30 December 2014

"For some reason, we have allowed the malcontent to assume moral prestige."

Please indulge me, as we come to the end of another calendar year, to borrow rather extensively from a much better writer than myself, on the subject of gratitude and its importance in the various spheres of human activity we call--collectively-- "life". 

These excerpts come from a discussion on politics and the difference between the liberal and the conservative.  Please note that these labels are used by the writer in 1985, and would perhaps be understood quite differently today by those who would self-adopt them. Instead of focusing on those terms, and on the notion of politics, I ask you to take a broader look, and see what this writer said nearly thirty years ago in its relevance in our own Church, let alone in our world and nations.  What kind of Catholics are we? Amazed at and grateful for our patrimony, or not?

The insights are brilliant, and apply in all sorts of situations.  See if you don't agree.

Let's all be grateful to God for the blessings of this year and of our whole lives; in a time such as the one in which we live, it is amazing we are cognizant of the good at all.  Let us not fail to thank God for His provident love, correction and protection:


"...It may help if we step back from politics a bit.

The main political line of division in the United States is between people we call liberals and people we call conservatives. The debate between them has been described in various ways; I would like to offer one of my own, based not so much on theory as on personal introspection.

At certain moments I find myself enjoying life in a certain way. I may be alone, or with friends, or with my family, or even among strangers. Beautiful weather always helps; the more trees, the better. Early morning or evening is the best time. Maybe someone says something funny. And while everyone laughs, there is a sort of feeling that surges up under the laughter, like a wave rocking a rowboat, that tells you that this is the way life should be.

Moments like that don't come every day, aren't predictable, and can't very well be charted. But the main response they inspire is something like gratitude: after all, one can't exactly deserve them. One can only be prepared for them. But they do come.

This may seem a thousand miles from politics, and such moments rarely have anything to do with politics. But that is just the point. Samuel Johnson says:

How small, of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!

But the same is true of all that human hearts enjoy. Laws and kings can't produce our happiest hours, though in our time they do more to prevent them than formerly.

"To be happy at home," Johnson also remarks, "is the end of all human endeavor." That is a good starting-point for politics, just because it is outside politics. I often get the feeling that what is wrong with political discussion in general is that it is dominated by narrow malcontents who take their bearings not from images of health and happiness but from statistical suffering. They always seem to want to "eliminate" something--poverty, racism, war--instead of settling for fostering other sorts of things it is beyond their power actually to produce.

Man doesn't really create anything. We don't sit godlike above the world, omniscient and omnipotent. We find ourselves created, placed somehow in the midst of things that we here before us, related to them in particular ways. if we can't delight in our situation, we are off on the wrong foot.

More and more I find myself thinking that a conservative is someone who regards this world with a basic affection, and wants to appreciate it as it is before he goes on to the always necessary work of making some rearrangements. Richard Weaver says we have no right to reform the world unless we cherish some aspects of it; and that is the attitude of many of the best conservative thinkers. Burke says that a constitution ought to be the subject of enjoyment rather than altercation. (I wish the American Civil Liberties Union would take his words to heart.)

I find a certain music in conservative writing that I never find in that of liberals. Michael Oakeshott speaks of "affection," "attachment," "familiarity," "happiness"; and my point is not the iname one that these are very nice things, but that Oakeshott thinks of them as considerations pertinent to political thinking. He knows what normal life is, what normal activities are, and his first thought is that politics should not disturb them.

Chesterton (who hated the conservatism of his own day) has good remarks in this vein. "It is futile to discuss reform," he says, "without reference to form." He complains of "the modern and morbid habit of always sacrificing the normal to the abnormal," and he criticizes socialism on the ground that "it is rather shocking that we have to treat a normal nation as something exceptional, like a house on fire or a shipwreck."

"He who is unaware of his ignorance," writes Richard Whately, "will only be misled by his knowledge." And that is the trouble with the liberal, the socialist, the Communist, and a dozen other species of political cranks who have achieved respectability in our time: they disregard so much of what is constant and latent in life. They fail to notice; they fail to appreciate.

We can paraphrase Chesterton's remark about reforming without reference to form by saying it is futile to criticize without first appreciating. The conservative is bewildered by the comprehensive dissatisfaction of people who are always heedlong about "reform" (as they conceive it) or are even eager to "build a new society." What, exactly, is wrong with society as it is already? This isn't just a defiant rhetorical question; it needs an answer. We don't have the power to change everything, and it may not be such a bright idea to try; there are plenty of things that deserve the effort (and it is an effort) of preserving, and the undistinguishing mania for "change" doesn't do them justice--isn't even concerned with doing them justice. What we really ought to ask the liberal, before we even begin addressing his agenda, is this: In what kind of society would he be a conservative?

