Thursday, January 17, 2019


I am conservative by nature.  But please take note, dear readers:  that is not a political statement.  I have no interest whatsoever in the acts or omissions of presidents, prime ministers, premiers, princes, or other potentates.  I feel the same way about utopian political schemes of any stripe, together with their mad inventors, purveyors, and true believers.  We all know the ultimate end of chimerical, delusive, and disingenuous dream-worlds.

No, my conservatism is a matter of temperament.  The modern world has always seemed to me to be an unsatisfactory place.  Hence, I often find myself mourning the passing of, and harboring nostalgia for, human things that vanished either before my time on earth began or during my short (and ever-shortening) stay here.

This, for instance:


Twenty, forty, sixty, eighty,
     A hundred years ago,
All through the night with lantern bright
     The Watch trudged to and fro.
And little boys tucked snug abed
     Would wake from dreams to hear --
"Two o' the morning by the clock,
     And the stars a-shining clear!"
Or, when across the chimney-tops
     Screamed shrill a North-east gale,
A faint and shaken voice would shout,
     "Three!  and a storm of hail!"

Walter de la Mare, Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes (Constable 1913).

When I read this, I cannot help but feel that the human world has taken a grievous and irremediable wrong turn.

Charles Oppenheimer (1875-1961)
"From a Tower, Kirkcudbright"

Some of you (perhaps nearly all of you) may say:  "But what of the innumerable human accomplishments over the past millennia, the advances in knowledge, and the progress humanity has made?"  Yes, I am indeed quite pleased with the state of modern plumbing, thank you.  I am also fond of physicians and other health care professionals, and their craft.  And I am delighted with the promptness and efficiency of pizza delivery services.  I can come up with other examples as well, if pressed.  But my unease persists.

                  On a Vulgar Error

No.  It's an impudent falsehood.  Men did not
Invariably think the newer way
Prosaic, mad, inelegant, or what not.

Was the first pointed arch esteemed a blot
Upon the church?  Did anybody say
How modern and how ugly?  They did not.

Plate-armour, or windows glazed, or verse fire-hot
With rhymes from France, or spices from Cathay,
Were these at first a horror?  They were not.

If, then, our present arts, laws, houses, food
All set us hankering after yesterday,
Need this be only an archaising mood?

Why, any man whose purse has been let blood
By sharpers, when he finds all drained away
Must compare how he stands with how he stood.

If a quack doctor's breezy ineptitude
Has cost me a leg, must I forget straightway
All that I can't do now, all that I could?

So, when our guides unanimously decry
The backward glance, I think we can guess why.

C. S. Lewis, Poems (Geoffrey Bles 1964).

Charles Oppenheimer, "Kirkcudbright under Snow" (1934)

So, there you have it:  I long for watchmen and bell-men, for human cries and bell-ringing far off in the deep of night.  I'm afraid I shall never change.  But that's just me.

                  The Bell-man

From noise of Scare-fires rest ye free,
From Murders Benedicitie.
From all mischances, that may fright
Your pleasing slumbers in the night:
Mercy secure ye all, and keep
The Goblin from ye, while ye sleep.
Past one aclock, and almost two,
My Masters all, Good day to you.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides (1648), in Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly (editors), The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Volume I (Oxford University Press 2013).

Charles Oppenheimer, "The Old Tolbooth, Kirkcudbright" (1931)


Damian said...

The British philosopher John Gray often says that while scientific and technological progress may be cumulative (we're all grateful for modern dentistry improving on what existed before), moral progress is not. The same basic themes and desires animate human action throughout history, and anyone who has lived long enough will eventually be shocked at the reemergence of ideas and passions once thought to have ben safely debunked and buried. Anthony Kronman, in his book Education's End, summarized our contradictory nature in what I thought was a profound and succinct way:

"Our situation is therefore, in an elementary way, self-contradictory. For it is characterized by a longing for the abolition of the very limits that give all our longings their meaning — limits whose final abolition, were it actually attainable, would not be the fulfillment of our deepest ambition but the elimination of the ground of our having any ambitions at all, and therefore of living lives that possess any meaning whatsoever. This is the human condition, which is characterized by our subjection to fateful limits that we can neither tolerate nor do without. This is the truth about who we are."

