Untimely Observations

Canon Fodder


Having looked at the “essential reading matter” for the (real) American Right posted on this website (here, here, and here), it seems to me that all the lists have at least some value. The recommenders are to be praised for recognizing the utter irrelevance of what the neoconservative-controlled press raises to canonical status, in accordance with its changing policy demands and cults of personality. Clearly, Jonah Goldberg’s yapping with a Democratic speechwriter, whom he turns into a Republican one, would not qualify as anything more than punctuated noise, although Human Events describes this work and even sillier twaddle as “conservative classics.” Although marginalized by the authorized conservative movement, our side should try to restore some seriousness to what is left of an identifiable Right. And offering suggestions on appropriate reading seems a useful step in this direction.

On the basis of what I’ve seen of the available lists, it would seem that Richard’s bibliography may work best. It needs trimming and strains to be all-inclusive, but it is shaped by obvious rightwing principles and perceptions. Allow me to elaborate, from my political-philosophical perspective. The Right by its nature is anti-egalitarian and favors hierarchy over the idea (or chimera) of universal individual equality. It is also committed to preserving organic institutions in which families and communities can survive. It is profoundly skeptical of any scheme that seeks to advance some notion of human perfection, and especially in the modern world, the Right should be fighting doggedly against social engineering and leveling.

It also entertains a tragic view of the human condition and understands that friend/enemy distinctions are natural to how people live. The way out of this situation, even when it becomes heated, should not be through international administrative regulation of individual human lives for the sake of perpetual peace and brother- or sisterhood. Such utopian efforts can only lead to tyranny and the utter destruction of traditional ways of life. The best we can do in dealing with conflict is to control and channel violence through timely diplomacy and only if absolutely necessary, military interventions. The Right also values free markets—but not more than social cohesion. When these forces collide, those who are concerned with communal interests and standards of decency have every right to opt against pure unfettered capitalism. Needless to say, trading free markets for modern socialism or for welfare state democracy in its present degenerate form is not an acceptable option.

While the Right is not obliged to support biblical literalism, it must be respectful of the Western religious tradition and affirm its irreplaceable value as a moral and spiritual reference point. This respect of course does not exclude the possibility of learning from brilliant religious skeptics like Hume, Nietzsche and Machiavelli, who held pessimistic or profoundly realistic views about the limits of human nature. Nor does this sympathy for the once established religious traditions of the West preclude the possibility of learning about political life from thinkers identified with the Left. Here Richard picked useful examples when he mentioned Lenin and Gramsci.

Although the other lists include worthwhile reading matter, I’m not sure they are particularly well suited to our needs. Jim’s list looks like Mortimer Adler’s Synopticon, a collection of books that Adler and others in his program at the University of Chicago thought were indispensable for an undergraduate education. Most of Jim’s or Adler’s classical works and some of the others mentioned would also make it on to my list of works that came to define the Western heritage. But Jim’s Synopticon-like list looks very academic and from the early modern period onward, heavily favors the English tradition over continental European thought. How, for example, is Locke a more relevant thinker for a contemporary person of the Right than such figures as Hegel, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Sorel, Maistre, Donoso-Cortes, or Pareto? Such Britons as Hobbes, Burke, and Hume may be timelier, at least from our critical perspective, since each in his own way argues against the autonomous individual and in favor of authority. But is it necessary to give us so many Brits and so many figures of the Enlightenment, in order to educate people for the Right?

Keith’s list is even more problematic. It has no unifying principle, save for Keith’s predilection for X or Y. This principle of choice may make sense to Keith but certainly not to me. It is all good and well to enjoy the prose of Murray Rothbard, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Donoso-Cortes, Maistre, Carl Schmitt, and lots of other people. But I’m not sure I see much linkage between the radical individualist Rothbard and, on the other hand, selected Catholic counterrevolutionaries of the early 19th century. It is also not clear what exactly is the philosophical or cosmological connection between the anarcho-capitalist Hoppe and the leading German authoritarian legal thinker of the 1920s.

Although there may indeed be common denominators, Keith does not provide them. He might have approached his work differently, for example, by offering individual works by thinkers who differed philosophically but said equally revealing things. There is no reason that one couldn’t benefit from Schmitt’s understanding of the state but also value Rothbard’s work on the Great Depression. I mention this combination because it pertains to my own work and to what I have taken from two different authors. But simply throwing people together with radically opposed views of government as integral to a “conservative” reading list does not prove one’s case. This is different from citing texts, which may be useful for a common task but which do not all come from identifiably rightwing thinkers.

In regard to the justification for including Hobbes on such a list, I would only cite the Latin verse in which he characterized his translation of Thucydides’ Histories as a defense of traditional authority against “democratic demagogues” and “unruly popular assemblies”:

Sed mihi prae Thucydides placuit,

Is Democratia ostendit mihi quam sit inepta

Is Democratiam docuit me quam sit inepta,

Et quantum coetu plus sapit unus homo.

Hunc ego scriptorem verti, qui diceret Anglis,

Consultaturi rhetoras ut fugerent.

Although Keith and Jim may not like the passage “et quantum coetu plus sapit unus homo,” especially when applied to a leftist presidency, note that Hobbes (in his Latin autobiography produced in verse) is upholding traditional monarchical authority. The fact that he devises a relatively modern political science to achieve his purpose, testifies to his pertinence for contemporary radical traditionalists.