According to William F. Buckley in his book The Unmaking of a Mayor, Professor Richard Weaver, author of the conservative classic Ideas Have Consequences, described the object of conservatism as “the paradigm of essences towards which the phenomenology of the world is continuing approximation.” In other words, conservativism is the recognition and support of this “paradigm of essences.”
According to this view of Reality, there are objective ideals like justice, goodness, love, reason — or greeness and treeness for that matter — which exist outside of human consciousness, as something other than our own subjective moral dispositions (as a competing account of natural law). They are, in effect, scientific objects, organized into their natural hierarchy as the structure of natural law, despite the fact that our experience does not live up to them. This is a very Platonic interpretation of Professor Weaver’s own words. He is, after all, the one who put it this way.
These ideals or universals are more than just names for Weaver as they were for Plato. They are real, metaphysical objects. They are the objective, universal meaning of the written and phonetic symbols which refer to them.
Those of us on the right are in agreement that there is at least one universal — humanness. But this universal is, by its very nature, subjective. It is not an object floating around out there somewhere. It is all of the subjective moral dispositions which we assume are operating in people world-wide whether or not they are honest about them. And as such, it becomes easier to understand why we fail morally, why the world does not live up to our ideals. Natural law is a set of moral dispositions which we can distort. This, too, is natural. This is indicated by our direct experience of our own freedom and longings.
These moral, motivational dispositions are the basis of human Reality, determining the nature of our “objective” experience — all of our responses to it. It is the one, obvious universal around which the “phenomenology of the world” is organized. But it is not a passive, simple, unanalyzable substance like these other universals proposed by Plato and Weaver. Humanness is agency. We are actors. The transcendence of Humanity is God — another agent; another Person. And so we may as well say that it is God WHO is universal. And without God, there is little hope that human beings actually have the same moral image, and can finally agree on the best conceptual scheme (paradigm of language) for describing what is Good, including justice, love, virtue, honor, decency, and so on.
Given this one universal we have named “humanity” (the most miraculous and potent evidence for the existence of God as its perfect and transcendent image) the rest of these universals may be regarded as a paradigm of language which may be more or less morally practical from God’s point of view. God is the author of all truly human language. It is called Christianity, where the true nature of love, grace, hope, faith, and finally humanity are all illustrated and explained.
The fall of man is based on using language in a manner which competes with God’s. In the Garden of Eden, Satan tells Eve that God has mischaracterized the consequences of disobeying Him. Satan is correcting God’s grammar. Pilate cannot accept Christ’s grammar about the nature of the Truth. But these competing uses of language, based on the competing goals of Satan and The World, do not relativize the truth. The truth is still Christ himself, the incarnate image of God in man. All other “universals” flow from this — the Logos, the true order of humanity, God’s paradigm of language. Christ is the Word, the true meaning of the word “God”, the true referent of the proper noun. He is the incarnation of the word “God”, giving us a concrete, unambiguous referent. After Christ, the rules for using the word “God” correctly, are perfectly clear. Satan’s project, after Christ, is to once again create competing uses of the word “God” and overthrow the whole paradigm of language which is rooted in it. Islam and western rationalism are Satanic responses to the Christian revelation. They are alternative grammars about the nature of God and The Good.
It is, after all, undeniable that there are competing definitions, competing uses, of concepts like justice, love, reason and even humanity. But although we may propose competing definitions (uses) of the world “human”, we are all governed, no matter what we say, by what it really is, by the very nature of our subjectivity, our human consciousness as such.
Christianity is the one and only proper basis for “conservatism” as the attempt to get societies to recognize Reality — the lawful order (phenomenology) of the human experience. This keeps conservatism concrete, pragmatic, historically oriented. This is what conservatism is at its traditional best.
