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Can there be a secular conservatism?

My answer is no, at least if conservatism is to be more than the view of a few comfortable intellectuals. “Conservatism” can mean many things, but it always involves a sense that in the most basic ways life can’t be understood or controlled. At bottom, we have to accept and cooperate with things as they have been given us by God, nature, history or chance. Utopia isn’t going to happen, and we’re not even going to get close. We have to live with reality instead.

Such an outlook won’t become the basis for carrying on social life unless people in general are willing not only to live with it but to give it their loyalty as something right and good. They have to be able to view the mystery at the heart of the world as something positive they can submit to without degradation, rather than mindless contingency that crushes them where they can’t escape or outwit it or stick its burdens on somebody else.

It’s a necessity of our nature to make sense of things, and in the long run we’ll engage reality only if we think reality makes sense, and accept it only if we’re convinced that at bottom it’s good. To believe that reality makes sense and is good is to be religious. Without such a belief we’ll look for a substitute for the goodness of reality in fantasies of socialist liberation or some such.



Robert Dabney, chaplain to Stonewall Jackson, wrote in or around 1867 that there was no real conservatism in the North because with the denial of the revealed God of Holy Scripture, all Yankee nominal conservatives were simply chasing after the everchanging demands of the radicals. James Henley Thornwell, an ante-bellum Southern divine saw much the same thing.

Mr. Herrin, have you references for those comments? I’d love to look them up. What you say Dabney noticed, “nominal conservatives simply chasing after the everchanging demands of the radicals”—i.e., exactly what’s going on today—seems an amazing observation for someone to make almost a century-and-a-half ago!

“If a tree falls and an expert doesn’t hear it, is there a sound?” Yes, the sweetest, most melodious sound in all creation: the sound of entropy being brought clanking, screeching, grinding to a halt.


I will try to look up the Dabney quote. It appears in a book of his collected essays and sermons published much later when he was professor of philosophy at the (then) newly founded University of Texas.

The following is from Robert L. Dabney’s essay “Women’s Rights Women” in “Discussions”, vol IV, “Secular”, the writings of Robert L. Dabney, originally published in 1897; republished by Sprinkle Publications, Harrisonburg, Virginia, 1994.
“It may be inferred again that the present movement for women’s rights will certainly prevail from the history of its only opponent, Northern conservatism. This is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is to-day one of the accepted priniciples of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will to-morrow be forced upon its timidity, and will be succeeded by some third revolution to be denounced and adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves towards perdition….It is worthless because it it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle.” p. 496.

Unbelievable! Thanks for that excerpt. Every word could have been written by any tradcon today—it’s literally word-for-word identical to how we describe the problem today, an amazing fact which actually seems reassuring in a way: the conservative betrayal we’re seeing today is, in part, over a century old. It’s been at work all that time undermining normalness by impersonating conservatism so that a real conservative movement has felt no need to step forward (not knowing the “conservative” already “on the case” has been nothing but an impostor)—and yet we’ve come this far. We’re in bad shape certainly, but we’re still breathing at least.

Given this century-long track-record of dismal failure by “American conservatism” to oppose the damage inflicted by leftism, how could any serious observer or commentator still call himself a “conservative” today? I certainly call myself one as little as possible, and then only when I’m forced. We should all at least be substituting the term tradcon, traditionalist, or similar alternative, it would seem. I cringe inside a little whenever I have to taint myself with the name “conservative.”

“If a tree falls and an expert doesn’t hear it, is there a sound?” Yes, the sweetest, most melodious sound in all creation: the sound of entropy being brought clanking, screeching, grinding to a halt.


Thornwell, too, was prescient is seeing the destructive impact of Northern religious thought, but his early death shortly after the War began interrupted his work. Dabney and Thornwell were not alone, but they have been sadly neglected in American intellectual history. They … we … lost. Eugene Genovese, the former Marxist historian, at Emory University has done some interesting and suggestive work in this area. The religious imperative which drove Southerners to defend themselves, which made them “true” conservatives, was much wider and much more important than usually depicted in the standard histories.

I just saw an essay harshly critical of U.S. conservatism entitled Requiem for the Right by a young thinker I’d never heard of before named John Attarian (trained in economics) whose memorial funeral service was held in Michigan today apparently. Thanks to U.K. blogger Guessedworker in whose log entry today I saw the above links. The following text is the closing of this dazzling essay by Attarian (a brilliant piece which deserves to be read in its entirety):

Conservatism’s Likely Fate

As America starts to crack up under the impact of multiple converging crises, reality will punch its mailed fist through the bubble of Americans’ collective delusions, e.g., that America is the richest nation on earth, that our way of life will endure forever, that a high standard of living is what life is all about, that humans are economic animals who can be made to behave like civilized people by throwing money at them, that race and gender are illusory social constructs, and that crack-up and collapse can’t happen here. Denial and evasion will no longer be possible.

Under such circumstances, liberalism and economism will be discredited at last, and realism and the primal will to survive will reassert themselves, just as they did in Britain in May 1940, after disaster had finally purged the British of liberal internationalist delusions. Since social and civilizational survival and realism are the core of true conservatism, this situation, in which conservatism’s essence matches the imperative needs of the time, would, one would think, be highly favorable to conservatism. A true conservatism with a well-articulated worldview and a set of principles and policies to ensure the survival of America as a civilization, and not merely an economy, could very well become the dominant political philosophy and movement.

Unfortunately, mainstream conservatism is not conservative, and paleoconservatives are not only marginalized by the establishment Right, but are foolishly marginalizing themselves further. It seems unlikely, therefore, that a genuine conservatism capable of grasping the opportunity offered by events will emerge. Barring unforeseeable developments, American conservatism will go down in history as a failure, a crass and clueless movement that never really understood its mission, nor ever grasped reality.

“If a tree falls and an expert doesn’t hear it, is there a sound?” Yes, the sweetest, most melodious sound in all creation: the sound of entropy being brought clanking, screeching, grinding to a halt.


Actually, the Ancient Greek philosophers believed reality made sense and the big three – Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle – fought the relativists of their day (the Sophists). Thus, our heritage includes the Hellenic view that we can make sense of reality and man’s life.

I recommend Aristotle’s Ethics for a conservative viewpoint. He argues for a levelheaded ethical development that requires the cultivation of the habits of character guided by the best of tradition. At one point, more than halfway through his ethics, he notes that mere argument is futile. Ethics isn’t a matter of assent. It takes years of carefully guided education and practice. Indeed, he argues for practice and discipline early in his exposition.

You must be aware that Aquinas championed Aristotle’s ethics. Of course, Aquinas believes you need Christianity to complete the project; but by his efforts he made the secular approach of Aristotle part of our heritage. To see this we can compare the Western and Orthodox societies, histories and traditions (incidentally, the Orthodox religion is the religion of my parents).

I think it is worth while for conservatives to note the compatibility with the kind of rational secular approach of this kind even though today’s secularists are materialist/relativists. This can create common ground for those that find the theological aspects of conservatism problematic. And it shows that conservatives do carry on the tradition of Western Civilization – fully! It’s today’s secularists who abandon the great traditions of our Hellenic past – and many will admit that very fact.

It’s hard for me to think of Aristotle as lending support for a secular approach to life in anything like the sense of modern secularism. He took a comparative and empirical approach to ethics and politics, and so didn’t cover all issues, but I don’t think he suggests that a good life can be constructed without any reference whatever to some particular understanding of the highest things.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.