What Is Paleoconservatism? Part IV: From Ideological Patchwork to a Philosophy of Human Nature

As it took shape, “paleoconservatism”—like all ideologies—was a piece of bric à brac, cobbled together with pieces from 1950’s liberalism that flew the false flag of conservatism, from which it took hostility to big government, public indecency, and abortion rights; from the misnamed ‘old right,’ from which it borrowed opposition to imperial wars; from the Libertarians, who strongly influenced—most obviously—our anti-imperialism, as well as the emphasis on individual liberty and non-governmental solutions to social problems, and from the populist traditions a suspicion of the ruling elite and a respect for the opinions of ordinary people whose brains had not been addled by the poisons of higher education.  

(As an aside, I should note that while I am usually numbered as one of the authors of this so-called movement, I have never subscribed to any ideology.  In this article I am trying only to describe what developed.  Although we talked about composing some sort of manifesto and even put together a book of essays that remained unpublished--I could not persuade the then president of The Rockford Institute to support the project.  The contributors included Sam Francis, Murray Rothbard, Lew Rockwell, and a number of others.  I may have their mss. somewhere or perhaps they have fallen into the hands of people who could not read, much less consider publishing them.)

Into this mixture, some of us added a commitment to the traditions that lay behind the best aspects of American life: the classical tradition, of course, but also British literature. law, and history.  This was sometimes confusing to outsiders, since I was fond of writing tongue-in-cheek denunciations of English journalists and making lofty pronouncements about what the UK owed its American rescuers.  Frank Johson, who was kind enough to commission pieces for The Spectator may have taken the rhetoric seriously in the beginning--he certainly asked me to write over-the-top America-First columns--but he quickly came to understand that England had no better friend among American "conservatives," though my affection for the old country was subject to the stipulation that we were not going to die for them a third time.  

To preserve these traditions and improve our understanding of them, we were also committed to serious scholarship, and we were willing to examine leftist contributions to science, history, and political theory.  The anti-war leftists we came to know—people like the American historian Gene Genovese and Marxist political theorist Paul Piccone (also a populist), became strong if not always reliable allies.  In the beginning, the knees of our leftist comrades would twitch leftward whenever subjects like racial politics crept into the conversation, but they brought with them a level of academic prestige that no self-described conservative, no matter how brilliant and hard-working, could ever expect to achieve in the leftist-dominated academy.  When all parties could have honest conversations without looking over their shoulders, the conversations could be stimulating.  I can remember long talks with Genovese and Clyde Wilson, Murray Rothbard and Sam Francis.  We  generally got on amazing well, considering we were all prickly characters.

Many of us also attempted to maintain a Machiavellian clarity of political analysis that Sam Francis, strongly influenced by James Burnham, insisted upon.  My own classical background and my growing interest in all things Italian encouraged me to read Machiavelli’s Decades on Titus Livius with absorbing interest, and this reading was followed by studies of the leading Machiavellian thinkers who had been analayzed and praised by Burnham in his book The Machiavellians.  I was particularly indebted to Machiavelli for stiffening my resolve to view the political world without ideological blinders and never to lose sight of the eternal realities of self-interest and the libido dominandi.  The author of The Prince is naturally hated and feared by all the political hucksters who for many centuries have made themselves rich by selling tickets for exclusive viewings of  the emperor’s new clothes.

We had a number of other things in common, including a fondness for the old America our grandparents had remembered, a respect for the Southern tradition, a willingness to learn from a broad spectrum of European intellectual life, a loathing for jargon, a distinct distaste for puritanism.  Every club has its peculiar traditions and among paleoconservatives whiskey, cigars, and good country music were de rigueur.  

There was one other important element that only one or two of us talked about, but underlay much of her thinking and gave shape and meaning to what might have otherwise seemed like an arbitrary hodgepodge of diverse elements, and that was the conviction that all wholesome moral, social, and political principles derived from human nature.  The Christians naturally took the further step of attributing these principles to the Creation and its Author, but, as I had already explained in my first book, The Politics of Human Nature, the political revolutions that were destroying society and civilization were all aimed at overthrowing both the idea of human nature and the institutions--marriage, free enterprise, property, aristocracy--that flowed from it.  In the defense of human nature and its institutions,  Darwin and David Hume joined hands with Cicero and Aristotle, the Scriptures and Thomas Aquinas.

As the word implies, paleoconservatism is rooted in ancient and permanent principles of human nature.  No one invented marriage, the family, or maternal love upon which the survival of our species depends.  To be human is to live in families where senior men make the crucial decisions, and where the household is autonomous and self-governing in all its own affairs: the rearing and education of children, the provision of assistance for elderly and infirm members, disciplinary measures for those who violate the family’s laws.  After hundreds of thousands of years of social and political evolution, the ancient (Greek, Roman, Jewish) and Medieval family retained most of its primitive authority and responsibility, and the first step of any conservative movement should have been the liberation of families and households from the power of the total state, whether that state is styled socialist, communist, national socialist, or democratic.