But in Weaver’s overt Platonism, there is a logical tendency to reject the relevance of experience to knowledge; the relevance of the very phenomenology he recognizes in his analysis of conservatism. Experience may actually lead us away from the Truth because it falsifies the universals as often as it reveals them. In principle, Christian experience might falsify this Greek Reality to the extent that it is about Christ, a mere particular, instead of these abstract universals. Another way of putting this is that Weaver’s view of Reality and moral knowledge is tragically rationalist, not pragmatic, not finally Christian; not anchored in the agency of the Holy Spirit but in the Platonic reason of experts studying “essences” scientifically.
Let’s substitute the word “Reality” for the phrase “paradigm of essences” in Weaver’s statement, the phrase “the whole of human experience” for the phrase “phenomenology of the world”, and the phrase “ultimately conform” for the phrase “is in continuing approximation.” The result is much more intelligible:
“Conservatism is the promotion of the Reality to which the whole of human experience must ultimately conform.”
This restatement is unencumbered by Platonism and its concomitant rationalism and naturalism. It allows us to unpack the nature of Reality in strictly Christian terms as the revealed word of God, the Christian tradition, as opposed to the perceptions and reason of experts, scientists, professors, philosopher kings, and other elites. We may as well just say that God is in control, whether His enemies like it or not. The problem, after agreeing that there is such a thing as Reality, is to avoid naïve scientism; the notion that this Reality is accessible through expert human reason alone, as if human reason were a singular and absolutely clear method.
Why did Weaver describe conservatism in a Platonic way? Conservatism has always had this tendency to position itself as a form of esoteric knowledge for “statesmen” and elites. It has always been a will to power which is not necessarily Christian, just like Liberalism. It has always mistakenly imagined that the route to power is to convince the masses that only some of us have the knowledge required to rule. This is the same claim made by liberals, damning both competitors, in the eyes of the people, as nothing more than competing elites. Libertarians, for example, claim to have a monopoly on reason and science. But so do the Progressives. This claim to elite status, to elite knowledge, has always been a huge mistake. It always breaks down, historically, experientially. The elites, the experts, fail publicly and miserably. Conservatives argue that the statesman is more tuned into the natural essences, whether authored by God or not, and should not be the representative of the tradition of his constituents, but its critic. The statesman must lead the unwashed to the truth about justice and true order. But no one believes in the statesman anymore, and for good reason.
I prefer my restatement of Weaver’s definition because it is not Greek and elitist in that sense. Conservatives are constantly seduced by and entangled in the western Greek tradition.
The Greek view of how human experience is structured does not offer a good explanation of why, if these essences, these ideals, exist naturally (in the Platonic or Aristotelian sense) in the first place, and are the patterns upon which each thing is instantiated, human experience strays from them at all. Why is it that Reality is not in complete control of our experience? Why, how, could our experience stray from what supposedly structures it in the first place? Why is experience misleading? In the case of moral ideals, human experience strays from them to a radical degree. Nevertheless, I agree with conservatives that there is inevitably a “conservative” reaction to this demonstrating that some kind of moral structure is in play — the one and only concrete universal we have named “humanity.”
Christian Neopopulists, like myself and Mr. Erick Kaardal, with whom I coauthor Christian Neopopulist content, have deep respect for the conservative tradition insofar as it insists that there is one Reality, that human experience is structured. Neither conservatives or Christian Neopopulists are post-structuralists. Above all else, Christian Neopopulists and many Conservatives seem to be in agreement that human nature is real and immutable because it is made in the image of God. This is the bridge over which Christian Neopopulism draws conservatives.
The significant difference between Christian Neopopulists and Conservatives is that Christian Neopopulists are convinced that the concept of Reality cannot be divorced from the concept of God as it can be in Greek thought. The concept of Reality relies on the concept of God. (I will explain this in a moment). This has dramatic implications for our theory of meaning (how language takes on meaning) and reason (how reason really works). In the Conservative, and especially Libertarian tradition, naturalists and anti-theists are included as long as they believe that the universe is orderly, that there is structure, that Reality obtains as this natural lawfulness. This structure of Reality can, in principle, exist without God and can be rationally discerned by experts, by an enlightened aristocracy of truly rational men. This view of Reality is the whole basis of modern, rationalist, western science which considers its ignorance of God axiomatic.
