Towards A Recovery Of The Conservative Imagination

The American journalist Cornelius Vanderbilt IV, interviewing Adolf Hitler before WW II, captured the German Führer, who after he introduced himself in German, with a motion to the throngs that awaited him, began speaking: “Tell the Americans that life moves forward, always forward, irrevocably forward.” 

Was Hitler a progressive or conservative? Certainly a difficult and irritating question which cannot be answered straight forwardly - however it symbolizes how much blurred the features of Western progress have become. The aim of this essay is to separate those blurred features by tracing them back to their roots in antiquity, and in the process referring to Jerusalem or Judaism with the same confidence that we invest in Athens and Greek philosophy. 

Anybody who has looked into this matter, as for instance Leo Strauss has done, will be surprised to observe that the enlightenment thinkers had disposed of three Western heritages, here represented with Rome, Athens and Jerusalem, with equal insouciance. The justification for this arrogance was nothing more than revolutionary urge or unquenchable desire for change identified by some as the birth of mindless progress. Against this the most perspicuous attitude of conservatives remained strong until recently, namely their reluctance to countenance the remaking of the world,  perhaps out of a deep respect for the contrast between the marvels of divine creation and our limited human intelligence, particularly in understanding the divine nexus between generalities and particulars or between the eternal and the immediate. After many losses in the culture wars the Christian resistance against the progressing sexual revolution has been all but broken, argues Rod Dreher.

Not for nothing political conservatism begins with Edmund Burke (1729-97), who regarded the separation or extraction of generalities from particulars or contingencies as almost impious. Firm moorings of universalist’ ideas in particularism could be called the Jewish genius, albeit not recognized to my knowledge by Burke. To the contrary it might even have inspired his Whig criticism of the Tory variety of conservatism, that “nothing can be conceived more hard than the heart of a thoroughbred metaphysician. It comes nearer to the cold malignity of a wicked spirit than the frailty and passion of a man. It is like that of the principle of evil himself, incorporeal, pure, unmixed, dephlegmated, defecated evil.” (Russel Kirk “Burke and the Philosophy of Prescription”, in: Edmund Burke – Great Lives Observed, ed. by Isaac Kramnick, spectrum books, Prentice Hill; New Jersey 1974, p. 138)

Ideological struggles and abstract ideas was not the natural domain of Burke, rather he was forced into that realm by the circumstances of the French Revolution, Russel Kirk tells us. Burke felt drawn to the conservative rejection equally of Rousseau’s romanticism, the rationalism of Voltaire and the Philosophes as well as the English rendition of it by Thomas Paine and John Locke. The prescience of Burke can be fathomed by his fierce attacks on Rousseau, the one and only surviving enlightenment prophet – post-modernity self-expression being the latest version of the noble savage - and therefore in my view the principal adversary of conservatives. However the confusion among the liberal Whigs could only be calmed temporarily by Burke and would soon wreak havoc on the conservative cause in the 19th century. By then the utilitarian variety of Whigs shared with collectivists the fatal redefinition of traditional Jewish sexual restraint and self-government as liberation of all duties and inhibitions – presented by Kirk as the “reform catalogue” underwritten by utilitarian and socialist reformers alike (Ibid, p.139):  The deist God was shared by Whigs and Rousseau; also on the agenda: man is by nature good; abstract reason to guide societal change; inexorable progress of humanity; choosing future over tradition. 

Edmund Burke most remarkably took exception and was the only thinker at the time to attack the progressive philosophy on moral grounds. Addressing Rousseau as a moralist with his dictum that to understand the state you first must understand ethical man Burke’s political philosophy was a century ahead of his time and thus could not be comprehended by the 19th s century intellectuals. Burke turned to prescription and prejudice in order to recover the authority of tradition and divination, Kirk tells us. “Rejecting the concept of a world subject to impulse and appetite, he (Burke, FH) revealed a world always governed by strong and subtle purpose” (ibid, 140). However unfortunately apart from Christianity he revered Hinduism and Islam but seemingly not the authentic source of self-government which is ancient Judaism. Therefore he missed the source of authority and law which lies in the Jewish covenant at Sinai. 

Ignorant of this and favoring natural law Burke muses: “All human laws are, properly speaking, declaratory; they may alter the mode on application, but have no power over the substance of original justice” (ibid. 145). He recognizes the intrinsic link between law and religion only in abstract terms or at best as an evolutionary current of tradition and custom. “Tradition tempered by expediency” is his motto, representing his trust in the permanent order of things, transferred to us by our forefathers as the basis of authority. Nor did Burke share the geographical and historical determinism of Montesquieu taking as his prime and almost universal example the British constitution, established by custom. More implicit than explicit he reveals a sense of an indispensable “repressive imperative” (Philip Rieff) redolent of self-rule as the crest of Jewish civilization. As Burke puts it: “Somewhere there must be a control upon will and appetite; and the less of it there is within, the more of it must be without” (Ibid, p.150). This is a brilliant phrase stressing the mutual exclusivity of self-rule and the authoritarian state. 

