A warning for conservatives

Abtei im Eichwald , by Caspar David Friedrich

Abtei im Eichwald, by Caspar David Friedrich

While visiting home in Georgia this weekend, my wife and I went to my parents’ church. The sermon came from the Book of Exodus, but an aside from Ecclesiastes caught us both off guard and gave us a lot to think about:

 
Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.
— Ecclesiastes 7:10
 

For my wife, this brought to mind changes at work, a difficult new generation of students, and a longing for years past, before present troubles. I thought immediately of conservatism—not the political position, but the attitude or temperament that is prior to any particular political idea: a disposition rather than an ideology, according to Michael Oakeshott; a state of mind, an instinct to preserve and maintain, to adhere to tradition and custom, to guarantee continuity, according to Russell Kirk; an understanding that good things are hard to create and easy to destroy, according to Roger Scruton. We could go on much further.

So while I am a conservative, both by temperament and because I agree with the above, I’m not talking about political conservatism, which is in bad shape in the United States anyway. I mean the general disposition, to which even self-described progressives are susceptible, and what I see as its besetting danger.

That danger is what is commonly called nostalgia now: a sentimentalized reverence for a past that—probably—never existed.

This shouldn’t be news—conservatives are accused of nostalgia all the time—but I do wrestle with a longing for a time without our present troubles. There were good things about the past, things it is good to preserve or recover, and there are serious problems at present, problems to which the past may—and I think often does—hold the solutions. But I have to remind myself that while the people of the past may not have had our problems, they had plenty of their own, and there were even then people like me who cast longing backward glances at their own simpler, more peaceful, less troubled pasts. It’s simpler times all the way down.

And there stand the words of the preacher. In the magisterial archaism of the KJV: “Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not enquire wisely concerning this.”

This is not, of course, a resounding endorsement of nostalgia’s opposite error, progressivism—“a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative.” And it is good to remember that Ecclesiastes is hardly a straightforward collection of proverbial wisdom. But this passage is a good reminder of the unwisdom of two related mistakes: assuming the past was necessarily better than the present, and using that assumption as an excuse to neglect the present.

Mea culpa. This is a tall order for someone who is both a conservative and an historian, and I’ve been mulling it over ever since.

Food for thought at an obsessively nostalgic time of year. To conclude with a warning against focusing obsessively on the future—a New Year’s warning, perhaps—here’s the Gospel of Matthew:

 
Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
— Matthew 6:34