A review of Conserving America (St. Augustine Press, 2016) by Patrick J. Deneen
Man has been created by God in such a way that the larger the object of his love the less directly attached he is to it. His heart needs particular passions; he needs limited objects for his attraction to keep these firm and enduring … I am convinced that the interests of the human race are better served by giving every man a particular fatherland than by trying to inflame his passions for the whole of humanity
– Alexis de Tocqueville
Socrates was a gadfly to his native city and unusually open-minded toward Egyptians, Spartans, and other foreigners. Yet it is also true that he fought for Athens against Sparta during the dreadful Peloponnesian Wars, and that he chose to die rather than flout Athenian law. To defy the laws and customs of one’s homeland is to do violence to it, Socrates explains when his friend Crito urges him to escape from prison, and if “it is impious to use violence against your father and mother,” how “much more impious to use it against your country?” In The Republic Socrates takes for granted that properly formed souls will be sensitive to “what is one’s own and akin, on the one hand, and what’s foreign and strange, on the other,” and goes on to affirm both the tight local bonds of the polis along with the tangled threads of blood, culture, language, and religion which form the seedbed of Hellenic civilization. “Won’t they love Greece?” he asks of his ideal republicans. “Won’t they consider Greece as their own and share the religion of the other Greeks?” Here the conventional image of Socrates as a proto-liberal citizen of the world and champion of civil disobedience simply evaporates.
In Conserving America, Patrick Deneen considers Socratic patriotism in the context of the Athenian theoroi – officials charged with travelling abroad and familiarizing themselves with foreign practices which Athenians could then appropriate. Clearly a “theorist” could not perform his duty if he were a ferocious xenophobe, but as Deneen notes it is just as clear that the effective theorist did have to be “a patriot – one who treasured his cultural inheritance and traditions, knew intimately the stories and histories of his homeland, and saw these as fundamentally constitutive of his identity.” Only a man deeply committed to his own native city and steeped in its heritage would be in a position to judge which foreign imports might prove beneficial, which merely innovative, and which downright disruptive. Socrates was the archetypal theorist, concludes Deneen, and we “misunderstand ancient ‘theorizing,’ if we do not recognize the entwinement of patriotism and philosophy.”
Unfortunately this entwinement came unraveled during the transition from the ancient to the modern world. Where the old philosophical practice was “an integrated relationship between patriotic sympathy and critical distance born of the ‘sacred journey,’” with the Enlightenment it became “a form of critique that started from a skeptical, untrusting, even accusatory perspective.” For Deneen, Renée Descartes is the prototype of the new philosopher, “the very model of the proudly ungrateful anti-patriot.” It is especially revealing that the godfather of the Enlightenment struck upon his famous method while sitting alone in a room in Frankfurt during the Thirty Years’ War:
Descartes describes the perfect antithesis of the approach of the ancient theorist: rather than proceeding from a sympathetic stance toward the inheritance of his own legacy, Descartes begins with radical suspicion toward all that has preceded him in act or thought, and especially all that is a result of the common endeavors of a community or a people. The fact that this Frenchman is in Germany as he begins these meditations only highlights the variance of his own investigations from those of the ancient theorists. He purposefully eschews the insights and experiences offered to him by an alien culture, and instead shuts himself literally within a room and figuratively within his own mind.
In short, post-national man is not so much a cosmopolitan as he is a solipsist.
Patriotism, the respective natures of conservatism and liberalism, the possibilities and perils of post-liberal order – Deneen wrestles with issues that conservatives must think about long and hard if they are to make the most of the Brexit-Trump era. While Deneen hardly endorses Donald Trump in these pages, he does take seriously the anxieties and forces which got Trump elected. After having read Conserving America, I was not especially surprised when Deneen’s name later appeared alongside other scholars denouncing what they call “the dead consensus” of GOP establishmentarianism, a consensus which often supports the globalist push toward a borderless, rootless world.
Yet if populist conservatism is to be anything more than a Tea Party movement 2.0, suggests Deneen, more attention must be directed toward the central, glaring flaw in the liberal creed:
Liberal theory posits we are by nature “free and independent” but no human being anywhere has ever come into the world, nor been raised to maturity as “free and independent” creatures. We are rather are rather creatures of duty, obligation, and – one hopes – gratitude who are born, and most often live and die, dependent upon others. The great task of civilizations has been to sustain and support familial, social and cultural structures and practices that perpetuate and deepen personal and intergenerational forms of obligation and gratitude, of duty and indebtedness. However, liberal philosophy is based on the theoretical construct that humans are by nature autonomous, free and independent, and that it is the role and function of the State to realize personal, national, and even globalized individualism.
