The Personalist Project

There is one aspect of mere conservatism or traditionalism that I have never liked: namely, what seems to me an overly pessimistic view about the present coupled with a largely unfruitful nostalgia for the past. It seems to be such a hopeless view, so dreary. One reason, in fact, why I think Personalism is so important right now, is that it provides the key to retaining most of the good things of the past, while enabling us to rethink those things in light of the positive developments of the modern period (most of which are related, in one way or another, to a deepening sense of personal selfhood). God is still with us. His truth is still marching on.

Having said that, let me now add that Mark Henrie, in “Understanding Traditionalist Conservatism,” an article he kindly sent me after reading my last post, has made me more sympathetic to traditionalist nostalgia. He shows that it is neither unfruitful, nor necessarily anti-present.

“The traditionalist conservative’s first feeling,” Mark writes, “the intuition that constitutes his moral source, is the sense of loss, and hence, of nostalgia.” By itself this is perhaps too obvious to mention, but Mark draws several conclusions from it which, I for one, had never considered. First, he shows that this explains why it normally has a reactionary flavor.

The conservative spirit, as such, arises only when loss is at hand, or, probably more frequently, when loss has occurred. Consequently, there is always a “reactionary” dimension to such conservatism; the conservative typically arrives “too late” for mere conservation.

Secondly, and more significantly from a philosophical point view, that same sense of loss also serves as an important source of knowledge. The absence of what is lost not only makes the heart grow fonder, but also helps the mind to see more clearly. Here’s how Mark puts it:

While in possession, we take our good for granted and, so, often fail to recognize it. But in the face of loss, the human good is vividly revealed to us. We lament the loss of goods, not the loss of evils, which is why lament illuminates. Is it not striking that whereas antebellum Southern writers championed both the economic and moral superiority of the “peculiar institution,” post-bellum Southern conservatives typically did not lament the loss of slavery, but rather lamented the loss of gentility, gallantry, domesticity, and the virtues of yeoman agriculturalists? While it may be true that nostalgia views the past through “rose-colored glasses,” such a criticism misses the point. To see the good while blinkered against evils is, nevertheless, to see the good.

Lastly, by remembering, and hence keeping alive in some way, the goods that are rapidly disappearing from today’s culture—e.g. “communal solidarity, friendship, leisure, honor and nobility, and religious ‘enchantment’”—, traditional conservatives perform an invaluable service to modern America, which has been influenced too heavily and exclusively by a Lockean, individualist liberalism. This, if I can take Mark’s word for it, is why Russell Kirk so often insisted on the need “to revivify the ‘moral imagination’ through a serious engagement with poetry and imaginative literature.” This “prophetic call for the cultivation of moral imagination was an attempt to free Americans from liberal ideology so that they could begin to name those other elements of the human good which are obscured in the liberal dispensation.”

There is a lot of truth and insight in all this. Mere conservatism, indeed, is no answer. It has no future because it lacks the crucial element of life, and of growth. Without conservation, on the other hand, there can be no life and growth either: only decline and corruption.

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