TBT: Ideas Have Consequences – Introduction

Yesterday was the last session of the Summer 2020 History of Conservative Thought course.  This summer marks the second run of the course, and it was a fantastic class.  I had three young men enrolled, all quite eager to dive into the material.

I try to avoid lengthy lectures in HoCT, giving the basic background information and scaffolding necessary to put the readings into context.  I want the works to speak for themselves, and for the students to the do the heavy lifting of sussing out meaning and the author’s ideas.  Each week students wrote a short essay or answered a few different guided questions, then we would come in and discuss the material.

With this summer’s group, that model worked very well, as two of the young men in particular loved to plunge into discussions and ask questions.  One of the students was concurrently taking a colleague’s popular Terror and Terrorism course, which leads off each summer with the French Revolution.  That always dovetails nicely with our discussion of Edmund Burke, as we read several excerpts from his Reflections on the Revolution in France.  Burke comes on the heels of our discussion of Russell Kirk’s conservative principles, and helps frame the early portion of the course in the Burkean tradition.

In July, we left the nineteenth century and began looking at the modern conservative movement, with a heavy emphasis on William F. Buckley, Jr., and the notion of fusionism.  Buckley’s National Review catches a good bit of flack on the Right these days, including from this blog, but it truly shaped conservatism in the second half of the twentieth century.  Before National Review, conservatism was a disorganized, disunited hodgepodge of various ideologies, movements, and issues—it was, as Lionel Trilling put it, a “reactionary impulse,” a grumpy attitude about the way things were, but without a cohesive understanding of how to combat the dominance of New Deal liberalism.

For all its noodle-wristed hand-wringing and desperate virtue-signalling today, National Review created the modern conservative movement by giving conservatives their voice, their publication.  It also gave conservatism a politically viable platform of issues that could win in national politics.  That focus on nationalism certainly cuts against the Kirkean/Burkean mold of organic, ordered liberty, but it was the reality of post-war American political life.

We ended with another mid-century conservative, but one fitting far more into the spiritual and moral mold of Burke and Kirk, and far less in the neoliberal and materialist mold of Buckley-style fusionism:  Richard Weaver’s seminal Ideas Have Consequences, which I consider one of the greatest books ever written.  Indeed, I’m a bit of a Weaver fanboy, as he’s been featured twice on my Summer Reading Lists, first in 2016 for Ideas Have Consequences, and again in 2020 for his collection of Southern Essays.

For the course, we just read the “Introduction” to the book, which I try to read every August before school resumes.  It reminds me why I teach, and what is at stake.  Reading Ideas Have Consequences—first published in 1948—today reads like prophecy fulfilled.  Weaver’s core focus on William of Occam as the source of modernity and its related ills might seem a bit far-fetched, but that’s merely the germ from which the analysis of modernity’s fallen view of the world grows.

The real heart of Ideas Have Consequences is the abandonment of the transcendental—of God—in favor for navel-gazing particularism, a constant focus on lower, material concerns.  Unbound from any obligation to or belief in a transcendental moral order, men are left adrift in a world full of isolation, alienation, confusion, and meaninglessness.

I’ll let the rest speak for itself.  Here is 29 July 2019’s “Ideas Have Consequences – Introduction“:

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TBT: History of Conservative Thought Update: Edmund Burke

The Summer 2020 session of History of Conservative Thought is really going well.  Yesterday, the three young man each gave brief presentations on three excerpts from Edmund Burke’s writing, summarizing Burke’s main points and ideas.

It was made for a lively, far-ranging discussion.  One of the students is taking another summer course, Terror and Terrorism, a popular summertime offering from one of my colleagues.  I had the pleasure to fill-in last summer for the French Revolution portion of that class while my colleague was away at an AP Summer Institute.  Apparently, that course just covered the French Revolution again, so it dovetailed nicely with our discussion of Burke’s Reflections on that bloody affair.  We had a good time contrasting Burkean “ordered liberty” and Rousseau’s “general will.”