I meditate on that often — our inability to rest comfortably without trying to further shape the world to our advantage and convenience, and our simultaneous longing for the end of such striving. The tension between these two poles is what makes us human. The resolution of that tension, in either direction, would make us...what? There is much poetry to be drawn from that.

I find it delightful that the Germans have a word, Schlimbesserung, for such a useful phenomenon: a so-called improvement that makes things worse. I mutter it quite often these days, usually in connection with technology.

(Say a little prayer for our trees here — weather reports are threatening another significant ice storm this weekend.)

Andrew Rickard said...

"I cannot help but feel that the human world has taken a grievous and irremediable wrong turn."

Preach it, brother!

Todo Boffin said...

Hello again, Stephen

Thank you for another thought provoking post. I wonder if there is a difference between English and American conservatism. Like you I have no interest in the political angle and, similarly, I espouse a ‘small-c’ conservatism.

I can express this no better than the philosopher Roger Scruton who said of his conversion to conservatism: “I knew I wanted to conserve things rather than pull them down.”

We are a small landmass with an oversized poetic tradition.

There has always been in England
An older England still,
Where Chaucer rode to Canterbury
And Falstaff drank his fill.

Where poets scrawled immortal lines
Beside a daffodil,
And lovers lay upon the grass
Atop of Bredon Hill.

Where parson in his pulpit droned
As Nancy winked at Bill,
Where Brontës conjured moonlit paths
And Hardy drowned a mill.

Where jolly tars sailed hearts-of-oak
From China to Brazil,
And foxes sought out Squire’s pack
To race them for the thrill.

We never could cease worshipping
What never was— nor will;
There has always been in England
An older England still.

(Felix Dennis, An Older England)

The point, as the last stanza makes clear, is that often our image of the past is, well, imaginary. England’s green and pleasant land is largely a literary creation. Even the physical landscape is a modern invention. The poets Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley write in their book Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness:

An unseen, untouched English landscape is a myth. A long and complex interaction between constant natural processes and more recent human activity has largely formed all the landscapes we can see today and that landscape is indivisible from the human world.

Perhaps the vastness and relative youth of America allows for a purer sense of conservatism. So I often find myself thinking what is it that I feel an urge to conserve? More than words, I do not know.

Warmest wishes to you for 2019.

Stephen Pentz said...

Damian: Thank you very much for those thought-provoking observations. I fear that my responses will be weak and ill-informed in comparison with the consideration you have obviously given to these issues.

I'm not sure what to think of John Gray. I have not read any of his books, only articles and essays here and there, so I am probably not qualified to comment. I certainly share his skepticism about "progress" and his views on the unfortunate mutation of "the Enlightenment" into utopian political schemes. I agree with the distinction you note: scientific and technological progress being "cumulative," while "moral progress" is not "cumulative" (and can, in fact, regress). I think there are many of us who hold the view (for various reasons) that human nature has never changed, and will never change. Thus, universal (as opposed to individual) "moral progress" is not in the cards, and never has been. As you know, one can find this thought in all times and in all places. (I also must say that I find his anti-Americanism to be off-putting. But I'm an American, and my country is a product of the Enlightenment, so perhaps I am overly sensitive. My view should be taken with a grain of salt!)

Thank you for sharing the passage from Anthony Kronman, whose work is new to me. I'm afraid I haven't digested the passage enough to fully understand it, or meaningfully comment on it. The book the passage comes from does look interesting, from some brief research I just did.

Thank you as well for sharing "Schlimbesserung," which is new to me. It is indeed a wonderful word.

Thank you very much for visiting again, and for sharing your thoughts. I wish the trees in your area well in the coming days. "Mercy secure ye all, " to quote Herrick's bell-man.

Stephen Pentz said...

