Reagan, Emerson, and Conservatism

I have now read or heard three favorable reviews of Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History, by John Patrick Diggins. Russell Baker’s review in The New York Review of Books was the first; George F. Will’s column of February 11 was the second; and finally a neighbor, a Reagan appointee who has written too many books for me to count and is usually an exacting critic, read the book and praised it effusively.

The central thesis, according to Baker, is that Ronald Reagan was an intellectual disciple of Ralph Waldo Emerson,

the nineteenth-century poet, essayist, and philosopher. At the peak of his intellectual powers in the 1830s and 1840s, Emerson was instrumental in creating the Transcendentalist movement, a philosophical reaction against orthodox Calvinism and the Unitarian Church’s rationalism. The Transcendentalists developed their own faith, which held that God is present—immanent, in theological language—within man and nature. This gave man an important, even rarefied status. . . . The individual was no longer a doomed sinner in the hands of an angry God; he was now divine, now himself part or parcel of God. The political consequence of this, which is what interests Diggins, is enhanced importance for the individual. What emerges is a new optimistic individualism.

“Optimistic individualism” — that summary of Reagan’s views rang true for me. It fit in with George Schultz’s remark that Reagan “appealed to people’s best hopes, not their fears, to their confidence rather than their doubts.”

Upon reading Baker’s review, I realized that I did not know much about Emerson, and certainly never thought of him as a political thinker of any sort. And indeed, I found not a single mention of him in Leo Strauss’s History of Political Philosophy, a very thick book. But Russell Kirk, in The Conservative Mind from Burke to Eliot, seemed to have no trouble appreciating Emerson’s political importance, and condemning it:

The whole melioristic, abstract, individualistic tendency of [the Transcendentalists’] philosophy was destructive of conservative values. Reliance upon private judgment and personal emotion, contempt for prescription and the experience of the species, a social morality alternately and bewilderingly eccentric and all-embracing (the contradiction so frequently encountered in Rousseau) — these qualities of Emerson’s thought gratified a popular American craving which ever since has fed upon Emersonian “Self-Reliance” and “Experience” and “Nature” and his other individualistic manifestoes.

Kirk actually had quite a bit to say about Emerson, almost none of it good. For example,

Emerson’s specific political notions are almost shocking — frightening in the first instance for their perilous naivete, in the second instance for their easy indifference to uncomfortable facts. Shrugging aside constitutional safeguards, checks and balances, devices to secure freedom, prescriptive authorities, he declares that all we require in government is good will. We must found our political systems upon “absolute right” and then we will have nothing to fear. This from a professed admirer of Montesquieu and Burke! The most optimistic of the philosophes was not more puerile in statecraft.

George Will picks up this same theme of contradiction, especially with Burke:

The 1980s, [Diggins] says, thoroughly joined politics to political theory. But he notes that Reagan’s theory was radically unlike that of Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism, and very like that of Burke’s nemesis, Thomas Paine. Burke believed that the past is prescriptive because tradition is a repository of moral wisdom. Reagan frequently quoted Paine’s preposterous cry that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

I have some doubt whether a majority of self-described conservatives could tell you whether their views are closer to Burke’s or Paine’s, but I do think basic beliefs about the perfectibility of human nature are an important fault line in that modern-day political constituency. As Kirk put it,

Recognition of the abiding power of sin is a cardinal tenet in conservatism. . . . For conservative thinkers believe that man is corrupt, that his appetites need restraint, and that the forces of custom, authority, law, and government, as well as moral discipline, are required to keep sin in check. One may trace this conviction back through [John] Adams to the Calvinists and Augustine, or through Burke to Hooker and the Schoolmen and presently, in turn, to St. Augustine — and, perhaps (as Henry Adams does) beyond Augustine to Marcus Aurelius and his Stoic preceptors, as well as to St. Paul and the Hebrews. Emerson, impatient of tradition, dismisses such disturbing theories.

I have some thoughts on this, thoughts about conservatism not as an ideological extreme but as a moderating influence. But that will have to wait for another time. On Ash Wednesday, it is only fitting for Kirk’s opinion to be the final word.

Posted in Arts and Letters, Book Reviews, Conservatism, Moderation, Moral Philosophy, Religion. Comments Off on Reagan, Emerson, and Conservatism
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