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.

14 thoughts on “Canonical questions”

  1. Burnham is still really
    Burnham is still really relevant, as we are still in the managerial technocratic state. In fact, your work derives a lot from his.

    Oakeshott too, despite his flaws, is also still relevant, especially for his distinction between the three main political positions available to us: left liberalism, right liberalism and traditionalism. Your work derives a lot from him too.

    Among a host of HBD oriented books, Jensen’s The g Factor and Murray and Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve are also quite relevant. Among the many ev psych books, Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate is quite notable for its political implications.

    • This and that
      Burnham and Oakeshott are of course relevant. I think Hayek has some good things to say about how tradition functions as well.

      It’s hard to know what to do about HBD on a basic reading list. The chief function of the books from a political standpoint is to legitimate the common-sense view that people and groups differ, sometimes quite a lot, in innate and acquired tendencies. Sensible people accept that point already, and it’s impossible to prove it to the satisfaction of people who don’t like the idea. So if a very little isn’t enough then no amount will be enough. Or so it seems.

      • That groups differ in
        That groups differ in performance is something that most people, even most liberals agree with. However, the cause of those differences is just not something that can be determined from common sense. The charge that differences between groups are primarily due to something say as horrific as slavery has, at the very least, a strong surface, plausibility. Such charges have proved a powerful propaganda tool for liberalism, perhaps its most powerful, which is why HBD has been resisted so tenaciously.

        I should also note that whatever effective resistance to liberalism, particularly left liberalism, there has been in the past few decades, it has mostly come out of the work of economists and social scientists, not traditionalists. One indication of what is the stronger threat to liberalism is how liberals react to traditionalists vs. HBDers. Traditionalists are largely dismissed as a few harmless eccentrics; HBDers must be vociferously denounced.

        • Waffle Dog
          I have watched the HBD crowd years now. They have certainly dealt with many useful issues, but they are politically and as a possible societal power dysfunctional. The regulation of a society can’t be based on such thin niche knowledge. On the other hand Kalb provides a philosophical framework that can be used as societal framework, to and in which e.g. various practical methods, processes and practices can be added, subtracted, combined, divided, tuned, harmonized or changed. And it can be partly fitted (as it necessarily must be) to the existing societal framework, corresponding to those aspects of the present order that can be salvaged. Political philosophy is a necessary prerequisite to power, as Marxists, cultural Marxists, the present liberals, Christian societies, enlightenment societies, etc. indicate (especially the ones that have any lasting power).

          But maybe I am wrong? Feel free to point me to HBD political philosophy, that is even half as good as Kalb’s philosophy as a societal framework.

          I just report what I see.

          • Addition
            “HBDers must be vociferously denounced.”

            – So must pseudoconservatives, i.e. one variant of liberals, but they are not and can not be a threat to liberalism, well, because they are liberals. Denouncing is not a reliable indicator in these matters without adequate defining of the issue.

            Also, maybe I’m missing something, but I have seen almost exclusively vociferous denunciations of Tea Parties, Republicans and such. People’s eyes must be kept on the false ball. To me it has seemed that HBD almost doesn’t exist in mainstream media.

          • A detail more accurately
            I wrote: “Tea Parties”

            – There are good Tea Party grass roots people, and all the power to them, but reports seem to say that their leadership has already been co-opted to the pseudoconservatives.

      • As an example of what I am
        As an example of what I am talking about Charles Murray’s Losing Ground had far more of an effect on welfare policy than anything any traditionalist writer.

  2. Christian conservatism
    I don’t suppose this particular society is likely to agree – but the problem with mainstream conservatism is that it is secular, and therefore at root, not very different from liberalism.

    At some point Christian conservatives will need to become up-front about the fact that they are primarily trying to create a society suited for saving souls – and not primarily devoted to the utilitarian goals favoured by secular conservatives.

    So that would be the kind of booklist needed: Christian reactionaries of various types: perhaps including (from the past century) GK Chesterton, Hillaire Belloc, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R Tolkien, Fr Seraphim Rose, John Senior, Peter Kreeft…

    • Agreed that secular conservatism doesn’t work
      A lot of people are attracted though to a sort of conservatism that doesn’t pay much attention to religious issues. Since that’s so it makes sense to ask what they could look at that would help fill out their view of what’s involved without breaking too sharply with the concerns they already have.

  3. Rethinking the premises of the list
    “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?”

    A question of primary importance is why people did not pay much attention to them anyway. If the answer is that only a small percentage of people will ever read anything that seems like political philosophy, then a new list does not cure the problem. If the problem is superficial and specific to particular books, then it might be curable. For example, if people don’t read Edmund Burke because the language sounds somewhat archaic, then we could recommend that people read Burke in an excerpt-and-summary-discussion form, as in The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk.

    I suspect that the intellectual problem with “the conservative movement” is that the conservatives with the media access are simply not that well read. If we could make a list of conservative talk show hosts, columnists, etc., and get an honest answer from each as to what they have read, we would be disappointed. I am not sure that we need to replace Burke and Kirk and Weaver and Burnham et al. The issue is how to get the good ideas from the educated elite into the popular mainstream. Those with media access are the mediators of this transmission of ideas to a large audience. So, the depressing question of the day is, Why can I go on the web and read Jim Kalb at Turnabout, and Lawrence Auster at VFR, and Mark Richardson at Oz Conservative, and find deep and insightful discussions, but when I turn on the radio or TV I get Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity?