Andrew: Hah! Given what I have read in Graveyard Masonry over the years, I'm not surprised that you might find that particular comment congenial. Without being overly presumptuous I hope, I suspect that you and I share similar feelings about being more at home elsewhere.

It's a pleasure to hear from you again. Thank you very much for stopping by. I wish you the best in the coming year.

Stephen Pentz said...

Todo Boffin: Thank you very much for those observations. I have come across Scruton's thought before, and it accords with the "conservatism" that I have in mind. However, I have never done any programmatic thinking about this: it is all a matter of, as I say, temperament. Or, to use a better word, "kokoro" (a Japanese word; "xin" is the corresponding word in Chinese; they share the same Chinese ideogram/character), which can mean mind, heart, or spirit/soul, or -- wonderfully -- all three at once).

Felix Dennis' poem (which is new to me: thank you for sharing it), and your thoughts about England's landscape, raise interesting questions about "conservatism" in the context of England as the "green and pleasant land" and as "lovely England." As an outsider, I am particularly susceptible to that sort of romanticizing, and thus may be disqualified from opining. But, what I found wonderful about England when I visited the countryside was that it was "green and pleasant" and "lovely" exactly because of the long human presence in the landscape. Hence, to me, your comment is perfectly apt: "that landscape is indivisible from the human world." I find this marvelous. The result is centuries of beautiful poetry, a great deal of it about the natural World. Perhaps, then, you are right: your "urge to conserve" is, at least partly, about "words." But, again, this is an outsider's view. And, moreover, I fear that I am rambling and not being at all articulate.

Thank you for visiting again. I hope you'll return soon. Best wishes for the coming year.

Damian said...

In addition to Roger Scruton, whose work I also treasure, there is also Michael Oakeshott's definition of the conservative "disposition," one which likewise has little to do with partisan politics. It's not poetry per se, but it does have a lyrical nature which resonated with me immediately:

To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss. Familiar relationships and loyalties will be preferred to the allure of more profitable attachments; to acquire and to enlarge will be less important than to keep, to cultivate and to enjoy; the grief of loss will be more acute than the excitement of novelty or promise. It is to be equal to one’s own fortune, to live at the level of one’s own means, to be content with the want of greater perfection which belongs alike to oneself and one’s circumstances. With some people this is itself a choice; in others it is a disposition which appears, frequently or less frequently, in their preferences and aversions, and is onto itself chosen or specifically cultivated.

As for John Gray, I tend to think of him as perhaps the prose equivalent of Robinson Jeffers, if that helps you place him contextually.

Stephen Pentz said...

Damian: Thank you for sharing this passage, as well as the link to the text from which it comes. It is indeed a fine statement, and, as you say, "it does have a lyrical nature."

And thank you also for the further comment about Gray: the comparison to Jeffers does provide excellent context. I hadn't thought of the comparison, but what you say rings true: the extremity of some of Gray's positions is indeed reminiscent of the extremity of some of Jeffers' positions (although the substance, of course, differs).

Thank you for the follow-up thoughts.

bruce floyd said...

Pardon me for quoting John Gray, since Damian aptly quoted him in a comment on your post, but Gray has a great deal to say about the human animal's proclivity to cling to persistent illusions about the onward march of progress, as if the smart phone is an antidote for the truth of the human condition.

John Gray, as aware as you are of the chimerical nature of progress,admits (in his book "Straw Dogs") that "progress is a fact' but he also observes that "faith in progress is a superstition."

He elaborates: "There is progress in knowledge, but not in ethics." Even though Gray admits that the growth of knowledge is real, he reminds us they are temporary: "History is not progress or decline, but recurring gain and loss. The advance of knowledge deludes us into thinking we are different from other animals, but our history shows that we are not." Gray avers that "a thin secular idealism had become the dominant attitude toward life. The world has come to be seen as something to be made in our own image. The idea the the aim of life is contemplation and not action has almost disappeared."

Gray assets that those "who struggle to change the world . . . . seek consolation for a truth they are too weak to bear. At bottom their faith that he world can be transformed by human will is a denial of their own mortality." (Note: see Ernest Becker's "Denial of Death.")

