“Life blackens at the contact of truth.”
The red pill worldview is fundamentally the same as the classical conservative one. Each is skeptical of simple approaches to problems. Each knows that contexts tend to be more complicated than most people perceive. Each sees that lasting progress is a cheap fantasy. And each amounts to stripping away illusions and delusions, revealing the world as it really is: an overwhelmingly complex and uncertain place, in which discord is the norm, arising as it does from the immutable nature of things.
Life is full of unpredictable challenges, and intractable conflicts, and even the best solutions have a way of producing new obstacles along our already difficult path. In such a fraught condition as ours, there is a special value in traditional approaches to dealing with our common problems, as there is in traditional ways of living. It is not that these approaches are to be valued unquestioningly, but that we should not have the hubris or be so naive as to think we exist in a kind of historical vacuum. We have much to learn from the past, nor should the collective experience of humankind be ignored so that we can tear the world down and build it up all over again: an exceedingly dangerous attitude which, however well-intentioned, always does far more harm than good.
In this article and a few subsequent ones I will quote some passages from great conservative thinkers. We can think of these passages as a kind of test: to understand and, what is much more, live by these insights requires not just a certain level of intelligence; we must also have the strength of character not to look away from them because they are so averse to popular—that is, more comforting—opinions concerning human relations, society and life generally. In my comments I try to demonstrate the truth and value of these passages, which we should use to better our conduct of life, though, of course, doing this cannot be easy: wisdom is hard, and has a way of complicating things.
In 1791, writing to a member of Englands’s National Assembly, Edmund Burke said that
Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites, — in proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity, — in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption, — in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.
In passages like this, Burke shows why he is deservedly considered such a formidable critic of democracy. Freedom, he says wisely, is impossible unless reason and a strong will govern our base aspects. To the extent that we fail to do this, there is a need for an elite to rule over those who are not guided, as it were, by wisdom, which is, by definition, a minority affair: Socrates (or Burke himself) would not strike us as wise if he were equal to everyone else, if he did not know so much more than and live so differently from the majority.
Freedom is a severe responsibility, and the trouble with democracy is that it levels every one down, making it effectively impossible for there to be a kind of wise order of rank, in order that justice shall not be overtaken by rapacity. Further, without a “controlling power upon will and appetite,” society degenerates into a state of indulgence and ignorance precludes order.
To see the truth of this in our own time, consider the unhappy fate of Robert Jennings, recently forced to resign his Presidency of Lincoln University for urging women to take responsibility for their actions, namely, to not falsely accuse men of rape. It’s clear that in the response to Jennings, “soundness” and “sobriety” did not check “presumption.” In a Burkean society, the proper response would have been one of gratitude. The silly notion that Jennings somehow blamed women for actual rape would be unthinkable.
Burke’s phrase “controlling power” (my italics) is crucial: the minds of the majority are inadequate for perceiving wisdom. Their natural response to it is loathing, because they cannot understand it, and may well consider themselves “victims” in the face of it. Therefore, freedom—the achievement of justice and restraint—actually depends on inequality, since any freedom that will not culminate in horrible cultural decline—as we see in the United States of 2014—requires that a wise and powerful elite control (in the sense of benevolently guide) the relatively ignorant and intemperate majority. Now control, of course, is no pleasant thing. And yet, what is the alternative? Well, take a look around you. Liberal equality is a beautiful ideal, but it is an ideal only. Once you level people down, it is only so long before the base aspects of our nature predominate, resulting in the cultural decay with which we are now surrounded.
Let us turn from Edmund Burke to his friend, the great Samuel Johnson. “It may justly be concluded,” he tells us in “The Various Arts of Self-Delusion,”
that it is not easy for a man to know himself; for wheresoever we turn our view, we shall find almost all with whom we converse so nearly as to judge of their sentiments, indulging more favourable conceptions of their own virtue than they have been able to impress upon others, and congratulating themselves upon degrees of excellence, which their fondest admirers cannot allow them to have attained.
