The term “conservative” can be a word of much confusion, with an eclectic cast of characters under its umbrella who oftentimes seem to have more differences than commonalities. In America alone there are Southern agrarians, the post-war Buckleyites of National Review, neoconservatives, fusionists, national conservatives, right-wing populists, libertarians, post-liberals, the Christian evangelical right, the traditional Catholic right, various alternative right groups, and those working off an older style of European continental conservatism.
This is not an exhaustive list, and it will go on ad nauseam if we expand this beyond the American context, but it illustrates the point that conservatism and the right are by no means unified. I am not going to describe what, if anything, unites these disparate branches of American conservatism, rather I am going to put forward a normative vision of what conservatives ought to be unified by– an embrace of the eternal.
The Two Camps of American Conservatism
This idea of eternity is entirely absent from the works of self-described conservative thinkers in the US. Instead of having a notion of the eternal, they have notions of either reaction or progress. The fundamental project of reactionary conservatives is to return society to an idealized past. This tendency can be found in, but is by no means limited to, much of the evangelical right, Southern agrarians, and some libertarians. Here the political method becomes to find a certain fashionable period in time–for most libertarians this would be 19th century liberalism, for evangelicals it might be an immediate post-war America with an economic and Church attendance boom, and for Southern agrarians it would be the antebellum South. Still, others are trying to recapture the spirit of 1776 and return to those ideals.
Another form of reaction found among less academic and more popular conservative figures is mere reaction to the latest schemes of the left. This allows conservatives to be dragged by the progressive left to accept positions that they would have detested in years past. For instance, the fight against the sexual revolution has been abandoned with free-speech taking precedence over laws limiting pornography and obscenities. What used to be a rallying cry for the conservatives to preserve the last vestiges of Christianity in public life–public display of crosses and the Ten Commandments, school prayer, etc–no longer receives any attention as virtually all ground has been ceded. The fight against gay marriage and to perserve the sanctity of marriage is one of the most egregious examples we have seen in the twenty-first century; we went from Barack Obama entering office in 2009 not supporting gay marriage to Donald Trump waving a rainbow pride flag at a 2016 campaign rally and being the first person to enter the presidency supporting gay marriage. Even on the transgender issue, most (though not all) conservatives have given up any pretense of refusing the transgender ideology, instead now only focusing on being against children transitioning. For example, when Bruce Jenner announced their transition to Caitlyn Jenner in 2015 and became one of mainstream examples of transitioning they were criticized even by liberal feminists. Jenner previously ran as a Republican candidate and is now a Fox News contributor–with virtually no outcry by mainstream conservatives.
As conservatives now fight the culture war against pedophilia, we can imagine in a few short years when the front shifts yet again that conservatives will bring out their “based” conservative pedophiles to ‘‘own the left’’ on the issue of beastiality or transhumanism. As the left keeps pushing the envelope further, conservatives seem to be only one step behind them, defending what was once an avant garde progressive issue a few short years before. In this way we see these reactionary conservatives also marred by a deep progressivism as well, where they slowly adopt the ideology of their opponents for the same forward-looking reason the progressives adopted them initially.
The idea of progress is more explicit in neoconservative ideology and those involved in the National Review style of conservatism: regime conservativism. It is no coincidence that they praise Edmund Burke who, in 1790, wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France “By a slow but well-sustained progress, the effect of each step is watched; the good or ill success of the first gives light to us in the second; and so, from light to light, we are conducted with safety through the whole series.” Dennis Prager has likewise made it clear that while liberals and conservatives have nuanced disagreements, “the left” is the true enemy of both in their mutual defense of our civilization. Indeed, regime conservatives’ progressive streak gleans most brightly in their defense of Western civilization where their “defense” is not based on the West being a unique civilizational heritage exclusive to them, but because it is a universal civilization that ought to be spread everywhere to universally lift people up from their backwards parochialism. This has been exemplified by the pro-war rhetoric for the past few decades, which we’ve seen for both Iraq and Ukraine. So for the progressive conservative, the US stands as the peak of political achievement because it’s a propositional nation – a nation of ideas– not a nation rooted in throne and altar or blood and soil. The traditional philosophy of being is replaced with an Enlightenment philosophy of becoming.
The Failure of both Reactionarism and Progressivism
Both the reactionary and progressive mindset are philosophically untenable. The reactionary mindset is revealed to be hopeless political romanticism because it refuses to acknowledge change; if their ideal time was so good, why does it no longer exist and why was it overthrown? They refuse to plumb the depths of why their preferred culture was unable to stand the test of time. Because of this, even if they were to get their wish to turn back the clock, their society would again meet its doom by the same forces that ended it the first time. But they cannot, actually, turn back the clock since the conditions that gave birth to that society are gone; we will never again have the conditions that produced that nostalgic time.
There are many problems with progressivism, but for brevity I’ll just touch on the problem with their epistemology—that is, their view of knowledge. The principle way progress works in this world view is by abandoning an ancient or medieval qualitative view of knowledge and replacing it with a Cartesian quantitative view, where since we have all the knowledge of our predecessors, our new ideas should generally be preferred to old ideas. That is, progressive epistemology must reject the view that knowledge is always accessible to us regardless of our time and place–that an ancient Athenian can access it just as much as us moderns. Rather, our access to truth is limited by time, generally speaking, and our children will have better access to truth than we do today.
