“It is not unusual to be a conservative. But it is unusual to be an intellectual conservative. In both Britain and America some 70% of academics identify themselves as being ‘on the Left,’ while the surrounding culture is increasingly hostile to traditional values, or to any claim that might be made for the high achievements of Western Civilization.”
— Sir Roger Scruton
And like it or not, the academic world does have a major impact – directly, through the pronouncements of academics, and even more significant, indirectly, through its graduates (who end up in business, media, and politics) – on the wider culture.
The “Benedict Option” (or what Sir Roger here calls “catacomb culture”) is valid and likely essential as a short-term strategy for survival of traditional values, ideas, and ideals (and perhaps, for traditional people who wish to bear and raise children in those values, ideas, and ideals), but it is not an end in itself.
Remember that the monks of medieval Europe did not merely remain in their monasteries, but in some cases actively evangelized (think the Celtic monks, Franciscan friars, and the preaching orders), or in the case of the Benedictines themselves, served as “leaven in the loaf” of the wider culture.
It’s not enough merely to “opt out” of secular culture – although, as I say, that can be an important first step, and survival strategy, just as the monks made the decision to leave their secular lives and enter the monastery. We have to keep the longer-term goal in mind: taking it back.
And that is perhaps acutely the case with the academic world. Just as the Left engaged in their “long march through the institutions,” so we must engage in a “long pilgrimage,” a peregrinatione ad Deo – a pilgrimage toward God – within that academic world.
I did it, in 1993-1995, as a graduate student at what was at the time the second-ranking divinity school in the nation (behind only Chicago): Vanderbilt Divinity School. It was also a very “liberal” (“progressive,” politically-correct, Leftist) institution. Ironically, I came out – with a Master of Theological Studies from that “Southern Ivy” university – a great deal more conservative and traditional than I went in!
And that was precisely by seeing and responding to the rampant cultural Marxism (though that term was not then in use, at least not by me) I saw, heard, and experienced all around me, and recognizing the vacuity, self-contradiction, and pointlessness of it.
One of the key teachings was the “hermeneutic of suspicion”: the idea that one should be suspicious of all claims to truth, and certainly all claims to authority or power. And well did I learn that lesson! Indeed, I became highly suspicious of the hermeneutic of suspicion, itself, and all thought and discourse linked to it.
Why? Because it was “deconstructionist” without any clear idea – and certainly no legitimate, workable idea – of what to reconstruct in the ruins.
In fact, it often seemed to be (and still does, to this day, among the Leftists of the early 21st century) to be deconstruction for its own sake: tearing down all that is traditional, established, or time-tested, in an ISIS-like orgy of destruction, with no attempt to build anything else at all, except for a vague sense of “equality” (meaning, in practice, free money, and freedom to pursue one’s personal degeneracy without judgement).
Hmmmmm… where have we heard such themes, before? Ah, yes – I have it! “Liberté, egalité, fraternité!” “Liberty, equality, fraternity!” The high-sounding rhetoric of the French Revolution, which quickly degenerated in wide-scale bloodshed, oppression, and the reign of Madame Guillotine. Is this truly a model we wish to follow?
At any rate, as I say, my experience at Vanderbilt let me see this side of the Left with clear and open eyes, and I came out a good deal more conservative and traditional than I went in – God be thanked! Sir Roger apparently experienced something very similar, and as his intellectual acuity, perception, and clarity of expression is to mine as the tiger is to the house-cat, I shall turn you over to him:
P.S. I find his comments on Margaret Thatcher particularly interesting, in light of the tendency among many (especially American) conservatives to equate free-market economics with conservatism / traditionalism, when in fact that is not always the case.
As I have said before, here and elsewhere, capitalism and conservatism are not synonymous:
Indeed, capitalism (at least, of the voracious corporatist variety, in which mega-corporations – modern-day robber barons, plutocrats, profiteers – devour smaller competitors to the point of reshaping the playing field to suit their own interests, and maximize their own profits, everything and everyone else be damned) and socialism (in which you have the State doing the same thing) are two sides to the same coin, in that they reduce everything to economics.
It is an arid, barren, and starkly materialistic approach to life, in either case, and thus one which is counter to humanity, and human flourishing.
True conservatism – traditionalism – sees things rather differently, placing the human being, not in raw individual autonomy but as part of a family and a community, at the center, and considering economic and political issues in light of how they bear on that family and community. As the great G.K. Chesterton put it,
“The Middle Ages did not care about giving everybody an equal position, but they did care about giving everybody a position.”
True conservatism – traditionalism – also differs from neoconservatism, and its sometime sparring partner, sometime ally or alter ego, neoliberalism, by placing spiritual, not material, goods as our ultimate goal (and yes, I am aware that neoconservatism is more inclined to view untrammeled capitalism with suspicion than is the free-market-hawkish neoliberalism, but they are simply at different places on the same spectrum).
That is to say, our ultimate striving should not be for material ends, be they prosperity, physical comfort, sexual satisfaction, etc.; rather, our lives should be viewed as a pilgrimage through this real but temporary home – this good Earth, which God has given us, to be cherished, not despised, as the site of our earthly pilgrimage – but en route to our ultimate and permanent home, in the nearer presence of our Heavenly Father.
Family and community are central, not only because they are goods in themselves (which they are), but because they reflect heavenly realities: the Kingdom of Heaven, the Communion of Saints, the unity of the Church Militant, Expectant, and Triumphant, even the very nature of God, as three Persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – in one Essence.
These higher goals, aspirations, and realities are lost or dis-ordered, if we insist on placing economics – whether interpreted in socialistic or capitalistic terms – at the center of our attention! We must, therefore, be suspicious of any economic system which claims to offer ultimate answers to the problems of life, lest it become for us an idol, and a distraction rather than an aid to our journey… our pilgrimage.
“Thou, O Lord, hast made us for Thyself; and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”
— St. Augustine of Hippo