The book What is Conservatism? written in the '60s, contains a number of essays expounding Conservative thought. I am planning on going through them systematically in order to rebut the entireity of Conservative thought. This is the first and introductory essay written by the compiling editor himself.
Against Freedom, Tradition, and Conservatism
Mr. Frank S(traus) Meyer has written an essay named Freedom, Tradition, Conservatism, which heads up a collection of essays published in 1964 by the name of What is Conservatism? edited by the same. Now, I have the distinct advantage of living and writing sixty years after the publication of this book, and knowing having Mr. Meyer’s background and history before me immediately before his judgment under Almighty God, as it were, but I desist from responding to the man’s life, and rather choose to respond to his words. That shall be the approach of this essay.
Mr. Meyer, it may interest you to know that the very first line of your essay could have been cut out with a paper of scissors and pasted with a gluestick (electronically, as we do it now) onto a modern day Conservative’s blog post (this is the name of an electronic version of your essays). Here it is: “The intellectual bankruptcy of the collectivist Liberalism which has dominated American thought for the past half century becomes every day more obvious.” It is very interesting that this line can so easily, without a single change, be passed off as a modern take on the current happenings, especially since it has charged into it a sense that things must soon change, that they will naturally change, and that your particular side is the obvious change. But this then shows most clearly what your thought is and what it will always be. You are conserving a state of tension permanently.
Why is that the Liberalism of the past half century has become every day more obviously morally bankrupt, that having occurred after you wrote that line, and yet has not been ousted? No, indeed, it is worse today than it was before, such that the moral bankrupters of your day would see such moral bankruptcy in today’s Liberalism that they would certainly denounce it for what it is, and call themselves Conservative, and indeed, they do. But my question for you then is, why did it continue?
I need to be nicer to you Mr. Meyer. A Conservative friend of mine told me to do so with dead men such as Mr. John Adams, who I called an evil man. And it is probably true. I search into my heart and try to understand what a man like you must be thinking such that you can invent these things and hope that they work.
It has certainly worked. The tension has been maintained. And this is not my word, but yours, as you say later on. You say that “the continuing consciousness of Western civilization” has an “ability to hold these apparently opposed ends in balance and tension”. This I think is the crux of your thought, and so it is wise to define each term:
What is Western Civilization?
What is tradition (the first end)?
What is liberty (the second end)?
What is Western Civilization?
You say that Western belief has a “stress upon freedom and upon the innate importance of the individual person”. You say also that it has “the belief in virtue as the end of men’s being”. This, of course, is the origin of your two ends which you enumerate and which I will discuss below. But my question is this, which Western Civilization are you talking about? Where are you making the distinction? If I have only this to look upon and not your background, which has you descended of German Jews living in the big cities of America, that is, being born in Newark and dying in Woodstock, a political activist all your life, living a hundred years before me, then I can reach certain conclusions. Now, as I said, this is ignoring your background, and rather treating you as an old man that I met upon the street or in a bar and with which I got into an argument. That is, I know you are an American.
Where does the tradition of freedom come from in America? Well, as a construct, the United States certainly originated with England. England originated with the Anglo-Saxons conquering the land of the Britons in the British Isles. Those tribes did that at a time where Europe was converting to the Catholic Church, which popularly understood to be the only Church. The Britons had already converted, and the Anglo-Saxons were pagan, but converted soon after, thanks to Gregory the Great and Augustine of Canterbury (as well as St. Aiden, St Ethelbert, St Oswald, etc.) Now, you could say that the Anglo-Saxons were more interested in freedom than the Britons, since they wanted new lands, new subjects, new cattle, and new wives, whereas the Britons wanted their old land, their old subjects, their old wives, and their old cattle, and to pass the same to their children, without venturing too far into innovative new ideas. But I will not delve into that more abstract and distant subject in order to discover the root of freedom. Rather, I think it is wise to look at the major change of England which occurred before the founding of the United States. That is to say, the Catholic Church was supreme in England from King Ethelbert’s time in about 600 A.D. until King Henry VIII’s time in about 1530, or nine hundred years. In all that time, there was no freedom to leave the Catholic Church so far as politics was concerned, for all the kings and ministers were necessarily Catholic.
After that time, men discovered the freedom to be of different religions, and the response of King Henry was to burn them. This he did, and his daughters after him, for a very long time. Elizabeth was one of the biggest proponents of burnings, hangings, and pressings (see the “Pearl of York” St Margaret Clitherow) for those who pursued a freedom of worship. Now, this bloody queen also is interesting for having created a sort of “balance and tension” between liberal religion (Lutheranism, which Henry her father hated) and Catholicism, which was later called Anglicanism. Englishmen of all kinds who desired no resemblance at all to remain of Catholicism, called Puritans, fled to America in this time to have their freedom. This then would be the origin of the “tradition” of freedom, which is to say, a tradition about four hundred years old, of being free to be not Catholic nor Anglican.
