A few weeks ago, reader C sent me a link to an interesting article by a historian named Corey Robin about the nature of modern conservatism. Before I give you the link, I must tell you: it contains the phrases “mile-high club” and “Ross Douthat” in close proximity. Consider yourself warned.
The conservative believes in excellence, as Douthat says, but it is a vision of excellence defined as and dependent on “overcoming.” It’s a vision that abhors the easy path of acceptance, of tolerating human frailty and need, not because that path is wrong but because it is easy. Or, to put it differently, it’s wrong precisely because it is easy. And though that vision often claims Aristotle as its inspiration, its true sources are Nietzschean.
The conservative believes the excellent person is a kind of mountain climber, a moral athlete who is constantly overcoming or trying to overcome his limits, pushing himself ever higher and higher. When it comes to sex, he’s not unlike the Foucauldian transgressor, that sexual athlete of novelty and experiment: but where Foucault believes that taboos against sex are all too easily reached (that’s why, if we are to attain the peaks of experience, we have to move beyond those limits), the conservative’s remain out of reach. The value of a rule lies in its difficulty and potential unattainability, the ardor of the struggle it imposes upon us. We might call this ethic the ardor of adversity.
I had never considered this before, that part of the reason many conservatives want to follow the rules of 13th century Europe is that it’s difficult to follow those rules (one could probably construe Douthat’s own style as a very extreme form of hipsterism, with Chunky Reese Witherspoon playing the role of a non-fixed gear bike). When I was a kid, there was a Harvey Mansfield student who lived down the street from me. Wore a fedora, devout church-goer, made his kids wear suits, at least to church, from age 6 onward, loved the Middle Ages (also loved Nietzche). Convinced both of his kids to join the army after high-school. Why would someone want to live like that? The answer that they want to do it partly because they see it as a challenge makes a lot of sense to me.
I’ve started reading Robin’s new book, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, on Kindle, and I like it a lot so far. What do people think of doing this for a book club?