Social conservatives and some members of the Christian right have made similar pronouncements (albeit in a watered-down form), but they inevitably make their obeisance to the Left.  “The state has harmed the family,” they say, “so now let the state make reparations by passing pro-family legislation;” or, they plead, “Let us restore family values but not with the crushing burden of patriarchy and inequality that disfigured earlier regimes: We have learned something, after all, in 2000 years.”

Really?  What have we learned?  Not to mind our own business?  Not to accept responsibility for our selves and our families?  Scientific and economic progress does not entail moral or social or political progress.  The opposite is more often the case.  The object of paleoconservatism was not to offer a nostalgic appeal to the Golden age of the 50’s--either the 1950’s A.D. or the 450’s B.C, but an insistence upon the truly permanent things that have been under attack for centuries and the memory of which is being obliterated in our time.

Thomas Fleming

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

10 Responses

  1. Avatar Robert Geraci says:

    You reference human nature as the foundation piece for who we are and how we act. That is to me not only patently and inherently true, but for some others, ironically and amazingly, an arguable point. Or at the very least these others would maintain there are differences in how they would define human nature. How else to explain people you reference such as Genovese who are otherwise brilliant in some of the things they have written, but to say he (they) define human nature differently than you? While it may be difficult to comprehensively list all the attributes of human nature, folks such as yourself know which dots ought to be connected. These differences in definition are at the heart of why people cannot agree on things political. I know the worst are those who dismiss human nature out of hand saying that humans are moldable and perfectible; but as frustrating are those who refuse to see the human creature as having certain characteristics that transcend time and place. Funny how these same people without blinking assign natures to all other animal species on the planet, but humans, nope we either don’t have any or what you say we are is wrong. I am sensing the gulf is widening between those who define human nature differently, much to our collective woe.

  2. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    One of my most serious disagreements with a friend was with Betsy Fox Genovese, wife of Eugene and a noted Marxist-feminist historian who later turned Catholic and tepidly conservative. She strongly objected to my characterization of Marx’s position that man is the creature who makes his own nature and that human nature is a function of the circumstances in which it is formed. She said I was wrong in my interpretation–though I was quoting Marx–but at the same time she objected to my analysis of inherent sex roles. In a fit of madness, I asked her to review The Politics of Human Nature, and while she was fairly critical at points, she made an honest effort to evaluate it.

    Much of the mischief goes back at least to John Locke, an American conservative idol, who posited the human mind at birth as a blank slate on which experience would write. This was in sharp distinction from Aristotle and St Thomas and would later be somewhat refuted by Kant. Of course, the idea is preposterous as anyone observing babies will discover and has been thoroughly debunked by the actual science of neurophysiology. But Marxist-feminists tend not to study any hard science, believing that Marx et al provide a verifiable scientific means of analysis and proof, when in fact what they offer is ex cathedra pronouncements of mystical fantasies. But, then, that was what I set out do do in a book that most readers have found tedious–apart from the first chapter or two and the last one. Robert Nisbet, one of the few authentic intellectuals who associated himself with the conservatives, say that I had proved that God was an Althusian, which showed how deeply he understood what I was trying to do.

  3. Avatar Robert Geraci says:

    I will read again your Politics of Human Nature and as is the goal with all re-reads I will hope to see things I hadn’t the first time (even just the passage of several years of life sometimes affords one to see things in a better light). But it would be interesting to read an elaboration of your last line in the reply above, how God is an Althusian in perhaps a column of its own on that theme. And if that idea is that fundamental to understanding God’s methodology towards Man, then perhaps even more than one column, unless your reply is that was what your book was about.

  4. Avatar Roger McGrath says:

    I got a bit sad reading this because it reminded me of the many great evenings we had at gatherings of the John Randolph Club and the intellectual inspiration that came from Tom Fleming. Like Tom, I had difficulty fitting neatly into a political category but in paleoconservatism I found a home. Tom’s description of paleoconservatism is exactly what I had always felt–more from gut instincts than anything else–without knowing it would one day be referred to as political philosophy. Meanwhile, Tom’s ability to pen a killer line remains undiminished: “. . . the political hucksters who for many centuries have made themselves rich by selling tickets for exclusive viewings of the emperor’s new clothes.”

  5. Avatar Ken Rosenberger says:

    This has been a great series of articles, and I hope you will continue it at your convenience. Who knows, but that you may end up with a book length history on Paleo-conservatism. I do hope you’re working your way through to the proper conclusion, i.e., how did we get to where we are today.

    I was amused by your comment above about Marxist-feminists never going to the trouble to learn any hard sciences. So very true. I went to a STEM university, where virtually everyone was studying to become an engineer or scientist, and I have spent my entire career around such people. I do not recall ever coming across a Marxist. In fact, the overwhelming majority of engineers I have known would identify as conservative or libertarian, albeit of the generic Fox News type. Most of them thought celebrities running around bleating about science like Al Gore were morons, who probably couldn’t pass freshmen Calculus. I know for a fact that more than a few Devout Baptist boys have made great contributions to the technological development of the digital age, and somehow their belief in The Biblical Theory of Creation didn’t hold them back. So whenever I hear some Marxist at the NYT or some other journal of influence opine about the need to trust science over the narrow-minded theocrats, I just shake my head and laugh.