The Renaissance followed by the Enlightenment replaced the custom-led control from within typical for the religious Middle Age by the reason-led government from without that eventually ended in misery; for the liberated mass got caught, as Burke had predicted, by the demagogue, the charlatan or the despot or, if we follow Adorno’s argument, by its own rationalist “enlightenment dialectics”. But Burke maintained that the knowledge necessary to manage life had been growing over time, in fact millennia, and is an essential asset for every society which is why reliance on a set of unproven ideas such as in the enlightenment had to fail. For relying on the individual left everybody “thrown back on his own private stock of reason.” Since life is proceeding in the mode of trial and error and experience is built on failure it is only safe to rely on custom and proven practice rather than trying to invent the wheel anew. In the same vain Burke cherishes old prejudices over our untaught feelings.    

Similar problems puzzled Soeren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) a generation or two later. He was not only an extremely productive albeit melancholic Christian, admired by Wittgenstein as a saint, but also together with Kafka and Freud one of the last giants of introspection. All of them suffered from a father complex, which in the cases of Kafka and Kierkegaard became an inevitable source of frustration with women and of lowering self-esteem. The anarchist Kafka found himself in a double bind, equally attracted and repulsed, by the conservative philosopher Kierkegaard. With both their introversion took the form of renunciation of bodily pleasures, setting free unbounded creativity for sublimation. Both died early, Soren at 42 and Franz shortly before his 41st birthday. Both had suffered from unquenchable anxiety and were trapped in filicidal themes reminding us of the divine test of Abraham to sacrifice his son in obedience to God. Both attempted to address the crisis of the Judeo-Christian culture which unfolded around them dumping conservatives and nurturing the ascent of progressives. The latter term, utterly discredited by the mass slaughter of the Great War, was replaced with the liberal label and it remains significant that today liberals are keen to reverse this and rebrand themselves as progressives again. One striking example of this is Hilary Clinton who returned “progressive” into circulation a while ago in an attempt to galvanize her looming bid for the US-presidency in 2016. I doubt this will work, for the Great War is still not forgotten. An even stronger argument is provided by the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton who maintains that other than art and science, philosophy and literature and therefore politics do not progress, for focusing on the human condition we always have to begin from scratch. There could be no better proof for this than the presently triumphant sexual revolution throwing us back into antediluvian times.  Or as Immanuel Kant has put it, reflecting on our involved senses: the eye leads us away from ourselves but the ear always directs us back to our innermost. The sexual revolution might thus be interpreted as a victory of visual immediacy over hearkening self-reflection. 

When in 1841 Friedrich Wilhelm Schelling, the last German idealistic philosopher, was called back from retirement by the Prussian Emperor Friedrich Wilhelm IV to head the philosophy department at Berlin’s Humboldt University, vacant since Hegel’s demise in 1831, he was ordered to “stamp out the dragon’s seed of Hegelian pantheism”. In what would become a remarkable encounter, the aged and embittered Schelling had to face the harassment of a toxic mixture of right and left young Hegelians - witnessed with a an equal measure of amusement and awe by a reputable bunch of intellectuals, among them Michail A. Bakunin, Friedrich Engels, Max Stirner, Jacob Burckhardt, Alexander Humboldt, Leopold Ranke, Friedrich Carl von Savigny and from abroad Sören Kierkegaard. The latter as a confessing adversary of Hegel including his intellectual offspring was not impressed at all by Schelling’s refutation of Hegelianism and upon his return to Copenhagen he was cured of the left/right divide taking his famous “leap of faith” – forever setting the tone for conservatives who rather accommodate with the unknowable than with the progressive rationalization of it. This latter mode of thinking was represented by notorious hot bottoms such as Bakunin, Stirner, Engels and Marx who would all influence young Franz Kafka half a century later. Kafka’s great insight is his desperation with progress, confronting the overarching rationalist state authority with an anarchist assassinations eventually ending in a nihilist perspective.  

Following Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith”, we intend at least for this inquiry to bypass the blood tainted tag-terms right and left, which, originating from the French revolutionary system, are mere euphemisms for violent revolutionary politics, redolent of the horrible Age of the multiple Gs: guillotines, goals, gallows, the Gestapo, gas chambers, and gulags. Like gas chambers the guillotine represents binary or Manichean logic and “marks the first step towards a mechanical-technological mass extermination or towards genocide” (Reflections on the French Revolution – A Hillsdale Symposium, Regnery Gateway Washington D.C. 1990, p 74). Radical liberals in our time still have their clandestine penchant for assassinations, that lurks behind their ad personam attacks and their excessive hatred of conservatives such as George Bush, Margret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan. This is where the latest liberal shtick of character assassination comes in with its recently introduced new tool of plagiarism, used to topple opposing leaders. 

