To most Americans, the Prince of Wales is best known as a pop-culture icon and tabloid figure, a royal celebrity who married (and divorced) Diana Spencer, fathered Prince William, and gallivanted scandalously with Camilla Parker-Bowles, now his wife. What is less known, at least in this country, is that Prince Charles, 63, has spent much of his life, and indeed his fortune, supporting, sometimes provocatively, traditionalist ideals and causes.
The heir to one of the world's oldest monarchies, a traditionalist? You don't say. But Charles's traditionalism is far from the stuffy, bland, institutional conservatism typical of a man of his rank. Charles, in fact, is a philosophical traditionalist, which is a rather more radical position to hold.
He is an anti-modernist to the marrow, which doesn't always put him onside with the Conservative Party. Charles's support for organic agriculture and other green causes, his sympathetic view of Islam, and his disdain for liberal economic thinking have earned him skepticism from some on the British right. ("Is Prince Charles ill-advised, or merely idiotic?" the Tory libertarian writer James Delingpole once asked in print.) And some Tories fear that the prince's unusually forceful advocacy endangers the most traditional British institution of all: the monarchy itself.
Others, though, see in Charles a visionary of the cultural right, one whose worldview is far broader, historically and otherwise, than those of his contemporaries on either side of the political spectrum. In this reading, Charles's thinking is not determined by post-Enlightenment categories but rather draws on older ways of seeing and understanding that conservatives ought to recover. "All in all, the criticisms of Prince Charles from self-styled 'Tories' show just how little they understand about the philosophy they claim to represent," says the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton.
Scruton's observation highlights a fault line bisecting latter-day Anglo-American conservatism: the philosophical split between traditionalists and libertarians. In this way, what you think of the Prince of Wales reveals whether you think conservatism, to paraphrase the historian George H. Nash, is essentially about the rights of individuals to be what they want to be or the duties of individuals to be what they ought to be.
The most complete statement of Charles's worldview is his 2010 book Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World, co-written by Tony Juniper and Ian Skelly. In its opening line, England's future king declares, "This is a call to revolution" Against what? Nothing less than "the current orthodoxy and conventional way of thinking, much of it stemming from the 1960s but with its origins going back over 200 years" Charles believes Western civilization took a wrong turn at the Enlightenment, is headed toward destruction (especially environmental), and cannot save itself without an abrupt change of intellectual and spiritual course.
His criticism of the Enlightenment has nothing apparently to do with monarchical politics. It is chiefly a matter of philosophy. According to the prince, modernity occasioned a loss of vital wisdom that had been discovered, developed, and preserved in a number of ancient civilizations. The essence of this wisdom lay in seeing the world as cosmos--characterized by order, hierarchy, and intrinsic meaning. Moreover, the cosmos has a spiritual dimension, the existence of which is intuitively present in natural man. These principles are denied by modernity, which recognizes no meaning in the natural world aside from what man imposes on it, and the empiricism of which marginalizes "the non-material side to our humanity." Writes Charles:
Modernism deliberately abstracted Nature and glamorized
convenience, and this is why we have ended up seeing the natural
world as some sort of gigantic production system seemingly capable
of ever-increasing outputs for our benefit. …