E. Milco has an insightful thought at The Paraphasic about the reality of conservative despair.
I made the point in my first post that we are all conservatives of something or another. We are all trying to preserve something. I asked what we are all trying to preserve. Now I’d like to ask why.
Are we trying to preserve a set of principles or social realities because they are comfortable and we feel unsafe without them? Are we trying to merely shore up our little bastion of intellectual security so that we can feel superior to those outside of the fold?
In architecture, there have been many forms of preservation of buildings and monuments. At certain times in history, existing buildings and monuments were often torn down to give way to newer and better buildings. This was especially true if there was a regime change or a city was conquered; each leader had his own vision for the city. It was a revolutionary way of doing architecture in that it was constantly changing and indeed developing.
Early Christianity made a habit of preserving existing buildings for their use. It may be that it was cheaper to do this as opposed to tearing down and building again, but in many cases it was based on the thought that existing structures can be reformed to support new forms, a sort of architectural “grace builds on nature.”
Throughout the Christian period, as wealth grew, more and more new buildings were built and eventually humanity reached a point at which they wished to “reach back” to old forms and resurrect them for a new age of humanity. This may seem like a strange reactionary progressivism, but as I said, we are all trying to conserve something. These progressive architects used antiquity as a cornerstone for their progressive movement and this was another form of preservation within a progressive agenda.
Eventually, however, progressivism led to radical progressivism that rejected even any sense of “preservation of forms” that had been present, an unmoored progressivism. Ironically, this era also saw the greatest “preservation movement” where old buildings that had been preserved because of the quality of construction or because they had been repurposed were now “protected” buildings.
While this is certainly a kind of “conservatism,” I believe it is related to Milco’s idea of conservative despair. These buildings are being preserved out of the fear of losing them. We were never afraid to lose the well-built everyday buildings in previous eras because we could always build more, and maybe even better. Now we despair of doing so, and I believe rightly so. We have lost much of the art of building that was once passed down from generation to generation, always developing, always secure. I believe this is also true of our social and political life.
Conservatives have become fearful of losing any sort of structural norms and identities which once tied together society because of a so-called “progressive” agenda. This leads them to enshrine certain ideals and structures as “inviolable” and in doing so, lead to their petrification. This is what happens when buildings, and ideas, are merely preserved and not used. They become more a burden than anything, and despite our best efforts begin to decay. We can not bury our cultural possessions like the foolish servant in the gospel and expect to make any return on them.
The early Christians had it right, and in fact, as Milco says, Christianity has never been a religion or a way of life that is static. In order to keep the buildings of the rotted Roman Empire, they did not just make them into museums that needed a yearly maintenance budget. They used them in new ways so they would not fall into disrepair. But, they did not just attach the new to the old as many modern museums do in adding wings to existing older structures. They did not act against the integrity of the building. And most of all, they did not keep all structures. Some were too old, some were associated with too much evil. Some things need to be replaced.
But now we get to the meat of it all again. What does need to be replaced, and what needs to be used in new ways if we are to conserve a good social ethic and a proper political arrangement not as a dead letter to be admired, but as a living developing, indeed progressing thing? The Christian does not fear the past but nor does he fear the future because his grounding in the life and teaching of Christ is so sure that it can be “ever-new.” What the Christian, and I’d dare say everyone else, must fear is stasis. Milco, in his post, mentions “Acedia’s plea” to be left alone. This is the danger of despairing conservatism, that it wants to be left alone in order to preserve something. That is a sure way to kill whatever is being preserved.
Abandoned buildings collapse, libertarian and individualist conservatism is self-defeating because it is self-absorbed. Radical conservatism is rooted conservatism which is firmly planted in a place of nourishment, but because of this and the light and refreshment it receives from venturing outside, it grows and does not stay underground. This growth allows it to be even more open to the light and thus will continue to grow. Yes, we are in danger of being uprooted if we let our growth run wild, but is not the greater danger staying in the dark out of fear until we grow weary of life?
This is not the life of a Christian and it is certainly not the foundation for any sort of social order. We need lively growth from new ideas and old ideas reconsidered, never forgetting what needs to be preserved and what needs to be disposed of and why.