Conservative Rationalism Has Failed
Part II: Honor and self-constraint can stave off tyranny.
In his writings and National Conservatism conference, Yoram Hazony is playing a significant role in reviving the notion of nationalism in America. The following essay, based on the Herbert W. Vaughan Lecture he delivered at Harvard Law School on April 2, 2019, is preceded by Part I: Unfettered reason cannot conserve anything.
Toward a Philosophy of Constraint
In the first part of this essay, I criticized the idea that the exercise of “free and untrammeled reason,” which is the cornerstone of Enlightenment rationalism, is sufficient by itself to determine the political good of a given nation. Conservative thought suggests that such free reasoning about political and moral matters can produce no consensus and is in the end self-defeating: It progressively uproots and discards whatever has been inherited from the past. Yet it is never capable of consolidating a stable alternative.
Conservative political thought breaks with Enlightenment rationalism in that it is concerned not only with freedom, but also with its opposite, which is constraint. Conservatives recognize that human individuals need constraint as much as they need freedom, and focus their political and moral thought on the question of what constraint is for, where it comes from, and how it can be built up in order to create a political order that is stable and resilient, and capable of maintaining itself from one generation to the next.
Yet present day “conservative rationalists” scarcely touch the subject of constraint, whether in academic settings or in public debate. They relegate the entire matter to an unopened box that is labeled “civil society” or “mediating institutions” or “little platoons”—on the assumption that while freedom needs to be endlessly discussed and vigorously defended, constraint will somehow arise of its own accord. But constraint never arises of its own accord. It is both more difficult to understand and more difficult to carry out than freedom. And a political education that does not focus on this critical point will not produce conservatives, but fakers with a sentimental attachment to a dying order, and no ability or will to do much to save it. A competent political theory will always be devoted, in large part, to constraint.
Let me sketch the problem of constraint in brief. What do we need constraint for? To begin with, constraint creates the space in which each of us can be free. For example, my freedom to drive my car whenever I want depends entirely on the fact that countless other individuals refrain from stealing or vandalizing it or letting the air out of the tires. And the same is true of every other freedom that I might wish to exercise. Even my freedom to say what I want depends on others “tolerating” what I have to say, which means that they refrain from taking severe measures to punish me for my words. Today, we are increasingly aware of how much all of us depend on such toleration of our views, how quickly it can be revoked, and how frightening it is to find oneself publicly disgraced where such toleration is no longer extended. But for others to tolerate what I have to say requires constraint, not freedom.
Constraint does much more, however, than establishing freedom. If I wish to be able to play the guitar or piano, or to prepare cooked meals, or to defeat an armed opponent bare-handed using aikido, I gain the necessary skills not by insisting on my freedom, but through constraint: Through studying and practicing at length every day, even when I find it disagreeable and feel overwhelmed by the desire to be doing something else. In the same way, my marriage, remaining faithful to my wife and bringing children into the world and raising them, involves a massive, daily curtailment of my freedom. To make it work, I am constrained to take a job that I may not want so I can make a living. I am constrained to refrain from relations with other women, much as I may desire them. I am constrained to care each day for young people who are often angry, troubled, or sick. Yet all of these constraints are the price of building up a family that can endure and flourish, contributing to my nation and to the things that I believe in, long after I am gone. And the same can be said of serving in the military and paying taxes, observing holy days and sabbaths, and everything else that is of value. Constraint is, in fact, the key to everything productive or good that we do in life.
But where does this constraint come from? It can come from the laws of the state and the commands of its officials, of course. And indeed, this is the most common Enlightenment-rationalist depiction of constraint: In Hobbes’ Leviathan, for example, it is the authority of the king that provides the necessary constraint in order to bring peace, order, and justice to a society that would otherwise tear itself apart.
