A brief version of this appeared at https://home.isi.org/nothing-has-changed-least-fundamentally. A huge thank you to ISI for soliciting it. Below is the director’s cut.
As another presidential election cycle comes to a conclusion and a new one already begun, it’s well worth thinking about the state of conservatism, its present and its future, as well as of the state of western civilization. While this vicious, brutal, and malicious election cycle resembles many of the past elections in American history—especially those bitterly contested in and of 1824, 1876, and 2000—there are things about the 2016 cycle that make it interesting from a long-term perspective. For one, the role of populism has made its striking mark across the political spectrum, perhaps in ways, at this moment, incalculable. Perhaps more than anything else, personality mattered in the 2016 election. Not character, but personality. Not virtue, but smackdowns.
Second, after nearly twenty-five years of constant war and nine years after the so-called stimulus packages transferred the single largest amount of wealth in the history of civilization from those who work quietly to those who prey and cajole, a sizable number of the population is simply angry, even if inarticulately so. One only has to drive through the suburbs of D.C. to see how much Leviathan has fed on military and corporate growth over the years since President Reagan left office. Truly, we live in imperial times, with our Caesars in both major parties.
As such, however, we must also note, as a third point about 2016, that we face a well-armed and aggressive world as well. From all appearances, Russia and China are ready to make major moves all over the globe. As each has with varying degrees of success incorporated elements of freely-functioning markets (with, of course, lots and lots of state manipulation and intervention), each has grown in terms of ability and ego. After years of worrying about the most superficial of things—ranging from who can use a bathroom to who should bake a cake for whom and just what a safe space is—American politicians are simply incapable of responding to these threats with anything other than the threat of counter force. No American statesmen of the Churchill or Reagan variety lurks in the background, awaiting the moment to give voice to the deeper meaning of the West. No matter how many troops we have in the field, how many ships on the ocean, or how many missiles in the silos, we are a lost people, unsure of anything except that we must not judge one another too harshly.
Imagine for a moment what the ancient world of the Greeks must have looked like. As Victor Davis Hanson has reminded us, the Greeks who turned over their land rather easily to Philip of Macedon were the descendants of those who valiantly fought the much fiercer Persians at Thermopylae and Marathon. We might call them all Greek, but the men who died against the Persians must have seemed as demigods compared to the “men” who gave their country to Philip. What would a George Washington say of us were he to look upon our miserable, whining, self-absorbed culture? Or, a Crazy Horse or a Nat Turner? We are not only lost and angry, but we also face threats that perplex us, mostly because our enemies understand themselves and their purposes. Meanwhile, we know neither ourselves nor our enemies.
Thinking about the Greeks, however, happily reminds me that philosophy first began five hundred before Christ in the Ionian city of Miletus. There, a number of men argued about the cycles of the world. Why did spring become summer? Summer become autumn? Autumn become winter? Equally important, why did not winter proceed to a fifth thing, but to return to the first thing, spring? Yet, no two springs were ever identical. Why did the human person move from birth to middle age and corruption to death? Humanity, however, did not end, only each specific manifestation of it did with the passing of a life.
This intrigued as well as worried the Greek philosophers. Could humanity ever escape the cycles of the world, or did the cycles trap us in some pre-determined way? Though the Stoics wrestled with the same questions, it would take Sts. John, Paul, and Augustine to explain the real grace of the Logos, thus answering all of the Greek longings and anxieties.
Thinking of the Greeks should also remind us that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle wrote at the end of Classical Greece. In the history of western civilization, they do not occupy this position uniquely, by any means. Cicero reminded us of the glories of the Republic which died as he died. St. Augustine watched the end of the Classical world and the beginning of the Medieval one. More often than not, our greatest voices in society have been those who have come at the end of some astounding period of civilization. Their observations, generally, possess as much nostalgia as they do an idealization of what they would have liked to have been true.
And, third, thinking of St. Augustine should also remind us how ephemeral politics is. As he watched the Barbarians and Vandals sack Rome, the supposed eternal city, the North African responded by recording all that mattered in his day and age, brilliantly mixing the words of Virgil with the theology of Paul. For Augustine, real history came not from the raw will of man, but from man’s submission to God’s unlimited grace. That submission might be profoundly obvious such as Perpetua walking into the arena, or it might happen in some unseen and unknown corner of the world, simply one person helping another.
While the City of Man would rise to the highest heights and sink to the lowest lows, the citizens of the City of God sojourned through this world, leavening what they could, but knowing that while God would win the ultimate war, each generation might very well lose the battle. No matter the cost, the citizens of the true eternal city, the New Jerusalem, must act in love.
Especially relevant to this election cycle, though, St. Augustine warned us not to make a false idol of governments or political institutions. Without justice, “what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed upon.”
I don’t mean to suggest that America is done or that America is about to be great again. We might be one of the other, we might be both, or we might be becoming something that is yet to be named. Regardless, as conservatives we must contend with a myriad of problems, to be certain. Racial tensions, the tapioca conformity and mediocrity promoted by mass media and universities, the continuing decline of liberal education, the love affair of corporations and government, the pedophilic national security state, the flabbiness of our empire abroad, and the rise of aggression and fundamentalism (beyond ideologies) abroad should worry us deeply.
Yet, at a much more profound level, nothing has really or truly changed.
For each of you reading this, your duty as a human being in this world has not changed, no matter the outcome of November 8, 2016. No human law has repealed God or the Natural Law, though we might very well have forgotten, mocked, or unintentionally distorted each. Still, as human beings, you must still pursue what is good, what is true, and what is beautiful. You must still love what should be loved and you must still hate what should be hated. Whatever appearances might seem, truth and lies have not changed positions, nor have beauty and ugliness, nor have good and evil. The seven virtues remain the seven virtues, and the seven deadly sins remain the seven deadly sins. A vote, a candidate, and a party cannot—in any way, shape, or form—determine these things.