Gray urges us to make" full use of science and technology (see the dentist every six months, monitor blood pressure, avoid sugar)--without succumbing to the illusion that they can make us free, reasonable, or even sane [Pascal said we are mad one way to avoid being mad in another way]. . . . The good life is not found in dreams of progress, but in coping with tragic contingencies"--in short the vagaries and vicissitudes of the inexplicable and ineffable thing we call the "human predicament."

Here is Gray's final paragraph, his last few words, in "Straw Dogs":

Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself
the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim
of life is being simply to see?"

Nikki said...

Beautiful and rather heartbreaking post.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bruce: Thank you for sharing those further thoughts from Gray. I particularly like: "The idea that the aim of life is not action but contemplation has almost disappeared" and "Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?" I'm still not sure what to think about him though, and, moreover, I haven't read enough of him to feel qualified to knowledgeably opine on his overall thought. But that won't stop me from spouting off! I think one thing giving me pause is his weighing in on, and taking strongly-held positions on, contemporary political, economic, and social events. As well as laying a large number of our modern ills at the doorstep of religion, and Christianity in particular. Of course, he knows far more than I do. Perhaps he is right. But I wonder. (Here's a random thought: has Gray ever commented on Josef Pieper's Leisure: The Basis of Culture? The sentences I quoted above from Gray would be at home in Pieper's book. Pieper was a Thomist. And Pieper's ideas can be seen in traditional Chinese and Japanese thought, with sources in, among other things, Buddhism and Taoism. Truth resists categorization.)

But I certainly agree with his views on the post-enlightenment chimera of progress, especially as embodied in utopian political programs. But, as you know, skepticism about progress based upon an awareness of unchanging human nature has a long history. It is why I am so fond of, for instance, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, ancient Chinese poetry, medieval and early modern Japanese poetry (waka and haiku), Buddhism, and Taoism.

But I feel that (1) I am carping and (2) more importantly, I am way, way out of my depth. So, thank you again for sharing the passages from Gray, which I do indeed find congenial.

As always, it is good to hear from you. Thank you very much for stopping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Nikki: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post, although I'm sorry that you found it "rather heartbreaking." I was actually feeling quite content as I wrote it, although perhaps a bit wistful. There's no changing these things, is there? De la Mare, Herrick, and Lewis put them in perspective.

Thank you for visiting again. I hope you'll return soon.

Wurmbrand said...

First, here's a quotation that I loved when I came across it late in my teaching career:

"…..conservatism, in the sense of conservation, is of the essence of the educational activity, whose task is always to cherish and protect something… [education exists] to preserve the world against the mortality of its creators and inhabitants. [The teacher is responsible] to mediate between the old and the new, so that his very profession requires of him an extraordinary respect for the past."

--Hannah Arendt, “The Crisis in Education” in Between Past and Present

Dale Nelson

Wurmbrand said...

Conservatism (as opposed to right-wingism, about which I will, with your indulgence, say something in a moment) recognizes the perennial dimension of mystery in life. The "progressive" thinker accepts no perdurable quality of mystery inherent in life; for the progressive, a mystery is something that, in principle at least, can and should be solved and brought under the purview of human understanding.

But “In the proper religious sense of the term,” writes Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware, “‘mystery’ signifies not only hiddenness but disclosure. . . . A mystery is . . . something revealed for our understanding, but which we never understand exhaustively because it leads into the depth or the darkness of God.”

Dale Nelson

Wurmbrand said...

Conservatism such as I'm trying to suggest preserves the sense of wonder. Here is Wendell Berry:

"… We have the materialist culture that afflicts us now because a world exclusively material is the kind of world most readily used and abused by the kind of mind the materialists think they have. To this kind of mind, there is no longer a legitimate wonder. Wonder has been replaced by a research agenda, which is still a world away from demonstrating the impropriety of wonder.

“….[There is also] self-righteous ignorance, which is the failure to know oneself.