As such, I thought this edition of TBT could look back to Summer 2019’s HoCT update, “History of Conservative Thought Update: Edmund Burke“:

A bit of a delayed post today, due to a busier-than-usual Monday, and the attendant exhaustion that came with it. The third meeting of my new History of Conservative Thought class just wrapped up, and while I should be painting right now, I wanted to give a quite update.

Last week, we began diving into the grandfather of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke. Burke prophetically saw the outcome of the French Revolution before it turned sour, writing his legendary Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1789 as the upheaval began. Burke argued that the French Revolution ended the greatness of European civilization, a Europe that governed, in various ways, its respective realms with a light hand, and a sense of “moral imagination.”

To quote Burke reflecting on the Queen of France:

“I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroick enterprise is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honour, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.”

What a powerful excerpt! The “sophisters, economists, and calculators,” indeed, reign in the West. What Burke was driving at here was that the rationalistic, abstract bureaucrats who would abandon tradition in their quest for a perfect society would sacrifice everything that made their country great, and life worth living.

Burke was also arguing that there is more to obedience to a government or king than the mere threat of power. People are invested in their country and society—and willing to submit to authority—because of organic culture from which it grows. Uprooting the great tree of tradition in favor of abstract foundations merely destroys the tree, and plants its seedlings in shallow ruts of stone. What grows will be anemic and pitiful by comparison.

Volumes could and have been written about Burke, but I’ll leave it here for now. Next week we’re getting into the development of Northern and Southern conservatism, which should make for some pre-Independence Day fun.

The Magna Carta Turns 805

Good old Scott Rasmussen’s Number of the Day observes that King John signed the venerable Magna Carta 805 years ago today.  The beleaguered king signed the great charter essentially at sword point, as his barons had him cornered at Runnymede on 15 June 1215.

The Magna Carta’s history is a fascinating one.  King John challenged the document’s legitimacy almost immediately, but his son reaffirmed it.  Essentially, the Magna Carta was not a sweeping guarantee of the rights of all Englishmen; rather, it was a guarantee of the rights of a narrow band of English nobility (the aforementioned barons), and that the king was subject to his own laws.  No taxes could be levied on the nobility without their consent.

It took another four hundred-odd years, during the events leading up to and following the English Civil War, for the Magna Carta to be applied more broadly.  The Stuart monarchs sought to aggrandize the monarchy, turning it into a form of absolute monarchy in the mode of the French kings.  Parliament—jealous of its prerogatives—dug up the Magna Carta and used it in its legal case against absolute monarchy.

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History of Conservative Thought Summer 2020, Week 2

The second week of History of Conservative Thought 2020 is in the books.  We did another Google Meet session, as I’m still supposed to be quarantining, but we should be able to meet in person next week.  My fever is virtually gone, and I’m finally feeling normal again.

The bulk of today’s discussion centered on Russell Kirk’s “Ten Conservative Principles,” which expanded a bit upon the six conservative principles Kirk wrote about in the “Introduction” to The Portable Conservative Reader.  It was a great discussion, and it was interesting to read the students’ papers before class to see how their answer to the question “What is Conservatism?” changed after reading Kirk.

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First Day of History of Conservative Thought 2020

Today marked the first day of the Summer 2020 session of my History of Conservative Thought course.  Because I’m sick and awaiting COVID-19 test results, we held the inaugural session on Google Meet, discussing the big picture question “What is Conservatism?

The session went quite well (and I was pleased to see that even with a fever I could last around 75 minutes).  The students hit upon these concepts as being key to conservatism:

  • Fiscal responsibility
  • Constitutionalism (in the American context)
  • Limited/small government and States’ Rights
  • Traditionalism in a cultural and religious sense
  • Opposition to Progressivism itself (certainly a feature of Buckleyite fusionism
  • Peace through Strength
  • Strict immigration enforcement

To that list I added the classically liberal concept of natural rights and the Burkean idea of “ordered liberty.”  We also talked about how the earliest conservatives of the Enlightenment Period were largely monarchists, and explicitly rejected the concept of natural rights (at least, rejected the concept as Americans understand it; that is, that all men are created equal and God gives them their rights).