For some reason, we have allowed the malcontent to assume moral prestige. We praise as "ideals" what are nothing more than fantasies--a world of perpetual peace, brotherhood, justice, or any other will-o'-the-wisp that has lured men toward the Gulag.

The malcontent can be spotted in his little habits of speech: He calls language and nationality "barriers" when the conservative, more appreciatively, recognizes them as cohesives that make social life possible. He damns as "apathy" an ordinary indifference to politics that may really be a healthy contentment. He praises as "compassion" what the conservative earthily sees as a program of collectivization. He may even assert as "rights" what tradition has regarded as wrongs.

"We must build out of existing materials," says Burke. Oakeshott laments that "the politics of repair" has been supplanted by "the politics of destruction and creation." It is typical of malcontent (or "utopian") politics to destroy what it has failed to appreciate while falsely promising to create. Communism, the ideal type of this style of politics, has destroyed the cultural life of Russia, which flourished even under the czars. The energies of radical regimes are pretty much consumed in stifling the energies of their subjects; they try to impose their fantasies by force and terror, and their real achievement is to be found not in their population centers but at their borders, which are armed to kill anyone who tries to flee. Communism can claim the distinction of driving people by the millions to want to escape the homeland of all their ancestors.

Nothing is easier than to image some notionally "ideal" state. But we give too much credit to this debased kind of imagination, which is so ruthless when it takes itself seriously. To appreciate, on the other hand, is to imagine the real, to discover use, value, beauty, order, purpose in what already exists; and this is the kind of imagination most appropriate to creatures, who shouldn't confuse themselves with the Creator.

The highest form of appreciation is worship. I don't insist that there is a correlation between formal religion and conservatism. But there is an attitude prior to any creed, which may make a healthy-minded unbeliever regretful that he has nobody to thank for all the goodness and beauty in his life that he has done nothing to deserve. One might almost say that the crucial thing about a man is not whether he believes in God, but how he imagines God: as infinitely good and adorable, or merely as an authoritarian obstacle to human desire? The opposite of piety is not unbelief, but crassness.

Even more modest forms of appreciation take some humility. The investor who finds a way to make soap from peanuts has more genuine imagination than the revolutionary with a bayonet, because he has cultivated the faculty of imagining the hidden potentiality of the real. This is much harder than imagining the unreal, which may be why there are so many more utopians than inventors. The utopian wants to fly by disregarding gravity instead of understanding it.

The point of all this is not just to censure the malcontent for failing to come to terms with this world. I am arguing for an appreciation of the role of appreciation. In our lives we don't really spend much time or gain much profit by doing the kind of abstract thinking that usually passes for intellection nowadays. Most of the time we are evaluating the concrete alternatives available to us--buying and selling, choosing careers, wooing and wedding, groping for the right word, convicting or acquitting, finding homes, that sort of thing. None of these is a utopian activity. (Neither, by the way, is voting.)

We are forever exercising our powers of imagination on the real and the given, in other words, not on the purely hypothetical. Our energies go into actual decisions, which express the evaluations we are in a position to express with our wills. We take it for granted, but we need to remind ourselves that this is what life is all about for most normal people. Everyone has the capacity to make choices of various kinds, always within limits. The freedom that matters is the freedon to exercise such choices, though they are beneath the notice of so many of our theorists.


Most of the world is a mystery. Consciousness is a little clearing in a vast forest; every individual has his own special relation to the area of mystery, his own little discoveries to impart. Discovery is by definition unpredictable, and it is absurd for the state to foreclose the process of learning. There are moods when we are too exhausted to imagine that there is still more to be learned; an ideology is a system of ideas that wants to end the explorations we are constantly making at the margin of consciousness, and to declare all the mysteries solved. This is like the congressman who introduced a bill a century ago to close the U.S. Patent Office, on the ground that every possible invention had already been invented.

In talking of mystery this way, I don't at all intend to sound mystical. It is a very practical matter. The world is inexpressibly complex. Every individual is a mystery to every other, so much so that communication is difficult and fleeting. Moreover, the past is a mystery too: very little of it can be permanently possessed. We have various devices--words, rituals, records, commemorations, laws--to supply continuity as forgetfulness and death keep dissolving our ties with what has existed before.
There is no question of "resisting change." The only question is what can and should be salvaged from "devouring time." Conservation is a labor, not indolence, and it takes discrimination to identify and save a few strands of tradition in the incessant flow of mutability.

