August 20, 2008
Dan McCarthy addresses one of the several questions I posed in my last post—”Is the conservative movement worth conserving?””namely, “To what extent would anyone read the authors of the movement conservative canon (Russell Kirk, Frank Meyer et al.) if a conservative movement did not exist to promote their works so relentlessly?”
Dan responds that the movement hasn”t in fact promoted its canonical works. But he goes on to concede a great deal of evidence to the contrary”in particular, the evidence that the movement keeps most of its “canonical” works in print. As Dan writes, Kirk, Strauss, Oakshott, Voegelin, Weaver and even Meyer are all still very much in print. Dan neglects to mention that Nisbet is also still in print, and I would add that Whitaker Chambers’s Witness is in its third edition. (Of course, as Dan recognizes, it’s beyond the movement’s resources to make the complete works of any of its canonical authors immediately available.) Of the canonical authors, only Burnham and Kendall are out of print”which is admittedly strange, as a case could be made (and would at least be made by me) that these are the two strongest theorists in the canon. Overall, however, by Dan’s own measure (namely, the availability of the “canonical” books), the movement conservative canon is doing rather well.
Dan nonetheless laments that, despite the relative availability of most of the canonical works, movement conservatives don”t read them anymore. But just because a canon isn”t read doesn”t mean that it isn”t considered authoritative. Only a tiny percentage of Marxists ever actually read Das Kapital, after all, but that doesn”t mean that the tome was never canonical for the international Left. Indeed, as a canon matures, one should expect it to become the more of less exclusive province of a priestly class charged with applying its lessons. That is, an important mark of a distinction within any ideological movement is a facility with its canonical works. Thus, with very few exceptions, movement conservative intellectuals all pride themselves in their understanding of the conservative movement canon. As John Derbyshire aptly remarked, “If you are going to hobnob with conservative intellectuals, get a copy of George H. Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 for reference, so when the names of the Church Fathers come up you will know who they are and what they stood for.”
It is worth noting that Dan himself effortlessly composes a list of authors that every knowledgeable movement conservative will immediately recognize as canonical. This strikes me as sufficient evidence in itself that movement conservatives have successfully promoted a canon.
In the end, it seems that Dan is one of those reformers that appear in every mature religious or ideological movement who are dismayed by that movement’s apathetic neglect of the founding texts. I wish that the neglect were more widespread.
Liberals read John Stuart Mill both because he was a liberal but also because he was a great thinker. Christian Scientists, by contrast, read Mary Baker Eddy solely because she was a Christian Scientist. It seems to me that the movement conservative canon is closer to the latter example. That is, movement conservatives read the canon not because of its intrinsic merits but because reading the canon is what movement conservatives are supposed to do. If others (such as, say, Sam Tanenhaus) read the canon, it is not because they expect to profit from it but because they wish to understand movement conservatism—just as one might read Mary Baker Eddy in order to understand Christian Science. In short, one can be an educated man—even a conservative educated man—without ever acquiring a familiarity with the conservative movement canon. Today, the canon functions largely as an instrument of distinguishing those loyal to the movement from the rest of the world. Hence, it is almost a definition of a movement conservative intellectual to say he is one who has a high degree of respect for the canon.
Just to prevent any misunderstanding, I should add that the canonical authors are all very much worth reading. Jonah Goldberg, in the midst of one of his charming personal attacks, once pilloried me for allegedly considering myself “a more serious and thoughtful political philosopher than the silly and extravagant Weaver, Voegelin, Bloom, and Nisbet.” But of course one doesn”t have to consider oneself to be the equal of a particular thinker in order to see that thinker as flawed or as falling short of greatness. My point is not that the authors of the canon shouldn”t be read but simply that they shouldn”t be read as canonical.