Against Conservative Rationalism

R. J. Snell
February 28, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Public Discourse

If memory is true, I first read Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath just as an odd, greenish sky portended the approach of a hailstorm to my family's farm. These had not been good years, the mid-1980s, with drought, grasshoppers, and hail ruining the work and livelihood of many. Foreclosures were not uncommon, and the bankers owned, or soon would own, land they had never worked and never would. My family, on the other hand, had worked the soil for generations. But the loans were large, the previous seasons disastrous, and the sky green while my father silently sat at the kitchen table, drinking weak coffee and watching clouds form in that sickening light.

You can see far in the prairies; the time to watch and wait is very long. Once the prayers are said, nothing can be done except waiting - waiting to learn if your plants and plans will be again crushed and shattered.

Steinbeck describes a Dust Bowl-era storm hitting the Red Country of Oklahoma. In its destructive aftermath, "men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn." They were silent as their wives came to stand beside them, "to feel whether this time the men would break." Losing the corn was one thing, but "the corn could go, as long as something else remained." In recognition, I read how "the children stood nearby . . . to see whether men and women would break," as my father watched the clouds. I knew, as Steinbeck did, that once the faces of the watching men "lost their bemused perplexity and became hard and angry and resistant" that we were "safe and that there was no break."

Still, it could have gone the other way.

Waiting to see if things will break imprints you with a sense of life's fragility. Very little is guaranteed to us. Even now, my friends gently chide me for having something of a tragic view of life, and I admit it, for I come from generations who relied on rain. Humans are frail creatures, depending on much beyond our control, and those who do not recognize this have never seen their father watch the clouds, or had livestock die, or waited as the ultrasound searches for a heartbeat that will never be heard. God is good, and he loves what he has created, but we are dust and he allows the winds to blow.

There is a God, he has promised to restore and redeem all things, and so I hope. While he has promised that all manner of things will be well in the end, he has not promised that all should be well here and now. There is tragedy and loss and grief to accompany our joy and feasting. There is a time for everything.

There is a God, he has promised to restore and redeem all things, and so I hope. While he has promised that all manner of things will be well in the end, he has not promised that all should be well here and now.

Terry Eagleton once noted that postmodern people do not really recognize tragedy as a category - however much every unfortunate event is labeled tragic - because they do not view themselves as possessing souls or inner depths. No longer believing that each person is an "agent or creator" but that each is instead trapped in the determinisms of race, gender, class, identity, or genes, they don't understand themselves as caught in the drama of freely constructing their character. They have flat souls, so flattened as not to be spacious enough for a God to reside therein. What's more, claims Eagleton, postmodern people don't experience the loss of God "as a trauma, an affront, a source of anguish," for they don't "experience it at all." Nothing momentous is missing, neither God nor self seems absent in the utter immanence of current experience, and so there is no sense of tragic or ultimate loss.

I retain a tragic view, however. Not because I think the world sad or dour, but because our joy and well-being depend on how responsibly we work out our temporal and eternal happiness and standing. Our agency and personhood, which cannot be jettisoned or transferred, is nonetheless fragile and dependent. We can (and do) go wrong. We choose evil rather than good, darkness rather than light, unintelligibility over intelligibility, barbarism over civilization, and often within the context of events and actions beyond our control or understanding. We can break, and wisdom suggests a politics born from the experience of men watching clouds form in the distance. Our lives, the accumulation of the labor of great-grandparents and grandparents, our institutions, these are all fragile accomplishments of many generations. We would be foolish to treat them as trifles or toys.

I'm conservative because tragedy is possible.

Conservatism is not an ideology. It is, rather, a recognition that all ideologies, inasmuch as they are overly abstract and overly certain, cut against the grain of reality and human nature. Knowing this, conservatives have a large tolerance for custom, for respecting venerable institutions because of their resilience and age, knowing that what works in syllogism not only doesn't always work in reality, but can be destructive in its purity.

