(The earliest drafts of this essay go back to the early 1980s.)
This essay will endeavor to offer a short yet cogent definition of Western traditionalism (or conservatism). Surely, persons who are conservative-leaning should try to delineate and define what separates them from Communism, from Nazism and fascism, and from liberalism and left-liberalism, in all their myriad forms. A positive step would be to call all those persons who are traditionally-minded back to their first principles.
Left-liberalism, liberalism, Communism, and Nazism can all be seen as materialist, secular ideologies, whereas real conservatism could be construed to be a perennial philosophy at whose core is an assertion of spirit over matter, and, in particular, the recognition of the difficult position of „persons of spirit” versus everyone else, throughout human history, but especially in current late modernity. It can be seen that spirit, mind, intellect, and soul, are related but not identical phenomena, in constant opposition to matter, the body, and the general tendency to entropy. As far as reason and will are concerned, one must recognize the existence of both „conscious-volition”, and of the subconscious parts of the mind, from both of which evil and good can originate. At the same time, a traditionalist outlook should not rely too much on the overly-reductionist reason of the physical sciences, but rather on „the higher reason” of the philosophers.
Traditionalist (or conservative) philosophy asserts the belief in a traditional social absolute. Traditional means that it is hallowed by long-time usage. Social means that it is based and rooted in a social context, in relation to society. Different societies can have different absolutes, but the core notion of the absolute (or „bounded horizon of meaning”) must, generally-speaking, be upheld in that particular society, when it is a traditional one.
Traditionalist philosophy asserts that these traditional social absolutes can be discerned (at least indirectly) through the human mind — whereas the secular ideologies of modernity are, generally-speaking, hypocritical in relation to absolutes. On the one hand, one of the apparent „principles” of liberalism is „that there are no principles” — your „values” are as good as mine. On the other hand, there is a highly ideologically-charged form of prevalent „political correctness” which functions as a kind of absolute, although it can be seen as an anti-traditional, and (a traditionalist would argue) an anti-social one, in the context of the societies in which it operates.
There is also the question of whether or not there is some kind of „absolute beyond absolutes”, or the Absolute. Traditionalist philosophy would generally argue that the true „traditional social absolute” participates to some extent in the Absolute (which could be said to be „God”, or „Human Nature”, or „The Sum-Total of Humankind’s World-Historical Experience”).
The issue of Natural Law or Natural Right is not as straightforward for traditionalism as it might appear. On the one hand, there is a school of thought which sees the so-called „first wave of modernity” (e.g., Hobbes, Locke, Hume), as preserving some elements of the medieval scholastic Natural Law, which is therefore to be preferred over later waves of modernity (e.g., Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche) which totally overturned it. On the other hand, the notion of Natural Law can be seen to have become virtually coëval with Lockean philosophy, and the kernel of all later ideas of so-called „universal human rights” (as self-servingly interpreted by liberals), or „abstract universals” (disembodied from living societies), which are rather disliked by traditionalist philosophy.
According to traditionalist philosophy, a human being’s natural, uncontrived expression of his or her relation to the Absolute is religion. A straightforward embrace of tradition means standing fast by one’s own religious tradition. A straightforward Western traditionalist would believe that the revival of Christian faith in the West is a prerequisite for the survival of Western civilization, although, from a strictly Christian viewpoint, Christianity will endure whether or not the West collapses. A straightforward Western traditionalist would argue for Christianity as the truest and firmest form of religious expression for Western societies, and quite possibly for all humanity. A believing Christian could not really claim otherwise, but would hasten to add that this worldwide conversion obviously could not be forced or hurried. The traditionalist Christian would assert this need for tolerance not because of some abstract liberal „right of dissent”, but because Jesus Himself made clear that involuntary conversions were a grievous violation of the notion of human dignity recognized by Him. There is also an enormous difference between a society or a state very mildly promoting a Christian tendency, versus situations of non-Christians (or those considered schismatics or heretics or idolaters within Christianity itself) being summarily kept out or expelled from a Christian society, being persecuted or killed, or being forced to convert on pain of death or torture. It is clear that all these evils done in the name of Christianity were gross violations of the most central Christian teachings – and now are almost totally unthinkable actions for nearly every professing Christian today.
