Russell Kirk bequeathed us a succinct definition of a conservative:
“In essence, the conservative person is simply one who finds the permanent things more pleasing than Chaos and Old Night. (Yet conservatives know, with Burke, that healthy ‘change is the means of our preservation.’)”
Last Thursday, the Notre Dame philosopher Ralph McInerny reminded conservatives that the permanent things are in fact permanent, and cannot ever be undone, much less be undone in one election. His lecture, hosted by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) and the John W. Pope Center, in Charlotte, North Carolina, was titled, “Do the Great Books Matter Anymore?” a question that Prof. McInerny answered in the affirmative.
I’ve always been taught that the genius of Bill Buckley, among other conservatives following Goldwater, was to unite social conservatives, national defense conservatives, limited government conservatives, and others under a single banner. The trick was that Buckley understood the ‘permanent things’ and the Great Books, and thus commanded respect as a conservative on an intellectual level.
ISI, of which Bill Buckley was the first president, aims to show that the conservative movement is formed by the thinkers whose work has endured throughout ages and across vastly different societies and circumstances. The Great Books, McInerny argued before a few hundred people, reveal the immutable truths of human nature.
“When you think of authors like Jane Austen, or Joseph Conrad, or Mark Twain, they all are novelists, but they all have their own voice,” McInerny mused. “…And what that voice conveys is a vision of the mystery of human existence. The writer gives an intimation of what it is to be a human being.”
He explained how the Great Books present morally compelling stories. “Someone gets in trouble and tries to solve it. The character finds it very difficult, and might not do the right thing.” From the characters’ dilemmas, the reader learns that “we are answerable for what we do.”
McInerny’s conclusions were sure to resonate with those from a religious background. He noted that classically the liberal arts were divided into the ‘Trivium’ and the ‘Quadrivium,’ which translate to ‘the three ways’ and ‘the four ways.’ “Ways to what?” he asked rhetorically. “Ways to understanding Scripture. The idea of the university is that it all adds up to something massively unified. The whole point is to aim at theology.”
Of course, conservatives don’t have to be Christian, and not all Great Books have Christian authors. McInerny explained that Plato, Aristotle, and other non-Christians in the Western canon believed that a sort of Providence or over-arching narrative guided human action, and wrote with that concept in mind.
A member of the audience challenged him on this point, asking what conditions, other than the scriptural inclination, could inspire the creation of literature in McInerny’s system. The dramatic dimension to any story, McInerny answered, consists of the spiritual consequences that follow any of the character’s actions. Even without that scriptural basis, though, we follow the character because “he faces a problem of importance for who he is. We respond to that, because that’s us. It’s us too.”
Does this mean that Plato, Aristotle, Austen, and Conrad are all conservatives? Yes, insofar as they articulate the permanent things that make us human, and believe that there are overarching principles that cannot be traduced for merely incidental purposes.
The conservative movement and the Republican Party are about to undergo a reconfiguring. Will the result be something Kirk — or Bll Buckley — would sign on to?
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