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Monday, 28 August 2006
Andrew Sullivan's New Book
OK, just finished reading Andrew Sullivan's new book THE CONSERVATIVE SOUL. You need a generous interpretation of "reading" there — I was skimming a lot towards the end.  The book is in fact a bit of a palimpsest, one text arguing for a certain kind of conservatism, the other, one of Sullivan's attempts to reconcile the facts of his own homosexuality and Catholicism.  The former is interesting and quite rewarding; the latter, which pretty much takes over towards the end, is just tiresome.  (Note to Andrew:  It can't be done.)


That "certain kind of conservatism" is a restrained, non-ideological sort, emphasizing freedom over virtue.  "The great and constant dream of the conservative is to be left alone by his own government and by his fellow humans, as much as is possible."  ( p.242)  This restraint, based on a thinking man's doubt about the perfection, or perfectability, of our understanding (we hear a lot about Montaigne), goes to Sullivan's religion, too:  "If the acceptance and love of others as they are is the essence of Christianity, then the acceptance of our loneliness and doubt in a world far beyond our understanding is the core of all non-fundamentalist religion." ( p.222)

Unfortunately, as in the first part of that last quote, Sullivan's fundamental hedonism keeps breaking through the surface.  Did Jesus Christ really preach "the acceptance and love of others as they are"?  How does that jibe with, for example, "Go, and sin no more"?  Wasn't Jesus urging the woman taken in adultery to clean up her act?  In places, where Sullivan talks about the need to "let go ... of obsessing about laws and doctrines" ( p.207), he comes awfully close to saying:  "If it feels good, do it!"

The perennial present-centeredness of those who don't intend to reproduce themselves is also visible in several places.  "By letting go, we become.  By giving up, we gain.  And we learn how to live—now, which is the only time that matters."  What Sullivan is urging us to let go of here is not the base desires of our mortal clay—heaven forbid!—but the "ordeal of self-criticism and guilt" that might restrain them.  I'm no theologian, but I had the vague impression that ordeals of self-criticism and guilt were sort of the POINT of religious practice.  That highly un-Christian notion that the present is "the only time that matters" recurs—in fact, it is there in the book's penultimate sentence:  "Now—which is the only time there is."  (Compare John Maynard Keynes's remark that "In the long run we're all dead"—a sentiment we breeders have considerable trouble with.)

Leaving aside all the self-justification, though, I think Sullivan is broadly right about conservatism.  For the preservation of liberty, the skeptical, dry, philosophically modest conservatism that Sullivan argues for is a much better bet than any system based on a belief that human beings, or their societies, can be transformed by state power.

"How small, of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!"

You can't square that with: "We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move."  The former is a truly conservative sentiment; the latter, a declaration of messianic intent, rooted in the conviction that one knows with certainty what is good for people — really, just a species of Leninism.  No wonder GWB has hardly vetoed anything.  There is a poli-sci theorem here somewhere, though Sullivan does not state it explicitly.  Something like:  Any government driven by "inner light" conviction of the absolute type, will spend recklessly.  You might be able to argue that the conviction is conservative, but you can't argue that the consequent spending (=vastly expanded state power) is.

Bottom line on the book:  Some good argument for modest, skeptical conservatism.  Too bad it had to be mixed up with all that "I-can-SO-be-gay-and-Catholic!" stuff.  But that's Andrew for you.

Posted on 08/28/2006 1:38 PM by John Derbyshire
31 Aug 2006
So, the alternatives offered for conservatives are 1)state intervention based on religous faith and a belief in man's essential sinfulness, or 2)grudgingly granted freedom based on skepticism and doubt about man's capability of doing much right. In either case, reason is discarded and mankind is scorned. Is this a party men like Isaac Newton would submit to?