“…[However, there is a wholesome “way of ignorance” that accepts our] ignorance of all that we cannot know because of the kind of mind we have -- which, I will note in passing, is neither a computer nor exclusively a brain, and which certainly is not omniscient. We cannot, for example, know the whole of which we and our minds are parts.”

Wendell Berry, “The Way of Ignorance,” in The Virtues of Ignorance, ed. Bill Vitek and Wes Jackson.

Dale Nelson

Wurmbrand said...

I appreciated your posting, Mr. Pentz, and wanted to send more than a "Me too!"

Finally (!) here is something I wrote in 2016, trying, for my own thinking at least, to make a clear distinction between conservatism (which has little political representation in the U.S. or Britain, so far as I am aware) and right-wingism:

A conservative values stability, prudence (including prudence in the spending of money), moral behavior, the traditional family, justice, etc. A conservative tends to see religion as a generally positive presence in communities. A conservative prizes limited government and reasonable interpretations of existing laws, disapproving of strange new interpretations thereof that are put forth to advance current fashions. A conservative will be wary of foreign entanglements. A conservative believes that much of the work of the present generation of adults should be the handing on of the legacy of the past, whether in the form of well cared-for farmland or the corpus of the best literature, etc. A conservative doesn’t support an absolutely changeless status quo but believes that changes should generally be made cautiously and without undue influence from passionate advocacy. It is too easy to agitate as if a given situation were a true emergency. Hastily made changes may lead to situations worse than the original problem. A conservative does not believe a society ever will be perfect, since human beings are imperfect. A conservative finds that much of life’s richness is and most of the time ought to be outside the realm of politics.

A right-winger believes in using the massive power of law and government to try to construct a society some, at least, of the characteristics of which might be considered conservative. A right-winger may blur a conservative’s distinction between religion and government. A right-winger may like an activist government and will often say that “We need a law” for XYZ! A right-winger usually likes the idea of being involved in the affairs of foreign countries. A right-winger often celebrates the perceived right to use land as he sees fit and may be impatient with those who think he should leave it as healthy, or healthier, etc. than when he used it. A right-winger will often shoot off his mouth about drastic changes that supposedly should be made, e.g. he may advocate an abrupt cessation of immigration or a drastic and immediate revision to the tax code or to welfare and other entitlements, etc. A right-winger may be an unreflective utopian, imagining that with a sufficient reorganization of society along his favored lines a nearly perfect arrangement might come to exist. A right-winger may be preoccupied with politics for hours a day.

A conservative will be skeptical about the idea of law and government as agencies to create desirable social characteristics by fiat. A conservative will probably support laws that protect existing stable and humane communities, but will be wary of campaigns to engineer major changes in communities by means of education, law, politics, grants for politicized art, etc., and, certainly, doubtful about efforts to re-engineer foreign societies.

Dale Nelson

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Nelson: Thank you very much for sharing all of these wonderful passages, and, especially, for offering your own observations. All of this nicely complements, and deepens and extends, what has come before.

I particularly like your thoughts about the distinction between "conservatism" and "right-wingism." As you know, my greatest concern is with the politicization of culture, regardless of "left" or "right" or other labels. As you note, "a right-winger may be preoccupied with politics for hours a day." This preoccupation is where the current cultural illness lies. The hysteria and irrationality seems to mount by the day. One can be conservative in temperament and have nothing to do with "politics." There are bigger fish to fry. I prefer to be a monk in a scriptorium, by candlelight, without news (or Twitter).

As always, it's a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you again for taking the time and thought to share all of these observations.

Wurmbrand said...

Or, Mr. Pentz, as Alan Jacobs wrote:

Facebook is the Sauron of the online world, Twitter the Saruman. Let’s rather live in Tom Bombadil’s world, where we can be eccentric, peculiar perhaps, without ambition, content to tend our little corner of Middle Earth with charity and grace. We’ve moved a long way from Tim Carmody’s planetary metaphor, which, as I say, I feel the force of, but whether what I’m doing ultimately matters or not, I’m finding it helpful to work away in this little highland garden, above the turmoil of the social-media sea, finding small beautiful things and caring for them and sharing them with a few friends. One could do worse.

