The pseudonymous Adam Selene is the latest American Greatness writer decrying the word “conservative” as meaningless and irrelevant to popular discourse. The magazine has long criticized “Conservatism Inc.,” arguing the conservative movement has lost its way and its guardians have sold out the cause.
But in this article, Selene goes beyond the normal allegation that the decadent Washington elites have sold out authentic conservatism to the interests of the political establishment. For him, the problem with conservatism is that there is nothing left in the status quo to be conserved, and a new foundation is needed to grapple with our current political moment.
This Is a Misreading of Conservatism
In Selene’s reading, conservatism claims to stand on a couple of principles. First, conservatism looks to history, not the future, for grounding in contemporary political matters. Second, conservatism implies a skepticism that change is always for the better, tending to prefer the devil we know for the one we don’t. This pair of presuppositions tends towards a distrust of both progressivism and revolution.
So far so good. But then Selene makes the curious claim that conservatism, by virtue of conserving, must seek to conserve something that is already a part of the status quo in some way. But the status quo, according to Selene, is so far gone that there is nothing in it worth conserving. Thus, conservatism is impotent and we need to move past it.
It’s not clear to me why Selene thinks that defense of the status quo (at least part of it) is an essential part of conservatism. That certainly isn’t implied by the word itself. In other fields—such as archaeology or paleontology—conservation does not imply preserving something in the present. Rather, it means the recovery of lost artifacts, sometimes with an eye for their relevance to present circumstances.
Perhaps if one is committed to a pragmatic sort of conservatism, embracing skepticism towards a transcendent moral order and valuing the past only for its long-standing institutions and customs, one might be tempted to think that only things that have endured through history are valuable. But that would require a very specific sort of pragmatism, one that only values things that have endured right up until this very moment. Otherwise, why not pick up where the eighteenth century left off, if it’s steeped in a tradition dating back a millennium or two?
The Past Endures Despite Its Presence in the Now
At any rate, the claim is most puzzling since it holds that the political philosophy best known for its focus on the past must orient itself by the fleeting apparitions of the present. Selene’s argument seems to flow from a fundamental misunderstanding of the way conservatives consider the past and apply its wisdom to present circumstances.
Selene seems to think we believe that the present is the sole vantage point by which man is capable of maintaining a connection to the realities of the past—that the past only endures insofar as it is contained in the present. This is a view held by some philosophers, famously by St. Augustine of Hippo, who affirmed that there exists only “the present of past things,” not the past itself.
But with all due respect to Augustine, this belief is rare among conservative thinkers. Instead, they tend to take their cues from Boethius, viewing the past as enduring and examinable in its own right. The past isn’t defined by the present through which all time flows, but exists as an eternal now before a timeless God. As the conservative poet T.S. Eliot puts it in his Four Quartets, “the moment of the rose and the moment of the yew tree are of equal duration,” both equally enduring because their respective moments are also eternal, and “history is a pattern of timeless moments.”
The second mistake Selene makes is viewing conservatism as method rather than a theory. For Selene, conservatism merely represents a stance towards the past, with claims about morality that the past necessarily limits. Under this view, conservatism entails a sort of anti-realism or historicism. It doesn’t advance any transcendent claims of its own, but only historical truths as received by way of tradition. If the connection to the past is broken, then so is the connection to truth, rendering conservatism morally and politically impotent.
What Are We Conserving?
But conservatism is certainly a theory as well as a method, at least the version embraced by American conservatism’s foremost minds. Russell Kirk’s “The Roots of the American Order” is filled with accounts of the soul being turned towards transcendent truths, whether in ancient Israel’s discovery of a purposeful moral existence before God or the philosophical awakening that occurred in Athens (to say nothing of the entire Christian tradition).
The political philosopher Eric Voegelin likewise depicts the epochal developments of human experience, such as the birth of ancient philosophy, as stemming from the joyous response of the soul towards a transcendent ground of Being. Richard Weaver was also a staunch moral realist, so much so that he believed the defeat of realism in the medieval academy began “the dissolution of the West.”
For these conservatives, tradition cannot be equated with truth. Rather, tradition is simply truth’s handmaiden. It serves an epistemic role of refining and clarifying our moral vision so we may more clearly perceive transcendent realities. When our will is pitted against our ancestors, we are more likely to side with the dead, but not because we believe them to have manufactured truth. Rather, we adopt a posture of humility towards the present in the context of the past and future—it is but one moment among countless others—and, for those of us who are Christians, tether our final hope to that which is beyond the world.
Indeed, given that hope, we above all should expect the present moment to lose its way. The committed Hegelian expects the present to contain at least more truth than the past. Similarly, the reactionary also believes the status quo is the guide to truth, albeit through antithesis. But we believe ourselves already to be exiles in this life, sojourners on the way to the city of God. We should expect to be at odds with the status quo when time is thrown into sharp relief against the backdrop of eternity.
Certainly our status as sojourners doesn’t commit us to political quietism, nor does it preclude us from making practical judgments (Burke was abundantly clear on that point). But it might incline us to weather the storm or apply our political energies locally rather than join a revolution, especially one that seems so mired in its own pathologies. Doing so might even belie a greater skepticism of the status quo than Selene’s, since the type of revolution he calls for seems to require appealing to institutions and mores that haven’t already been hollowed out.
Whose Status Quo Is It Anyway?
This is the most curious thing about Selene’s piece. While railing about the utter depravity of the status quo, he seems to be in thrall to it. There exists, in his dilemma, only the status quo and reaction to it. “The status quo is progressive, which is not conservative, and the reaction to the status quo is revolutionary, which is also not conservative,” he writes.
Failing to join the “reactionary counterrevolution” renders us “a sort of low-grade progressivism.” We are all, in Selene’s mind, held hostage by the current moment, forced to affirm the status quo or to react to it—to “risk it all and stand and fight.”
But this is nonsense, of course. There is another option, one Voegelin suggested: “No one is obliged to take part in the spiritual crises of society; on the contrary, everyone is obliged to avoid the folly and live his life in order.” It may lack the romantic appeal of revolutionary fervor, but it frees us from the tyranny of the present moment and provides more than enough work for a life.