For this purpose progressives employ the demonizing knee-jerk reflex of “guilty by association” with tags like “right wing” or “reactionary”, “racist or fascist”. The label “homophobic” goes even further by pathologizing criticism. Yet the newest tag is “plagiarist”, recently pelted at ambitious conservative politicians forcing their resignation such as former German defense minister Gutenberg and education minster Annette Schavan whose dissertations had been successfully screened for some irrelevant unreferenced quotations. More hideously orchestrated was the toppling of Pope Benedict XVI, who was virtually bullied into resignation by allegations of his homophobia – as suggested by Italian national daily La Republica and recently taken up even by the mainstream media. In the wake of Benedict’s resignation the plagiarism bludgeon has been hurled at the French Chief Rabbi Gilles Bernheim - a genuine and brilliant mind well beyond any plagiarism evidenced by the fact that none less than the formidable intellectual that Benedict XVI certainly was had quoted  his scholarly refutation of same-sex parenting in his last Christmas address. 

The message is: You are punished if you choose your own context and deviate from the context as established by political correct new speak. Like their Soviet framing masters progressives are driven by their zeal to rewrite or eliminate history and usurp the role of guardians of context. While the Soviets forged pictures the PC brigades of the sexual revolution distort language. This allows them to manipulate and suppress any genuine or authentic idea or phrase - the prime example being the Word of God – exploiting their cultural hegemony by creating taboos on free speech, finger pointing and crying “hold the thief” in the mainstream media. The simple truth is that liberals having disposed of God altogether are haunted by satanic or paranoid impulses and more often than not fail to keep them at bay. This is when they are overpowered by hatred and resort to demonizing their opponents the latest example provided by Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy who, speaking for the prevailing majority in a recent landmark gay rights decision, resorted to homophobia as the main justification for the overturning of the traditional “Defense of Marriage Act” (DOMA).     

As many times before what marks this wicked political attack against conservatives is utter simplification, also known as the “single cause fallacy”. It is employed by many half-educated liberal activists or advocates unwilling to employ a proper full scale assessment of personal and political merits (Jacques Barzun “The Fallacy of Single Causes”, in “The Culture We Deserve”, Wesleyan University Press, 1989, p.129). Just consider for how long progressives firmly held on to theories that reduce our complex world to one single evil like Rousseau's property, Marx'  capitalism, Freud’s Oedipus-complex, the Nazi concept of race and the two still virulent blunders of  Adorno & Marcuse's authoritarianism and the allegedly apocalyptic CO2 footprint of climate alarmism. 

All these theories handsomely reduce complex reality only to make room for the imposition of fabricated contexts of progressive design that allow for “guilty by association” assaults. Mark Stein has brilliantly analyzed this shtick - targeting conservatives by manipulating contexts - over at the National Review. It serves as a progressive bludgeon hurled at conservatives tagging them for racism, sexism or as mentioned above “intellectual theft”. Let’s be honest: progressives have been denouncing the venerable institution of property for more than a century and still keep attacking copy right protection yet at the same time they have the temerity of accusing some conservative leaders of stealing intellectual property, i.e. plagiarism

Typically progressives fancy rash change, fascinated by the sheer flow of things eclipsing tradition and history altogether. Most of them are unable to look more than a few steps ahead of themselves trapped in their faith in inevitable progress. As much as they don’t take the trouble musing about the consequences of their actions they are susceptible to paranoia, as Rousseau certainly was, followed by Marx and Kafka to a lesser degree. It is for this reason that progressives are much more unrepentant dogmatists than conservatives - avers to correct their single cause fallacy, which is why, as Benjamin Constant once quipped, “In certain epochs one must run the whole cycle of madness in order to return to reason”. Conservatives are helped to avoid dogmatism by the fact that they are more likely to assume multiple causes. They are also more likely to be reminded by their historical consciousness to correct themselves for the better. Conservatives tend to integrate the past, the present and the future into one big picture – a feature that marked Edmund Burke’s concepts of trans-generational politics including the dead, the living and the unborn