They’re reading Russell Kirk’s “Ten Conservative Principles” for next week, and we’ll check Kirk’s principles against their list.

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Remembering Ravi Zacharias

On Tuesday this week—19 May 2020—the great Christian apologist and evangelist Ravi Zacharias went Home to Christ.  The obituary on his ministry’s website details the story of his radical conversion to Christianity in a hospital bed in India, where he heard the Gospel while recovering from a suicide attempt, and then on through his remarkable ministry.

Ravi Zacharias brought intellectual heft to Evangelical Protestantism; even his radio program was called Let My People Think.  Zacharias recognized that emotional appeals alone would not always win people to Christ; there had to be compelling reasons for what made Christianity True, not just one religion among many.  The knee-jerk response among Evangelicals (one I have been guilty of many times) is not the bold, intellectual defense of the faith, but denunciations of other faiths in a sort of Truth-by-elimination, something Zacharias warned against in an address in 1983.  From the obituary:

In front of 3,800 evangelists from 133 countries, Zacharias opened with the line, “My message is a very difficult one….” He went on to tell them that religions, 20th-century cultures and philosophies had formed “vast chasms between the message of Christ and the mind of man.” Even more difficult was his message, which received a mid-talk ovation, about his fear that, “in certain strands of evangelicalism, we sometimes think it is necessary to so humiliate someone of a different worldview that we think unless we destroy everything he holds valuable, we cannot preach to him the gospel of Christ…what I am saying is this, when you are trying to reach someone, please be sensitive to what he holds valuable.”

Zacharias profoundly shaped my own walk with Christ.  I am very thankful for my Pentecostal upbringing, which bathed me from the time I was a child in God’s Word.  But Southern Pentecostalism in the 1990s tended to be extremely emotive—I would say, at times, even performative.  The emphasis of the (often agonizingly) long church services of my youth were more about creating an atmosphere of worship—at worst, attempts to tempt the Holy Spirit to move, at best sincere responses to the Moving of the Holy Spirit—than about digging into the hard Truths of the Gospels.

At least, that sometimes seemed the case to my thirteen-year old self, who often wondered what my problem was when I wasn’t getting caught up in everything the way the rest of the congregation was.  But then one of my aunts—probably my Aunt Marilyn, though it could have been my Aunt Cheryl, the best one-eyed piano player in Aiken County—introduced us to Ravi Zacharias in Sunday School.  We did a study using the youth version of Zacharias’s Jesus Among Other Gods, a masterpiece of Christian apologia.

Suddenly, here was a man who debated Ivy League philosophers—and got the better of them!  For a bookish teenager who didn’t always respond to the emotive side of faith, Zacharias was a powerful role model.  Here was a man who thought critically about faith, and who used his intellect to defend ours.  The fact that he came to Christ out of a totally alien culture and religion further demonstrated the power of the Holy Spirit to reach anyone.

I should note that, while the church services were often heavy on emotion, our Sunday School classes were where the deep digging occurred; we didn’t just shut off our brains.  Southern Pentecostalism—probably as a result of its strong Scotch-Irish roots—is inherently skeptical of all worldly claims.  The default position towards the world’s wisdom is critically analytic.  There’s also a scrappy outsider mentality, which, at its best, serves to embolden our tenacity, even if it makes us wary of potential faith allies.  In other words, it wasn’t all just pew-hopping and thirty-minute altar calls:  that plucky skepticism of worldliness is one of the best qualities of my religious upbringing.

