It was a dark and stormy night…
The conservative critique of ideology– the bastardized Burkeanism that suspects all abstraction and change– can reach full fossilized flower only in a thoroughgoing pagan. A Christian– and even an Aristotelian– must see that there is a standpoint outside of history from which to judge contingent regimes, and that just because we are horrified by what Robespierre and Stalin did in the name of Abstract Ideas that Sounded Good at the Time, doesn’t mean that ideas themselves are bad, or that we ought to completely suspect our reason’s ability to access them.
At its most fully developed, the anti-ideology that some conservatives want to see in Burke becomes the historical school that Leo Strauss identifies as the modern challenger to natural right. The historical school
emerged in reaction to the French Revolution and to the natural right doctrines that had prepared that cataclysm. In opposing the violent break with the past, the historical school insisted on the wisdom and on the need of preserving or continuing the traditional order. This could have been done without a critique of natural right as such. Certainly, pre-modern natural right did not sanction reckless appeall form the established order, or from what was actual here and now, to the natural or rational order. Yet the founders of the historical school seemed to have realized somehow that the acceptance of any universal or abstract principles has necessarily a revolutionary, disturbing, unsettling effect as far as thought is concerned and that this effect is wholly independent of whether the principles in question sanction, generally speaking, a conservative or a revolutionary course of action. For the recognition of universal principles forces man to judge the established order, or what is actual here and now, in the light of the natural or rational order; and what is actually here and now is more likely than not to fall short of the universal and unchangable norm. The recognition of universal principles thus tends to prevent men from wholeheartedly identifying themselves witth, or accepting, the social order that fate has alloted to them. It tends to alienate them from their place on the earth. It tends to make them strangers, and even strangers on the earth.
Natural Right and History 13, 14
Where the natural right conservative tradition conflicts with the Burkean anti-French Revolutionary conservative tradition is precisely here: Burkeans hear, in any appeal to natural right, the related phrase “the rights of man.” And when Burkeans hear the phrase “the rights of man,” they also hear the rattle of the wheels of the tumbrels against the cobblestones of Paris. I will get to this (justified) fear of utopianism in a bit.
There is, however, another thing that gets in the way of the Burkeans’ ability to hear language about natural right, that I want to cover first, and that is the fear that natural rights-talk means sameness, blandness. This fear is easier to address, as any child who has read A Wrinkle in Time knows.
Meg Murray is on the planet of Camazotz, which is almost fully under the power of IT, the satanic force that is threatening Earth. There, every family looks the same, every person moves in absolute uniformity: each house has identical bicycles tipped over on the front lawn, each child comes out at the same time to bounce a ball. Meg feels the dark power moving in her mind, trying to convince her that this is a good thing. She fights back with words of American scripture:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident!” she shouted, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
As she cried out the words she felt a mind moving in on her own, felt IT seizing, squeezing her brain. Then she’ realized that Charles Wallace was speaking, or being spoken through by IT.
“But that’s exactly what we have on Camazotz. Complete equality. Everybody exactly alike.”
For a moment her brain reeled with confusion. Then came a moment of blazing truth. “No!” she cried triumphantly. “Like and equal are not the same thing at all!”
“Good girl, Meg!” her father shouted at her.
But Charles Wallace continued as though there had been no interruption. “In Camazotz all are equal. In Camazotz everybody is the same as everybody else,” but he gave her no argument, provided no answer, and she held on to her moment of revelation.
Like and equal are two entirely different things.
For the moment she had escaped from the power of IT.
But in the embrace of variety, we must not lose track of the existence of a common human nature, a telos. Modern hedonistic liberals are the heirs to the tradition of what Strauss calls the “Revolutionists.” These thinkers, he says,
assumed… that the natural is always individual and that therefore the uniform is unnatural or conventional. The human individual was to liberate himself so that he could pursue not just his happiness but his own version of happiness. This meant, however, that one universal and uniform goal was set up for all men: the natural right of each individual was a right uniformly belonging to every man as man. But uniformity was said to be unnatural and hence bad…
This was a conundrum indeed, and he sees Burke-and-Kirk conservatism as an attempt to solve it: “The only kinds of rights that were neither incompatible with social life” (i.e. modern hedonistic do-your-own-thing libertarian rights, which lead to a great variety of “lifestyles” but no actual society) “nor uniform” (i.e. Soviet-style rights that wanted to erase variety from individual and national life) “were historical rights: rights of Englishmen, for example, in contradistinction to the rights of man. Local and temporal variety seemed to supply a safe and solid middle ground between anti-social individualism and unnatural universality…” The upholders of “rights of Englishmen–” people who appreciate Burke and Kirk because they are not French revolutionaries– have, Strauss says, “discovered the value, the charm, the inwardness of the local and temporal… the superiority of the local and the temporal to the universal.”
And there is real good here, real charm: still, such accounts of rights are not enough, and they are dangerous. He sees in this tradition, I think, a flavor of German Volkisch romanticism, what you might call Sonderweggery. It is a tradition that avoids the evils of the French revolution, but a) leads you occasionally to decide that it’s a good idea to worship Odin and perform human sacrifice, and b) cuts off your ability to stand apart from your society and say, I see that this is your tradition, this is an expression of your national spirit… but it is wrong.
But to critique this form of local-and-national traditional rights-talk does not lead Strauss back into the French model of blandifying, flattening, uniformitarian rights. Rather, I think Strauss wants to reach for a kind of natural right that is the political version of what C.S. Lewis described as the Discarded Image. Natural right is the “rightness” of every thing and person in creation striving to grow into the best version of itself, striving towards its proper telos. These teloi are individual and give rise to variety– i.e. the telos of a writer-girl in Queens is different from the telos of a U.S. senator or an African tribal chieftain or a writer-girl in Montmartre; but they are universal because “man” considered as man has a different telos to the telos of a …cat, or a quark. Madeleine L’Engle expresses a similar balance in terms of poetry: “Life,” Mrs. Whatsit says, “with its rules, its obligations, and its freedoms, is like a sonnet: You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself.”
The latter fear– the tumbrels, the blood in the gutters of Paris, the violence inherent in an attempt at Kingdom-now Utopianism that Burkean conservatives also rightly fear– Strauss addresses as well. He addresses it as Jew, and as someone who knows what it means to have a calling to exile, a calling to diaspora.
“As soon as life in the diaspora is seen as holding forth the possibility of total social integration and political redemption,” explains Eugene Sheppard in his discussion of Strauss’s thought on exile, “the binding force of galut [exiled] existence has been lost and so too its will to live in defiance of the world’s ignominy.”
It is when Strauss’ disciples lost this sense of calling to diaspora that they began to think it might be a good idea to reshape the world in the image of America.