Feature 08.06.2019 3 minutes

Nationalism and the Moral Imagination


The traditions of American civilization carry intelligible moral ideas.

Yoram Hazony has written a rich essay that should take its place as a sophisticated defense of traditionalist conservatism. We must continue to add a positive account of American tradition to his powerful defense.

Conservative rationalism, he says, has failed because it pays “little attention to ways in which the traditions of nations are formed and what it takes to strengthen them or even to maintain them.” Hazony is also right to condemn the severing of religious traditions and their related virtues from our public life. “The trouble with these Enlightenment rationalist claims,” as he notes, “is that they aren’t actually true.”

Like Russell Kirk, who called conservatism an attitude toward existence rather than an ideology or a political program, Hazony realizes that the assumptions behind Enlightenment rationality make no sense and can be harmful to the body politic. Insofar as conservatives accept this rationality, they will soon cease being conservative in any recognizable sense.

But there is a second part to Hazony’s argument: to assert that tradition, with adjacent concepts like honor and constraint, should replace conservative rationalism. In this, too, he largely succeeds. Here, I want to elaborate on Hazony’s analysis with two considerations.

The first is that his defense of tradition needs to be both larger and smaller. Hazony focuses on the big important traditions: marriage, citizenship, religion, the common law. But like many conservative defenders of tradition, the more granular elements of that tradition are often left unaddressed.

Sociologist Philip Gorski uses the terms canon, pantheon, narrative, and archive to build a framework that can help determine what is in a tradition and how it may be used. Conservatives should adopt such a framework to understand the components of tradition, because our advanced form of liberalism has itself taken on the guise of a tradition. Unless conservatives can provide our own stories and claims of loyalty and honor, we will lose to the tradition of liberation presented by liberalism (though I share Elizabeth Corey’s skepticism in that regard).

Indeed, Hazony focuses on tradition being measured by its worldly success, but that is not always the case: perhaps the longest tradition in terms of emulation and praise in the West is that of martyrdom, and both its foundational importance to Western civilization and its connection to success are more complex than simply serving as an invoked tradition.

In our case, the traditionalist framework will have a national character almost by necessity. Hazony has argued for a renewed nationalism against a vague and sometimes militant universalism that has forgotten the traditions that anchor us to family, locality, and region. But our tradition is larger still. The American case is a tough one: that of a nation with its own traditions, but also nested within, or the culmination of, multiple older traditions expressing a whole civilization. Hazony himself, in his brilliant defense of the common law, implicitly recognizes this: we cannot understand America without England, nor England without Europe, nor Europe without Calvary.

What’s more, Hazony’s insight that Burke was an empiricist not a relativist is crucial. Burke’s first recourse in understanding a political or intellectual problem was to tradition, not abstract reason. We are always, as George Scialabba as written, situated beings. But Burke was not only an empiricist. He did employ a type of “rationality” on the basis of which he was able to distinguish good from bad traditions, and which conservatives today can still draw upon without succumbing to the claim of reaction or nostalgia. That basis is what Kirk (following Burke) called the moral imagination.

In a famous passage in the Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke refers to the “the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation.”

This moral imagination is not rationalism, but because our moral ideas are ratified by our understanding, they are intelligible, even to those outside the tradition (though they are best understood from within it). Hazony’s references to the Mosaic precepts gets to this point; Kirk himself said that the moral imagination is a power of ethical perception that “informs us of the dignity of human nature.” But further emphasis needs to be placed on the imagination as a conduit and transmitter of tradition.

Hazony has renewed Burkean conservatism with his demolishing of both liberal universalism and conservative rationalism. The way is open to fill in the details and stitch more panels to the canvas Hazony has painted.

Suggested reading

In Honor of Michael M. Uhlmann

Introductory remarks honoring Michael M. Uhlmann, the Claremont Institute’s Henry Salvatori Prize recipient, for helping to secure the teachings of the American founding. Washington, D.C., October 27, 2018

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