Typically, conservatives hold on to things and approach anything new with skepticism. Contrary to the progressive obsession with changing society, conservatives would first ask people to preserve traditional ways of doing things rather than unravel society and disrupt long approved institutions. The most convincing case for this is the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which was actually quite the opposite of change and contrary to the principles of the French Revolution. Edmund Burke tells us that the altercations of 1688 actually conserved the English constitutional arrangements; more to the point, “the real would-be revolutionist was King James II, who aimed at violating the English constitution in church and state. The English aristocracy, lawyers, and military officers who forced the king to abdicate were defending the English constitution; they did so from necessity, and did not change the basic structure of the British state, but preserved it. In contrast, the French revolutionists aimed at destroying the inherited structure of the French state, and all the basic institutions of society which supported it.”(Reflections on the French Revolution- A Hillsdale Symposium, Washington D.C. 1990, p.43) To sum it up, the French Revolution abandoned the conservative bent of the two previous Revolutions, the other being the American, and ended in a bloody progressive disaster.       

Self-reflection and prudence, characterizing the “feeling intellect”, makes conservatives particularly susceptible to melancholia or mood swings. Johan Huizinga once described how melancholia engrossed Europe at the dawn of the modern era during the harrowing transition from the Middle Ages onto the disruptive Renaissance. Many artists engaged with those feelings as for example Albrecht Durer, the post-Elizabethan composer John Dowland and Shakespeare with Prince Hamlet. Among later melancholic conservatives breaking the mold are Sir Thomas Brown, Jeremy Taylor, romantics like Johann Wolfgang Goethe, John Keats and Franz Schubert or William James and Sylvia Plath in the US come to mind. Because good poetry explores human tragedy rather than insouciance or wellness, outstanding poets and writers, let alone composers in classical modern times, i.e. before WW II, used to entertain conservative motifs. 

Admittedly, conservatives abhor revolution but they do not dodge reform necessary to mend things that obviously went awry. To be sure many conservatives prefer the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides who taught us that things are not what they appear to be. His observation holds a lesson for progressives like President Obama, always fond of “change” and the proverbial prophet Heraclitus whom they often falsely quote as vindication for transformative campaigning. For the origin of Heraclitus’ famous Panta rhei (Greek for “everything flows”) is contentious and it appears literally only in a quote referring to him in Plato’s Cratylos. To be sure the river metaphor is also present in Heraclitus’ cryptic utterance "Ever-newer waters flow on those who step into the same rivers" (Wikipedia). In this vain progressives like recycled abstract sets of ideas, wrapped anew for every season, ignoring the test of history. 

By contrast, conservatives set great store in historical experience. The paradigm for this will always be the narrative of the holy Hebrew Scriptures. Probably compiled from disparate sources and edited in the seventh century B.C.E. by Jeremiah, who shared the melancholic epithet “weeping prophet” with Heraclitus, the biblical narrative was meant to avoid the disasters that the Jews had sustained in the past and ensure their survival. After all, ten of the twelve genuine Jewish Tribes had by then vanished in the abyss of history. Progressives are ingrained Universalists always driven by their global mission to promote equality and more recently inclusiveness. By contrast conservatives are moored in particularism and difference. Difference as opposed to equality is probably the closest we can get to the great divide between faithful conservatives and atheist progressives. For difference originates in the Pentateuch (Leviticus X: 10): “And that ye may put difference between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean;” a commandment which according to the Hertz-edition (Pentateuch & Haftorahs, London: 1960, first 1936, p.446) “has a wider than merely levitical or ritual application. It is the sacred function of the priest to teach the children of men the everlasting distinction between holy and unholy, between light and darkness, between clean and unclean, between right and wrong;” (see also Deuteronomy XXIV:8) Levitical means up-lifting toward sacred order and is the opposite of the inevitable lowering through equalizing human progress. This corresponds with the opposition of entelechy (effort for incremental order of things) and entropy (default lowering or loss of order) in nature. 

Progressives are inclined to think that we need intellectuals to explain to the common man the complexities of the world. However religion is more egalitarian by maintaining that all humans are equally capable to understand the fruits of our limited reason and it is rather the intellectuals who get lost in their vain complexities offering no guidance at all. Proof for this comes from Sir Henry Rawlinson: “It does not appear that very simple systems of law and observance belong to very primitive societies but rather the contrary.”(ibid. Hertz, 558) For instance Anglo-Saxon and Latin as languages are much more complex than their offspring plain English and Italian. Thus conservatives tend to love ordinary people whereas progressives often loath them the prime examples being Joseph Addison versus Voltaire. Addison was the co-founder of the English weekly magazine The Spectator in 1711 and famously trusted the opinions of ordinary people more than those of intellectuals or officials for the former were less likely to be warped by special interests. 

