The Cultural Roots of Conservatism

Here in mid-October, we are at or even just past the apogee of that “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” John Keats celebrated in “To Autumn.” Harvests are arriving everywhere. The “maturing sun” has conspired “to load and bless / With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run; / To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees, / And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core.”

Which brings me to the word “cultural.” I remember the first time I noticed the legend “cultural instructions” on the brochure that accompanied some seedlings. “How quaint,” I thought, as I pursued the advisory: this much water and that much sun, certain tips about fertilizer, soil, and drainage. Planting one sort of flower nearby keeps the bugs away but proximity to another sort makes bad things happen. Young shoots might need stakes, and watch out for beetles, weeds, and unseasonable frosts . . . 

The more I pondered it, the less quaint and the more profound those cultural instructions seemed. I suppose I had once known that the word “culture” comes from the capacious Latin verb colo, which means everything from “live, dwell, inhabit,” to “observe a religious rite”—whence our word “cult”—to  “care, tend, nurture,” and “promote the growth or advancement of.” I never thought much about it. 

I should have done. There is a lot of wisdom in etymology. The noun cultūra (which derives from colo) means first of all “the tilling or cultivation of land” and “the care or cultivation of plants.” But it, too, has ambitious tentacles: there’s the bit about religious rites again and also “well groomed,” and “chic, polished, sophisticated.” 

Cicero’s Cultivation of the Soul

It was Cicero, in a famous passage of the Tusculan Disputations, who gave currency to the metaphor of culture as a specifically intellectual pursuit. “Just as a field, however good the ground, cannot be productive without cultivation,” Cicero wrote, “so the soul cannot be productive without education.” Philosophy, he said, is a sort of “cultura animi,” a cultivation of the mind or spirit: “it pulls out vices by the roots,” he said, “makes souls fit for the reception of seed,” and sows in order to bring forth “the richest fruit.” 

But even the best care, Cicero warned, does not inevitably bring good results: the influence of education, of cultura animi, “cannot be the same for all: its effect is great when it has secured a hold upon a character suited to it.” That is to say, the results of cultivation depend not only on the quality of the care but also on the inherent nature of the thing being cultivated. How much of what Cicero said do we still understand? 

In current parlance, “culture” (in addition to its use as a biological term) has both a descriptive and an evaluative meaning. In its anthropological sense, “culture” is neutral. It describes the habits and customs of a particular population: what its members do, not what they should do. Its task is to inventory, to docket, not to judge. 

But we also speak of “high culture,” meaning not just social practices but a world of artistic, intellectual, and moral endeavor in which the notion of hierarchy, of a rank-ordering of accomplishment, is key. 

Let me pause to introduce one more bit of etymology: “hierarchy” derives from words meaning “sacred order.” Egalitarians are opposed to hierarchies in principle; what does that tell us about egalitarianism?

Culture in the evaluative sense does not merely admit, it requires judgment as a kind of coefficient or auxiliary: comparison, discrimination, evaluation are its lifeblood. “We never really get near a book,” Henry James once remarked, “save on the question of its being good or bad, of its really treating, that is, or not treating, its subject.” It was for the sake of culture in this sense that Matthew Arnold extolled criticism as—you all know the famous phrase— “the disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.” 

The Cultural Roots of Conservatism

It is of course culture in the Arnoldian sense that I have primarily in view when I ask about the cultural roots of conservatism. And it is the fate of culture in this sense that I will be chiefly concerned with here. 

But it would be foolish to draw too firm a distinction between or among the realms of culture. There is much confluence and interchange between them. Ultimately, they exist symbiotically, nurturing, supplementing, contending with each other. 

The manners, habits, rituals, institutions, and patterns of behavior that define culture for the anthropologist provide the sediment, the ground out of which culture in the Arnoldian sense takes root—or fails to take root. Failure or degradation in one area instigates failure or degradation in the other. Some people regard the astonishing collapse of manners and civility in our society as a superficial event. They are wrong. The fate of decorum expresses the fate of a culture’s dignity, its attitude toward its animating values, which is why conservatives have always regarded the degradation of manners as presaging other, more sinister degradations.  