In contrast to this, virtue is older than the Incarnation of Our Lord, being present of course from the beginning of the world, and enumerated by the pagan philosophers, especially Aristotle. Virtues are the characteristics which describe perfections of a man’s soul. One of these is obedience, another is meekness, another is piety, and none of them are freedom to worship incorrectly. The will itself is free, that is, free to choose between good and evil, but this is not a virtue because it is not a perfection, but rather the basis of human nature that cannot be removed, because it is internal and not dependent upon anything but the possession of the soul, which is given once by God to every man conceived and never taken away, unlike the body.
The unity of these two, that is, the freedom exercised by dissidents in a small, island country, at one period in history to flee rather than suffer persecution, this historical condition, united to the deep and ever-present reality of virtue that derives from God’s perfection and is available to all men at all times in history so much so that they can all be equally and perfectly judged and rewarded upon it despite all the vicissitudes of life, these two things that are in completely different orders of understanding, being treated arbitrarily as if they were equal and opposed forces from a similar origin, is what you, Mr. Meyer, call “Western Civilization” (which most people understand as having predated the end named “freedom”).
What is Tradition?
Now, I take umbrage with you, Mr. Meyer, not only for the obvious flaw which I hope I have shown, but also for your habit of obscuring things together that do not necessarily relate and certainly do not do so in the manner which you have treated them. For instance, as shown, you obscure free will, which is a defining characteristic of man and cannot be removed from him, with political freedom and freedom to engage in error, when you have these lines so close to each other:
“On the other hand, the belief in virtue as the end of men’s being implicitly recognizes the necessity of freedom to choose that end; otherwise, virtue could be no more than a conditioned tropism. And the raising of order to the rank of an end overshadowing and subordinating the individual person would make of order not what the traditionalist conservative means by it, but the rule of totalitarian authority, inhuman and subhuman.”
Then, a little below that, you say, “…the complementary interdependence of freedom and virtue, of the individual person and political order…”. The obscurity here is obvious. The fact that the free will is required in order to grow in virtue is beyond our ability to interfere. Irrational beasts cannot grow in virtue by their actions. Now, what in the world does that have to do with the individual person and political order? This is my umbrage. You say that order, meaning creating a beautiful and harmonious commonwealth within society, as defined and understood throughout Western Civilization by Aquinas and Aristotle and all the rest, can be destructive somehow by being made an end above the individual. What, then, is the virtue of justice? What is a just judge, a just king? Are they ordered or disordered? Do they protect the individual or persecute him needlessly? Do you oppose a just king removing the freedom of a murderer to move around and act with his body? Or a just judge? Have you ever heard or read of the virtue of justice? Do you think that freedom ought to be above justice?
What do you make of our God, Mr. Meyer, Who so far from preferring the individual over the end of an ordered and beautiful universe, actually permits most individuals to go to hell for eternal damnation so that the universe as a whole might be better and more ordered. Why does He do this? He does it to punish wrong. He does it in the interest of justice, by the same of His Own virtue.
This, then, is traditionalism, tradition, virtue, and order, all of which you obscure together carelessly, and then pull from whichever one you might need in order to show it being good or bad, as if society benefits from a certain balance of chaos and order, rather than being entirely ordered.
What is Liberty?
And this leads perfectly into the final discussion of liberty. This has already been described, so let us show a few more of the implications of it. And let us explore it more sympathetically. Maybe it is that you think that a king has the ability to remove a man’s freewill. How exactly does he do that? If it is an “inalienable right endowed by the Creator”, then how can man ever remove it? Why does it need to be defended? How can it be defended?
Let us say a rich man oppresses a poor man. How might he do this? He could take his treasure and build up a business physically adjacent next to the poor man’s business. If he is successful and destroys the poor man’s livelihood, has he removed his freewill? If he has removed his freewill, how might this be prevented? Is it prevented in the United States? Has it ever been prevented in the United States?
These are all questions, but the essential understanding is this: What are the “libertarians”, as you name them, defending? What freedom do they protect? Can a man ever lose his freewill? If he can, how is it inalienable? Now, I agree with you, that the traditionalists are defending and building up every man’s ability to pursue virtue by, for instance, not being confused by erroneous teaching, not losing the rewards of their labor, not being subject to blasphemy and impiety, not having to discern between false churches, not being consumed with a competitive and predatory marketplace, learning to pray, being free from the presence of murderers and thieves, having some hope for their destruction or conversion, being able to pass his property on to his children, being able to live and breath without being charged money, and so on. All of these things eliminate distractions and confusions that make the pursuit of virtue difficult. And clearly, virtue can be more or less pursued by each individual man. Furthermore, although all men have the free will at all times to choose virtue or vice, they can be supported in their efforts by their neighbors to a substantial level. And furthermore, so can they be by their society.
So it seems to me that the traditionalists have something to build up, whereas the libertarians have two separate things which are their object: the freedom to choose good and the freedom to choose evil. Now, the first can never be removed from any man in this life. The second, however, can be, as men can be prevented from choosing evil to different degrees. So it seems to remain that, while the traditionalists labor for men to have more ability to choose greater goods, the libertarians labor that men have the ability to choose more and greater evils.