The mistake of western conservatism is its failure to explicitly and exclusively attach itself to the Christian account of Reality and to distinguish that account from that of the ancient Greeks. The Christian account of Reality leads to a rejection of western rationalism which many conservatives find hard to tolerate. They want to keep playing rationalist games with western liberalism. They want to believe that people who stand outside of God’s grace are still rational in some absolute, universal sense, and can be reasoned with. Christian Neopopulists believe that Christ is literally changing our human experience (redeeming it), that Christian experience is fundamentally different from that of the lost. Christ is the one and only perfect incarnation of reason and knowledge of Reality. Getting connected to Him expands and alters human experience.
There is no common base of experience from which to engage in social science. Even the “hard” sciences, as a view of Reality, are plagued by theory-laden observation. The Christian experience is differentiated by the power of its language as effects and affects; it is changed by The Word. Nature is not a closed system. God reaches in and literally changes the nature of it for the redeemed. Miracles happen. The world cannot and does not understand. In the meantime the community of the redeemed is huge, and keeps Christian language about human experience from being private, from being subjective and relative. The modern secular critic of Christianity, like Nietzsche, does not know what he is talking about. He has never experienced Christianity personally, from the inside. He does not, cannot, understand how it actually changes the human experience, how it actually works.
In the western conservative tradition, summarized by Professor Weaver so brilliantly, there are essences, unanalyzable in themselves, like atoms which cannot be broken down into any subpart. There is, for example, the essence of justice — true justice which must be intuited directly and correctly before it can be applied correctly. Again, the conservative tradition has always suggested that the meaning of terms like “justice” is some objective referent — some unanalyzable essence directly intuited. For the classical western conservative these referents are out there in principle, whether or not God is out there.
And so the problems for conservatism start when Plato, in particular, figures out that if the true meaning of a term like “justice” is some objective, simple, unanalyzable, and non-material substance (a transcendent “meaning”), then only experts, philosopher-kings, can fully comprehend it. Despite Plato’s Socratic dialogues, which suggest to many readers that no one is really comprehending the absolute sense of terms (that meaning is just competing use), Plato’s conclusion seems to be that only superior souls like Socrates really get them. The experts (like Socrates) can and must deconstruct the way that the uneducated use these terms. It is impossible for the non-experts to deconstruct the expert use of these terms because the expert use is the absolute standard based on an intuition of the absolute meaning floating around out there beyond the comprehension of any democratic majority. The expert intuition is the standard of reason even though it is essentially, and ironically, subjective and private.
Those who have the ability to understand the truth, may elevate themselves to the absolute perception of the absolute references of absolutely meaningful terms, through superior intellectual discipline. In general, the truth is reserved for a class of priests who must mediate between the masses and Reality. Because universals (essences, absolute meanings) cannot be analyzed, there is no way to make them public. That is, every essence — true justice, true love, true honor, true courage, inter alia — becomes a private, expert standard of truth. Aristotelian empiricism (science) is just another Greek form of intellectual discipline producing an elite class of priests with a literal knowledge of Reality, of universal classes. In the meantime, God is little more than a demiurge, subject Himself to the universals which exist naturally, apart from Him.
Only the members of the expert class could possibly be using terms correctly and in exactly the same way, creating the only coherent, rational community. It is impossible for them to communicate the truth directly to the masses. Moral knowledge, even empirically based scientific intuition in Aristotle, becomes esoteric. Democracy, therefore, is evil. The elites, who are capable of directly intuiting moral realities like justice, or indirectly intuiting the structure of things as scientists (seeing the true form of a thing through examples of it), must be put in charge.
But then the self-proclaimed experts, the philosophers, the scientists, disagree with another. How can we know that one aristocrat is right and the other wrong if the standards of reason and truth are these privately intuited forms of things? How can we terminate debate if experience can always be interpreted in terms of competing concepts of Reality?
