Sunday, December 06, 2009

Golden Age vs Utopia Part 1: a Different Reading of Conservatism

Over at Open Left Paul Rosenberg is leading a conversation focused on how liberals can counter the authoritarian streak characteristic of modern movement conservatism, one that allows conservatives to front counter-factual and contradictory arguments in favor of their positions. For example conservative Republicans are simultaneously arguing against cuts to Medicare and calling for a Bi-Partisan Commission to propose massive cuts to Medicare. At one level there is an incoherency at play but this is not because the argument is at bottom irrational, instead the key is to be found at the core of conservatism itself, something which is much older that current conceptions of 'left' and 'right' and even of 'liberty' and 'tyranny'. What distinguishes conservatism is orthogonal to each. But before discussing that a disclaimer. The following is based on a lifetime of reading, but is not a research paper. I don't have access to a major research library and most of my own library is in storage meaning I am working out of my own head without a safety net except a stray Google search or two. I fully stand behind what I write and will defend it on its own merits, but in the end it is a blog post, something meant to start discussion and not to definitively end it. With that in mind:

Conservatism as it name itself implies is all about holding on to what you have which in turn can manifest itself as selfishness, an attitude of "I've got mine, Jack". Equally it tends to manifest itself as a devotion to the established order which in turn means acceptance of ones own place in that order, which can manifest itself as subservience to authority. Additionally conservatives tend to accept established religion, even or especially when that religion is traditional and dependent on revealed truth. And finally many conservatives tend to be suspicious of novelty in thought which manifests itself as appearing to be close-minded and ignorant. All of which leads liberals to see conservatives as selfish, subservient, fundamentalist ignorami open to manipulation by the Becks, Palins and Limbaughs of this world. But I suggest that ignores the fountainhead of conservatism, a common factor that drives all of these manifestations. Instead the key is that Conservatives believe in the Golden Age, one that by definition occurred in the past.

The concept of the Golden Age lies deep within western myth and thought and can be summarized that the History of the World is one of decline. When you examine the deepest strata of European and indeed Indo-European thought you see a sequence that the Greeks identified as Golden, Silver, and Bronze. The Golden Age is that of the Gods, struggling amongst themselves and with their opponents the Titans or Giants. This Battle which ultimately results with the victory of the Gods is explicitly set at the Beginning of History. The subsequent period, the Silver Age, is marked by the lives, loves and struggles of the Heroes, demigods and men that are literally and figuratively larger than life. And then we come to the Age of Men. who in comparison to the 'Men of yore' are puny, almost inconsequential. That is traditional European society and thought was oriented to the past, to your ancestors, your tribal heroes and your tribal gods, all of whom might in various ways still be present but whose acts are explicitly set in the past.

Accompanying this belief in past ages of heroes and gods is the idea that older is better when it comes to law and ritual each of which is supposed to have been passed down unchanged from the hero or god who first set them down. Wherever you look in ancient European thought is that success in ritual and law depends on strict adhesion to the exact sequence of acts and language handed down from your ancestors, even as that language had developed in ways that the ancient words were quite meaningless to anyone but the priestly class, and often enough even to them. That is experts in Roman ritual report that certain words and actions were entirely traditional and their semantic import quite lost on more modern audiences.

Which gets us to the heart of conservatism, which in this context is just inherited thought of European (and perhaps Indo-European) predecessors, novelty is a bad thing and worse a dangerous thing. Because there are consequences to getting ritual wrong. Many years ago the Professor who introduced me to Celtic Mythology told the class something that jolted at least me: "The Ancient Greeks hated their gods". This was I think (deliberately) too strong, but in re-reading Greek, Celtic and Scandinavian mythology with this new insight it was abundantly clear that pre-Christian Europeans feared their gods and equally feared their dead, between whom there were no clear and fast lines (dead family blending into dead ancestors blending into heroes and then to the gods, none of whom were necessarily dead in a final sense at all). In Greek mythology the Erinyes the Furies, the goddesses charged with punishing transgressions by men were also known as the Eumenides, the Kindly Ones. Why the dichotomy? Professor O'Hehir explained it was the same reason the Irish almost always call the Fairies, who are after all tricksters who steal babies and replace them with changelings, 'The Good People'. Because they might be listening.

Examined in the light of this traditional mindset a lot of contemporary conservatism starts looking much more coherent. If you start from the fundamental premise that ideal order was established in the distant past by your ancestors and tribal gods and was handed down to you on strict conditions that you don't vary from that on penalty of visitation by those ancestors or the instruments of those gods (the Furies/Kindly Ones) the novelty not only isn't "Change you can believe in" it is inherently dangerous. And such beliefs easily extend themselves to a commitment to the current social and economic order which clearly exists with at least the forbearance and perhaps the approval of the invisible powers that be, in such a world view Divine Right of Kings and Patriarchy and Revealed Truth (and its counterpart resistance to Science, i.e. new knowledge) all merge into Cosmic Order.

What is absent from this Cosmic Order? Any idea of an ideal future. The essence of traditional European thought, which I am identifying with the basis of modern conservatism can be summed up as "There were giants in those days". And this doesn't just apply to the distant heroes of myth, it equally applies to your own ancestors: the pioneer, the immigrant who came to America with nothing, the grandparents that made it through the Depression by hard work and Faith, that is by sticking to traditions handed down from the distant past. Because that is what conservatives do.

If Conservatism is about venerating and where possible maintaining the Golden Age what is its counterpart? Well I suggest it is Utopianism, the idea that perfection lies at the End of Time and not the Beginning, in Christian terms in Heaven and not in Eden. And I suggest that it was through Christianity that the old European order was first challenged. Because Christ and the early Pauline Church is all about Change in preparation for the End Times, there is nothing about throwing money changers from the Temple, the Sermon on the Mount, and Pauline doubts about such things as traditional marriage (because "It is better to marry, than to burn" doesn't disguise that Paul and the early Church thought abstinence was the best path for ALL the truly faithful). And if we turn back to myth we see how problematic some of this was. In purely pre-Christian Greek myth there is little to no expression of a future heavenly state, certainly not for the masses. While certain heroes might expect to be elevated to the status of demigods or be transported to an island in the Far West, mostly the dead are confined to the dark of underground or night, they don't walk by day. And even in Celtic Myth whose texts were initially committed to text by Christians you only see hints of anything more definitive than that of the Greeks. Whereas Scandinavian myth is more conceptually confused. Its texts were first written down several centuries after the oldest Irish texts and so are more penetrated by Christian Eschatology. In particular the common Indo-European motif of the battle between the Gods and the Giants, which in Vedic, Greek and Celtic tradition are clearly set at the Beginning in Scandinavia Ragnorak gets set at the End of the World and come complete with a new creation myth, all of which creates a confusing mishmash that is an appropriate metaphor for modern conservative thought.

But despite the challenges Traditional European thought/conservatism was able to accommodate itself to Christianity and vice-versa as Christ the King came largely to supersede Christ the Redeemer and Popes and Kings alike claimed their powers were directly derived from God. But the late Middle Ages the Church had mostly inserted itself into the role of preserver of tradition and source of revealed religion, while never quite displacing ancestor worship and inherited law. By say 1500 AD the concept of the Christian Conservative was fully formed and to a large degree unchallenged.

Then started a period of a few centuries that presented Conservatism with a whole new set of challenges. Subject for a forthcoming post.

1 comment:

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