In this sense the famous conservative reformer Benjamin Disraeli made the lower ranks the stronghold of his constituency. Progressives by contrast praising themselves as enlightened avant-garde are often intellectual chauvinists not only towards their contemporaries but also toward great figures in history. To the great chagrin of the late conservative philosopher Leo Strauss certain liberal academics arrogated themselves to the claim that they understood the classic or medieval philosophers better than these understood themselves and therefore had really not much to say. Thus inevitable human progress would automatically render Greek philosophy or even more the Hebrew scripture obsolete. This is also why we have to resign ourselves to Regie Theater and Hollywood movies that frame any historical narrative or drama within the narrow postmodern point of view by that destroying any historic fidelity.

Sadly the lowering drive of equality politics has finally collapsed the moral language of difference in the twentieth century, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, has pointed out. He detected the “moral entropy” in the replacement of the “I ought” with “I want”, “I feel”, “I choose”; now it is obvious that only the “ought to” can be debated, whereas “wants, choices and feelings can only be satisfied or frustrated” (J.S. “The Dignity of Difference”, Continuum 2002, p.3). This categorical gap seems to be behind the growing political antagonism between Republicans and Democrats in the United States.  

Despite cherishing the “ought to” conservatives do not consider themselves as the only masters of their destiny as progressives tend to assume, rather they walk humble before their God. Already in antiquity the equivalent of Greek pride, living on in progressive attitudes such as gay pride parades, was Jewish humbleness that inspires conservatives. In the Talmud God is reported as saying without any ambiguity „There ain't room enough in this world for your Ego and Me. You pick.” Now, Obama and Napoleon had no compunctions to pick. Not for nothing in his first bid for president, Barack Obama postured on a pedestal, decorated with a set of Greek columns, exposing his visible disdain for something greater than himself. This compares neatly with Napoleon placing the crown on his own head, as in a sketch by Jacques Louis David. 

Religious Jews and conservatives hold that human intelligence is limited and that’s why they prioritize markets over the state when it comes to managing human fortunes. Far from fostering greed, markets induce or push everyone to produce something useful that other people will purchase as Rupert Murdoch pointed out recently at the 60ieth anniversary in Melbourne of the oldest conservative think tank “Institute for Public Affairs”. This intrinsic virtue of markets was cherished by classical Whigs and fits in perfectly with Jewish self-rule. It equally marks the conservative continuity from Edmund Burke, Lord Acton, Benjamin Disraeli, Isaiah Berlin, Winston Churchill to Margret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Some of the characteristics we have sketched above suggest that the revolutionary Nazis were much closer to progressive activism than to the conservative resistance, for both were and still are thrilled by change and sophisticated technology. This may come as a surprise to those clinging to left-right divide.

If we are to understand this conundrum we ought to turn to Heraclitus again in order to explore why this pre-Socratic genius, often referred to as the obscure and dark philosopher, was mistakenly adopted by progressives who again seem to have confused centrifugal visual with the centripetal acoustic sense. Clearly they understood his Panta rhei too literally, assuming that real “things flow”, but a closer reading suggests that it refers to the stream of consciousness of the reflecting self. This is about being aware that ideas in our mind are in a permanent flow and we are therefore in need of something to hold onto. Now Plato taught us with his allegory of the cave that what we make out as things and structures, perceived as realty, are often just volatile shadows. And it was Henri Bergson who identified around 1900 those shadows as reifications within our sense of time, actually renderings of metric time, virtually mechanized units of time (H.B. “Time and Free Will”, Dover Publications, new York: 2001, first 1913, p.9). 

Now metric time measured technically, next to the dismal labels of right and left and perhaps French cuisine belongs to the odd legacy of the French Revolution. I guess the revolutionary chaos and rapid course of events might have convinced the stubborn Jacobins of at least the need for exact timing - arresting the time in a fixed mechanical framework, which is the opposite of the free flow of time as in long duration. Ironically about hundred and thirty years later in 1930 the French Annales School, was founded by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febre at the dawn of the German revolutionary unrest. The pressing immediacy that plunged German historicism into Heideggerian existentialism might have prompted Bloch and Febre to recover the concept of longue durée (long duration) by studying mostly pre-revolutionary French social history.

Now as an unintended consequence or side effect of the time concept born out of revolutionary chaos in France, apt for quantifying living democracy, we got blessed with the “logic of progress”, another Bergsonian reification which would later become rationalized as Marxist determinism. This fatalist concept limits free will and human initiative in the name of a specious promise that human society anyway changes for the better. Conservatives never bought into this “fluxless logos” which differs greatly from the concrete flux of Heraclitus taken as a mental process. Conservatives have felt all along that any “logos” we need to hold on for resisting the mindboggling flux of consciousness has to be reassessed over and over again in order to maintain a structure of permanence and stability. This is conceived as the long term view or longue durée if you wish, based on prudence, guided by tradition and above all resistance, to which we will return in a moment. 

