Death And Conservatism


The Dish has had a spiritually enriching series (for me, at least) of the relationship of belief and unbelief to death, and the idea of death. But I think a deep appreciation of the centrality of mortality is also central to conservatism as I understand it. The first words of "The Conservative Soul" - "All conservatism begins with loss" - were my attempt to capture the existential realism of the conservative viewpoint and its reluctant acquiescence in all practical life as a form of inevitable and eventual failure. That is why the tersest description of a real conservative is Oakeshott's: someone who prefers present laughter to utopian bliss.

A reader notes a similar sentiment from Roger Scruton in his Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life:

"The years of conflict have taught me that few will share my convictions, and that all attempts to conserve things come too late. But the philosopher who most clearly perceived this truth brought a message of peace: 'when philosophy paints its grey-in-grey, then is a form of life grown old. The Owl of Minerva speads its wing only with the gathering of the dusk.' Hegel's words describe not the view from that attic window in the Quartier Latin, but the soul that absorbed it.

It was not to change things, or to be part of things, or to be swept along by things, that I made my pilgrimage to Paris. It was to observe, to know, to understand. And so I acquired the consciousness of death and dying, without which the world cannot be loved for what it is. That, in essence, is what it means to be a conservative."

I wonder whether this is why conservatism - as opposed to pseudo-conservatism or American exceptionalism or populism or libertarianism - has had such a hard time putting down roots in America. There is something about late American capitalist culture, perhaps exemplified in the speech patterns and reflexes of Sarah Palin, that is always about progress, success, achievement, plowing through doors, seeing bright futures - even when decline is so apparent you need goggles to ignore it.

There is a core element of the tragic in conservatism. And yet America resists tragedy, denies it, moves past it, feels threatened by it. But until you have truly grappled with tragedy, you haven't fully grappled with reality.