    Still, I greatly appreciate this list and will use it as a guide, I hope, to fill in some of my own reading deficiencies.

  4. Two recommendations
    First, Tacitus is an under-appreciated author. He can be of great help to contemporary conservatives because the fundamental question he faced in all his works, though most obviously in the Agricola as it is devoted to a single individual, is the same one we face today: How can a man lead a noble life in an age of decadence? That was the question he wrote about, and it was the dilemma he faced in his own life, always active in politics, yet desirous of withdrawing from the sordid Empire.

    Second, Nicolás Gómez Dávila needs to become better known in the English-speaking world. That might happen, of course, when his works are actually all translated into English. Many of his aphorisms come across as overly harsh to confirmed believers in the cult of political correctness, but they have the power to open the eyes of those who are willing to look outside the current dogmas.

    • NGD is certainly essential
      NGD is certainly essential reading. In fact, I think I’ll add hin to the list. I haven’t read the Agricola.

  5. A list without a list
    I let others recommend books of canon, except I would add the Bible. Not just as it is, but the meanings and knowledge of Bible explained, because the meanings of it’s descriptions, stories and metaphors too have been lost. Then new deductions can be made based on them, corresponding to our age and the needs of traditional conservatives.

    Generally I would recommend a frame of mind, rather than certain books. On the other hand, traditional conservatives need something that ties it all together, a general philosophy. James Kalb is the most important English speaking traditional conservative philosopher alive that I know of, so you can start from these pages and read his book.

    Many others have written texts that contain many useful insights, like Joseph Sobran (Skip the Finnish part of the text, and keep in mind that Sobran’s conservatism variant is unfortunately quite a weak type and didn’t withstood the continuous waves of liberalism):,36459.0.html

    The following old text by Bruce Charlton from his libertarian/ liberal era helps to understand the liberal thinking and frame of mind, it’s strenghts and it’s flaws. Charlton’s new traditional conservative articles in Buce Charlton’s Miscellany -blog enlighten various aspects of many topics:


    The first task of reading is to understand well whatever you read. Read carefully, and stop now and then to contemplate and deduct new things from the information. One book thoroughly understood and used in creative thinking is more important than ten books quickly guzzled through. Use the traditional conservative general philosophy as solid and permanent foundation from which to study, evaluate, estimate, filter, create new things in relation to, etc. versatile texts. Because so large part of information is imbued with subtle or overt liberalism, learn to filter it away automatically in your mind, so that you don’t mix it inadvertently with traditional conservatism, but at the same time memorize and use as is necessary all the useful information about liberalism.

    Ask, “How this functions”, “Why is this done”, “How these things (or this thing) are connected to other things and how they communicate (communication understood widely, e.g. money too is used in communication, it sends signals about the needs and evaluations of society’s members, both individually and in various collective formations)”, “What motivates these actions, processes, policies and this system”, “What kind of processes they use or participate in”, “What underlies these public actions, public figures and public surfaces”, “What does these contradictions means”, “What was the historical process that lead to this situation and this policy”, “What ideas and latitudes of thinking can I extract from comparing the previous historical policies to the present policy”, “How can I use this information and ideas deducted from it in practice”, “What kind of permanent hard work is necessary and UNAVOIDABLE (emphasis, because this can not and should not be avoided) to change this situation, and then to maintain and improve the new situation”, “What are the soft and weak spots of the system”, “If I push certain soft and weak spots gently in a certain way, does that part of the system self destroy or self damage, and if so, how the system tries to repair the damage after that”, etc.

    So, maybe you select large complex organizations as your area of study, because we live in a society ruled by them. Then you could select books that deal with them from many angles (liberalism filtering sometimes necessary):

    Everything people do, perceive and think is affected and colored by emotions, also when we are not aware of them:


    And then:


    What do the large complex organizations produce, could be either private or state bureaucracies:

    Biased for bureaucracies, but useful information still:

    Large complex organizations can’t be fully understood without comprehending the rationales behind their functions, their processes, their historical evolution and bifurcations, and of course, power in general; thus e.g (Liberalism filtering sometimes necessary):

    Michel Foucault (or related); Power/Knowledge; History of Sexuality, part 1 (yes, relevant); Security, Territory and Population; Psychiatric Power; The Birth of Biopolitics; The Foucault Effect; Discipline and Punish; Power; etc.


    Counterbalance against large complex organizations is all kinds of local communities and community networks, ruled and composed of local people themselves. This opens a new area of study, from the most succesful religious communities which have survived through the most difficult conditions hundreds or thousands of years, to modest temporary affiliations for small and limited task purposes.


    This was just an example how reading could progress systematically. Feel free to select what interests you or what you see as necessary. While reading, reduce your time spent in internet. You don’t lose anything, but you gain a lot, you get ahead of others. The stagnation today is more in the internet than in the books. Don’t concentrate on long lists of books you could, might or should read, concentrate only on the book in your hand.


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