This idea is, of course, controversial. While other worldviews may have similar notions of order, there are plenty of others who find the idea strange, laughable, dangerous, and unproven. A universe of some divine, transcendent, outside “order” making truth claims may sound like a recipe for authoritarianism. As conservative journalist
For now, I’d like to turn to another aspect of this idea of order that may be equally controversial: If order exists, where did it come from?
“There are many American conservatives,”
The simplest reason for this is that the conservative worldview rejects the doctrine of pure materialism. That is, conservatives may differ on the nature of the supernatural, but they do agree on the existence of the supernatural. To the conservative, humans are not merely highly sophisticated computers wrapped in meat, but beings with a physical and spiritual nature, nor is reality composed of matter only but beauty, truth, and goodness. The conservative would say that beauty, truth, and goodness are just as real as physical objects made of matter. That is, they are not mere preferences but things that derive their value and being from an enduring moral order.
What’s more, conservatives have also insisted that it is absolutely essential humanity observe the spiritual order if it ever hopes to get on in the physical world. “The material order rests upon the spiritual order,”
Sir Roger Scruton’s views seem less religious than Burke or Kirk. As he wrote in
But this was precisely the concern Irving Kristol wrote about a generation earlier.
Clearly, this is a big subject and I do not mean to turn this series into an evangelistic tract. My larger point is that the conservative notion of order is not something that humans simply developed or adhere to out of some evolutionary advantage, but it is something real and imposed on us in a supernatural sense. Trying to hold this notion in mind without appealing to God as its origin can be challenging—let alone trying to get an entire nation to hold to the idea of a supernatural order in a culture where religion has been relegated to private superstitions. But I digress.
Those who oppose conservative thought often object to the conservative’s dogged fixation on these spookish, religious notions. Some liberty-minded classical liberals and libertarians who might otherwise be sympathetic to conservative ideas may object to what they view as the needless spiritualization of political matters. And, here again, one can find legions of examples where ideas of religious imperatives can be twisted to authoritarian or theocratic ends. I am not ignorant of the destructive ways in which religious dogma has been used to suspend judgment or debate in matters of politics—something I’ll delve into in Part 3. But the conservative does profess that—at bottom—all societal issues are the result of our imperfect and—trigger warning!—sinful nature.
The conservative rejects the idea that societal ills can be entirely, or even predominantly, blamed on the Marxist concept of class struggle or the progressive’s notions of social injustices or even the libertarian/classical liberal’s views of state coercion. To whatever degree those problems persist, they pale in comparison to humanity’s real problem: original sin. Put simply, the conservative believes in both an enduring moral order and humanity’s consistent failure to live up to that order.
To the conservative, the purpose of civilization is to literally civilize the otherwise barbarous instincts of our species. Take an infant from your typical American family and give them to parents living in the heart of the Congo, and that infant is unlikely to grow up working at Starbucks and spouting Bernie Sanders campaign slogans. Humans are hardwired to behave in certain respects and the civilization and institutions that surround us are meant to shape that hard-wiring into ways that our civilization has discerned to adhere to some understanding of an enduring moral order. Perhaps you may object to the idea of society imposing some value system on us. Very well, show me a society that makes no efforts to shape the next generation by imposing a value system and I’ll show you a group of hairless apes.
But we can’t restore order to the state or the soul if we don’t first begin to understand that order. It’s one thing to settle upon the existence of order, it’s quite another to reach some consensus on what that order would have us do.
The most common—perhaps we could say “accepted”—means of discerning order is utilizing our capacity to reason. Indeed, some have argued that reason is not only all one needs to discern order, but the only legitimate tool at our disposal. The Enlightenment thinker Thomas Paine was absolutely insistent on this idea. As Yuval Levin noted in his book
Burke, as we’ve noted above, had no problem appealing to authority. If order is indeed supernatural in nature, then it just won’t do to limit our understanding of that order through natural means such as reason alone. I don’t want to get sidetracked with the arguments against an appeal to reason alone—a topic
I like the way
“Revelation and reason both are ways to order, and by either can a transcending leap be achieved. But that leap is not the work of narrow logic; instead, it is accomplished by the higher imagination, by the perceptions of genius, by an intuition which transcends ordinary experience—by a means, in fine, which we cannot adequately describe with those tools called words. Neither the leap of Israel nor the leap of Hellas brought full knowledge of the transcendent order; it required the fusing of Jewish and Greek genius in Christianity for a leap still higher.”
Stanley Parry, professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame,
“The conservative appeal to reason within the natural-law tradition fails to cope with the problem in its existential form. Its basic error is to appeal to nature as the source of order, precisely when ill minds perceive nature as the source of disorder, as the dilemma from which they must save themselves. A simple counter-assertion cannot work the therapy needed. The real problem is to move to a perception of nature as ordered by a transcendent purpose, whose intention can be learned only by a revelation from on high. The real solution is to move from the threat of disordered nature to the perception of the right order that has been determined by divine intention.”
If we hope to make any progress in discerning supernatural order, we must abandon the idea that we can achieve this through our natural means of reasoning. Appeals to authority must also be allowed. And what might those appeals be?
“Conscience is an authority;”
But if this is so, does this imply that our best shot at governing society in accordance to this God-willed order is to leave that governance in the hands of the theologians? Would accepting revelation as a means of discerning order—quite literally, what we’re defining as how humans ought to behave—undermine the entire notion of liberty? For how could government be just if it leaves citizens alone to pursue their appetites in accordance with their sin nature, and not the higher virtues order calls us to? Secular society seeks to separate the church from the state; does the conservative’s notion of order seek to replace the state with the church? This is where we’ll pick things up in Part 3.
Perfect Bedrock – Part 2 (Where Does Order Come From?), Read this full article, at Saving Elephants, with Josh Lewis