But the general approach of the paleos is burdened by one major negative trait and several bad habits. The first is their fear of and antipathy to clear political principles, to the very concept of politically relevant, universal objective truth. What is – or, rather, should conservatism be all about? About conserving the truth – true notions of justice, morality, civility and freedom. But for any notion to be true, it must necessarily be universal, absolute, and binding on all people at all places in all times. The Decalogue – the Ten Commandments – is true, and therefore relevant for all people in all nations in all eras. “Thou shall not kill!” – it does not mean “thou shall not kill, except Negroes”, it does not mean “thou shall not kill in the 19th Century, but you may in the 20th,”it does not mean “thou shall not kill in Alabama, but you may in Oklahoma.” It simply means you shall not deliberately kill any innocent human being, period. Paleocons seem not to understand that – they consider universal norms of justice to be a product of Enlightenment Liberalism – as if Moses, and the God, at Mt. Sinai, were Enlightenment Liberals. Paleocons would profit very much by re-reading their favorite, but neglected, Richard Weaver, and his defense of philosophic realism against relativist, historicist and particularist nominalism.

Mr. Francis is outraged that Mr. Devine criticized him (absolutely correctly, in my reading of Francis’ earlier column) for denouncing “fusionist conservatism for its preoccupation with its ‘pet abstractions’ of liberty, national security and the Judeo-Christian tradition.” Well, that is the point we have already raised: the paleoconservative allergy to any abstract, universal concepts or ideas.~ Roman Joch, March 10, 2004

At the risk of dredging up a tired, old argument between “fusionists” and paleoconservatives, I was inspired to return to this rather disingenuous reply of Mr. Joch after reading one of the reviews mentioned by name in the article, Richard Weaver’s “Anatomy of Freedom,” where he reviewed Frank Meyer’s In Defense of Freedom for the old, more respectable National Review. The heart of the trouble with Mr. Meyer’s ideas will have to wait for another post, but my observations on this article deserve separate consideration.

Mr. Joch charges paleoconservatives with a number of things, including the accusation that “paleoconservatives understand conservatism as a policy and a set of thoughts exclusively directed at a defense of privileges of certain social, racial, ethnic, and religious strata of society.” Assuming that this were the whole truth about paleoconservative views (and it is not), one would have to ask: so what? The reality is that no political philosophy has ever existed that did not tend to reaffirm the privileges or interests of a particular group or people that adhered to it, and adherence to a philosophy that did not reaffirm those privileges would be irrational. Mr. Joch cites this trait as if it were inherently offensive, as if the embrace of contingency, place and identity that shapes conservatism were somehow unclean or a blot on the reputation of a pristine idealistic conservatism that has not and cannot exist in any meaningful sense.

Conservatives defend the privileges of their race, faith, and class, among other things, to the extent that they do because they are their own, and presumably they believe that their faith and vision of society also reflect eternal verities in particular form. Defending one’s own is the natural and normal response, recognised by most societies and cultures across history as not only the most justifiable position but also the noblest. Adherence to abstractions is the bizarre, slightly irrational act that requires thorough intellectual justification before anyone can even begin to take it seriously. (Incidentally, why should we continue to credit non-conservatives with the label and force ourselves into the neologism of paleoconservative?)

This complaint actually illuminates Mr. Joch’s stated problem with paleoconservatives very nicely: conservatives reject abstraction, which Mr. Joch unfortunately takes to mean that they reject ideas, principles or absolutes. This is a fine example of how discourse and thought suffer when language is treated in a slapdash and arbitrary fashion.

If Samuel Francis criticises banal, empty, abstract phrases, such as “Judeo-Christian values” (which, aside from being meaningless in itself, has been emptied even more of all particular content to serve as an election slogan), he is accused of rejecting absolute truth. We are even treated to the ridiculous connection by Mr. Joch of Enlightenment universalism and the Ten Commandments. There is, of course, at least one glaring difference between the two standards (and this is not even the obvious difference that the Enlightenment standards are fantastic man-made nonsense, and the Decalogue is Revelation): one ignores or deliberately rejects all historically constituted realities as sources or measures of truth and bases its definitions of rationality and truth on abstract suppositions, while the other is not only offered by God, Who is Truth, but is revealed in history to a particular people as part of His providential plan and the working out salvation history.

Nothing is more certain than that paleoconservatives are among the last in this country to place great stock in absolute truths that endure through all conditions and times, but it is also fairly certain that they do not hate the local or particular conditions in order to love the truth. Moral truths do not change according to clime, but the wise man also knows that real morality consists in not presuming to fix long-established habits and traditions to advance “universal” standards, but in setting his own house in order and living well in accordance with the will of God.

