Jim Sleeper was right to point out yesterday that American consumerism has done much more to cause the decline of the humanities than the infection of Marxists in English departments. But he was wrong to identify consumerism with conservatism. Consumerism is American, but it certainly is not conservative.
It has become popular for members and elected politicians of the Republican Party to call themselves conservative. The label seems to have some solidity, especially since the Democratic Party is trying to rid itself of what is now an epithet, “liberal.” But in reality, the members and elected politicians of both major political parties are liberal.
One adheres to a slightly older form of liberalism — often called “classical” — but both see themselves as advancing individual rights in the context of a modern pluralistic state and globalizing world. Nor is increasing executive power outside the realm of liberal theory: It serves the self-preservation demanded of the state by consenting individuals.
America is increasingly the great liberal nation; this is what Marxists and, recently, Osama bin Laden have recognized. Neither the Marxists nor bin Laden, however, understand that our conception of freedom is so absolute in our own minds that we don’t see the contradiction in imposing it on other nations. Thus, we have not accepted our many opportunities to empire because empire conflicts with our understanding of self-determination. But we maintain a vast cultural influence without any legal control.
Self-determination is the Trojan horse that accomplishes this feat — it makes those countries under its sway amenable to American culture. The preconditions of self-determination include a society whose organizing unit is the individual who bears and proclaims inalienable rights. This society, perfectly realized, precludes any community that specifies and pursues the good for man as a common project. This is because such a community requires authority to initiate and maintain its members in a shared conception of the good, but authority is always undermined by individuals who assert an abstract right to pursue whatever is at the top of their subjective hierarchies of values.
Any academic field properly conceived is, like the community mentioned above, a tradition of rational inquiry. Indeed, any well-functioning field will bear many of the characteristics of a community pursuing a conception of the good. Consider the natural sciences. One who wishes to join the field must first be educated in the standards and best practices of the field. He must learn the orthodoxies and the established doctrine, the concepts with which the field specifies its findings, and understand the way in which the field expects to advance in inquiry. In other words, he must be initiated into that specific tradition of rational inquiry.
The same is true of the humanities in principle. Where the precision of the quantifiable allows for a faster recognition of progress in inquiry in the natural sciences, and conceptions of meaning and specification of the human good do not as clearly advance on the conceptions of the past, progress in rational inquiry is possible, as is attested by the history of Western philosophy.
But the humanities do not progress today because they are not situated in the context of a tradition of inquiry devoted to the pursuit of the good. Any such context will entail standards and principles developed out of practice and reconstituted in inquiry. The context allows for progress because the inquiry takes as its aim the eclipse of former principles, but in the absence of a tradition there are no principles to eclipse. It is therefore unsurprising that the decline of the humanities in American education parallels the increasing liberalization of the country. Inalienable natural rights may be the offspring of the humanistic tradition, but they have killed their father and married their mother, the natural sciences, in a perversion worthy of Greek tragedy.
What, then, can give the humanities new life? Or, in what is substantially the same question, what can take us beyond liberal modernity? Marxism, nationalism, populism and all other large-scale attempts have failed. The local concepts of community, initiation, tradition and inheritance are characteristically jettisoned or redefined by liberalism. Yet these are precisely necessary for a return to rational progress in the pursuit of the human good. Conservatism constituted as the nurturing of a local and lived tradition of rational inquiry, then, may take us in the right direction.
Peter Johnston is a junior in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.