What American political elites feverishly seek to export to Central Europe, Eastern Europe, and Russia would therefore be best characterized as anti-civilization. Within American academic circles, meanwhile, no serious critique of liberal ideology can take place because liberalism itself sets the parameters for discussion. All classical liberals like Friedrich Hayek and progressive liberals like John Dewey have to argue about is whether it is free enterprise or state bureaucracy which will most effectively liberate the individual from nationality, ethnicity, sex, and religion; to question whether absolute liberation from such sources of identity and meaning is desirable is to instantly place one’s self outside the realm of “respectable” (i.e. liberal) discourse.
“[A]s liberalism becomes more perfectly ‘itself,’ it will become more and more difficult to explain some of its endemic features as merely accidental or unintended,” Deneen declares, adding that “it is now the task for those with imagination and courage, and a deep commitment not only to humanity, but to human beings, to begin to envision an alternative future to the one to which we now seem destined, which will focus especially on beginning to put together what liberalism has torn asunder.”
Deneen is rightfully hesitant about turning this rebuilding project into yet another systematic and comprehensive ideological program. Instead, he contents himself with identifying a few rules of thumb. One, “subsidiarity should be strongly encouraged,” two, “conservatism needs to defend, where they still exist, aristocratic inheritances of the past, and to seek the creation of new forms where possible,” three, “conservatism ought to resist the modernist urge toward homogenization and monoculture,” and four, conservatism “needs to stress an education steeped in knowledge of, and appreciation for, the past.”
In other words, a true conservatism for America would affirm America’s place in Western civilization rather than define America in revolutionary opposition to its European heritage. As most readers are well aware, this affirmation of the West has long been the stance of Paul Gottfried and other members of the increasingly marginalized group sometimes identified as “paleoconservatives.” And when we think through the implications, Professor Deneen’s principles are necessarily a little more controversial than he might want to admit publicly. He devotes scant attention to that particular region which gave the world so much of what is distinctively “American” – from George Washington and country music to Flannery O’Connor and mint juleps. For my part, however, I find myself drawn back to John Crowe Ransom, an agrarian-localist figure whom some might even deem the equal of Wendell Berry. According to Ransom, “the South in its history to date has exhibited what nowhere else on a large scale has been exhibited on this continent north of Mexico, a culture based on European principles which has lasted as long as a century […] European principles must look to the South if they are to be perpetuated in this country.”
Of course even before the debacle at Charlottesville and its exploitation by the Left, any mention of the South was wont to cause many otherwise intelligent conservatives to speak evasively or suffer sudden attacks of amnesia. Meanwhile establishmentarian mouthpieces like David Brooks consistently push upon impressionable young Southern conservatives a “skeptical, untrusting, even accusatory perspective” vis-a-vis the Southland. So dissidents must make the point firmly, loudly, and repeatedly: Without Dixie, there is no America to conserve. For in the American context the term subsidiarity inescapably evokes states’ rights; aristocratic inheritance necessarily includes the ideals of the Southern gentleman and belle; resistance to monoculture means opposing attempts to “Americanize” the South; appreciation for the past implies reflective and respectful treatment of the Confederate dead, instead of ordering their descendants to dance on their graves. In short, to envision an alternative future we must first summon the nerve to radically and candidly rethink America’s historical pieties. To be sure, Unionists are still free to insist that the War Between the States was a necessary evil, but at the very least they will sooner or later have to give more attention to the “evil” part, especially given the extent to which Mr. Lincoln’s revolutionary crusade for the Union resembled the Italian and German wars of unification.
In the meantime, Deneen is to be commended for exploring in detail the impact upon the American mind of indiscriminate consolidation, centralization, and cultural leveling. Perhaps no discipline has been perverted so badly as education, Professor Deneen’s own vocation:
We are engaged in the human equivalent of strip-mining, identifying “rational and industrious” young people in every city and town and hamlet through standardized testing, extracting them for processing at one of our refining centers (universities), and then excreting them now as productive units of economic productive to be conveyed to a hub of economic activity while leaving behind a landscape stripped bare of talented and industrious people that God thought wise to distribute widely.
While the step away from internationalism and toward nationalism heralded by populist conservatism is a welcome step in the right direction, it is still only the first step of many. Even before it became fragmented by multiculturalist policies and the open borders lobby, the American “nation” would have been more accurately described as a hegemonic regime rather than as a patria. So Deneen is surely right about one thing. A revival of human-scale patriotism is called for. The gifted and ambitious youth should not be taught how to escape from Flyover Country, but about his neighbors, kin, and countrymen, and his obligations toward them.