Progressives more often than not are chasing shadows whereas conservatives are more humble or patient, occasionally getting sight of the real thing. This is also pretty much about the familiar Athens versus Jerusalem rivalry. The Greek consciousness was cluttered with shadows of narcist and idolatrous worship. Their tragic virtues of beauty and pride were guided by polytheist determinism - with those shadows feigning free will. The Greeks had no compassion or pity for illness, old age, infirmity or disability which is why Jesus and Christianity, introducing all that, gained so many followers. Compounding to this, as Oswald Spengler observed first, is the fact that the Greeks did not develop a consistent idea of history. Yet their contemporary Jewish monotheists did and the Christians trailed them. Judaism begot the historical narrative form the nine books of the Hebrew Scripture which familiarize every conservative with the concepts of conscience and long duration. This might have even influenced the Greek historian Thucydides who surprised everyone by looking back at the disaster of the Peloponnesian War campaign in terms of God’s punishment. 

William Pepperell Montague sums this whole argument up subtly: “Many who failed to spot Heraclitus concrete flux have seen his fluxless Logos. Parmenides saw only its shadow ‘the mere generic character of abstract being and permanence, projected into the abyss as a dark and homogeneous sphere. For Plato it was reflected on the sky as a pattern in heaven representing immortality such as a rainbow of moral beauties and mystic powers. To Aquinas and Leibnitz it seemed as the omnipresent intellects of an eternal God. By the transcendental Germans, it was taken for the presupposition of the sensible world, which it was, and then mistaken for the grandiose structure of their egos, which it certainly was not. The realistic or anti-Darwinian logicians of today perceive it less picturesquely, and more, perhaps, as Heraclitus himself. To them it is an objective and self-subsistent loom of invariant law, on which the ever-changing fabrics of evolving nature are perpetually woven.” (W.P. Montague “The Anatomy of the Logical Theory”, Columbia Studies in the History of idea, p.236, quoted from “On the Contemplative Life”, by Frank William Tilden, Prof. of Greek in Indiana University p.28). 


Reclaiming Conservativism

Rather than being merely barbaric it is the just mentioned transcendental logos adopted by the Nazis as “the grandiose structure of their egos” which suggests their transgressive modernity. And it is this attraction to “fluxless logos”, shared by some progressives with the Nazis, which at times enabled irritating political alliances between the right and left totalitarians back in the 30ies. After all there must have been some “logic” in the determination of the Nazi supporter Henri Ford and lots of big American companies such as Standard Oil, Chase Bank, ITT, all of whom invested heavily in the modernization of German industry during the 1920ies and beyond(cf. Charles Higham “Trading with the enemy”, 1983 and it’s reception with the Ralph Nader Library).   

It was those German superegos, an outgrow of German cluttered and nervous regionalism resulting in late nation building in the nineteenth century and enhanced by the shadows of Weimar progressives that propelled the Nazis into power. Eugenics, euthanasia and social engineering was common to both Nazis and progressives in the West and both were led by fatal concepts of racial purity and thus the progressive race theorist Madison Grant became Hitler’s favorite (Thomas Sowell, “Intellectuals and Race”, Basic Books, New York 2013, p. 136). Yet seen from a collectivist framework this was just another variety of secular determinism numbing free will. National Socialism and fascism were both propelled by an irreverent romanticism. The British philosopher Isaiah Berlin pointed to the transgressive character of Romanticism, arguing it embodied "a new and restless spirit, seeking violently to burst through old and cramping forms, a nervous preoccupation with perpetually changing inner states of consciousness, a longing for the unbounded and the indefinable, for perpetual movement and change, an effort to return to the forgotten sources of life, a passionate effort at self-assertion both individual and collective, a search  after means of expressing an unappeasable yearning for unattainable goals.”(Isaiah Berlin, ed. Henry Hardy: The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas, 1990, John Murray, p.92) 

By contrast real conservatives dislike extremes and prefer the good old Aristotelian middle way if not Jewish Tsedek, a combination of charity and justice. They think of self-discipline or self-control which is pretty much opposed to the expressionism favored by the Nazis and its contemporary outgrow of liberal obsessive self-expression pitching exploding egos against each other. The conservative virtue is “feeling intellect” (Philip Rieff) or emotional resistance against mindless innovation. In a recent book Jonathan Haidt has reported about a strong liberal bias in psychology, estimated by many pundits as the leading science of the twenty-first century. It is no surprise that conservatives are lacking in that profession as they are an endangered species in academia generally (Jonathan Haidt: „The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”, 2013). Fortunately Haidt confirms the conservative stance that righteousness exists because emotion has primacy over reason. Emotion is the sediment of tradition and custom, loathed by multicultural progressives who denounce them as political incorrect zealotry. Progressive rationalism is often employed to justify entrenched political positions and moral values rather than to dispassionately weigh the evidence. 