But there is another possible source for social constraint. In a free society, the overwhelming force of constraint comes, not from fear of the king, but from the self-discipline of the people, who are able to provide the necessary constraint themselves. This point was emphasized by the English political theorist John Fortescue in the 15th century, and taken up by Montesquieu and the American founding fathers centuries later: Where the people are able to impose the needed constraints on themselves, the government can be “mild” or “moderate,” offering them greater freedom to conduct their affairs without interference. But where a people is incapable of self-discipline, a mild government will only encourage licentiousness and division, hatred and violence, eventually forcing a choice between civil war and tyranny. This means that the best an undisciplined people can hope for is a benevolent autocrat.
With this in mind, let’s come back to our present troubles. For centuries, foreign observers have admired the British and Americans for their political freedom—made possible by their great capacity for self-discipline or self-constraint. But in the last three generations, this famous capacity for self-constraint has been disappearing. Why? Because the British and American capacity for self-constraint was an inherited tradition, a tradition of how to think about things and how to live that was once called “common sense.” An individual who was guided by common sense enjoyed a broad range to think things through himself. But his own originality and deviations from the way others spoke and behaved were always powerfully balanced by a thick matrix of inherited norms, which included gratitude toward, and duties to maintain and defend, the place of God and religion, nation and government, family, property, and so on. These inherited norms provided the framework within which reason was able to operate, yet without overthrowing every inherited institution as today’s adulation of perfectly free reason does.
Today, these inherited norms are under fire in the name of the freely reasoning individual and his right to be rid of these constraints. And people love freedom, not constraint! We associate freedom with pleasure and ease, whereas constraint—God and religion, nation and government, marriage and children and caring for the aged—immediately presents itself as burdensome and difficult and something we’d prefer to avoid.
But if constraint is the key to everything productive and good, then Enlightenment rationalism’s emphasis on freedom has deceived us, and the only way to return to a life that is productive and good is by reviving the inherited norms that offered us self-constraint and the hope of escaping tyranny.
What Would It Take to Recover the Traditions?
What would be required to build up our national and religious common sense, rather than ceaselessly working to destroy it?
A discussion of how to build up a people’s norms of self-constraint must focus on one key idea, which has largely disappeared from the schools and universities, and from the public life of Western nations, since the Second World War: The idea of honor. My intention here is not to defend any particular code of honor, such as those that were accepted among English gentlemen two hundred years ago. Rather, I want to understand the place of honor in a traditional society—by which I mean a conservative society, one capable of conserving anything worthwhile from one generation to the next.
My proposal is straightforward: Freedom cannot be maintained in the absence of self-constraint. And the only known means of causing individuals to shoulder hardship and constraint without coercion or significant financial compensation is by rewarding them with honor—that is, with status and public approval that is tied to their upholding inherited norms and ideals rather than choosing to be free of them. Thus, for example, in the old Christian and Jewish order, individuals were honored for marrying and raising children, for military service, for national and religious leadership, for teaching the young, for knowledge of Scripture, law and custom, for performing religious duties, and for personally caring for the aged.
Such honor has largely disappeared because it violates the Enlightenment conceit (supposedly a dictate of universal reason) that all must be regarded as equals. Think carefully about this point: If those who serve in the military are honored, it means that the choice they made in serving their country is regarded, in some important sense, as better than that of their friends who chose not to serve. If those who remain married are honored, it means that their choice is in some sense regarded as better than that of those who chose divorce. And the same is true for all other cases. In a society in which all are supposed to be equal, how is it possible to justify public recognition of some and not others? In a society in which all are supposed to be free to live according to their own reasoning, how is it possible to justify publicly praising certain choices and not others—a custom that, if adopted consistently, will impose a strong constraint in a certain direction?
There is, to be sure, a healthy biblical root that nourishes the idea of equality: All men are in the image of God. All men must be equal before the law.