Let me say something, too, about the nature of metaphors. The problem with metaphors is not that they are false but that they do not tell the whole truth. The organic image of culture we have inherited from Cicero is illuminating. Among other things, it reminds us that we do not exist as self-sufficient atoms but have our place in a continuum that stretches before and after us in time. Like other metaphors, however, it can be elevated into an absurdity if pushed too far. 

Oswald Spengler’s sprawling, two-volume lament, The Decline of the West, is a good illustration of what happens when genius is captivated by a metaphor. Spengler’s book, published in the immediate aftermath of World War I, epitomized the end-of-everything mood of the times and was hailed as the brilliant key to understanding—well, just about everything. And Spengler really is brilliant. For example, his remarks about how the triumph of skepticism breeds a “second religiousness” in which “men dispense with proof, desire only to believe and not to dissect,” have great pertinence to an era, like ours, that is awash in new-age spiritual counterfeits. Nevertheless, Spengler’s deterministic allegiance to the analogy between civilizations and organisms ultimately infuses his discussion with an air of unreality. One is reminded, reading Spengler, of T. S. Eliot’s definition of a heretic: “a person who seizes upon a truth and pushes it to the point at which it becomes a falsehood.” 

The Enemy of Permanence

That said, for anyone who is concerned about the cultural roots of conservatism, there are some important lessons in the armory of cultural instructions accompanying a humble tomato plant. Perhaps the chief lesson has to do with time and continuity, the evolving permanence that cultūra animi no less than agricultural cultivation requires if it is to be successful. All those tips, habits, prohibitions, and necessities that have been accumulated from time out of mind and passed down, generation after generation: How our society militates against such antidotes to anarchy and decay! 

Culture thrives and develops under the aegis of permanence. And yet instantaneity—the enemy of permanence—is one of the chief imperatives of our time. It renders anything lasting, anything inherited, suspicious by definition.  

Our culture wants what is faster, newer, less encumbered by the past. If we also cultivate a nostalgia for a simpler, slower time, that just shows the extent to which we are separated from what, in our efforts to decorate our lives, we long for. Nostalgia—the Greek word for “homesickness”—is a version of sentimentality—a predilection, that is to say, to distort rather than acknowledge reality. 

The attack on permanence comes in many guises. When trendy literary critics declare that “there is no such thing as intrinsic meaning,” they are denying permanent values that transcend the prerogatives of their lucubrations. When a deconstructionist tells us that truth is relative to language, or to power, or to certain social arrangements, he seeks to trump the unanswerable claims of permanent realities with the vacillations of his ingenuity. When the multiculturalist celebrates the fundamental equality of all cultures—excepting, of course, the culture of the West, which he reflexively disparages—he substitutes ephemeral political passions for the recognition of objective cultural achievement. 

But what at first seems to be an effort to establish cultural parity turns out to be a campaign for cultural reversal. When Sir Elton John is put on the same level as Bach, the effect is not cultural equality but cultural insurrection. And if it seems far-fetched to compare Elton John and Bach, recall the literary critic Richard Poirier’s remark in 1967, that “sometimes [the Beatles] are like Monteverdi and sometimes their songs are even better than Schumann’s.” 

In the face of such leveling assaults, the most basic suppositions and distinctions suddenly crumble, like the acidic pages of a poorly made book, eaten away from within. Culture degenerates from being a cultūra animi to a corruptio animi

The Human Toll of Human Ingenuity

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World may be a second-rate novel—its characters wooden, its narrative overly didactic—but it has turned out to have been first-rate prognostication. Published in 1932, it touches everywhere on 21st century anxieties and has a lot to say, implicitly, about the cultural roots of conservatism. Perhaps the aspect of Huxley’s dystopian admonition that is most frequently adduced is its vision of a society that has perfected what we have come to call genetic engineering. Among other things, it is a world in which reproduction has been entirely handed over to the experts. The word “parents” no longer describes a loving moral commitment but only an attenuated biological datum. Babies are not born but designed according to exacting specifications and “decanted” at sanitary depots like The Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre with which the book opens. 

