One of the important lessons of 2020 is that it is relatively easy to dismantle and deconstruct history, culture and institutions. Conversely, it is far more difficult to build-bridges, construct things and move forward with solutions. We desperately need the latter kind of person in Western society.
Now, we need such people across the political and cultural spectrum, of course. But we particularly need them among small c-conservatives, which is, broadly speaking, how I would describe myself.
As recent articles by Mary Harrington and Niall Gooch have shown, those on the right have, in recent years, become sucked into the culture wars of the day, often mirroring and mimicking the style and tone of cultural warriors on the left. While there are some notable exceptions, conservative public intellectuals of the last decade or so have been more characterised by their polemical prowess than their philosophical powers, as Ben Sixsmith has recently highlighted. In the wake of the death of Sir Roger Scruton (who, it must be said, wielded the pen of the pugilist and philosopher in equal measure), the question of who will take up the mantle of conservative philosophy, casting a vision of the good and beautiful for society at large, remains largely unanswered. Where are the constructionists?
Why does it matter for conservatism to be constructing things?
As a historical movement, conservatism emerged as a reaction to the Enlightenment’s radical individualism and its dogged belief in inexorable human progress. Against the backdrop of their historical origins, and the very etymology of the word conservatism, conservatives might well look askance at the task of constructing things. Isn’t the ultimate goal to preserve and conserve? Some, of course, might even wonder if there is anything left to preserve, which I think is an unnecessarily pessimistic outlook.
Of course, the conservation of a culture’s heritage is essential to conservatism. “Good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.” But in answer to those objections that might be levelled, we can say the following. To devote ourselves to construction need not entail committing ourselves to Whiggish assumptions about human perfectibility in this life. Nor does it necessarily bind us to individualism— “I am building my island for me”. Rather, in constructing things, we can and do build things together that bind us to one another as a community.
Chloe Valdary, a public figure who incidentally I’m sure would not describe herself as a conservative, grasps deeply our human need to create culture together through music and the arts. Building culture together (through shared artistic endeavour, for instance) is an effective way to foster societal cohesion, and instil empathy and love for one’s fellow human being. Conservatives can, and should, be a part of this endeavour. In other words, the task of construction matters, more broadly, because of our deep-seated need to build things as humans.
And finally, the call to construct matters particularly for Christians, whatever their philosophical or political persuasion, because we are called to be those who consider deeply the place of beauty, goodness and truth in human experience and the world around us. The Hebrew Bible begins with Adam and Eve naming the animals, reflecting and imaging the creative powers of their Creator (in contrast to rival and earlier Babylonian creation myths in which humans function as slaves and fodder for the capricious gods). St Paul’s words are our maxim: “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things”.
What is the way forward, then, for small c-conservatives?
Harrington, who is unduly pessimistic about the current state of conservatism is perhaps on to something when she writes that those attracted to conservatism need to consider finding “a new name. ‘Constructionists’, perhaps. There is a lot of building to do”. Why not conservative Constructionists? They would, I think, be a powerful cultural force for good.
The solution is to not neglect the appreciation of the past, but to combine the retrospective with whole-hearted efforts at creating and appreciating culture that is being made right now, in the form of good art, rousing music, inspiring poetry and beautiful architecture. For, as Dostoevsky once said, “beauty will save the world”. Conserving our heritage remains an essential task, yes. But it is ultimately an insufficient one, leaving a gaping hole in the heart of society and the human person. We must also be about the business of constructing things. We see bizarre, ugly, depressing and frankly substandard art being erected all the time. We can shout about this all we want. But what positive actions are we taking to construct things that are beautiful, true and good?
Don’t get me wrong. We need polemicists too. Bad ideas, habits and practices after all, deserve to be dismantled through argumentation. But pugilistic polemics on its own builds nothing, apart, perhaps, from resentment which, as Scruton suggested, is a fundamentally self-destructive force. Let us also be about building things and constructing a vision of the good, true and beautiful. Now is the time for repair and reconstruction. Arise the constructionists!
Image Credit: Athens’ Parthenon (iStockphoto/Thinkstock)