However, it can also be seen that the state-structure of contemporary American and especially Canadian society, effectively banishes Christianity from the public sphere, and in many ways promotes the most extreme and excessive forms of liberalism and left-liberalism. So current-day society may in its own way be as persecutory of Christianity, as it itself has accused Christianity of being in the past. A return to Christian intolerance is today extremely unlikely, and should not be a source of anxiety in politics. Today, one should not look at what religion once was, but what it can be, in the far different context of late modernity, when most of the problems confronting society may be termed as being „of a new type.”
If the old persecutions by Christians are to be read into the indictment against today’s Christianity and traditionalism in Western democracies — then it must also be considered how thoroughgoing and vicious the programmatic policies of (to name the most prominent figures) Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot (resulting in tens of millions of deaths) were. All these policies were closely tied to radical left-wing projects of irreligion. Yet, left-liberals are rarely called to task for often tacitly supporting the crimes of these left-wing, atheist despots.
It should also be remembered that the Nazis were, philosophically, neither Christians nor conservatives, and in fact combined a vicious mixture of bloody-minded occultism and scientism. There were in fact curious convergences between the anti-clericalism of the Nazis, Soviets, and left-liberals of the day. Some liberals such as former British Prime Minister Lloyd George initially supported the „modern, progressive” Nazis, but opposed Franco’s regime, or even Poland, because they considered the latter „priest-ridden reactionaries.” It should be remembered that committed Christians constituted among the few serious centers of resistance to the Nazi regime in Germany itself. In German-occupied Poland, particularly savage persecutions were directed against the Polish Roman Catholic and other Polish Christian clergy. The theorists of Nazi Germany – far from claiming support from what they considered a “Semitic-inspired” Christianity — understood Christianity as a massive barrier to the full implementation of their horrific agenda.
The straightforward traditionalist would argue that the spiritual side of the human person is best fulfilled in religion. If a person lacks the anchor of traditional religion, he or she will typically try to find the fulfillment of religion in ersatz, surrogate, pseudo-religions, precisely the secular ideologies. Thus, the straightforward Western traditionalist will say, instead of worshipping the God of Light and Love, such a person will worship the Savage God of ideology, the dark idols that demand human sacrifices and sexual debasement. At the same time, such a person might deny the existence of these idols (and their hold on him or her) in an act of self-delusion. Modern psychology (with its dozens, if not hundreds, of rival therapies) and modern science have also moved in the direction of substitute religions. Or someone who loses faith will find satisfaction in such things as cults, rock music, illicit drugs, promiscuity, or generally aimless „rebellion”.
However, straightforward traditionalism offers little to persons who could be called ethical nonreligious individuals, or those who have had religious roots, but fallen away from them. Here is where traditionalist philosophy (and the appreciation of „the persons of spirit”) may be called on to buttress religion. Indeed, philosophy and religion may be seen as two different modes of drawing closer to the Absolute.
Does the strictly religious viewpoint preclude philosophy or cultivation of the arts? There have been many philosophers who embraced the central idea of the megapsychlos, „the great-souled man”. These would include Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and Hegel — to name but a few. If we look at those philosophers who insist on the existence of absolutes, we find many of the first-rank thinkers — including Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, and Hegel — to name but a few. The non-absolutist philosophers exist mainly as a counterpoint to the absolutists. However, it may be argued that a more critical question is the philosophers’ attitude to „the great-souled man”; as well as what practical effect a philosopher’s thought has on the flourishing or undermining of such a person. For example, the practical effects of much of Kant’s thought, working itself out in the world, have been to subvert the possibilities for the emergence of „great-souled men” in late modernity. On the other hand, Nietzsche’s radical perspectivism could be interpreted as an attempt to redeem and re-nourish a transformed idea of the megapsychlos — transmogrified in response to, and in order to confront, the extraordinarily harsh terrain (for the nurturing and flourishing of the megapsychlos) of late modernity.
In any case, philosophy does not necessarily progress historically, i.e., the later philosophers are not necessarily the better philosophers, nor is the thought of earlier philosophers necessarily outdated by new developments. One can, for example, still read Plato for incisive criticisms of phenomena similar to current-day democracy and liberalism.
It may be argued that virtually all the truly great works of literature, art, and music are conservative in the sense that they assert the triumph of Spirit (the Idea) over Matter, and that in these works we find some intimation of transcendent truths. Thus, in the Bible, in the great books of philosophy, and in the great works of art, music, and literature, we find portions of the overwhelming Truth of the realm of the Spirit. Even modern science, which, according to diehard traditionalist thinkers, only holds a candle to the sun in terms of explaining reality, relative to religion and philosophy, is tentatively edging towards the recognition of the importance of the spirit-centered viewpoint (as in the works of C. G. Jung, or Fritjof Capra in The Tao of Physics, 1975).