As with all efforts to picture future technology, Huxley’s description of the equipment and procedures employed at the hatchery seems almost charmingly antiquated, like a spaceship imagined by Jules Verne. But Huxley’s portrait of the human toll of human ingenuity is very up-to-date. Indeed, we have not—not quite, not yet—caught up with the situation he describes. We do not—not quite, not yet— inhabit a world in which “mother” and “monogamy” are blasphemous terms from which people have been conditioned to recoil in visceral revulsion. Maybe it will never come to that. (Though monogamy, of course, has long been high on the social and sexual revolutionary’s list of hated institutions.) Still, it is a nice question whether developments in reproductive technology will not soon make other aspects of Huxley’s fantasy a reality. Thinkers as different as Michel Foucault, Francis Fukuyama, and Michel Houllebecq have pondered the advent of a “posthuman” future, eagerly or with dismay, as the case may be. Scientists busily manipulating DNA may give substance to their speculations. 

It is often suggested that what is most disturbing about Brave New World is its portrait of eugenics in action: its vision of humanity deliberately divided into genetically ordered castes, a few supersmart Alpha-pluses down through a multitude of drone-like Epsilons who do the heavy lifting. Such deliberately instituted inequality offends our democratic sensibilities. 

What is sometimes overlooked or downplayed is the possibility that the most disturbing aspect of the future Huxley pictured has less to do with eugenics than genetics. That is to say, perhaps what is centrally repellent about Huxley’s hatcheries is not that they codify inequality—nature already does that more effectively than our politically correct sensibilities like to acknowledge—but that they exist at all. Are they not a textbook example of Promethean hubris in action? It is worth stepping back to ponder that possibility. 

In the 17th century, René Descartes predicted that his scientific method would make man “the master and possessor of nature.” Are we not fast closing in on the technology that proves him right? 

Scientific Development Antithetical to Progress

And this raises another question. Is there a point at which scientific development can no longer be described, humanly, as progress? We know the benisons of technology. Consider only electricity, the automobile, modern medicine. They have transformed the world and underscored the old observation that art, that techne, is man’s nature. 

Nevertheless, the question remains whether, after 200 years of breathtaking progress, we are about to become more closely acquainted with the depredations of technology. It would take a brave man, or a rash one, to venture a confident prediction either way. 

For example, if, as in Brave New World, we manage to bypass the “inconvenience” of human pregnancy altogether, ought we to do it? If—or rather when—that is possible (as it certainly will be, and soon), will it also be desirable? If not, why not? Why should a woman go through the discomfort and danger of pregnancy if a fetus could be safely incubated, or cloned, elsewhere? Wouldn’t motherhood by proxy be a good thing—the ultimate labor-saving device? Most readers, I think, will hesitate about saying yes. What does that hesitation tell us? Some readers will have no hesitation about saying yes; what does that tell us? 

These are some of the questions anyone concerned with the cultural roots of conservatism will have to conjure with. 

As Huxley saw, a world in which reproduction was “rationalized” and emancipated from love was also a world in which culture in the Arnoldian sense was not only otiose but dangerous, and hence severely policed. This suspicion of culture is also a sub-theme of that other great dystopian novel, George Orwell’s 1984, which ends with the work of various writers, such as Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, Byron, Dickens, being vandalized by being translated into Newspeak. When that laborious propaganda effort is finally complete, Orwell writes, the “original writings, with all else that survived of the literature of the past, would be destroyed.” 

The point is that culture has roots. It limns the future through its implications with the past. Moving the reader or spectator over the centuries, the monuments of culture transcend the local imperatives of the present. They escape the obsolescence that fashion demands, the predictability that planning requires. They speak of love and hatred, honor and shame, beauty and courage and cowardice—permanent realities of the human situation insofar as it remains human. 

A Superficial World Requires Obliteration of Culture

The denizens of Huxley’s brave new world are designed and educated—perhaps his word “conditioned” is more accurate—to be rootless, without culture. Ditto the denizens of Orwell’s nightmare totalitarian society. In Brave New World, when a relic of the old order of civilization—a savage who had been born, not decanted—is brought from a reservation into the brave new world, he is surprised to discover that the literary past is forbidden to most of the population. When he asks why, the bureaucrat in charge says simply: “Because it’s old; that’s the chief reason. We haven’t any use for old things here.” 

“Even when they’re beautiful?” asks the savage. 

“Particularly when they’re beautiful,” replies the bureaucrat. “Beauty’s attractive, and we don’t want people to be attracted by old things. We want them to like the new ones.” 