There is little doubt that particularism is pretty much a conservative feature providing “resistance of truth against immediacy" (Philip Rieff, “Fellow teachers”, Harper & Row, New York: 1972, p.22). For instance resistance based on religious inwardness bound by rituals is a cultural asset which might be in decline in the West albeit not with conservatives. As a means to offer a firm grip on reality it has been described in the 19th century by George Elliot in her last novel Daniel Doranda.  The novel is a manifestation of the exceptional well adopted Jewish life in Victorian England - virtually by its religious and cultural particularism (Gertrud Himmelfarb “The People of the Book – Philosemitism in England, from Cromwell to Churchill” Encounter Books, New York 2011). Eliot was a self-educated Zionist many decades before the ascendency of European anti-Semitism and the birth of the concept of Zionism. 

George Eliot applied what she had learned about the failure of Jewish emancipation, namely that you have to give up something for getting something else. Conservatives always knew that any progress has its price tag to be checked carefully. For instance Henry James also claimed that all civilizations renounce something for something else. Thus the French Revolution was praised for laws of emancipation for the Jewish minorities. Yet it took the Jews not very long to realize that in exchange for becoming full citizens they had to relinquish their religion altogether. The Jews were forced to choose between the benefits of abstract equal rights only to materialize in the future based in a volatile European civilization and their old biblical covenant that had secured the survival of the Israelites for more than four thousand years. Tight-knit through custom and religion the Jewish community would be weakened by emancipation for it would have to relinquishing levers of self-government to the centralized French state. England by contrast would spare the Jews a few decades later this painful choice so that they could keep their religion and become citizens to boot.

That experience led the conservative Eliot into stubborn resistance even reneging on the women’s franchise and feminism to boot (Gertrud Himmelfarb “The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot” Encounter Books, NY 2009, p. 5). She resisted the exchange of autonomy wed with tradition and custom for a specious set of volatile rights born out of a political turmoil that would allow the state to encroach on her privacy. This is what Eliot, a kind of self-accomplished polymath, elaborated in the novel Daniel Deronda that would become a huge success. 

For an expanded explanation of Eliot’ delicate resistance we need to return to Edmund Burke and his aesthetic theory, which was the foundation of his fame. In short the beautiful according to Burke is what is well-formed and aesthetically pleasing, whereas the sublime is what has the power to compel and destroy us. The preference for the sublime over the beautiful was to mark the transition from the Neoclassical to the Romantic era (Wikipedia). Thus the fascinating aesthetic of fascism expands on the pattern of the romantic (Susan Sonntag). For Eliot’s delicate resistance against being sucked into the folly of new but narrowing egoistic demands or specious human rights emerged from a conservative feeling at first only later to be followed up by rational criticism. 

Burke’s theorizing advanced from his observation of man’s love of dogs which taught him that even if we love a dog – a love prone to outright egotism – we may switch all of a sudden from love to contempt if it does respond in a way we dislike. This genuine recognition of the closeness of love and contempt followed from Burke’s romantic approach to subjectivity based on intensity or even excess. Love veering into contempt thus appears as a spillover effect of romantic exhilaration resulting in delimiting emotions. Burke’s brilliant concept has not been fully acknowledged until today for it has a lot to offer to modern power plays such as sadomasochism. For the de-sublimating or lowering imperative of liberal equalizing and the lowest common denominator of pop culture represent the Achilles heel of progressives. Whereas progressive awe has become a hollow cliché conservatives seem to keep cherishing the sublime. 

This follows from a further point presented by Burke in his aesthetic inquiry, when he goes on to argue that we wouldn’t dare the switch from love to contempt towards wolves, with their power and fierce temperament that doesn’t lend itself to our affection and leaves us in awe. Thus only the imagination of terror makes the benign and beautiful personality we all endorse. Similarly, Burke points out, our civilized relations between commoners and their king became possible, with respect again being based on terror. Now this observation forms the basis of Burke’s aesthetics where he settled for an intrinsic link between beauty and terror, the merger of which he saw in the sublime, accomplished by power. We need to be prodded into benign conduct and civility by awe and respect for authority buttressed by the ever present possibility of terror. Burke knew little about Judaism which would have taught him that ever since Moses revelation on Sinai Jews were buoyed by the promise that they could eventually transform fear of the Lord and the law into love of God and appreciation of rules.  Only secular power is invariably mired with fear Burke stresses agreeing with Hobbes. Only religious people Burke tells us, who upon questioning would deny any such awe or terror, assuring him “we can contemplate the idea of God himself without any such emotion”. Perhaps this is not to be taken quite literally for he also acknowledges apprehension of the divine being: “It is on this principle that true religion has, and must have, so large a mixture of salutary fear; and that false religions have generally nothing else but fear to support them. Before the Christian religion had, as it were, humanized the idea of the Divinity, and brought it somewhat nearer to us, there was very little said of the love of God. The followers of Plato have something of it, and only something; the other writers of pagan antiquity, whether poets or philosophers, nothing at all” (Edmund Burke, On the Sublime and Beautiful, Harvard Classics 1909–14: Power, and: Edmund Burke “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful” Oxford University Press, 1990).