However, one of the advantages of sensible religion over pure philosophy, is that religion is accessible to everyone, regardless of native intelligence and other accidental characteristics. It is that part of traditionalism, at least in the Christian worldview, which proclaims the equality of the souls of all men and women before God. In the Christian belief, God does not allow for any special categories of persons exempt from his moral laws. This does not mean, however, that He estimates a person’s moral worth as the same, regardless of their lifelong moral qualities and behavior. He is quite willing to „divide the sheep from the goats”. And it may be seen as one of the aims of organized human societies to reflect, however dimly and imperfectly, that kind of so-called „judgmental” outlook.
The main terrain of action of „the persons of spirit” — especially the more „politico-philosophical” rather than „religious”-minded ones — is, of course, the nation, patria, or res publica. (It need hardly be added that a sense of genuine nationhood, civic-mindedness, community, and patriotism, can just as easily occur under the formal aegis of a monarchy as of a republic). The various nations of the Earth could ultimately be seen as spiritual-corporate, organic, living entities, many of them sharing in an unbroken historical continuity of hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
The twin principles of traditionalism are both culture and virtue. Human beings must recognize and try to nurture the striving towards culture and virtue within themselves. Society must be permeated by an atmosphere where culture and virtue will be maximized and intensified. Culture includes the great art, philosophy, and literature of all humankind, as well as the shared historical experience of the spiritual-corporate national entities. The so-called Canon of great works may be increased, but likely only at a very slow rate. Thus, fifty years of human history may produce only one truly profound work, which brings us in touch with the sublime and the spiritual. As for the shared historical experience of a national entity, it may exist at many levels. There are the unconscious, partly conscious, and fully conscious aspects of the national „consciousness”. The boundaries of the national consciousness should not be drawn either too narrowly or too widely. Thus, in some senses, the consciousness of ancient Greece and Rome is present even among us. The goal of the preservation of the national consciousness is transcended only by the moral lessons to be drawn from the Canon of great works (the Country of the Mind), by the practically-possible dictates of religion, and by virtue. Ideally-speaking, the preservation of national consciousness and virtue are mutually reinforcing.
Virtue is the moral code which almost all premodern and „spirit-centred” philosophies, and all major religions promote to a greater or lesser extent, but which, a believing Christian must argue, is most authentically expressed in Christianity. Because virtue exists in the realm of Spirit, it must, in general, take precedence over the spiritual-corporate national entities, even though these may also in some senses exist in the mindworld. Gross evil and immorality should not, theoretically speaking, be permitted, even if it is highly instrumental for the preservation and advancement of one’s nation. Of course, evil and immoral actions have always occurred in relations between nations — however, one should be sternly warned against abandoning all human and moral reservations in the name of the advancement of one’s nation — as was done, most notoriously, by Nazi Germany. The traditionalist believes that believing in an ideal (e.g., in norms of behavior or manners) while not always living up to them, is preferable to abandoning an ideal and embracing some feral exaltation of the removal of all self-restraint. This could equally be a criticism of the vicious racially-driven nationalism of Nazi Germany, of the unrestrained countercultural rebellion of the 1960s (and subsequent decades), and of the unrestricted selfishness and greed of consumptionist capitalism.
As was pointed out before, the strength of virtue is that it is theoretically accessible to every human being, regardless of native intelligence and other accidental characteristics. Thus, the simple washerwoman with her deep faith may be closer to truth than a deconstructionist professor with his doctorate. Nevertheless, traditionalist thinkers are necessary to give form and substance to an instinctual vision of truth.
Culture and virtue will be maximized in a society which is permeated with harmony. Harmony, not tyranny or chaos, is the principle of the traditionalist social absolute. Harmony is when society’s functioning tends towards an organic, integral whole, in consistency with the ideals of culture and virtue. Yet, it might be asked, has a society like this ever existed? (Some would argue that the ancient Greek polis, medieval Europe, and some periods of Chinese history, were in some senses closest to this ideal.) For Christians, the reason for this perennial failure is found in the symbolic Garden of Eden narrative, where we learn that human nature is „fallen”, that is, susceptible to the worst impulses and desires. This story (as well as that of Cain and Abel) reminds us that human nature has a bestial and very dark side. Furthermore, we are warned of the existence of dark powers, which may be the personifications of darkness within us, but to a Christian, must be seen as actually existing in some sense beyond us, for Satan is no atheist.