Even if you have not noticed that most people are simply not as good as they themselves believe, in order to see the truth of Johnson’s insight, you have only to look back on those instances in your life where you have been wronged by others. Was not self-interested denial on their part prevalent in these experiences? If it was, that is no wonder. When it comes to assuming moral agency, the mind is frequently a kind of rationalization-machine, and this is especially true of the Second Sex, most of whom lack a sense of justice, as we red pill men know only too well.
And if we are so inclined not to face the truth about ourselves, does it not follow that it probably is not easy to know ourselves? Indeed, we are often ignorant of ourselves, just as we are of others. Our minds are in the dark, and for good reason: it is easier that way. And like that man who so frustrates us because he cannot (or will not) see the ugly truth concerning his behavior, no matter how hard we try to show him, so too we our unaware of much about our very self. It is bizarre but true that one’s own self is something of a stranger.
Our relations with others are like those who live in a large house, in which each person has his own room, but can see others only through a keyhole. It is similar with ourselves. We look in the mirror, yet the reflection is cracked, so as to make us more attractive than unblinking self-examination displays. Such a partial view is, however, useful for the liberal agenda, which believes social reform meets with no resistance from a permanently flawed human nature, a grim notion in which few liberals believe.
Our last passage comes from the wisest and most eloquent of American writers. “Politics,” Emerson says in his essay “Power,”
is a deleterious profession, like some poisonous handicrafts. Men in power have no opinions, but may be had cheap for any opinion, for any purpose, — and if it be only a question between the most civil and the most forcible, I lean to the last. These Hoosiers and Suckers are really better than the snivelling opposition. Their wrath is at least of a bold and manly cast. They see, against the unanimous declarations of the people, how much crime the people will bear; they proceed from step to step, and they have calculated but too justly upon their Excellencies, the New England governors, and upon their Honors, the New England legislators. The messages of the governors and the resolutions of the legislatures, are a proverb for expressing a sham virtuous indignation, which, in the course of events, is sure to be belied.
In trade, also, this energy usually carries a trace of ferocity. Philanthropic and religious bodies do not commonly make their executive officers out of saints. The communities hitherto founded by Socialists, —the Jesuits, the Port-Royalists, the American communities at New Harmony, at Brook Farm, at Zoar, are only possible, by installing Judas as steward. The rest of the offices may be filled by good burgesses. The pious and charitable proprietor has a foreman not quite so pious and charitable. The most amiable of country gentlemen has a certain pleasure in the teeth of the bull-dog which guards his orchard.
The Sage of Concord is not usually considered a classical conservative, but the later Emerson is so fierce, so unflinching and so illiberal as to be in perfect company with Machiavelli, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. I therefore see no reason not to claim him here. His summary of the nature of politics is as applicable now as it was in his time. Dancing upon the world stage, all smiles like any customer service representative, our leaders make much of fairness, equality and other virtues. Meanwhile, like many of the rest of us, they are driven by power, essentially a synonym for self-interest. And so it is that they are easily corrupted, in Emerson’s words, “had cheap for any opinion, for any purpose.”
The brutal frauds of the world do at least possess a backbone and fighting spirit, in contrast to those who, like our time’s social justice warriors, are so much weak resentment and unmanly complaint. Say what you will about it, but the Tea Party, of which I myself am not fond, is at least “of a bold and manly cast,” very unlike our social justice warriors, that “sniveling opposition.”
Good is not far from evil, and cannot do without it. The well-being of those characterized by goodness, and of those who aim at bringing about the general improvement of humankind, depend on others who are “not quite so pious and charitable.” Like the state itself, goodness depends on power, because it must be enforced, and that is no rosy thing.
Emerson thus gives us a complete view of human affairs. The man who believes he has a right to law and order does well to contemplate the necessity of our much maligned police. Likewise, the liberal who, in the manner of Noam Chomsky, is so indignant about our great country’s “imperial aggression,” should ask himself what his life would be like without our “Hoosiers and Suckers.” Not to point out the dark motives of competing super powers such as Russia and China, but are other nations in general really merely innocent or neutral in regard to us? Or are they rather not more like the ever-smiling salesman, a very formidable fraud, out for wealth and resources and driven by self-interest?