Yoram Hazony’s 2022 book, Conservatism: A Rediscovery, comes at a time when the conservative movement is soul-searching and questioning. Conservatives are asking what is to be conserved. They seek to know what they are fighting for, not who they are fighting against. As liberalism decays, many, like the author, dispute with those who would equate conservativism with classical liberalism. There has to be something more.
Adding to the drama is a dearth of new ideas as progressives take the worn-out program to brutal and radical consequences. Conservatives look to the past to see if this “something more” might be “rediscovered.”
Two Currents Dividing America
The book is about this rediscovery. Dr. Hazony claims the solution is a return to America’s traditions. However, it must be the right tradition. The search is complicated by a history divided into two currents since the Revolutionary War and the Founding. Readers are advised to choose correctly.
The first current consists of those who follow the Enlightenment and adopt its rationalistic frameworks. These theorists confide in abstract reasonings that get people into trouble. They find universal principles detached from reality and impose them on the nation. The bloody French Revolution is the most blatant example of this speculative school. The Jeffersonian wing of the Founders also tended to adopt this ideology. Liberal philosophers have validated it with their works over time. Finally, today’s dominant progressives take this abstract idealism to new extremes with gender and critical race theories.
Dr. Hazony favors the other current, which he terms the Anglo-American tradition. Its followers believe in developing laws and customs based on a “historical empirical” method of trial and error over generations. They base themselves upon common law and time-tested institutions linked to intermediary groups like the family, community and parish. The Federalists of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams belonged to this current, enshrining many of its principles into the Constitution. This is the Burkean school that does not trust the faulty human reason of the Enlightened ones to govern. Instead, it prefers the security and misty past of “little platoons,” clans and family structures.
A Return to Tradition
Two opposing forces, ideology and anti-ideology, are now at play. The message of Conservativism—Hazony states—is that America must rediscover the Anglo-American tradition that the revolution of the sixties has long eclipsed.
Of course, there is much to like in his evaluation of this tradition. Many important concepts that must be restored are mentioned here: hierarchy, loyalty, honor, family, community and religion are but a few. His principal thesis is that individuals are attached to families, clans and nations that help form them. These refreshing concepts need to be put back on the table of conservativism. They must be discussed if the postmodern catastrophe is to be averted.
However, some more fundamental issues must be first resolved before entering the fray. Two major problems with the author’s discussion of the national conservative future are cause for concern and must be addressed.
Dealing with Universal Principles
The first problem involves the difficulty in arriving at certainties found in the current of “historical empiricism.” Dr. Hazony claims that conservatives must not confide in “the inherent weakness of Individual judgment” and must instead have recourse to the wisdom of forbearers and “the traditions of the past.” He favors slow inductive reasoning over quick deductive conclusions. It is better that families, clans and nations come upon the Truth through their experience of it.
There is nothing wrong with veneration for national tradition or using it to arrive at conclusions. However, it cannot lead to an over-suspiciousness about all universal principles and an overreliance on tradition. The possibility of error should not overrule the construction of abstract reasoning about the nature of things. Not everything must be hidden in a misty and mysterious past.
Systems without universal principles are limited to experiences—which are also inherently weak in fallen human nature. The Truth can quickly degenerate into how nations perceive things over time. Different countries might have legitimate perspectives, but they need to be judged by a higher law, which the author denies. Otherwise, morality is reduced to Adam Smith’s “moral sentiments” that determine behavior based much more upon feelings than principles.
Thus, this attachment to historical empiricism leads Dr. Hazony to reject the long natural law tradition of the West that recognizes a higher law reflecting Divine Law valid for all times and peoples. It holds that all human actions are governed by the general principle that good is to be done and evil is to be avoided. Natural law is part of the Anglo-American legal tradition. It makes no sense to reject it in the name of tradition because it offers universal observations about human nature.
Out of fear of the Enlightenment’s errors, the author refuses to embrace medieval thought from which sprung marvelous applications that expressed themselves in custom and tradition. Although he is Jewish, his preferred model is the Protestant denominations, where there is no universal doctrine but only different worship traditions. Hence comes his hostility toward the Catholic Church displayed in his last book, The Virtue of Nationalism.
An Extremely Rational Presentation
The ironic thing about the book is that it is a highly rational presentation of national conservativism. It systematically lays out its components, making the best use of reason, and overcoming the “inherent weakness of human judgment.” The author makes universal affirmations about human nature, found in the Anglo-American tradition that the reader is invited to apply to the present circumstances.
