Restoring the Meaning of Conservatism [Part Two]

Article excerpt

THE SUMMER 2005 ISSUE of Modern Age featured a commentary on "Restoring the Meaning of Conservatism," which makes an appeal for holding fast to those principles that best define conservatism's "moral exemplification of our conservatorship" and its struggle to resist increasing "violations of our reverent tradition and legacy." Clearly, the corruption of the fixed signification of the word conservatism has reached those dangerous extremes that compel Professor Claes G. Ryn to insist in word and in print on the need "to make conservative intellectuals understand that a conservative is conservative of something, of something historically evolved and manifested."

In the Fall 2005 issue of Modern Age, Professor George W. Carey, in his essay "The Future of Conservatism," was to confront forcefully some of the conditions and attitudes of political policy and partisanship that undermine the canons of a traditional philosophical conservatism. In this present issue of the journal, what can be called the escalating problem of conservatism, that is, its altered meaning if not deformations, is variously delineated in three essays: "The Revolutionary Conservatism of Jefferson's Small Republics," by Arthur Versluis; "Restoring the Heroic Conservatism of Richard M. Weaver," by James Patrick Dimock; and "The Perils of America's Progress," by Stephen Bertman.

The high importance of just what conservatism means and is, and of how precisely are we to define and preserve its essential properties, are crucial matters that preoccupy Modern Age and that cannot be either ignored or discarded at this epochal juncture of American political history and of the state of American conservatism--when so much is at stake and so much is in danger. To be sure, some readers may rightly ask, "Will what is written in these pages regarding the significance of conservatism in our time make any difference in what finally happens to conservative faith and thought in the twenty-first century? Can we in any way move beyond the black marks on the page, beyond the writings of conservative scholars who are concernedly evaluating the new trends and the evolving exigencies of conservatism?"

Undoubtedly there are those among us who will say that there is nothing substantial that can be done to renew the meaning of a philosophical and reflective conservatism in a defiantly antinomian milieu, when triumphalist neo-Jacobin power-centers, possessing unlimited funds, are unchallengeable and unthwartable. In short, it is too late, we are told, to correct pernicious conditions and circumstances, and therefore it is sensible to accede to our fate or at least to dampen our attempts to stem the tide of change as it overpowers us. These doubts are understandable, especially when seen in the context of a majoritarian democracy, and of the raw power and influence applied by an unprincipled postmodernism that ostensibly constitutes a dominion of might that cannot be defeated. But if doubts are understandable, they need not be an obstacle to right reason, will, and imagination; nor need they be deterrents to dissent exemplifying the courage to be. Indeed, we must not give way to the tyranny of doubt, as the writers singled out here for their relevance and insight bravely testify.

Inevitably, conservatism has its appointed critical function to perform in the form of what Burke calls "censorial inspection," that is, to scrutinize sociopolitical and cultural conditions as they exist in the contemporary world and, given the extremisms that too often govern modern consciousness, to prescribe reasonable correctives. This is hardly an easy or popular function at a time when manifold decadences accumulate to disrupt the order of the community and the order of the soul, and when romantic, utilitarian, expansionist, and utopian proclivities of mind and conduct prevail; when, too, we live in a hubristic age when time-tested traditions and time-honored customs continually capitulate to "unintelligent innovations," to quote Irving Babbitt's words, and to aberrations and apostasies of increasing ferocity that are consonant with existence in a vacuum of disinheritance. …