But post-War liberalism, stripped of its Christian source, has replaced these biblical foundations with an insatiable egalitarianism of choices, in light of which all choices that the individual may make are regarded as equal—first by the state, which is declared to be “neutral” as a matter of liberal principle; and then by the public schools, since they are operated by the state; and finally by private institutions of all kinds as the equality of all choices seeps into every crevice. Today one can choose to be Christian, Jewish, or pagan. No choice is to be honored above the others by government, schools, or society. One can be church-going, sabbath keeping, or going to the beach. Again, none of these alternatives is to be honored above the rest. Gainfully employed or living on the dole? Military, non-military, or draft-dodger? Married with children, divorced, or never-married? No alternative is honored above the others.
The demolition of the nation’s traditions is, at bottom, a struggle to prevent the government, schools, and private institutions from giving honor to norms inherited from the past. This is a struggle in which liberals are very often on the same side as Marxists, because their conception of a “neutral” state (or a “civic nationalism”) suppresses the honoring of traditional Anglo-American Christian norms as well as, if not better than, anything the Marxists could have come up with—as we saw in Hugo Black’s 1947 opinion in Everson.
Once the issue is stated in this way, its implications begin cascading in all directions. I don’t believe that America has much of a chance of righting itself, for example, so long as most children are required to attend schools in which God and Scripture are daily dishonored by their absence. In every nation, it is the religious parts of the community that preserve the national traditions best, so that the suppression of religion amounts to suppression of conservatism (even though religion and conservatism are not always the same thing).
Many other issues related to government policy are obviously relevant to this discussion. But before entering into the grand argument over what aspects of the national inheritance should or should not be honored by the government and the laws, it is perhaps worth asking how conservatives are managing the task of giving honor to the nation’s cultural inheritance on a smaller scale, in the professional and personal settings that are the soil in which the habit of conserving the national traditions must first take root.
Consider, for example, the political theory canon that so many “conservative rationalists” are devoted to teaching in the universities (including many friends of long standing, among them Catholics, Straussians, and others). Although some improvement has been visible in recent years, these programs still tend to describe political thought as though it begins with Plato and Aristotle, and reaches a climax with Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. This is a curriculum designed by Enlightenment rationalists in order to produce students who are themselves Enlightenment rationalists. And it does this by suppressing the honoring of relevant Christian and Jewish texts (especially the Bible) and national traditions (such as the English common law)—these intellectual traditions being excluded on the grounds that they are not the product of universal reason, accessible to everyone in all times and places; and that they do not, therefore, provide the one correct answer to all foundational political questions as Enlightenment rationalism does.
But if we set aside these prejudices and approach the question of the politics curriculum from the perspective of what should be honored in a country such as America or Britain, the matter looks very different. By far the most influential political text in the Anglo-American tradition is the Hebrew Bible (or “Old Testament”). If an instructor in political ideas were to concern himself with teaching the students to give honor to the ideas of their ancestors and their way of life, this would require that the student devote a considerable effort to learning what his or her forefathers learned, studying what they studied—at first out of a desire to give honor where it is due, and then, with time, from an actual understanding of the wisdom and knowledge that arose from such study. And this means, before anything else, a knowledge of Scripture and a knowledge of the way that it shaped and formed the nations of England, Scotland, and America. The fact that instructors in political theory do not know how to teach such a curriculum, and do not seem especially troubled by this, tells us much of what we need to know about their capacity for “conservatism.” (On Strauss’s contribution to the ongoing difficulties incorporating the Bible into the political theory curriculum, see my 2016 essay “The Bible and Leo Strauss.”
The same can be said of the common law inheritance. Anyone with the slightest interest in British and American political ideas would want to teach a text such as John Fortescue’s In Praise of the Laws of England, a 15th-century work that beautifully captures the way in which Anglo-American traditions gave us much of our existing stock of political theory, before the Reformation and centuries before Enlightenment rationalism. But our instructors in political theory are no more interested in giving honor to the common law tradition than they are to honoring the Bible, and students frequently graduate with a Ph.D. in political theory in Britain and America without having given the common law tradition five minutes of thought. This tells you the rest of what you need to know about their capacity for “conserving” the national traditions of America and Britain.
