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Canonical questions

A discussion group I’m part of (The H. L. Mencken Club) is thinking of putting on a conference on the “conservative canon”—books that have been, or should be, central to conservatism in America.

The thought seems to be that the old booklists have become stale. Time has passed, conditions have changed, and books that seemed just the thing in 1970 no longer hit the spot. They didn’t keep us from losing badly, and people don’t pay much attention to them anyway, so why not step back and rethink?

In the old days a movement-oriented booklist would have concentrated on postwar writings by men such as Kirk, Nisbet, Weaver, Burnham, and others, most of whom were associated in some way with the old National Review. A more academic list might have included politically moderate skeptics like Hume, hard-headed Founding Fathers like John Adams, and counter-Enlightenment figures like Burke and Maistre, all the way down to the 20th century with its secular theorists of tradition like Hayek and Oakeshott and critics of European ideologies like Voegelin and Strauss.

Many people today would put forward similar lists, maybe supplemented (in the movement case) with neoconservative titles. If new times require something else, though, what should change?

It’s not clear. Most of the old titles are still worth reading, or so it seems to me. They might be supplemented of course by more recent treatments of similar themes, for example by adding Gottfried’s trilogy on the collapse of the liberal, protestant, and Marxist traditions to Burnham on the managerial state, and by discussions of themes such as inclusiveness that have recently become especially prominent. And no doubt some pruning is needed—each will have his favorite candidates. The result of the additions and subtractions wouldn’t solve all problems, but at least it would provide a basis for more intelligent discussion.

But maybe there’s a point to going back to basics and starting afresh. Conservatism is opposition to destructive trends in modern life, together with attachment to tradition as a vehicle for aspects of life now under stress that need to be cultivated. A conservative canon, then, would include works that analyze the bad trends, tell us what’s wrong with them, and say what to do about them. It would also include accounts of tradition that tell us what’s good about it and what’s needed for its health.

But what do you say about such issues? There are different ways of viewing them, which is why there are different schools of conservatism.

To my mind the specific problem we’re dealing with today is egalitarian technocracy, which comes from a scientistic outlook that tells us that the world is atoms and the void, with human desire somehow splatted in and put in charge. On such a view, reason includes only formal logic, scientific theorizing, and calculation of means and ends, while the most sensible purpose for politics and morality is maximum equal preference satisfaction. Hence the social and moral views now forced on us in the name of freedom, equality, and making everybody happy.

With that in mind, a conservative canon would include texts that tell us what’s wrong with egalitarianism, technocracy, materialism, moral subjectivism, and hedonism, and how better things can be attained, with an emphasis on the role of tradition.

It’s not clear that others would agree. In America today, Catholic trads, libertarians, and HBD fans all count as conservative, I suppose because they all object to the omnicompetent PC managerial state and take a more laissez faire and less radically egalitarian approach to a lot of issues. But how many books would they agree on? A somewhat coherent canon implies a somewhat coherent movement, and that’s not where we are.

At present, it seems, we’re in a Hundred Flowers period when each can propose his own. With that in mind, I’ll start from zero by mentioning a few books that have helped me personally understand the present situation. In some cases the presence of a title might show my frame of mind or state of ignorance when I read it, but the list may be suggestive for others too. Readers are invited to give their own lists and suggestions: a canon has to reflect a sort of consensus, and there’s nothing like a Battle of the Books to bring out basic issues.

So here goes:

  • The Platonic dialogues raise basic issues now slighted:
    • The Republic deals with a variety of basic political issues, and is especially helpful for its account of political evolution: concern for the good declines into concern for honor, then profit, and then pleasure, and after that into various increasingly crude and violent obsessions. That decline corresponds to the political decline of the good society into the aristocratic, oligarchical, democratic, and then tyrannical society.
    • I also like the Laws, which considers some of the same issues from a different perspective.
    • For me personally, the Symposium was probably most important. It demonstrated the possibility of thinking exactly and objectively about the Good, Beautiful, True, and whatnot without making those things other or less than what they are. Whether that puts it on a conservative canon is doubtful, but I said I’d start with my personal list of basic books.
  • Aristotle gives his own very reasonable views on life in society in his Politics and the Nicomachean Ethics. You don’t want to talk about the issues he considers without knowing what he says about them.
  • A voyage to the East: the Analects of Confucius, the Tao Te-Ching, and the Chuangtse present vistas of non-technocratic thought, prompted in part by the fascists and utilitarian socialists of the time. They also cover the importance and limitations of cultural tradition and the importance of the unstated and unknowable. What topics could be more relevant to our present situation?
  • Back to the Mediterranean: the Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldun covers political life in post-historical society, as seen by a 14th century Tunisian. After all the grand principles have played out, there is still the formation and dissolution of groups with sufficient cohesion to put things in a sort of order. Something of the sort may be what we have to look forward to.
  • Paradise Lost and the plays of Shakespeare. You escape technocracy by noticing that some things are infinitely better than others. I mention these works because they worked for me, but others would no doubt do as well.
  • Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. More vistas of anti-technocratic thought. A problem with the book is that he’s an Anglican, and the absence of a definite principle of ultimate authority gives color to the impression that his conservatism has to do with social stability to the exclusion of ultimate truth. That doesn’t work: we’re all in the reality-based community, so truth matters. It’s a basic text nonetheless, and like most thinkers he’s better than his commentators.
  • Pascal’s Pensees. How do you overcome the (modern) world, so that you can deal with the Good, Beautiful, and True as they deserve? He showed the way by showing the impossibility of ultimate skepticism on ultimate issues.
  • Newman’s Grammar of Assent fills out Pascal’s fragmentary discussion. You attain knowledge about things that can’t really be proved when a thousand indications work together to bring them into focus.
  • Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Intelligent analysis of the new egalitarian regime as it stood around 1830. He was a French aristocrat, and it wasn’t altogether to his taste. It seemed inevitable though, so he thought an analysis of its basic tendencies and how to make the best of them would be useful.
  • Nisbet’s Quest for Community. A penetrating analysis of the destruction of society by the state. He strikes me at bottom as a sort of neoconservative—a secular liberal who thinks some prerational Gesellschaft is needed for the sake of liberal values. So he’s not a great guide for what might work but that doesn’t hurt his analysis of what’s gone wrong.
  • Pieper’s Leisure the Basis of Culture. Antitechnocratic thought that deals with basic issues in a clear way and notes the need for a transcendent point of reference: “Culture depends for its very existence on leisure, and leisure, in its turn, is not possible unless it has a durable and consequently living link with divine worship.”
  • Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order. A treatise on the formal qualities of evolved functional patterns—he calls it “life” but it includes tradition—that mostly deals with art and architecture but would naturally apply to social arrangements.
  • Richard Epstein’s Forbidden Grounds. Radical opposition to discrimination is the steamroller that destroys all possibility of a humane and civilized life. Epstein provides the beginning of an explanation why that is so, couched in the economist’s terms that are now considered the rational way to discuss everything.
  • Aphorisms of Nicolás Gómez Dávila. Thoughts for our time from a Colombian reactionary.
  • You also have to read modernist thinkers to know what’s not to like:
    • People like Descartes, Hobbes, and Locke belong on the reading list. Descartes and Hobbes are fun to read, Locke is not, someone like Rawls is even worse.
    • You can skip a lot of boring and not particularly perceptive prose and get the gist of how it all ends up by reading Samuel Beckett’s novels: when you become truly modern, they tell us, you can’t even name anything let alone think coherently.
    • For an earlier stage of the process, you might look at Ibsen’s plays, which depict progressive reforms as no doubt unavoidable but not likely to help anyone much.