The Darkness, whatever its cause, is almost irrepressible in fallen human nature. Thus, all elements in a human society should be directed towards keeping these impulses in check. In the Christian conception, the highest freedom is freedom from sin. Laws, the sense of authority, decorum, custom, and tradition are most often the elements of society which keep these darker impulses in check. Yet, organized religion is perhaps the strongest buttress against outbreaks of individual and mass anarchy. That is why religion must be supported strongly, while realizing that the Darkness may re-appear in the most unlikely places. One must „fight the darkness without yielding to the darkness”. Even though Pope Alexander VI (Roderigo Borgia) is utterly corrupt, there are persons of virtue and culture who maintain the vision of first principles in the Renaissance, and know that what he is doing is utterly wrong. There is no question of justifying such behaviour in terms of „alternative lifestyles”, or „differing value-systems”, or „situational ethics”, as in modern liberalism.
The number of persons of culture and virtue will generally be small in almost every society, the question being how far the first principles can be accepted by society as a whole. Thinkers, intellectuals, philosophers (or whatever one calls them) – as well as the poets — are the ultimate determiners and legislators of whatever form the entire society takes. The Catholic Church, by its near-total intellectual monopoly, presided over the West for close to a thousand years. It was only when its intellectual monopoly was finally broken that modernity erupted forth, with a dizzying succession of ever more serious and intensive dislocations – along with the unquestionable triumphs as well as unmitigated disasters of modern science and technology.
It could be argued that most people, in any society, will be passive, both intellectually and politically, no matter what their economic standard of living is. The majority of the so-called „poor” in North America, who — from some standpoints — practically have the economic living standard of medieval knights or barons, most likely do not use their ample spare time (if on welfare, for example) to improve themselves, to study, to think. They usually follow their basest desires and impulses. Many, if not most people, in the middle and upper classes act in a similar fashion, the main difference being in the extravagance of their base pursuits. Thus, in any society, the number of people who are intellectually or politically active is limited. Unfortunately, in current-day society, the traditionalist would argue that a huge proportion of these people are proponents of poorly-based ideas which are misguided or sometimes even outrightly evil, certainly in terms of their social and cultural consequences, if not usually in their stated intent. Thus, no matter how high the standard of living is able to go, the problems of a disordered and disharmonious society will be with us.
Because of the egalitarianism of virtue, the traditionalist thinker can formulate the concept of what could be called the Vital Center (this term, which is borrowed from American liberal thought, takes on a much different meaning for the traditionalist). The „vital center” would consist of all basically decent people, of any class, ethnic background, or religious affiliation, who essentially keep a nation or society together. The stronger a nation’s „vital center”, the stronger its commitment to culture and virtue, and the closer it draws to the realm of the Spirit. At the same time, a strong „vital center” usually, but not necessarily, gives a nation great power in this world, because a spiritually-based and therefore genuine consensus exists between most of its members.
The „vital center” appears to be under severe attack in our society today. One could easily list a dozen or more „isms” that assault the remnants of traditionalist thinking, and traditionalist society. In the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, the vital center was practically exterminated and displaced. In North America and most of Europe today, the process is carried out through the mass-media and mass-education systems. In all such cases, there is the attempt to construct society entirely on the basis of the various, strictly secular ideologies. The Soviet Union was based philosophically on Marx as interpreted by Lenin and Stalin, two mediocre thinkers, but ruthless politicians. Nazi Germany was based, at least in part, on the ideas of Nietzsche, although these probably appeared in even more disfigured form than those of Marx in the Soviet Union. (There is in fact a huge debate on whether Nietzsche was the most consistently anti-modern thinker, or the capstone of modernity.)
