The Nature of the Beast: Simple Simon’s Political Lexicon, “Conservatism” Part III

Most political/ideological movements are defined more by what the movement opposes than by what it supports.  Jacobins were a bit fuzzy about their Golden Age vision of a restored Roman Republic, but they were pretty clear about whom they wanted to kill.    (By the way, one easy way of distinguishing a wholesome religion or religious movement from a mere sect is that sectarians tend to define and name themselves according to their leaders and spend an enormous amount of time destroying what previous generations have created.  Iconoclasts and progressives  act more or less like ISIS and the Communist Party.)

Conservatives are particularly prone to creating movements and forming alliances in opposition to a common enemy, such as the Jacobins, the Marxists, the Global Warmingists.  That is one of many reasons why Conservatives almost always fail in the short run and have an unbroken string of disastrous failures in the long run.  Frank Meyer’s fusionism seemed, at the time, to be a practical basis for National Review's n alliance against Communism, but in the end the only real foundation for American Conservatism turned out to be “the root of all evil.”

So, in trying to discover a positive set of principles, I set my sights on reality and refused to disdain the help of any honest thinker or researcher, whether Conservative, Marxist, or Feminist.  Along the way, I encountered any number of brilliant people who contributed to my understanding.  Among the few “Conservatives” in this group were my friends Thomas Molnar and Robert Nisbet.  Since this search for reality was not in the realm of quantum mechanics or molecular biology,I focussed my attention single-mindedly on Human Nature, and, as I began to write for Conservative publications and take part in  their activities—Philadelphia Society meetings, Liberty Fund seminars, Hillsdale College programs—I increasingly cast my arguments as a search for a sound basis for conservative principles.

Among movement Conservatives, their minds straight-jacketed  by National Review,  this approach  did not find much response, though more tradition-minded writers--friends like Mel Bradford, Russell Kirk, and Forrest McDonald--expressed some support for what I was attempting, albeit in a clumsy, floundering fashion.  My simple formula was that Conservatives—in contrast with Marxists, Jacobins, and even most Classical Liberals—were motivated in part by their understanding of Human Nature, for example, man’s universal tendency to establish a home base that he would defend, acquire and protect personal belongings, seek power and construct hierarchies, and worship powers greater than the merely human.  Pretty simple stuff, except for those who had  deliberately short-circuited their natural faculties by reading Rousseau and Marx.

For Locke the human mind was a blank slate on which anything could be written,  and for Marx, man is the creature that makes his own essence, meaning, basically, that no social experiment is too preposterous to try.  In fact, one of the central tenets of the Revolutionary creed was the malleability of the human mind and character.  The old fraud Franz Boaz had sent out his impressionable female students to prove that human cultures are infinitely variable in every respect; Watson, Skinner, and the Behaviorists tried to show that through stimulus-response training they could treat men and women as as programmable robots.  It was only decades later that I discovered that one important source of this revolutionary rejection of Human Nature lay in a brief work almost universally celebrated:  Pico della Mirandola’s “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” in which the young genius, quoting from dangerous Hermetic works, declares that man is not only infinitely open and godlike in his capacities but even a god-creator.   If one had to pick the most important source for the revolutionary movement that was to destroy the foundations of the West, it would be in this preface  to the theses that Pico had hoped to deliver in Rome.

For Classical Liberals and all-too many capitalist conservatives, the most important human quality is our capacity for change and progress.  I soon realized that the people at Heritage and other Conservative organizations had far more in common with Robespierre than with Edmund Burke. Among modern ideological movements, the few exceptions to this generalization were equally dangerous zanies like Freud and Jung, whose preposterous notions made for interesting reading but from which nothing certain could be concluded.  In our postdoc program there was an Irish psychologist named Tony.  When  I asked him what he thought of Freud, he said, “Nothing.”  Even for me, this seemed a little extreme, and, when I pressed him, Tony asked me to devise an experiment confirming or refuting the theory of the id, ego, superego.  When I could not, he calmly pointed out that anything that could not be tested was not science.

So, my study of Human Nature, I concluded, was a useful pursuit in itself and was not only compatible with but had to be fundamental to any Conservative point of view.  The most obvious starting point for a search for “the common human” lay in the obvious distinction—physiological, emotional, intellectual, social—between the human male and the human female.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

4 Responses

  1. Frank Brownlow says:

    Ah yes, Pico: the thinker behind Shakespeare’s Iago’s approach to life: “Our bodies are our gardens, to the which
    our wills are gardeners: so that if we will plant nettles, or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs, or distract it with many, either to have it sterile with idleness, or manured with industry, why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills.” Once someone believes that, there are no limits to experiment. When Francis Bacon, no stranger to the Elizabethan torture rooms, recommended putting Nature to the question to extract her secrets, he too was removing limits to experiment.

  2. Allen Wilson says:

    I found the Oration online and read a few paragraphs. I read enough of that kind of stuff back in my 20’s to get my fill. You mean that’s what so much of modern thought is founded on? It gets boring rather quickly, and it smacks of the same glib, gibberish y, empty style you will find in Trismegistus. So much flamboyant speech just to tell is nothing much at all.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    It is one of the most influential literary documents of the past 500 years, praised by the Enlightened and revolutionary leftists but also by Russell Kirk who celebrated it repeatedly. Now, although this work is ridiculous and very occult, Pico was no dummy. He was 23-24 years old and full of himself and of the rather vast erudition he had acquired. He was a sincere and disciplined thinker who step by step argued himself back into sanity, partly under the influence of his good friend Savonarola. He was murdered while in his thirties, perhaps at the behest of the Medici. I devoted a Summer School lecture to Pico, and,while I had read much of him previously, this time I was seriously impressed by him and the miracle of his conversion. The Oration, nonetheless, is not only wicked but stultifying.

  4. Allen Wilson says:

    I can understand that. After all, I used to be dumb enough to take that kind of stuff seriously. What is amazing is that otherwise intelligent people who should know better fall for it. Perhaps one would do better to study the life of an author before reading any of his works. I have heard of a writer who recommended that his own readers not read his early books.