Wurmbrand said...

Jacobs also quoted another writer:

The in­stan­ta­neous aware­ness of so much folly is not, I now think, healthy for the hu­man mind. Spend­ing time on Twit­ter be­came, for me, a deeply de­mor­al­iz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Of­ten, espe­cially when some con­tro­versy of na­tional im­por­tance pro­voked large num­bers of users into tweet­ing their opin­ions about it, I would come away from Twit­ter ex­as­perated al­most to the point of mad­ness.

I thought of a verse from the 94th Psalm: “The Lord knoweth the thoughts of man, that they are van­ity.” Af­ter an hour or so of watch­ing hu­man­i­ty’s stu­pidi­ties scroll across my screen, I felt I had peeked into some dread­ful abyss into which only God can safely look. It was not for me to know the thoughts of man.

sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

Thank you as always for your wonderful posts. I have followed your blog for quite a while now and rarely (I apologize for my lack of reciprocation).

I call myself a "cultural conservative" and a "political progressive." I believe that we need a government fully alert to protecting the environment and to protecting consumers from the shenanigans of greedy corporations. I believe in conserving our world and its many ecosystems.

I also think that people should have a decent shot at equality and that income disparity has gone amok. I believe in Eisenhower's tax plan and in Johnson's advances in civil rights. I believe that the #MeToo movement is a necessary corrective to the men who cannot constrain themselves. I believe in the cultural criticism of Matthew Arnold and the aestheticism of Walter Pater. I find it appalling to apply a 21st century mind-set to reject the works of the past. I was deeply upset to read that a college professor has been rejected by her students for putting Edith Wharton's _The House of Mirth_ on the syllabus.
I believe that thoughtful people read Seneca and Shakespeare and at the same time vote for broader benefits in a well-organized society.

I also believe that Conrad nailed it when he said, in his brilliant work which has been so roundly and stupidly reviled: "The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much." I appreciate his cynical look at the "Pilgrims" who are there to rape the land and the elephants of their tusks.

I am sad that it could well happen today that a considerable talent will be missed or neglected. Would a critic today still write about a young poet starting out: "It is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop Mr John, back to “plasters, pills, and ointment boxes,” &c. But, for Heaven’s sake, young Sangrado, be a little more sparing of extenuatives and soporifics in your practice than you have been in your poetry." Most certainly, although there would be other things to attack.

Perhaps the problem is that the words "liberal" and "conservative" have been too skewed with time.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Nelson: Thank you very much for sharing those follow-up passages, with which I wholly agree. I appreciate the link to Mr. Jacobs' blog, which I was not aware of. I suspect I will be visiting it often. As for Twitter: the less said (and seen), the better. When I first heard of it, my reaction was: "Why?" My opinion hasn't changed. I have never participated in it and I never will. But I'm an aging curmudgeon, of course.

Thank you again for sharing these, and for stopping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

sunt_lacrimae_rerum: I'm happy to hear from you again. Thank you very much for those thoughtful observations.

I believe your final comment aptly summarizes where we in America find ourselves: "Perhaps the problem is that the words 'liberal' and 'conservative' have been too skewed with time." Yes, like a great deal else in our culture (I can only presume to speak of American culture, of course), the words have become politicized beyond recognition. As commonly used in our culture, the words have no content for me (the same is true of words such as (with all due respect) "progressive," "left," and "right").

But, as I stated in the post, my "conservative" nature has nothing to do with politics. The OED definition of "conservative" is: "Characterized by a tendency to preserve or keep intact or unchanged; preservative." The fact that our culture has appropriated the word for political purposes is of no moment to me.

"Eisenhower's tax plan!" I have no idea what that was. (Although, for sentimental reasons, I am pleased to say that I was born during his second term in office. He was a fine man and it was a wonderful time in America.) I'm afraid I have exposed my lack of engagement with our day's political issues.

Thank you very much for visiting again, and for sharing your thoughts. I greatly appreciate your long-time presence here, and I hope you'll return soon.