourselves here and now a world in which our existential quandary can be resolved in a haze of technocratic bliss.
The first of these is the conservative path. Rooted in the Christian apprehension of the world’s fallen nature, a true conservative accepts that no amount of tinkering with markets, or transistors, or DNA will ever solve a problem so basic to our existence. Instead, the conservative seeks to preserve those aspects of our lives that shore us up, strengthen our resolve, and bid us be patient laboring in our hope.
Chief among the things a conservative must conserve is tradition, which means not merely “the way people used to do things,” but rather “those things handed down.” Tradition is the accumulated wisdom gathered through the ages for how best to live in a world that falls far from our intuited ideals.
A large part of this inherited wisdom involves loving real things as they really are. The great freedom of the conservative lies in not having to subject all that exists to a program of improvement in the service of some imagined future utopia. Admittedly, this definition of conservatism is at odds with much American Republicanism of the last four decades. The party’s ideology, with its free market fanaticism and its laissez-faire approach to moral and social issues, has often been subject to a utopianism of its own.
Finding examples of the conservatism I am describing in the American political landscape is nigh impossible. Perhaps this is true because this sort of conservatism stems from a general posture toward life that American culture discourages. This is a conservatism is a mood more than a platform, with ideology and policy prescriptions playing, at best, a secondary role.
Not long ago, I finished watching a series of old films. In each, British historian W.G. Hoskins walks about remarking on the various landscapes of the English countryside. This is my favorite:
Each of these films captures what I am trying to describe. Their quiet nature, the observation of the world from the distance of one not totally at home in it, and Hoskins’ absolute delight in the landscape as a given, all these capture the essence of what I am calling the conservative disposition. (If you enjoy these films, by the way, you might enjoy the work of Hoskins’ heir apparent, Richard Vobes.)
The delight Hoskins feels in the landscape is a direct result of his love of it. This should not be astonishing. Central to the conservative mind is the affirmation that the world, in spite of its many failings, contains much worth loving, defending, and preserving, much that speaks to a future in which our alienation might be overcome.
This is the point Felix Miller made recently in his article, “The Right Needs Joy.” Miller is concerned with the anger among young reactionaries. Much of that anger, Miller acknowledges, is justified.
From the article:
It is understandable that so many young conservatives and reactionaries are resentful. In many cases, they have been raised in a world that in fundamentally at odds with reality and human flourishing. They have been taught from childhood that happiness is to be found in debauchery, selfishness, and relativism. Coming from broken homes, attending broken schools, and being fed by a broken media, they have come to traditionalism not through natural, lived practices, but instead through disillusionment with progressivism. They have been tormented by the living hell that progressivism, feminism, multiculturalism, cultural Marxism, and all other forms of modernism have created in their perverse image and likeness.
Justified though it is, this anger is not enough to sustain a movement. For that, we must instead cultivate a love for reality as palpable as Hoskins’. Miller holds out Chesteron as an example of a joyous conservative. I offer you Hoskins who, whatever his politics, produced work that typified the joy at the heart of conservatism, the joy that delights in the world in spite of our alienation from it.
Trolling Leftists into online fights they will lose and watching them cry when vanquished no doubt has its appeal, but its appeal is the joy of destruction, not of creation. In the long run, cultural tides are turned by what is built more than by what is torn asunder. Even if we manage to destroy the infrastructure of the occupiers, we will only be living in a wasteland, without undertaking to build something in its place.
If conservatism has any chance of building something worthwhile from the ruins of modernity, we must begin not with politics so much as with loving those things right in front of us. We must take as our models no longer the Sean Hannitys of the world, let alone the legion of Kek-worshipping anons on Twitter. Rather, we must devote ourselves, like Hoskins, to love of the particular: a particular spouse, a particular child, a particular vocation exercised faithfully in a particular locale. Only by doing so can we build a movement of people with the vision to look up someday toward the landscape and to know, at last, where they are.