We cannot. Instead the people simply become the battleground of warring elites claiming esoteric knowledge, like the people of France standing in between the ancient regime and the new philosophes; like the American people standing in between Liberals and Conservatives/Libertarians.
The fundamental philosophical error in the western conservative tradition is that it always has been, and apparently always will be, influenced by the Greek authoritarian tradition while flirting occasionally with democracy when the people get fed up with the concepts of the liberal elites. Even Edmund Burke, whom conservatives describe as friendly to democracy, gives himself away with his explicit embrace of the modern aristocracy and his aesthetic theory where he asserts that only experts can know what an excellent work of art is. Excellence is rooted in knowledge. And knowledge is rooted in expertise.
Freedom loving people will never have a truly simple, intelligible, and therefore popular philosophy until they get their language disentangled from the Greek tradition. Conservatism will always reflect an authoritarian image for as long as it is rooted in the notion that the meaning of language is referential, and some people know better than others what these references really are. The Libertarians have not helped the right wing solve this problem. Libertarians are just Aristotelians who believe that scientists and their method are inherently rational, and lead to the same authoritative grasp of Reality which the Platonists lay claim to. Conservatives are Platonists. Libertarians are Aristotelians. They are both Greek in supposing that knowledge of Reality is an aristocratic affair. It has to be because it is objective and not everyone has the objective experience and intelligence of the elites. The elite experience, through education, is less relative and limited than that of the common man, even though their education is limited to what other elites say.
And so by claiming that the route to Reality is externally observed objects, whether absolute essences or the objects du jour that we induce the essences from, the aristocracy removes the claim that we could all otherwise make: our shared subjective image is the common ground upon which we all look for the true nature of Reality. We do not need an aristocratic, scientific, priestly class, to mediate Reality for us. Instead, we need a revelation from God, to which we can all, in principle, respond — subjectively. Our subjectivity is, ironically, what is universal. We can all discern the truth when we hear it because of its redeeming effect on the human subjectivity we share.
Christian Neopopulism refuses to put the elusive universals, or forms, which only the aristocrats and scientists can discern, in charge of Reality. We think that God is the sole author and sustainer of Reality. We believe that He has stamped his own personal image on human subjectivity and therefore the route to Reality is not through the expert, authoritative perception of objective mythological essences, but through the moral nature inside of us. Some call it the Holy Spirit. The Greek object, the essence, turns out to be ironically subjective, often just a manipulation of language by the elites who are constantly warring among themselves about the true nature of justice, goodness, and reason. The human subject turns out to be the relatively universal, hard data.
Christian Neopopulism starts out by rejecting both the ancient and modern notion that the meaning of human language is always some reference — a directly intuited or induced intuition of some metaphysical object — a “universal.” This theory of meaning is fraught with problems as we have already suggested. We also reject the theory that the meaning of language is some picture in our minds. These pictures are private and relative just like the Greek essences.
Christian Neopopulism adopts a postmodern theory of meaning, namely that the meaning of language is quite literally its public use. We understand what a term means because its use is differentiated from the concomitantly established use of other terms. Obviously, when two terms are used in exactly the same way, we pronounce them synonyms, no matter what their written and phonetic symbols. We know what the terms “love” and “hate” mean (that they are opposites), because we have affects and effects in mind for our listener when we use them, and these have varied historically. We are not referring to some absolute essence. Competing uses of language, based on competing goals, demonstrates this. Just look at what liberal judges have done with the word “marriage” and “right.” Our use of language is always goal directed. We are always trying to accomplish something with it. People who understand what we are saying understand that there is a limited range of appropriate behavioral responses to our propositions. Right now, I am trying to convince you to become a Christian Neopopulist, to convert from conservatism if you happen to be a conservative. The use of language in this essay is driven by that goal. You either find this use of language morally valid, or you do not.
