On Thursday, 1 May, Robert George spoke at the University of Montana. The McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Founder and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, George has been described by the New York Times Magazine as “this country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker.”
Karl Mannheim asserted in Ideology and Utopia (1936) that Western intellectual and political life derives its chief characteristics from the interaction among four major ideological traditions: socialism, liberalism, conservatism, and reaction. All four have produced genius-caliber thinkers, for example, Karl Marx and socialism, John Stuart Mill and liberalism, Edmund Burke and conservatism, Friedrich Nietzsche and reaction. Nietzsche does double duty because of the highly selective use to which Marxist-rooted post-modernists have put his ideas. We can learn from each of the four traditions, and to be an informed person it is necessary to have a working knowledge of them all.
In America, the conservative tradition has been the least understood and honored of the four foundational Western ideological traditions. Marx’s canonical writings continue to provide the intellectual basis for the socialist left’s critique of capitalism. Mill’s On Liberty makes the never surpassed case for progressive liberalism. Nietzsche is the starting point for the post-modernists and, fairly or not, for radical right-wing movements. Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, however, with its call for organic change as the hallmark of his philosophy, is a closed book to the Fox News and Wall Street Journal variants of conservatism, the only ones with any real power and influence in American political life. A watchful solicitude for the preservation and augmentation of current economic arrangements qualifies as conservatism American- style, but Burke’s ideas belong to a different mental universe. For him, conservatism consisted primarily of a reverence for the cultural bonds between past and present, coupled with a wise willingness to make piecemeal adjustments and alterations as the good of society required. He would be appalled by the revolutionary overturning of traditional values and mores brought about by a consumer society whose economic needs Wall Street and Fox News exist to help supply and rationalize. Burke established conservatism as a critical intellectual force to which both secular and religious thinkers subsequently made important contributions.
George spoke to us about philosophical conservatism in the work of John Henry Newman, contrasting it with the liberal ideas of Mill. He began the seminar with a respectful, but ultimately critical evaluation of On Liberty. Mill’s harm principle he thought an insufficient moral basis for human conduct and social welfare. It was not enough to argue, as Mill did, that preventing harm to others should be the only principle for restraining the individual. Mill believed man to be a naturally good and progressive being who, if freed from the old inhibiting morality and left to live as he wanted, would behave in beneficial ways, thus promoting the betterment of mankind. The lapse of Europe into industrialized barbarism during the First World War contradicted all of Mill’s assumptions about a benevolent mankind naturally predisposed toward the good and opened the way for the dark existentialist culture of postwar Europe.
Judging by his students at Princeton including the Catholics there, George identified Newman as a figure nearly forgotten by most Americans, but ripe for revival.
More than existentialist authors, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, Newman offered a clear and compelling alternative to the naïve and Western Front-invalidated progressive theories of Mill. Because evil exists, Newman reasoned, freedom must have the limits marked out by the moral law. Men have rights under the moral law, but they also have duties. Conscience for Newman functioned as the stern monitor of human action, which to be right, good, and just had to be informed by something other than utility, Mill’s mantra. Utility for what and for whom, Newman asked. These questions brought the argument back to the moral basis of human action. Mill thought that man had outgrown the need for religion. Science would replace religion, but history after 1914 would show that there had been a mistake in Mill’s calculation. The replacement values of science and technology had produced the infernal weapons of modern war and the engines of destruction battering the earth to its knees. Without the moral treasures of Christianity to guide him, man had gone backward, as Newman in The Idea of a University had foretold while insisting on the need for religion in the general education of students.
George did not mention Jonathan Swift, but the author of Gulliver’s Travels is another conservative Christian critic of Enlightenment-inspired assumptions about the natural goodness and perfectibility of man. He made the same kind of religious argument that Newman would. In the Academy of Lagado scenes from Gulliver’s Travels, scientists rule the world through the power of technology. These highly trained mad men follow where their morally bereft and supercharged egos lead. Far from creating the utopia of Enlightenment fantasies, they rain fire down upon the earth. Mill thought such warnings over dramatizations. Newman paid attention to them, and is the better moral teacher for it.
For many people, George has become a notorious figure because of the conservative positions he has taken on such issues as abortion and infanticide, same-sex marriage, genetic manipulation, euthanasia and assisted suicide, religion in politics, and judicial activism. He has argued that secular liberal articles of faith threaten religious freedom in America. He raised none of these controversial issues during his presentations at the University of Montana. Laying out the philosophical groundwork of conservatism absorbed him and his audience completely. He spoke as a man of learning, not as an activist. What we lost in polemical fireworks that day, we gained in an understanding of how conservatives think and where they derive their bearings.
10 May 2014