Of course, no one is going to teach the Bible or Fortescue without having to invest work in preparing to do this—time and effort that could be spent elsewhere, and which might seem painful or onerous because our Enlightenment-rationalist elites do not reward such efforts (in fact, they might punish you for them). But an academic or intellectual who has an interest in conserving national traditions would see the pain and hardship involved in reviving them as a matter of honor, of duty, something that one owes to one’s country and one’s forefathers, whether actual or adopted.
The same kind of question arises with respect to the commitments of conservatives in their personal lives. Consider the custom of setting aside a sabbath day and going to church (or to synagogue). I often speak to young men and women who say they are excited about “conservatism.” Yet when the sabbath comes around, they have not the slightest intention of keeping the sabbath as their ancestors did for two or three thousand years, but happily tell me that they are headed for the mountains or the beach, or staying home “to finish up something for work.”
No doubt, many of these are atheists or agnostics, and this is perhaps not their own fault. But this absolves them of nothing. If they were conservatives, they would not simply shrug their shoulders and go off to the beach, saying, “Oh well, too bad I’m an atheist.” A conservative says in his heart:
My entire country is suffering terribly from having cut off its traditions at the roots. What can I do to revive these traditions, to make myself a more conservative person, to give honor to the ideas and way of life of my ancestors who brought me here (or of the nation that adopted me)? And is it not, perhaps, my own fault too that I know nothing of God, having given up the search for the wisdom and understanding of my ancestors as an adolescent? Perhaps it is my own fault, after all, if I seek to exercise my freedom by going to the seashore on the seventh day, rather than setting it aside as my ancestors did, as a day for reconnecting myself to the traditions of my nation and its God.
You see, a conservative understands that it is not disbelief that plagues us but dishonor: Our accursed inability to give honor where it is due. We don’t want to give honor because it is difficult and painful to accept the constraints involved: The constraint of having to learn how to read and teach the Bible, or the constraint of having to mark the sabbath, in so doing reconnecting with that part of the national community which has in fact kept the national traditions alive. Or the constraints involved in military service or in marriage or in caring for our parents in their old age. Like adolescents, much of our generation cannot imagine encumbering their lives with such constraints, and yearns only to be free.
But honor and constraint are the soil in which conservative belief and action grows. Wielding these tools, we can begin the process of healing a ravaged nation, reviving traditions that have been given up for dead. Yet this will never happen so long as we expect others will take care of these duties for us, while we ourselves enjoy our freedom. Conservatism begins at home.
The Rationalist Arguments Against Tradition
Traditionalist arguments of the sort one finds in Selden, Montesquieu or Burke tend to be dismissed by today’s Enlightenment rationalist scholars using two arguments—one philosophical and one historical—that are widely held to be decisive:
The historical argument asserts that Enlightenment rationalism is itself to be regarded as the founding ideology of the United States, and, by extension, of the modern West as a whole. According to this view, the presence of Lockean phrases in the Declaration of Independence and in Lincoln’s speeches (at the time of what some academics these days like to call America’s “second founding”) is itself sufficient to make Enlightenment rationalism a kind of official American state ideology—something akin to an established church in formally Christian countries.
This claim is often accompanied by the assertion that the American founders were Enlightenment rationalists, without reference to differences between the political left and right. It is likewise claimed that because Enlightenment rationalism was the state ideology at the time of the founding, American conservatives cannot legitimately be epistemic traditionalists, for the only thing available for a conservative to conserve in America is Enlightenment rationalism itself. This set of claims suggests that a Burkean approach to American political tradition is in a sense illegitimate—one might even say heretical. An American political worldview is thought to be legitimate only if it is Lockean.
This historical argument is accompanied by a philosophical argument whose immediate source, as far as I am aware, is in Leo Strauss’s Natural Right and History. The claim here is that Burke’s conservatism is not only alien to American political thought but philosophically dangerous because of its relativism. For if a member of a given tradition accepts the customs that have been handed down among his own people as right and just, this obviously involves a suspension of the individual’s powers of reason, and consequently a suspension of his or her judgment between good and evil.