However it is reasonable to assume that religious people (Jews, Christians, Muslim) manage to create the sublime by themselves by the way of their conservative Imagination. Now this explains why secular people and their at times tyrannical rulers tend to rely on violence for maintaining order that religious people, better equipped with their inner restraint, can forgo. It is because of this difference that Harvey Mansfield, grey conservative eminence and unrepentant Harvard dissenter, spoke of the secular “Crisis of American Self-Government” (WSJ, The Weekend Interview November 30, 2012). Burke’s genius catches the difference between sacred and profane order in an idealized fashion. But cum grano salis it stands the test of a comparison between the religious terrors of the Catholic inquisition or Protestant witch hunt with the secular terrors of Hitler, Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot.  Without religion life tends to be “nasty, brutish, and short”, as Hobbes put it.  If we are attempting to share our love for the natural beast we end up torn between dog and wolf. It is only divine transcendence as invoked with conservative imagination that affords us a mitigated and benevolent version of power through the sublime which is a compromise between the beautiful and the terrible. 


Since particularism is the conservative’s best friend providing consolation against pressing immediacy I leave the sympathetic reader with a wistful medieval farewell: “The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin” by Jan Van Eyck, to be enjoyed in the Louvre, the appreciation of which I owe to Johan Huizinga Autumn of the Middle Ages (German edition: “Herbst des Mittelalters” Alfred Kröner-Verlag Stuttgart 1969, first 1941, p.320). Quite similar to the narrative of Eliot this pictorial presentation relates dense particularism as a wellspring of resistance. The artist provides one last late-medieval respite before the breaking loose of mores with the dawning Renaissance, which some have described as a lush Mediterranean rebellion against the dominating but frugal gothic north of Europe invariably prompting a deja-vu concerning the present financial revolt of the ClubMed crippling hyperborean tax payers. 

Van Eyck’s medieval hyperrealism celebrating exuberant detail offers to the close viewer a marvelous perspective, seen through colonnades in the foreground, a view of irresistible particularity; with a palpable longing the image claws on every minute detail of the well assorted furniture of a medieval town. Its unrestrained elaboration and penetration of the particulars serves as a wistful assurance of a vanishing world reminding us of that Heraclitan epiphany of a redeeming ever renewable Logos to hold on. Yet the integrity of the logos always depends on the whole people and the pendulum reflecting the volatile mood of the mass might at any time be swinging away from past symbols, thereby weakening the support for the hierarchical sacred order destined by default to irretrievably collapse. Against Michelangelo’s progressive and nervously modern criticism, Johan Huizinga maintains that the minutiae of Van Eyck’ painting do not infringe on the harmony and integrity of the whole. Not for nothing this very sight inspired him to write his timeless “Autumn of the Middle Ages”, first published in its original Dutch version 1919. 

Was Hitler a progressive or conservative?

This question was answered (quite well -- at least for the NAZI party) by Jonah Goldberg in his book Liberal Fascism.  Communism and fascism both stemmed from the American Progressive movement of the late 19th century -- which in turn took its ideas from Rousseau.

Indeed, the modern American Democrat party could run quite comfortably on the NAZI party platform -- they really were socialists.  The bitterness between the NAZIs and the Communists was rooted in their competition for the same constituents -- both parties were of the far left.

But Hitler's fascism was very different than Mussolini's and Franco's.  Hitler coopted the NAZI party and, when granted the reins of power, staged a parliamentary (and military coup) to become the absolute ruler of Germany.


Hitler was immensely shrewd and a brilliant orator.  An intellectual, he was not (Mussolini in fact was -- although the modern perception of him is as the caricature he seems in newsreel footage.  Hitler's Mein Kampf is all but unreadable (despites Hess's efforts). There is no doubt that Hitler himself meant to exterminate the world's Jewery.  The pity is that so many Germans joined the effort so willingly.

And the answer to your question?  Hitler was Hitler.  Stalin was Stalin. Mao was Mao.  All were totalitarians.  Each was unique.  And all were monsters.