But if there is a tendency for new ideas to be better than old ideas, there must be some sort of telos, or end goal to strive for, by which we can judge whether or not a new idea should be taken up, for obviously some ideas are still regressive in this framework. Yet the progressive project will result in skepticism, since if our knowledge of the end goal is likewise also changing due to new knowledge then there can’t be any certainty whether or not we are progressing or not. And then, since some ideas will be accepted as valid, which in actuality should not have been, this will further cloud the judgment of which new ideas to accept ad infinitum, permeating this entire system with an unsolvable problem of skepticism.
The other horn of this dilemma is to reject an ultimate telos and simply have the progressive methodology be the goal. Here the previous problem arises of having no good way of measuring which new ideas are valid and which are not. If the criteria is simply that new ideas are good, then all sorts of horrors could be justified on the basis of them simply being new, but if there is a telos deciding which actions are right and wrong, then the problems mentioned in the paragraph above would apply. Even assuming that a progressive methodology wouldn’t collapse into chaos or epistemological uncertainty, there is a meta problem to face. Namely, the logic of the new having a general precedence over the old must also apply to the progressive and quantitative view of knowledge itself. It is then the case that the logic of progressivism could lead people to realize that progress itself is not tenable. So, at best, the progressive’s epistemological framework is merely contingently time-bound with each new rising of the sun presenting a new risk for self-implosion, making the entire project for nought.
Embracing the Eternal
The solution to the pitfalls of reactionary and progressive conservatism is to embrace the eternal, to immanentize the eschaton in spite of Bill Buckley and Eric Voeglin. The eternal, it should be noted, is not “the old” nor is it Nassim Taleb or Paul Skallas’ concept of “Lindy” which says that we should prefer things that have been around for a long time (500 years or more) over the trinkets and gimmicks of modern industrialism. While the eternal can often be these things, it goes much deeper, for the eternal always was, always is, and always shall be. It is neither reactionary or progressive.
Luke records in Acts 19 that when Paul goes to the city of Ephesus–where both Jews and gentiles lived–to preach the Gospel, a pagan silversmith, Demetrius (who made money from selling silver shrines of Artemis/Diana), instigated a riot with fellow pagan gentiles against Paul and his companions for their missionary work. Demetrius said to his fellow pagans “there is danger … that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.” While Demetrius is factually correct that the goddess Artemis had been traditionally worshiped, the worship of the idol Artemis is not eternal, for God has banned the worship of idols. Thus a gentile Ephesian convert who takes on a new practice and abandons the tradition of his fathers of worshiping pagan idols is engaging in the eternal—even though it is not historical, traditional, or old—for the eternal is beyond time and without change.
As conservatives today, our job is to take up the task of the eternal and march into its embrace, no matter how new it appears or how old the traditions we must abandon. One aspect of this is the ruthless criticism of all things existing in our society to see if they are eternal or not. During this analysis there can be no sacred cows and we must not fear the results we may find, however uncomfortable they make us. Here we will learn of the idols we worship, the buildings on foundations of sand, and the rotting ideas upholding our society. All of these must be swept away to make room for the eternal. To assist in the process we will find many unlikely allies in the texts of Marxism, feminism, postmodernism and other traditionally left-wing traditions. While we will reject their nihilistic core, we will harness their deconstructive power of contemporary society towards our end.
But we are not reactionary luddites concerned with merely destruction in mind. Rather, as creatures made in the image of God, we must be focused on genesis–creation. This calls us to be creative in all aspects of life, including the political realm, and to be able to construct a worldview, a pathway to eternity, free from all past dogmas that are found to be ephemeral. As Fr. Sergei Bulgakov puts it in describing the creatively social aspect of Christianity: “[the] creative apprehension of Christianity is that there exists in history … a ‘common work’ for human brotherhood. This common work or task has no exterior limits, it embraces the whole world, it involves the overcoming of the blind forces of nature and the accommodation of them to human will and tasks …. Social life is to be organised according to the postulates of Christian love; so is the whole of political life.”
The destructive aspect previously mentioned will give us an outline of what we are not, but it won’t be enough in itself for the constructive task. What exactly the constructive path is is the task eternity presents us with–and an exact solution will have to be put on hold for now–but a place to start is a rigorous examination of the texts of past political traditions that have been collecting dust in our libraries. Also helpful in this project will be reactionaries and examining the time periods they hold in high regard to see what lessons can be learned without falling into the regression’s seductive allure.
Ultimately, this is the task that we as conservative must take up, but I am not going to pretend to have all the answers. This is an open task we will have to bear, however, even now, if only in vague form, I can already see the outline of the foundations of eternity that will be built on the ashes of this fleeting world that we must bring down. But we must, as Leo Strauss described Aristotle’s political philosophy, be the only type of partisan superior to the patriot –the “Partisan of Virtue” who, in the terms of Ernst Jünger, “must learn that in times like these it is possible to march without a flag.”