A conservative of the Burkean type is thus supposed not to be able to distinguish between a good political inheritance and one that is defective or evil, since there is no standard other than the tradition itself by which to distinguish good traditions from bad ones. For a tradition to escape relativism, it is asserted that it must have access to the “external,” objective, universal standards that only universal reason can provide. And since thinkers such as Selden and Burke deny that human individuals thinking on their own have direct access to such a universal standard, they are regarded as if they were in some way the forerunners, via German nationalists such as Herder, of nineteenth century Romanticism and twentieth century fascism and Nazism—not to speak of post-modernism and other ailments. We must therefore reject a conservatism based on tradition because it is a road to chaos and the potential repetition of the worst horrors of the last century.
This argument sets up a false dichotomy: Either you are a relativist, incapable of recognizing that political traditions contain imperfections and evils, and that statesmen of every generation have an obligation to introduce repairs. Or else, if you are aware of these things, then you must be exercising Enlightenment-style rationalism to gain knowledge of universally valid truths as to what is right and good.
Conservative thinkers such as Selden, Montesquieu, and Burke do indeed regard some traditions as better than others, and they do insist that some adjustments in a political tradition are improvements whereas others are evil. For example, Burke argues repeatedly that the English constitution is the best of all known constitutions because it is in closest conformity to nature. Indeed, he explicitly condemns the French Revolution because it results in the destruction of the flawed French constitution, drawing the French regime farther away from the demands of nature; whereas the Polish Revolution improves upon the flawed Polish constitution, bringing it closer to the English model and thus closer to the demands of nature.
But these conservative thinkers are not rationalists. They are empiricists—a crucial distinction that continues to elude much of the discussion of their political thought. An empiricist does accept that there is such a thing as an objective human nature, and an objective good for society. However, empiricists reject the rationalist claim that every individual has access to a universal reason that is capable of arriving at the one true view of human nature and what is good for society that applies in all times and places. As an empiricist understands things, the experience of each individual is limited and different from the experience of others. This means that the general principles that one individual draws from experience will be different from those drawn by others. Some of these generalizations will cut closer to the truth; but some will simply approach objective reality from a different angle. The only way to know which of these generalizations is best is to test them over centuries and in different locales so as to learn which of them hold good and over what range of circumstances. Thus the importance that empiricist political theory places on history and tradition. It is the traditions that constrain each nation and tribe, giving its political life a particular form (or set of forms). With the experience of centuries, we can learn which of these forms lead to the flourishing of human societies and which are disastrous illusions. It is through trial and error in history that true political principles reveal themselves.
The argument between rationalism and empiricism is familiar from the history of science, in which Newton’s insistence on generalization from experience defeated Descartes’ rationalism—his belief that deduction from self-evident truths could produce universal, infallible answers to all questions. With respect to physical science, we generally recognize that the rationalist method was simply a blunder, and treat the empiricists as heroes. But in discussion of human societies and governments, even those who see themselves as conservatives are now frequently students of Descartes’ rationalism, placing the greatest faith in self-evident truths and in our ability to derive universal, infallible answers to political questions from them. This, after all, is what Cartesian political theorists such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau taught them to do.
Empiricist political theorists in the tradition of Selden, Montesquieu and Burke agree there is an objective difference between a flourishing society and one sick, dying, or dead. Moreover, they agree that this distinction is susceptible to being expressed in general principles—such as, for example, those of the Mosaic Ten Precepts, which suggest that in a flourishing society, parents, the courts, and the sabbath will be honored, and idolatry, murder, adultery and theft banned.
