Another, Deeper Conservatism


Reviewing Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Left and Right, Elizabeth Corey comes to a striking conclusion – “Paine has won” – and longs for a more counter-cultural conservatism:

[M]uch of modern conservatism provides a vision of a good life that differs little from that advocated by the most energetic progressives. The ends might be different, but the means are the same.

A substantive alternative would require a much more radical reorientation of the modern soul. Even as everything in contemporary culture pushes us to look forward, to “aim high” and relentlessly pursue change, we might remember that there are truly countercultural ways of living that ask for patience, gratitude, and satisfaction instead of impatience, discontent, and constant desire for what does not yet appear. Such an attitude does not entail our becoming inactive, boring, or staid, but it requires a willingness to preserve rather than tear down and build anew. Reform would be, as Burke suggested, more cautious than radical, with careful attention to the familiar and the tried. We might begin by learning to appreciate and even to love, as Michael Oakeshott has put it, the “gentle, endearing imperfection of all living things,” including ourselves.

And so a truly counter-cultural conservatism would regard play as the highest of human activities and homo ludens a great cultural achievement – and play is indeed a deep, underlying virtue in Oakeshott’s thought. But so too is a reinvigorated modernist Christianity, the religion of unachievement, the faith that has no time with the American “cult of wellbeing“. This is a conservatism in love with nature, with friendship, with humor – and all those things that can never be reduced to the level of the “useful”. And of course it includes the voice of art, of imagination, of poetry, as Mark Signorelli explains:

The key, I think, lies in relishing the extraordinary power of [Burke’s] language, a political and moral rhetoric that effectively models the kind of conservatism Corey calls for, with its “radical reorientation of the modern soul.” Other writers describe the sort of principles that would constitute a viable conservative vision—the grateful piety towards God and land and family—but only Burke realizes that vision in his words, conveying to us some sense of what it must be like to live according to such principles. His superb eloquence, which is often noted as something incidental to his thought, is really at its heart. It is the means by which he manifests the full experience of constructing a political order out of the particular affections of time and place.

Burke is, in effect, the poet of conservatism. And, like any good poet, he is capable of arousing the elemental affections from which civilized life grows.

Richard Reeves appreciates that Levin doesn’t ignore the parts of Burke’s thinking that today’s conservatives might not want to emulate:

Not that Burke is sanitised here for modern consumption. While many contemporary conservatives cite his famous line about the need “to love the little platoon we belong to” as an argument for local, civic associations, Levin reminds us that the platoons in question were in fact “very clearly a reference to social class”. Burke thinks that, in a flourishing society, people know their place in the hierarchy – and learn to love it.

By offering us Burke warts and all, Levin in fact makes a stronger claim for his continued importance. In his hands, Burke forces us to think again about the wisdom that can inhere in the institutions and customs of a nation, sometimes even after rational scrutiny has done its work.

Previous Dish on Levin’s book here and here.