Q: It struck me that the empirical side of your conservatism is also underpinned by what might be call a metaphysics of personhood, a conception of the nature of the human person.
RS: That’s absolutely true. I think it’s what conservatism—my kind of conservatism, at least—shares with liberalism: an attempt to found things ultimately on a vision of what the human person is. Of course, it is the case that conservatism as I envisage it distances itself always from abstract conceptions and tries to find the concrete reality… the good in the present.
Related to this is the emphasis you place on what you call the “first-person plural,” a phrase that occurs several times in the book.
Yes. Ultimately, political order does not generate itself. For that reason, social contract theories are suspended in mid-air, so to speak. All political order presupposes a pre-political order, a sense that people belong together. And then, of course, they might seek a contract that embodies their togetherness. But the togetherness has to be there.
With Oakeshott’s remarks about conservatism as a “disposition” in mind, I was very struck by something you say about the tone of voice in which this book is written. You say: “The case for conservatism does not have to be presented in elegiac accents.” What do you mean by that?
So much of modern political conservatism—and you see this in America, which has a quite articulate conservative movement compared with us—is phrased in elegiac terms. [It’s about] what we’ve lost—we’ve lost the traditional working-class family, the black family or whatever it might be. Now, all that is perfectly reasonable. But the most important question is what have we got, rather than what we’ve lost, and how do we keep it?
We must give up on the hope of restoring the past in this culture. It’s not that some aspects of the past shouldn’t be reclaimed, but rather that doing so, at least at a society-wide level, is not feasible at this point in time. The more we act as if it were so, the greater our losses will be once we definitively lose an unwinnable battle. This “take back America” stuff is self-deluding nostalgia, and the more conservatives believe it, the worse off they will be.
There are times when you have to fade into the forest and retrench. I’ve called this call for retrenchment the Benedict Option, because it strikes me as the most sensible strategy by which religious conservatives can engage the world as it is now and is to come. The Benedictines were ordinarily not completely cloistered; they engaged with the people in the areas where their monasteries were. But they established walls and habits that set them apart from the secular world, and gave them the means to preserve their identity over generations. This is what I’m talking about: how to preserve the core of our identity in a post-Christian culture?