An abstraction is very nearly the opposite of an idea, if we understand an idea properly as a kind of intellectual and intelligible vision or concept that corresponds to reality. The greater the correspondence between idea and reality, the better (more true) the idea, or so, I suspect, real conservatives would assume. An abstraction is something literally drawn out of reality (abstraho, abstraxi, abstractum) by the mind–it is a simplified description derived from a variety of real events, and it corresponds to none of these real things. It possesses only the faint outlines of real content.

Mr. Joch would have us prefer the outlines (often erroneous and misleading) to the content itself, and he finds fault with us for privileging the richness, texture and complexity of the book over the simplistic synopsis of a review. There are undoubtedly truths revealed in the book, but they will only be found by reading it in full and paying attention to all of the details. The outline or review is the most basic, introductory level of understanding–it conveys (or distorts) the content with the least information possible.

This is rather like trusting to Cliff’s Notes for one’s higher education–it not only deprives the reader of the material with which to form his own thoughts and leaves him in the dreadful position of the ignorant semi-literate, but empowers the compiler of the summary. Those who are in the business of generating slogans and abstractions (journalists, pundits, activists, pseudo-intellectuals, etc.) have a vested interest (there’s that blasted particularity again!) in denigrating all standards of truth that do not pay homage to these idols. Devotion to abstraction is ultimately devotion to fantasy, or at least a willingness to rely on untested (and untestable) assumptions; it is the man-made faith that the world really is a certain way, in spite of all the evidence telling us it is another way. “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” That is the statement of someone who believes in abstractions more than he believes in the evidence around him. It is a touching kind of fake faith, if one is moved by manifestations of blind irrationality.

Of course, Mr. Joch fancies himself to be knowledgeable about Russell Kirk’s ideas, yet he seems completely unaware that Mr. Kirk explicitly opposed abstraction and principle. A principle is what Mr. Kirk might have called an eternal verity, which is a term that certainly assumes absolute standards of truth and virtue. Whatever the problems with Mr. Kirk’s ideas, he was far closer to the mark with his standard than were Mr. Meyer and his heirs now ransacking the mouldering inheritance of fusionism to offer up uninspiring paeans to a general, theoretical, and therefore non-existent, Liberty.

Mr. Joch has charged paleoconservatives with relativism on account of their affinity to particularity and contingency (which are themselves general principles that tend to guide paleoconservatism, and this immediately disproves Joch’s case before he has begun), invoking Weaver in what can only be called a brutal mockery of the late, great English professor’s ideas. Lecturing paleoconservatives to return to their Weaver (as if they had ever neglected it), he sets their view in oppostion to Prof. Weaver’s “philosophical realism.” As I have just argued, though, abstraction is an intellectual form that cannot have much correspondence to reality at all.

The “philosophical realist” would shudder at the thought of valuing abstractions, and he would become ill at the thought of someone confusing abstraction and principle. It is same as confusing an ideologue with a philosopher or a demagogue with a statesman: it is the replacement of the real thing with a ridiculous caricature and perversion. It is the lover of abstractions who attaches arbitrary names to things and pretends that he is describing a reality upon which he is simply imposing empty or nearly-empty labels.

In fairness, Prof. Weaver made a similar mistake when he accused Burke of having recourse to the “argument from circumstance” rather than the “argument from definition,” thus pushing Burke into the liberal column for failing to argue according to the latter (Burke has plenty of genuinely liberal traits that can be legitimately criticised, but this is not the way to do it). Crucially lacking in his essays on this problem was any sense that respect for general definitions included respect for vicious and erroneous definitions or that respect for circumstances was the very essence of the conservative defense of its own inheritance. Russell Kirk warned Prof. Weaver of this dangerous oversight in an article on Ethics of Rhetoric not long after it was published. There are occasions when men may make unprincipled, pathetic arguments based in a fear of actually standing by a principle and taking the consequences of their supposed beliefs (this is the intellectual equivalent of NIMBY). But no one can doubt that monist revolutionaries take action based on a number of solid principles about people, society and history that are not only false but satanic–this obviously does not make them conservative or virtuous.

The lack of a correspondence between abstraction and reality is all the more significant, since the real world is profoundly complex and contingent and an abstraction is inevitably simple. The terrible simplifiers who love abstractions cannot stand conditions and conventions muddling their perfect, clear theory. If life does not fit the theory, then it is life that has gone awry and must be made to fit. The terrible simplifiers are always perfectly willing, then, to embrace ideological crusades, violence and upheaval to better realise their “principles” (which are not principles at all). It is hardly a surprise, then, that the ACU and Mr. Joch both endorsed the Iraq war, though they may offer various reasons for this.