Larison on Epstein on Bramwell
As much as I admire Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver, I can read hundreds of pages of their work, and wonder “how does this translate into policy today?” This, I believe, is a certain shortcoming of many traditionalist conservatives. Their philosophy is vague enough that they focus their attention to Gnosticism, pre-Hellenic philosophy, or gothic architecture, while avoiding actually getting their hands dirty fighting what immediately plagues our civilization. ~Marcus Epstein
It was good to see Mr. Epstein's article on Mr. Bramwell's piece for the Aug. 29 issue of American Conservative. Since first reading Mr. Bramwell's piece, I had been crafting a response but had allowed my attention to wander back to the more pressing matter of reading for oral exams and writing on other topics for the blog. Mr. Epstein's remarks provided the needed jolt to get me to finish the response, which I'll be posting a little bit later on. Suffice it to say for the moment that I found the article less insightful than Mr. Epstein did, but it was assuredly provocative, not least in its assumption that Rightists, libertarians, "right-wingers" and conservatives are all at some level one and share a consensus. Obviously, in spite of many common goals and points of agreement, we are not and do not, as Mr. Epstein's comment shows.
As much as traditionalist conservatives have in common with our libertarian friends, and as valuable as their forums, such as LewRockwell.com and Antiwar.com, have undoubtedly been in spreading the good word of the very small, defiant conservative resistance to the perversions of the GOP, it is useless for the purposes of analysis to discuss libertarianism when trying to understand what went awry with conservatism. It was also not very useful to propose to describe the stagnation of conservative thought and spend much of the article discussing why libertarians have had difficulty vindicating their positions. Or, if the purpose is to understand what went wrong with "the Right," as opposed to conservatism, it would be useful to explain what one means by "the Right." This is quibbling over definitions, but definitions are half of any argument. There will be much more of this in the response itself, so back to Mr. Epstein for a moment.
Mr. Epstein's question about the applicability of the ideas of Kirk and Weaver, to use the names he cited, brought home a problem that I hope I will be able to resolve somewhat in the longer response. As far as it goes, Mr. Epstein's question is a good one, and the honest answer would be this: "These ideas don't readily translate into policy. That is not what these men were seeking to write, and consequently what they did write is uniquely unsuited to application to public policy questions." What I believe they were seeking to do was to cultivate certain sensibilities in their readers, encourage them to develop the mentality or phronema of attachment and loyalty to the permanent things and convince them that, just as the world had been wrecked by errors, the world might be put right again by sound thinking, virtue and an appropriate facility with and understanding of our language.
Kirk and Weaver especially were men trained in rhetoric and literature and saw part of the key to our deliverance in the revival of an understanding of the significance of words, the reality of ideas and the vital social, human need for beauty and imagination. The growth of the state was only a consequence of rotten aesthetics, rhetoric and ethics and a mechanism for their further destruction, and therefore the state and policy questions as such were incidental to the real problems at hand. Like many wise men before them, they knew that restoring our sense of aesthetics and rhetoric was a higher priority and more efficacious for cultural renewal than squabbling over specifically political questions. Sadly, they had few disciples, and most who use their names did not understand what they were receiving.
Mr. Epstein's question touches on the problem Mr. Bramwell sought to address in that the very inapplicability of many of the major conservative thinkers' ideas is proof that those ideas will have to be reckoned with for years to come. These ideas, which do not directly bear on policy problems, will have lasting significance that the technical writings of policy specialists can never possess. They never will translate into policy, and attempts to translate them into policy will likely fail, because they were never meant to be used in that way. They were written in the conviction that the sources of renewal lie with us, and the fault is likewise in ourselves. Preoccupation with policy, temporarily gratifying or interesting as it might be, works on the assumption that there are mechanical and political solutions to what ails our nation, when institutional and political ills are but the symptoms of a much more serious malady. If we did not combat the creeping gnosticism, for instance, that seeps into every aspect of modern life by means of ideas, we would never make any progress in turning back towards consecrated good order.
Daniel Larison | August 19, 2005
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