Column: Christmas books for the thoughtful conservative
Our degraded political discourse is characterized by bumper sticker ideologies, talking point reductionism, personal vindictiveness and continuous electioneering.
Unfortunately, no restoration of fiscal prudence, constitutional liberties or Western civilization will ever occur in such an impoverished, scorched-earth rhetorical wasteland.
Addressing myself to conservatives – while acknowledging that liberal discourse is usually worse – I ask: Are you satisfied with an endless diet of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and Fox News thumping the electoral drums and pontificating on ephemeral issues? Or do you long for something with greater substance?
The Limbaughs and Coulters of the world have their time and place – they’re important contributors to the national conversation. But they’re not enough. Simply put, the conservative fixation on daily headlines and purely political solutions doesn’t advance their cause as they think it should. A broader historical vision is required.
With this in mind, the following four books will make excellent gifts under the tree for thoughtful conservatives. While no longer found at most retailers, they’re widely available online.
• “Reflections on the Revolutions in France” by Edmund Burke:
In 1791, this English Whig assailed the French Revolution root and branch. Burke saw that the French experiment – social engineering rooted in unattainable abstractions and opposed to tradition and experience – would end in rivers of blood. He was right, and through his prophetic voice Great Britain has been spared violent social and political upheavals.
According to critic Chilton Williamson Jr., Burke’s masterpiece “is a counterrevolutionary cannonball, projected by an almost superhuman compression of the foundational principles and sustaining thought of Western civilization over three millennia and carrying far into the revolutionary nineteenth century – and beyond.”
The antithesis between the French Revolution’s radicalism and Burke’s traditionalism ultimately led to the great left-right divide across the Western world. Without Burke, today’s political conflict would be meaningless. Every thoughtful conservative should be grounded in Burke.
• “The Conservative Mind” by Russell Kirk:
This book jump-started the post-war American Right and gave the movement its name. Favoring principle over ideology, and experience over a priori reasoning, in it Kirk expounds the true canons of conservative thought.
To illustrate these principles, Kirk analyzed key American and English conservatives over the course of two centuries. These thinkers – intellectuals, poets and politicians – form the intellectual patrimony of modern conservatism.
Kirk encourages conservatives to reject poisonous ideologies, venerate experience and the natural law embrace prudential reform, and redeem the time. His teachings are as relevant today as they were 60 years ago.
• “Modern Times” by Paul Johnson:
Covering the 20th century from the Treaty of Versailles to the climax of the Cold War, Johnson details the mischief created by totalitarian ideologies and utopian liberalism. The results weren’t pretty, as millions perished in the gulags, gas chambers and genocides of the 20th century.
Echoing throughout the book is the theme that while the power of the state to do evil grew dramatically, its power to do good grew only feebly, fitfully and ambivalently.
“The destructive capacity of the individual, however vicious, is small; of the state, however well-intentioned, almost limitless,” wrote Johnson.
Written with both grace and wit, “Modern Times” is a must read.
• “Ideas Have Consequences” by Richard Weaver:
Where did it all go wrong? Can the present discontents be traced to the Great Society? The New Deal? The income tax and the Federal Reserve? Or the French Revolution?
Weaver argues that philosophically the rot began with the triumph of nominalism over logical realism in the 14th century. With it, the belief in transcendentals and universals were denied, and sensory knowledge trumped revelation and the intellect.
“The issue ultimately involved is whether there is a source of truth higher than, and independent, of man; and the answer to the question is decisive for one’s view of the nature and destiny of mankind,” wrote Weaver.
For, as Weaver argues, nominalism led to philosophical rationalism, the abandonment of original sin, relativism, materialism and behavioral psychology.
Ultimately, this decisive shift in medieval thought paved the way for the horrors of the 20th century. Like ripples in a pond, the impact of these scholastic debates has extended and spread across the centuries.
“Ideas Have Consequences” is a challenging but rewarding read.
This Christmas, let’s eschew the ghost written political memoirs, the dated collections of columns, and the party-line manifestoes. Instead, let’s assist our right-minded friends and family members in rediscovering their roots, broadening their minds, and reinvigorating their discourse. This quartet of books is a good place to start.
Gary Bunker is a former Aiken County Councilman.