A Postmodern Conservatism? Part V
Following previous generalizations, the “postmodern sentiment” suggests that narrative form – often aided by colorful, memorable, and quotable language – is a useful device for historical instruction and persuasion. We can see this in the skepticism of Edmund Burke, for example, that objective, scientific, empirical proof actually exists for one inclined to believe (or not to believe) an argument of how to conduct or organize human affairs. The flawed and finite behavior of human thinking – full of selfishness and status-seeking – is unable to know the full truth about the divine, about ourselves, and about our environment. Knowledge is filtered through unique perspective, and responses infused by rationality and abstract reason are openings for totalitarian terror when paired with the reality of sin. A postmodern conservatism suggests that given an individual reason to rule directly over others, it is easy and tempting to increase what reason is ruling – to expand, that is, from the political and legal and economic to the social and moral and spiritual. Postmodern constructions of moral imagination flow from such sentiments: finite, flawed, self-centered human thought and conduct is capable of discovery of truths about the divine and its created humanity. But only in part.
Modern history has been besieged by the rule of reason. Behind every utopia and every grand generalization of the “courses of history” or the “nature of man,” and behind every “instant constitution” for a new governmental association, is some manner of “political rationalism,” a glorification of technical knowledge. Such a pursuit is contrary, I think, to a sustained, serious engagement with “morally imaginative” literature, poetry, and history.
Postmodernism properly understood begins with the realization that humanity should be grateful for what they have been given. And what they have been given is not only a self-conscious morality and a mysterious freedom, but all sorts of natural compensations for our distinctively human misery. Powerful emotions such as love are not an illusion, and humans have been fitted by nature to seek and to know truth. This must not, however, be an opening for earthly totality. Collective wisdom, the “filtered experience of mankind,” can save humanity from the anarchy of the modernist “rights of man” and its presumption of pure reason, which through justifications of absolute liberty, absolute equality, and similar projects actually precipitate men into moral and civil chaos.
The postmodern sentiment is a rejection of what has distinguished the “modern world” above all: a particular definition of what a human being is, an individual. But that definition cannot describe what a real or complete human being is. If the modern world was to be superseded by another, as it eventually will be, human beings would continue in their humanity. They will remain beings with souls and capabilities and longings not shared by, and higher, than those of other animals. Sentiments of conservative, postmodern imagination suggest that a spiritual dimension is imperative to the rational, scientific, modern pursuits in providing any insights that the solely physical cannot. Further, a moral order is necessary to prevent an escalation of brutality serviced by technological advance. Defending the “permanent things” and perceiving ethical truths amid the chaos of events is a creative faculty. A debased barbarism tends to fill the vacuum in the absence of sentiments of a spiritual element orientated toward home, history, custom and community. Ideology, then, provides sham religion and sham philosophy.
The goodness and virtue humans may access is found by an understanding and acceptance of limitations. A postmodern conservatism is this sort of humble acceptance. Sadly, moral and political life in modern times no longer seeks to cultivate human souls but to advance rights of contract and to protect from physical harm.
Postmodernism need not be rootless, endlessly circulating fictions. And Nietzsche’s efforts to liberate human will from the reductionistic tendency of modern scientific reason is somewhat “postmodern” yet in the end is a celebration of a free human creation for no particular purpose. And history cannot end as Hegel or Marx concluded it might because history has no real point; and that which is rational or predictable is, in effect, inhuman. This alleged postmodernism is, instead, an intensification of the modern tendency to liberate human will from natural and divine constraints. Place, not the nothingness of Nietzsche’s abyss that surrounds humanity’s brief and accidental existence, is central to the postmodern moral imagination. While some thinkers against modernism sought to replace society with radical politics or more marginal subcultures, postmodern conservatism is an imaginative reaching back. Its rhetoric is historical and intellectual, invoking the exemplary examples of individuals whose respect for the customs of locality are a guard against political totality.