And that is the problem with the Hazony solution. There is no Rock upon which to build his national model. He will recognize no Revelation, higher law or Magisterium that affirms the dogmas and doctrines needed to guide and orient behavior. Without this security, tradition is also vulnerable to fallen human nature’s errors—as seen in the extreme cases of cannibalism, human sacrifice, infanticide, suttee or other aberrations constituting the “tradition” of some cultures. The conservative is left wandering in the epistemological wilderness, hoping by trial and error to find the best way out when a road map would be very useful.
Without some rock foundation, conservativism may be able to rediscover a part of its past, but it will be doomed to embark upon the same post-Reformational path that led to the liberalism the author detests.
Anything But Christendom
This missing rock foundation is the second problem with Dr. Hazony’s presentation. Modern political writers have a marked tendency to adopt an anything-but-Christendom attitude when proposing solutions. Thus, a proliferation of convoluted schemes could have been avoided by adopting a simpler Christendom approach. The quest to rediscover a solution becomes a fool’s errand of circle-squaring because of prejudice against an already known and scorned wheel.
Indeed, the Anglo-American tradition stretched back to and was integrated with Christendom. Many leave this detail out. Indeed, the Anglo-American tradition was not exclusively a historical empiricist creation since Anglo-Saxons have long since stopped worshiping Woden and considering oak trees sacred. Christendom played its role in shaping this tradition with its teachings. In the case of oak trees, universal Church principles (and Saint Boniface’s ax) forbade idolatry while introducing a wide range of customs and traditions based on this conclusion.
In Christendom, natural law did not suppress but enriched tradition. It kept tradition from following the “inherent weakness of human judgment” that leads to sin and decadence. Under its guidance, tradition could flower into numerous expressions of national (or regional) identity.
Christendom also provided the dynamism that catapulted the West to develop a splendorous civilization. The religious fervor of a population who sought to love God and neighbor cannot fail to contribute to the common good. The unquantifiable elements of grace and fervor are crucial ingredients that modern political writers do not consider.
Organic Christian Society
Christendom created the condition for an organic Christian society with many refreshing elements mentioned in Hazony’s national conservative model. However, it differed in its approach. Organic Christian society united a few universal principles associated with the nature of things and in accordance with the Gospel and then allowed enormous freedom in applying them to the needs of the person, family or society.
Inside this framework, organic society is a social order oriented toward the common good that naturally and spontaneously develops. The family attains the plenitude of its action and influence as the social cell or fundamental unit of society. Professional, social and other intermediary groups between the individual and the State freely exercise their activities according to their own forms and rights.
The State respects the autonomy of regions and intermediary groups, giving each the right to organize according to its social and economic structure, character and traditions. The State, acting within its own supreme orbit, exercises its sovereign power with honor, vigor and efficiency. The Church exercises a hallowing influence upon society by guiding, teaching and sanctifying.
The Limits of Skepticism
Dr. Hazony’s perspective may agree with many concepts of this organic Christian society, but he does not share its metaphysical foundations. His considerations are not about the nature of things but that “which has held good and beneficial in the past.”
By insisting upon historical empiricism, Truth is never completely knowable, for Dr. Hazony, but something human societies pursue over time through their traditions. Likewise, religion and morality are, for him, uncertain, limited and strongly validated by the wisdom of one’s inherited tradition.
There is forever uncertainty and skepticism, which encourages people to cling ever more closely to those institutions that provide security. Tradition thus becomes the determiner, not the guardian of Truth.
Seeking the Balance
The Catholic Church’s vision of Creation despises neither abstract reasoning nor tradition. It rejoices in both as God-given means to the Truth. Fallen nature demands that both be scrutinized lest they fall into error. God gives grace to aid in this quest. The Church’s Magisterium provides security to that which is taught.
Thus, the Catholic vision of society balances the universal and particular, the theoretical and practical and the natural and supernatural. The Church knows how to respect the local, particular and customary. However, the Church also teaches the Truth that attracts all nations. Its moral law confronts pagan customs, past and present. The Church presents that beauty, forever ancient and new, that invites all nations to know, love and serve God.
This balance is especially needed today. National conservativism is too narrow to inspire those searching for solutions. Its perspective proves difficult for postmodern orphans so far disconnected from traditional and national narratives that reconnection or rediscovery is impossible. They need that “something more” that has always attracted people and satisfied the deepest yearnings of the human soul.
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