In the Soviet Union, entire classes of culture-bearing individuals were liquidated — the aristocracy, the nationalist intelligentsia, and the more industrious peasants. While the Nazis seemed to use traditionalist slogans when it suited them, their attachment to traditionalist principles was about as deep as the Soviet attachment to democracy. Real traditionalism understands that one cannot promote an apparently integral and holistic view of the lifeworld while at the same time encouraging people to give free reign to their darkest impulses. Every national entity must try to recognize the existence in the world of other national entities, by entering into a spirit of reflection about the nature of nationalism. The popularity of the Nazis also shows just how susceptible the German masses were to what was essentially a nihilistic secular ideology, combining occultism and scientism, for which the ground had been partially prepared by the anarchy and depravity of the Weimar period. Hitler, it should also be remembered, came to power by using the most “modern”, „popular” and „democratic” means.
In terms of „practical” results (as well as professed first-principles) liberalism seems very far from the horrors of Nazism or Bolshevism. The first principles of liberalism, in liberals’ self-understanding, consist of nothing but „compassion” — goodness, sweetness, and light. But, is liberalism so much better in „practical” terms? As society loses its grasp of first principles, and the barriers of law and custom are dismantled, there will be more and more of the various horrors which are taken as commonplace in late-modern society. It is time to think seriously about what present-day Left-liberalism, pushed to what is probably its logical and necessary conclusion might mean — the complete atomization of society; the destruction of family, morality, and religion; the deriding of patriotism, virtue, and authentic cultural achievement. Indeed — in so far as it could exist — a wholly liberal „society” would probably dissolve in a matter of years — to be replaced by a dictatorship, the alternative which the „politically-correct” would undoubtedly offer. Or perhaps there would be an evolution to a liberal/left-liberal consensus (which is practically in existence today), where there would be freedom for dissent „in a leftward direction”, but traditionalist conservative ideas and notions would either be completely ignored, or cruelly ridiculed, by the mass-media, and the institutionalized leftism of the government bureaucracy, the academic world, the mass-education system, and the wholly co-opted business world. Even supposedly „moderate” liberalism could become distinctly „totalitarian” when dealing with sharp traditionalist or conservative dissent, which would be seen as such a brazen challenge to its philosophical basis.
From the traditionalist standpoint, the spectrum of practical political discourse in Western societies is extremely narrow — consisting mostly of varieties of liberalism and left-liberalism. At the same time, various types of radical left ideas are often seen as legitimate „alternatives”, but conservatism is not. Liberalism, with its horror of traditionalist absolutes, or even of too clearly defined ideas, admires the supposed „idealism” and the „principled stand” of the current-day „politically-correct”. Liberalism does not seem to have the philosophical depth and moral strength to resist the totalitarian temptation which is always at hand — interestingly enough, liberal and Leninist societies are in many aspects far more similar to each other than to any premodern society.
At the same time as the spectrum of political (and philosophical) discourse is narrowed, it is also pushed leftward, thus doubly weakening traditionalism. As technological and social change overwhelms a given society, only a residuum of true traditionalist or conservative ideas and notions remains. Positions and attitudes which were once diametrically opposed become virtually indistinguishable from each other in terms of the generally liberal mass-society. The massive historical struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism, or between Christianity and Islam, is subsumed into the conflict between what could be seen as the spiritual and the material. The struggle between Romanticism and Classicism (and, later, Modernism) is subsumed into the struggle of cultured persons against the deadening mass-culture. The perennial premodern conflict between the aristocracy and the priesthood, and of these two estates against the bourgeoisie, in early modernity, is completely forgotten. Shallow media pundits call libertarianism, „extreme conservatism”. It is difficult to conceive of the libertarian cult of egoism, and of its hostility to religion, as symptomatic of traditionalist ideas. Furthermore, any exclusively economic approach to life, whether philistine pursuit of wealth, or doctrinaire Marxism, is not traditionalism. Following your basest passions is not traditionalism. Unabashed greed and selfishness are not traditionalist impulses. Mindless hatred is not traditionalist, but righteous anger is.
In the Christian view, history does not unfold without a higher purpose. From the Christian perspective, it may be suggested that the role of this period in history is to test the Universal Church. The more revolting society becomes, with outright blasphemy and violence and perversions, the greater the chance there is of a total overturn of this so-called „freedom”, this anarchy, which characterizes liberal society. The „vital center” may be able to re-assert itself.
A quasi-Hegelian view of history also allows for such dramatic, “dialectical” turns. In a moment of acute crisis, genuine traditionalism could unexpectedly resurface. On the other hand, what may happen is a partial renewal of certain traditionalist ideals without a decisive impact on society.
Whatever happens, authentic critics of the present-day system (regardless of what they choose to call themselves) must continue to speak out.