Huxley’s brave new world is above all a superficial world. People are encouraged to like what is new, to live in the moment, because that makes them less complicated and more pliable. Emotional commitments are even more strictly rationed than Shakespeare. (The same, again, is true in 1984.) In the place of emotional commitments, sensations—thrilling, mind-numbing sensations—are available on demand through drugs and motion pictures that neurologically stimulate viewers to experience certain emotions and feelings. The fact that they are artificially produced is not considered a drawback but their very point. Which is to say that the brave new world is a virtual world: experience is increasingly vivid but decreasingly real. The question of meaning is deliberately short-circuited. 

Huxley’s imagination failed him in one area. He understood that in a world in which reproduction was emancipated from the body, sexual congress for many people would degenerate into a purely recreational activity, an amusement not inherently different from one’s soma ration or the tactile movies. He pictured a world of casual, indeed mandatory, promiscuity. But he thought it would develop along completely conventional lines. He ought to have known that the quest for “agreeable sensations” would issue in a pansexual carnival. In this area, anyway, we seem to have proceeded a good deal further than the characters who inhabit Huxley’s dystopia. 

In part, the attack on permanence is an attack on the idea that anything possesses inherent value. Absolute fungibility—the substitution of anything for anything—is the ideal. In one sense, this is a product of what the philosopher Michael Oakeshott criticized as “rationalism.” “To the Rationalist,” Oakeshott wrote in the late 1940s, “nothing is of value merely because it exists (and certainly not because it has existed for many generations), familiarity has no worth and nothing is to be left standing for want of scrutiny.” 

The realm of sexuality is one area where the effects of such rationalism are dramatically evident. It was not so long ago that the description from Genesis—“male and female created he them”—was taken as a basic existential fact. True, the obstinacy of sexual difference has always been a thorn in the side of utopian rationalism. But it is only in recent decades that the engines of judicial meddlesomeness, on the one hand, and surgical know-how on the other, have effectively assaulted that once permanent-seeming reality. 

A Return to “Primary Narcissism”

What we are seeing in sexual life is the fulfillment, in some segments of society, of the radical emancipatory vision enunciated in the 1960s by such gurus as Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown. In Eros and Civilization, Marcuse looked forward to the establishment of what he called a “non-repressive reality principle” in which “the body in its entirety would become . . . an instrument of pleasure.” The sexual liberation Marcuse hailed was not a fecund liberation. As in Brave New World, children do not enter into the equation. The issue is pleasure, not progeny. Marcuse speaks glowingly of “a resurgence of pregenital polymorphous sexuality” that  “protests against the repressive order of procreative sexuality.” A look at the alarmingly low birth rates of most affluent nations today suggests that the protest has been effective. 

When Tocqueville warned about the peculiar form of despotism that threatened democracy, he noted that instead of tyrannizing men, as past despotisms had done, it tended to infantilize them, keeping “them fixed irrevocably in childhood.” What Tocqueville warned about, Marcuse celebrated, extolling the benefits of returning to a state of what he called “primary narcissism.”  

What Marcuse encouraged, in other words, is solipsism, not as a philosophical principle but as a moral indulgence—a way of life. I note in passing that Marcuse was a college professor: how proud he would be of those contemporary universities which have, partly under his influence, become factories for the maintenance of infantilizing narcissism. 

A couple of concluding observations: In Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, T. S. Eliot noted that “culture is the one thing that we cannot deliberately aim at. It is the product of a variety of more or less harmonious activities, each pursued for its own sake.” 

“For its own sake.” That is one simple idea that is everywhere imperiled today. When we plant a garden, it is bootless to strive directly for camellias. They are the natural product of our care, nurture, and time. We can manage that when it comes to agriculture. When we turn our hands to cultūra animi, we seem to be considerably less successful. 

Let me end by noting that the opposite of “conservative” is not “liberal” but ephemeral.  Russell Kirk once observed that he was conservative because he was liberal, that is, committed to freedom. Kirk’s formulation may sound paradoxical, but it touches on a great truth. To be conservative: that means wanting to conserve what is worth preserving from the ravages of time and ideology, evil and stupidity, so that freedom may thrive. In some plump eras the task is so easy we can almost forget how necessary it is. At other times, the enemies of civilization transform the task of preserving our culture into a battle for survival. That, I believe—and I say it regretfully—is where we are today.

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