However, a conservative will part ways from the rationalist in understanding that every attempt to reduce the flourishing society to principles will differ somewhat from the others. Which of the various proposals is the best reduction to principles will be determined only by means of experience and trial and error over time. In the meantime, the conservative focuses on how to preserve the traditional constraints that give his nation its unique form by honoring them to the greatest degree possible; and by seeking to improve upon them where they are visibly leading to harm and disintegration. But in introducing such improvements, a conservative will tend not to appeal to universal principles derived by consulting his own reason, but rather to historical experience: He will seek to return the people to earlier parts of their own national tradition that are known from experience to have brought the nation to strength and flourishing, or to borrow from the experience of other nations with related traditions that have proved themselves over time.
This view is not relativist, much less nihilist. It recognizes the existence of an objective nature and the possibility of discovering objective and generally applicable principles for the flourishing society. But it rejects the claim of any given formulation to be the final word on the subject, insisting that long centuries of experience alone can refine our understanding of the principles that are used to judge the various political systems. This is analogous to the principles that we use to describe physical systems in science, which are held to be objective—but are nonetheless subject to challenge, reformulation, and improvement with experience.
The conservative or traditionalist view thus regards the manner in which knowledge of general political principles emerges as both the result of trial and error and fallible. As a consequence, it leads both to an ability to recognize the significance of inherited national traditions that have stood the test of time, and to a mildly skeptical view of generalized political principles that permits repairs to be made when necessary (a combination that was described in the historian Anthony Quinton’s The Politics of Imperfection two generations ago).
I submit that such a conservative political philosophy is not only a plausible rejoinder to the rationalism of Locke or Kant, but that it is an accurate description of the manner in which we arrive at the fundamental principles that describe healthy societies and successful governments.
If this is right, it has important implications for the Enlightenment-rationalist view of the American founding. For if the Americans of the founding generation were indeed all Enlightenment rationalists—believing that their Constitution, for example, was deduced from principles known a priori, rather than the product of many centuries of experience—then a conservative would have to conclude that they were not particularly good philosophers and mistaken in their views, a possibility raised by recent critics of the American founding, such as Patrick Deneen in his important book Why Liberalism Failed.
However, I do not believe that this is the case, as I argued together with Ofir Haivry in our 2017 essay “What Is Conservatism?” in American Affairs.
The American founding is a more complicated creature than is often supposed. The principal influences on the founding are not in fact Lockean—although Locke does have a clear impact on the Declaration of Independence. Rather, conservative texts such as the Bible, Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, and Hume’s Tory History of England ultimately had the greatest influence, with Locke’s contribution real but relatively small. Indeed, by the time the Constitution was written, eleven years of internal disorders had persuaded Washington, Hamilton, Madison, Jay, and others to reject the rationalist schemes of some of their contemporaries and embrace a conservative constitution—in fact a restoration of the English constitution as applied to conditions in the American colonies. This conservative and restorationist politics is reflected in John Adams’ three-volume work, In Defense of the Constitutions of the United States, which argued in 1787 that the English constitution was the best that has ever been devised, and that the strength of the proposed American Constitution is precisely in its resemblance to the English constitution on which it is so closely based.
The view that I have briefly outlined answers the principal arguments of today’s rationalists: It explains why it is mistaken to see conservative thought as relativist, and shows that the American founding is no creation of Enlightenment rationalism. What I haven’t done is to prove that conservatism or anything else will deliver us from the devouring fire that has been ignited by Enlightenment rationalism in the last seventy years. I don’t know whether any such deliverance is available. But I hope I’ve made clear that a truly conservative alternative cannot be rationalist, but will have to focus on the restoration of a culture of self-constraint—which can arise only where self-constraint is honored in keeping with national and religious tradition.
It is thus the task of the conservative, whether scholar or statesman, to focus his energies on the recovery of the particular traditions that formed his country; and on rebuilding the personal and professional habits of honor that alone can preserve these traditions and the nation itself. In America and Britain, this means a devotion to restoring the biblical and common-law heart of the Anglo-American tradition, which recent generations have recklessly abandoned.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.