But I digress.  Zacharias drew others to a deeper understanding of their faith in Christ.  White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany—talk about a spunky Scotch-Irish fighter!—gave a tearful interview to CBN News in which she detailed Zacharias’s influence:

When asked where the tears were coming from, she explained further. It goes back to her days developing her faith at Oxford University in England of all places.

“To have someone from an academic place, as an apologist could equip you with those arguments where you didn’t have to check your brain at the door when you became a Christian where there is the intellectual foundation for everything we believe,” McEnany explained. “There’s prophecy. There’s the human cell. There’s the amazing creation of the human body and all of its complexity and the planet, the universe.”

“And he put a philosophical and academic rationale for the heart that I had for Christ, but gave me the ability to go to Oxford, where there are renowned atheist scholars who try to say there’s no intellectual undergirding for Christianity,” she continued. “Ravi Zacharias, who happened to have an office at Oxford was the person who provided the counter to that, the intelligence behind why we believe what we believe.”

Amen.  Ravi Zacharias’s influence will reverberate through the lives he won for Christ, and his bold, intellectual defense of Christianity will continue to win souls.

Rest in Peace.

TBT: The Influence of Christianity on America’s Founding

My high school American history classes are getting into the American Civil War—or the War of Northern Aggression, or the War for Southern Independence, or whatever you’d like to call it—this week, so we’ve been talking about beginnings a good bit.  The Civil War had deep roots that go back not just to the 1840s or 1850s, and not even to the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

Indeed, the fundamental division dates back to the English Civil War in the 1648, when the Puritan Roundheads under Oliver Cromwell ousted and beheaded Charles I, and established the English Republic (which—the English having little taste for radicalism or dictatorships, fortunately collapses in 1660 with the restoration of the Stuart monarchs).  Loyalists to the king and the monarchical order were the aristocratic Cavaliers.  Those same Puritans of East Anglia settled heavily in Massachusetts following the Pilgrims’ famous landing at Plymouth Rock, and the Cavaliers—in body and spirit—dominated the tidewater plantations of the South.

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Galaxy Quest

Our universe is massive—the adverb “unfathomably” usually modifies that descriptor.  It’s an apt adverb—we can’t conceive—fathom—how vast it is.

That said, we manage to possess some picture of our galaxy, the Milky Way, and our neighboring galaxies, even though we will likely never visit them, much less probe them.  So how do we know what the Milky Way looks like, when we’re in it?

Once again, Quora comes to the rescue.  There’s no way to photograph the Milky Way from the outside looking in, because we haven’t put any probes out that far (the pictures of galaxies we see is usually the Andromeda Galaxy, a spiral galaxy like our own).  Voyager 1, which was launched in 1977, exited the Solar System in 2011; astronomically speaking, that’s like getting to the end of the block on your way to the edge of the country.

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On Ghost Stories

Yesterday’s post about Father Robert Morey’s courageous stand for the unborn really took off.  Thank you to readers for sharing the post, and thanks to those of you who left comments.  Please continue to keep Father Bob in your prayers.  —TPP

It’s Halloween!  Well, at least it’s All Hallow’s Eve Eve, but that’s close enough for some ghoulishly delicious ghost stories.

I love a good ghost story.  The Victorians did the genre best, but many writers since have honed it further, adding their own unique twists and scares.  Even Russell Kirk, the great conservative philosopher, was a fan of ghost stories.  Indeed, his bestselling book was a ghost story.

For the Victorians, ghost stories were told at Christmastime.  This timing, while peculiar to modern readers, makes sense intuitively—Christmas is a time for remembering the past, in part (perhaps especially) our honored dead (just ask Washington Irvingif he comes by to haunt you).  The “ghosts” of departed loved ones linger closely during those long, frosty nights.  The inherent nostalgia of Christmas and the winter season—and bundling up next to a crackling fire—sets the perfect mood for ghostly tales.

Nevertheless, what other time of year can beat Halloween for a good tale of witches and werewolves; of monsters and mummies; of ghouls, goblins, and ghosts?

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