Conservatives value reason, but we are not rationalists. We don't see political reality merely as a set of problems to be solved but as a tentative bulwark against disorder, however imperfect the shelter happens to be. Unlike the rationalist's irritable search for perfection and uniformity, conservatives admit of the need for cautious reform, allowing various "speeds" and modes of life within a patchwork of institutions working like flying buttresses to keep the whole edifice stable. Many of those buttresses were added piecemeal throughout history, not according to a centralized blueprint. However untidy the result, shoring up, patching up, is generally better than the wrecking ball and the master plan. We're more like farmers than engineers, wiring together the old fence as long as possible instead of tearing it out and building anew, since when the fence is down the cattle roam into the clover, trampling and gorging.

Unlike the rationalist's irritable search for perfection and uniformity, conservatives admit of the need for cautious reform, allowing various 'speeds' and modes of life within a patchwork of institutions working like flying buttresses to keep the whole edifice stable.

We know that political passions, like storms, arise unexpectedly and are difficult to control. We don't think it wise to foment political passion, or to create false hopes of ideal societies. We don't have five-year plans for perfection, knowing, as we do, the crooked timber of humanity. Certainly tradition is living and developmental, not ossified or static, but tradition contains wisdom gleaned from centuries of history, even if expressed more as rustic proverb than mathematical formula. Conservatives are fine with that lack of precision, for we are tolerant of reality as it actually is: messy. We may have a high sense of the demands of morality, but we know and accept human weakness. Forgiveness and redemption are dear to us, for we know that men are like grass and sometimes wither in the heat of desire, fear, and loneliness.

A tragic view of life is not a sad or despairing view. Not at all. But it does recognize how tenuous our accomplishments are, how easily they can be swept away, how rare the existence is of a peaceful and prosperous republic hosting people of many faiths and commitments. Ours is hardly a perfect society, and much needs reforming - urgently, in some cases - but a sense of the permanent possibility of tragedy fosters a profound disposition to gratitude. It could be worse. For most of human history, it was worse, far worse, and only the presumptuous or foolish believe they are entitled to perpetual peace, prosperity, and progress. Hail is just as likely as rain, and tender shoots grow by grace if they grow at all.

It's strange, then, to observe conservative rationalists, those who (perhaps rightly) see shortcomings in our polity but who give in to "if only" thinking. If only we passed this bit of legislation or enacted that policy, then we would bring about the desired state of affairs. No. If we had that policy we might ameliorate , we might improve , we might patch , but we would not yet have what we need. Or, if only we had not bought into Locke or Hobbes or Ockham or whatever other intellectual villain is supposedly behind our current ills. No. Reality does not admit of counterfactuals. This is not a "choose your own adventure" novel where you can go back and choose another pathway. This is the pathway we have. Besides, if history had taken another turn, there would have been other villains, other mistakes, other lacunae. If only we had this ruler, that system, this worldview, that metaphysical commitment, then we would have justice. No. At best, we would have avoided some aspects of the injustice we now suffer, but injustice of some sort would remain, for that is the nature of human action. We err, we sin, we seek our own. This is not an excuse or a pass or a blind eye, for injustice is wrong, and yet injustice is a permanent possibility of our life together. There are always storm clouds forming somewhere.

I am not dispirited, or hopeless, or resigned, or indifferent, nor have I given in to quietism. All people of good will and conscience are obligated to seek justice, pursue the good, care for their neighbors, and follow the moral law, but I am not naïvely sanguine about any political promise, plan, theory, or stratagem. Some are better, and some are worse, to be sure, but none escape human fallibility and finitude, and action is never as certain and precise as theory. Instead, I am hopeful for reform and grateful for those ancestors and friends who didn't break under the strains and temptations of their own time but labored to provide many of the goods we enjoy, however imperfect those goods.

As a young man, I watched my mother and father to see if they would break as hail pounded our crops into a tangled mess, yet again. I saw them remain steadfast - and I am utterly grateful for their resolve in the face of tragedy. They did not break, and so "the women went into the houses to their work, and the children began to play, cautiously at first," as the "men sat in the doorways of their houses," with hands busy as they "sat still - thinking - figuring."

At this moment, there is a great temptation for those on the Right to give in to great schemes and plans, messiahs and mechanisms. It is a temptation to be resisted. The conservative way is to plant again, cautiously, hopefully, steadfastly, but without vainly pretending that storm clouds will not rise again as our theories deliver heaven to earth.