In fact conservation is so hard that it could never be achieved by sheer conscious effort. Most of it has to be done by habit, as when we speak in such a way as to make ourselves understood by others without their having to consult a dictionary, and thereby give a little permanence to the kind of tradition that is a language.

Habits of conservation depend heavily on our affection for the way of life we are born to, which always includes far more than we can ever be simultaneously conscious of at a given moment. We speak our language and observe our laws by habit. It would be too much of a strain to have to learn a new language or a new set of laws every day. Habit allows a multitude of things to remain inplicit; it lets us deal with ordinary situations without fully understanding them. It allows us to trust our milieu.
Only a madman, one might think, would dare to speak of changing the entire milieu -- "building a new society" -- or even to speak as if such a thing were possible. And yet this is the current political idiom. It is seriously out of touch with a set of traditions whose good effects it takes too much for granted; it fails to appreciate them, as it fails to appreciate the human situation.


A tradition incorporates so many implicit things that Joseph de Maistre rightly speaks of the "profound idiocy" of supposing that "nations may be constituted with ink." And yet the liberal is constantly trying to do approximately this, by manufacturing new laws, new "rights," repealing old ones, meanwhile, with equal facility. He regards the past (as in "the dead hand of the past") with contempt and shame; naturally, it inspires no affection in him, and he finds little to admire in it. He reserves his affection for kindred spirits, especially socialists, who are busy abroad imposing new schemes and cutting their own nations' ties to the past. ("I have seen the future, and it works.")

For the modern liberal, who is essentially a man of the Left, the immediate has apocalyptic urgency. He is an active member of the Cause-of-the-Month Club, forever prescribing drastic action to prevent the world from being blown up, overpopulated, poisoned, oppressed, or exploited. He thinks a government that maintains law and order--a big job at any time--is "doing nothing"; because to his mind a steady and quiet activity is nothing more than inactivity. Though he speaks the language of environmental preservation well enough, he never pauses to imagine the "environmental impact" of his own policies on a social ecology that is, after all, no less real because he disregards it.

In short, he is always sacrificing the normal (he is barely aware of it, or sneers at it as "bourgeois") to the abnormal. Life, to him, is a series of crises, inseparable from politics. He is too concerned about our "rights" to bother about our health--rather as if a man dying of cirrhosis were to toast the repeal of Prohibition. If he ever has moments of well-being outside of politics, he has no vocabulary in which to talk about them.


"Men can always be blind to a thing, so long as it is big enough," says Chesterton. One of the things most men are currently blind to is the total politicization of man. This development doesn't strike the liberal as particularly sinister; if he notices it at all, he thinks of it as a good thing. After all, he is a thoroughly politicized man; and isn't all of life essentially political anyway? Isn't it up to us to decide what sort of society we are going to build, what sort of laws and morals and distribution of wealth we are going to have?

The liberal has no specific objection to totalitarianism for the simple reason that he is already operating on totalitarian premises. He may be less headlong and bloodthirsty than the Communist, but he has as little regard for the past as little sense that there may be anything in the tradition he inherits that deserves the effort of appreciation or surpasses his understanding. He judges everything in terms of a few ready-made political categories, which are expressed in a monotonous cant of "equality," "discrimination," "freedom of expression," and the like. He never thinks of these as possibly inadequate to his situation, because he never thinks of himself as working in partnership with the past, let alone as the junior partner in the relationship. Patience and humility aren't the marks of the malcontent. He is too busy making war on poverty to think of making his peace with prosperity: if the real economy doesn't spread wealth as quickly and evenly as he would like, he blames it and tries to remake it, taking no responsibility, however, for the adverse results of his efforts.

The chief objection to liberal moralism, in fact, is that it is immoral. This is equally true of all ideologies that dispense with realities they can't include in their visions. The economy, they think, has failed; the family has failed; the church has failed; the whole world has failed. But their visions have never failed, no matter what their cost in waste of human lives and possibilities. The dream itself is sovereign; to reject it is to be guilty of refusing to aspire; to embrace it is to lay claim to a moral blank check. As Burke said of the French revolutionaries: "In the manifest failure of their abilities, they take credit for their intentions."

But the conservative knows that the dream itself is guilty. It springs from a failure to appreciate the real, and to give thanks."

--- Joseph Sobran, 1985

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