If there is one message we hear repeatedly from our intellectual class, it is that “tribalism” poisons our politics. But according to Yoram Hazony’s new book, “Conservatism: a rediscoverytribalism is an ineradicable feature of human nature and is therefore necessary, even good, for a thriving society.
Indeed, we are inherently social beings, which means that tribal affiliations emerge organically from the bond of meanings and traditions that we cultivate through family, social groups, religious organizations, legal entities, national identities. and even our political associations. Certainly, tribalism can be ugly, even destructive, if a sense of mutual respect and honor is not maintained by a nation’s rival tribes. So Hazony, who has established himself as one of the leading voices of the “new right” and who has become critical of aspects of modern conservatism, argues that embracing traditional conservatism is so vital to our country. . But what is traditional conservatism?
Perhaps best understood is by contrast to the dominant paradigm today, liberalism, or as Hazony calls it, “Enlightenment liberalism,” which is the worldview that most people learn to school nowadays. Liberalism emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries from theorists like René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and it has influenced thinkers of all generations down to our own. It begins with the “rationalist” premise that through abstract reason alone, or reason unrelated to human experience, we can discover universal truths about man and the world, and that their implementation will result in a free, prosperous, strong and cohesive society. civil society. But according to Hazony, this is a pure illusion.
Principles from experience
Take ideas like “freedom”, “equality” or “individual rights”, which we all know and which liberalism takes as “self-evident”, or so obviously true that anyone who thinks about them will immediately understand them as applicable. to all men at all times, and that government is established to protect them. Now what philosopher, Hazony invites us to ask, has ever lived entirely isolated from society and deduced these principles from logic alone?
Of course, no philosopher has ever done this, because no philosopher has ever lived completely outside of social contexts. Rather, Hazony argues, principles become clear through experience, the most enduring of which emerge after decades or even centuries of practice, meaning that a nation’s traditions develop within a social milieu. over time. This “empiricist” view is what Hazony considers central to mainstream conservatism, and he traces it back to English thinkers such as William Blackstone and Edmund Burke, and founding fathers such as George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and other early “federalists”. .”
Jefferson No Strict Rationalist
Now, while there’s a lot to enjoy about this tale, the reader can’t help but wonder if it has its downsides in some ways. For example, the book is quite critical of Thomas Jefferson, viewing him as an Enlightenment liberal who, by virtue of his universal proclamations in the Declaration of Independence, betrays a commitment to rationalism that places him in the same camp. than the French revolutionaries.
But that’s a strained comparison. On the one hand, even though Jefferson had (with reserve) a sympathy for the French Revolution, he was quick to emphasize the importance of virtue, religion and local customs for his country, which the radicals French were not. On the other hand, Abraham Lincoln, whom Hazony considers an example of conservatism, strongly channeled Jefferson and the universal principles he set forth in the Declaration of Independence, both before and during his presidency. So if Jefferson is condemned as a “liberal rationalist,” it would seem, by Hazony’s standard, that Lincoln must be too.
But in fact, Jefferson does not deserve such condemnation, because he was not a strict rationalist (at least not of the French revolutionary type). Besides, he was not a strict empiricist either. In fact, it can be argued that he belonged to a third category, which is a combination of the two, and which considers universal truths to be extract of live.
Take Jefferson’s statement that “all men are created equal.” How can this timeless principle be learned from experience? Consider that as we grow up in the care of our parents and come into contact with other members of society, we learn (through experience) that all people share a common human nature. From this we see (the abstract truth) that all people are equal based on their commonality. In other words, the principle that we are all “created equal” is indeed a universal truth, but one that is ultimately grounded in experience and not in the only reason. This hybrid combination of rationalism and empiricism is actually how human knowledge works, despite the fact that the book tends to insist that the two hardly overlap.
Liberalism opens the way to Marxism
But regardless, there are plenty of other important ideas in the book that we would do well to pick up. One such idea concerns Marxism, which we see today in ideologies of gender and race, and its relationship to liberalism.
As Hazony explains, because liberalism is singularly about liberty and equality, it eventually paves the way for the advance of Marxism. Why? Because any instance of perceived lack of freedom or equality, i.e. any instance of coercion or hierarchy within society, can be pointed to as an example of oppression, which then provides an opportunity for claim new “rights”. Slowly, then, liberalism gives way to the very Marxism it denounces, and the result is the drying up of our time-tested institutions, our traditions, our morality and even our identities.
So, in order to defeat Marxism, Hazony urges us to first understand its appeal, which is more fundamentally that it provides its adherents with a deep sense of belonging through its grand moral worldview. Overcoming it therefore requires an even more compelling moral vision that recognizes the realities of human nature and its aspirations for identity, cohesion and community. It requires, in other words, a rediscovery of conservatism. And for that, Harzony’s book is a great starting point.
David previously worked in a public policy institution. Follow him on Twitter @DWeinberger03. Email him at [email protected]