It may be the case that a strong religious faith, learned in childhood, forms the foundation of the political and social views of most traditionalist conservatives, but my own traditionalism began in the social and political sphere and only gradually progressed to the spiritual. I prefer not to go into my own beliefs in this blog. However, it is surely true that religious faith or some sense of a reality transcending the material world is essential to true conservatism.
For me, the issue might be summarized as follows. The type of society I am a product of, love, and want to live in, is historically rooted in the Christian faith. Remove that and what is left is a society of fragmented individuals, each one left to create some kind of guide to life out of the cultural scraps that surround him. They do so in various ways. Many people I know seem to subscribe to “liberalism as religion,” with therapy replacing prayer and “diversity” and “progress” replacing God or morality; others try non-Western religions or other non-traditional spiritual practices. Meanwhile, the society itself begins to go to hell, as ours is today, with the collapse of morale, confidence, and ambition among white Americans, and the invasion from without by alien races and religions. At that point does it not make sense to look back at the world of our forebears – still visible in so many ways – and ask whether, if their society seems truer than ours, it may not also be the case that their faith was also true? Ironically, this may have nothing to do, in any conscious way at least, with a desire to save one’s own soul. No, it is the baseness, ugliness, and viciousness of life on earth itself that drives one to seek solace in higher matters.
As I was waiting in line to cast my protest vote this past November 4 (an hour and a half – what is going on in this country?), I was reading W.H. Mallock’s The New Republic (1), which first came to my attention through an excerpt in Russell Kirk’s The Portable Conservative Reader. [Update: a reader, in the Comments section, supplies a link to the text.] (I highly recommend Kirk’s excerpt to those who don’t have time to read the whole thing). This now-forgotten novel from 1878, sensational in its time, consists largely of conversations among an assortment of aristocrats, scientists, and other intellectuals gathered in an English country manor over one weekend. The host of the party assigns a “menu” of topics to discuss, such as the “Aim of Life,” “Art and Literature,” “Love and Money,” and so forth. The conversations evolve into a loose attempt to describe the ideal society, in the manner of Plato’s The Republic.
The main theme of The New Republic is the crisis caused by the rapid loss of religious faith among the English upper class in the late 19th century. Much of the interest of the novel came from the author’s parody of famous figures such as Benjamin Jowett, T.H. Huxley, Matthew Arnold (Mallock gives a funny parody of “Dover Beach”), and others, all of whom espouse post-Christian philosophies, ranging from the universalistic Christianity of Dr. Jenkinson (Jowett), who gives a sermon beginning with a quotation from the Koran (!), to the militant atheism of Mr. Saunders (W.K. Clifford). All of this is countered by a lone figure, Mr. Herbert (representing the views of John Ruskin as well as of the author), who in a dramatic final speech excoriates all present for their complacent evasion of the most important questions in life:
…you [the nominally religious people] who are so busy with your various affirmations, with your prayers, your churches, your philosophies, your revivals of old Christianities, or your new improvements on them; with your love of justice, and humanity, and toleration; it is to you that I speak. It is to you that I say that, however enlightened and however sure you may be about all other matters, you are darkened and uncertain as to this – whether there really is any God at all who can hear all the prayers you utter to Him, or whether there really is any other life at all, where the aspirations you are so proud of will be realised, and where the wrongs you are so pitiful over will be righted. (2)
We get a sense in this work of how early a profound irreligiosity had established itself among the upper class and the intellectuals in England. Four decades before the Great War, the members of the party agree with virtual unanimity that “the world” (meaning, really, Britain and the West) has undergone a profound change for the worse, that the old faith is dead and that society seems to be careening toward some kind of unknowable disaster. In the United States, the same intellectual trends (evolutionary thought, materialism, etc.) were also working their way into society, but their effect would be delayed in this more prosperous, optimistic, and still-religious country.
Mallock presents, according to John Lucas,
…an idealized portrait of the English aristocrat…[of] men who are rich, considerate, witty and urbane, besides being unfailingly accomplished poets and/or musicians: embodiments of those virtues which Mallock appears to have thought were the essence of civilization and to be found in the aristocracy and nowhere else, and which he saw as coming under constant threat from social upheavals and changes in the order of things. (3)
Mr. Herbert does devastation to the “progressive” notion of helping the poor through education, telling his listeners their moral darkness disqualifies them to do so:
You are rich, and you have leisure to think of things in what light you will, and your life is to a great extent made easy for you by the labour of others. I do not complain of that. There can be no civilisation without order, and there can be no order without subordination. Outward goods must be apportioned unequally, or there would be no outward goods to apportion. But you who have the larger share of these are bound to do something for those who have the less. I say you are bound to do so; or else sooner or later that larger share will be taken away from you. Well, and what is it you propose to do? I know your answer – I have heard it a thousand times. You will educate them. And truly, if you know how to do that properly, you will have done all you need to do. But…that is just what you do not know…You can agree about teaching them – I know this too well – countless things that you think will throw light upon life; but life itself you leave a blank darkness upon which no light can be thrown. You say nothing of what is good in it, and of what is evil. Does success in it lie in the enjoyment of bodily pleasures, or in the doing of spiritual duty? Is there anything in it that is right for its own sake, or are all things right only because of their consequences? And seeing that, if we struggle for virtue, our struggles can never be quite successful here, is there any other place where they may have, I do not say their reward, but their consummation? To these questions only two answers can be given, and one must be entirely true, and the other entirely false. But you – you dare not give either; you are too enlightened. But for the poor man surely it is not so…[if you teach him modern “Utilitarian” principles] you will but be removing a cataract from his mind’s eye that he may stare aghast and piteous at his own poverty and nakedness, or that he may gaze with a wild beast’s huger at your own truly noble prosperity which he can never taste, save in the wild beast’s way. (4)
Mr. Herbert confesses, in the end, that he, too, is a religious doubter, but that “[m]y only consolation in my misery is that at least I am inconsolable for His loss.” (5)
I believe that the restoration of a traditional order can only come about when people learn to see the truths of that order intuitively, something that becomes harder and harder when we are surrounded by a relativistic and false culture. So much has been lost; and though we can’t reverse history or “put the toothpaste back in the tube,” we must recover continuity with our past in as many ways as we can. Or as Mr. Herbert says:
…when the old fabric is all dissolved, what then? When all divinity shall have gone from love and heroism, and only utility and pleasure shall be left, what then? Then you will have to content yourselves with complete denial; or build up again the faith that you have just pulled down – you will have to be born again, and to seek a new Self.
(1) W.H. Mallock, The New Republic: Culture, Faith and Philosophy in an English Country House, with intro. by John Lucas, Leicester University Press, 1975.
(2) Mallock, 349.
(3) Lucas, in Mallock, Introduction, 19.
(4) Mallock, 351-3.
(5) Mallock, 359.