  6. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    An autobiographical note: As a young boy, I was interested primarily in astronomy, but by the age of 11 or 12 I switched to chemistry. By the age of 14, I had a well equipped lab in which I was trying to replicate various break-throughs in chemistry, as I synthesized plastics out of milk and made things that went BOOM. At the same time, I loved reading stories and, when I began to read Homer and Aeschylus (seriously) I knew I had found a home. I got so neglectful that after breaking my glasses in a weekend binge and being unable to study for my chemistry final, I actually failed and had to take the course again my senior year. My interest was rekindled and my professor, also dean of the college, started lending me things to read and insisting I attend a guest lecture from an expert on “stereochemistry.” He made me a generous offer: Stay another two years, he said, and he would undertake to train me for a first rate graduate program. I did not hesitate to turn him down since my mind was made up to study classics. Nonetheless, my respect for scientists and the scientific method was revived and has never abated. For my first book I spent years studying sociobiology (among other things like genetics and anthropology). I never got terribly far, but it was enough to enable me to correspond with scientists (including Dawkins) and to win the praise of E.O. Wilson, who declared in a letter that in my book I never flinched from the consequences of a sociobiological analysis. We are either on the side of truth or not. If the Creator chose to develop the world through a natural process of evolution, it is not up to an ignorant mortal to oppose Him. If that Creator really did salt the earth with bogus fossils to delude men into error and damnation, then I should have to conclude the Gnostics were right in claiming that the Creator of our world was a lesser god that deluded mankind.

  7. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Roger, those were indeed good times, but they may not be–to quote Merle–“over for good.” We still do a Summer School and an occasional European trip, though it is probably too late for me to plan a Greek trip for January. Gail and I shall certainly be going but the agent in Athens I have dealt with in the past is slow and uncommunicative and when my former associates embarked on their program of “renovation,” they forced the cancellation of a program in Northern Greece that I had thoroughly planned out over a period of many months.

  8. Avatar Ken Rosenberger says:

    Great story on your early passion for science. I agree with you about evolution. Arguments about evolution versus creationism have never particularly interested me. I believe in God and I don’t think that He and evolution (if true) are mutually exclusive. To those who can’t fathom why He would possibly choose such a process, I can only say what’s a billion years (or whatever it’s supposed to be) to a Supreme Being who has always been, more or less.

    Dr McGrath, if he will ever return to the Summer program, should expect several free lunches and numerous free drinks.

  9. Avatar Robert Geraci says:

    We are on the side of truth or not. Exactly. The same people who insist on an evolutionary transition from no life to the rudiments of life to the diversity on this planet are the same people who insist that global warming, oops, climate change, is happening and is caused by mankind. For the same reason that their credibility is wanting for climate change because of group think mentalities and for obvious political reasons, so too is their adherence to evolution when there is literally no transitionary evidence in fossils that all life evolved with clear links to past life forms. Scientists such as Douglas Axe (and many others) have shown that mathematically there isn’t enough time in the universe for such transitions to have occurred of one life form giving rise to another as well as a tree of life being developed. I couldn’t care less about the Biblical creation story being six days in terms of that being the logical alternative; that’s not my alternative. What my alternative is, is to look at all of creation, not just of life, but of the entire universe and all things in it and to ask what magic did this come from. Evolution, which is entirely different than adaptation (for which there is ample evidence that such occurs and fossil records show this), requires a faith more illogical than our Creator doing whatever He did whether in six days or six billion. My problem with evolutionists is their smug stance in saying it only proves no creator was necessary and that Man’s distinctiveness from all other life forms is imaginary. I think it was Aristotle who proved the necessity of a first cause, consequently a need for a God. I would have no problem with evolution if that was indeed the tool that God used, but the evidence is lacking except for wishful thinking and a dogmatic adherence to it being a proved fact. There is magic in the universe that no Big Bang or evolution is adequate to explain. And the magic is both in the macro as well as the micro: the universe is infinite in its regression to smallness. Only a God could have done this. And I think evolution as a religious belief clouds the brilliance of God’s creation.

  10. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Perhaps I should apologize for a gaffe, in saying that I have tried to look at the results of scientific investigation, if not impartially or objectively, but at least with an eye open for possible truth. The term “scientists” can be misleading. For example, in most languages, a philologist is a scientist, and thus I might be considered to have a privileged position–which I most certainly disclaim–in discussing questions of biology. What about some with a degree in chemical engineering, by definition an applied science in a field far distant from evolutionary biology? I think I’ll pass on his defense of “creationism”, one more bloody “ism” which is what we don’t need. I don’t pretend to have answers,. but Ken said what needs to be said.. The questions of “how” are trivial in comparison with the questions of “what”. Getting bogged down in this debate is foolish.