The postmodern theory of meaning implies that language is democratically evolved, whether anyone likes it or not. We live in a democracy of language which experts are constantly trying to overthrow. They are constantly trying to take over ordinary language, or simply get people to reject ordinary language through education. Ordinary language embodies common sense. Common sense becomes the ordinary, everyday rules (a grammar) for using terms correctly. When experts try to revise these rules by engaging in competing uses of the same language, they are trying to overturn common sense. The goal of orthodox Christians is to saturate ordinary language in the uses of terms which are revealed by God. Above all else this starts with the word “God.” Nietzsche bemoaned the comprehensive influence of the Christian concept of God on western language and thought.
Christian Neopopulists see salvation history, the Christian revelation, as God’s direct interference with the meaning of human language as use. Without absolute essences to refer to, taking the place of God as the ultimate authority, God had to enter history and provide us with a paradigm of language which achieves His goals. Christian Neopopulists refer to paradigms of language as “traditions.” Human freedom is based on our capacity to use language as we please, and create competing traditions. Therefore, in order for us to get it right, God had to enter history and provide us with His way of talking about Reality, His description of it. Compared to this description, all scientific, expert descriptions of Reality are reductionist and false. God, in Christian Neopopulist thinking, is in the all-encompassing frame of reference (the frame of reference which logically encompasses and explains all other perspectives). His language, His tradition, is the language which explains the rebellious and competing use of language. God is in direct charge of the truth, not universals existing outside of Him. He is the authority on the correct use of terms like “reason”, “truth”, “justice”, and “marriage.” In order for our language to be true, it must correspond to God’s use of language expressed in his revealed Word. This is the only correspondence test for truth as a description of Reality. There is no universal mental picture, or universal essences, some purely rational, tradition-neutral intuition of Reality, for language to correspond to.
But what if God did not exist? What if there was no all-encompassing frame of reference, using language as a creative act (constructing Reality out of His authoritative language). What if there was no God to explain with His own language the use of all other language?
Then Reality would not exist. There is no Reality without God. For if God does not exist, then Reality, which is mediated through language (especially moral Reality) would, in fact, be constructed by each and every competing tradition. Reality would in fact be socially constructed without any higher authority to judge this construction. And this is exactly what modern liberals, progressives, experts, dogmatic scientists, communists, socialists — leftists in general — want to believe. They are hoping that they are living in a universe which paradoxically, even absurdly, allows us to construct our own Reality by simply evolving a language, a tradition, a consistent use of language which leads to their vision. They want to go back to the Tower of Babel.
It is too late. Christ entered history. And no matter how hard the experts try to get back in control of our language, Christ now rules history having revealed a Reality outside of our own language by which it will be judged. We must make our language conform to His, to his vision. We seek Christian orthodoxy, not conservatism, or liberalism, or expertly constructed Greek language but, instead, subject ourselves to the categories used by our Lord. We believe in the Reality of sin and grace. We believe in the Reality of God and our accountability to Him. Above all else we believe that God is in charge of Reality. And if He did not exist, it would make no sense to talk about Reality. It would vary from one subjective paradigm of language to the next, sans any so-called “objective” verification or falsification. Reality, is not just the appearances. And we do not even agree on the appearances (experiential facts) without a common language.
Christian Neopopulism is the imposition of orthodox Christian language on the world, especially the Christian use of the proper noun “God” which refers to Christ. And the image of God, in each and every one of us, is not so much a “universal” or “essence” as it is another proper noun.
The world finds this abhorrent. Christian Neopopulism claims that there is no knowledge of Reality apart from Christian salvation history. And it claims that the state is typically the most adamant enemy of the orthodox Christian tradition. The state always competes with God for power, by attempting to impose its own paradigm of language. Christian Neopopulism is about separating the state from every method, every process, by which it can impose its own language, its own tradition. Christian Neopopulism is about deconstructing the state’s power to suppress Christian language, which has the power to transform entire societies overnight. Nothing terrifies the elites more.
But the elites are increasingly vulnerable. The theories with which they have suppressed ordinary language and religious language are in ruins. These theories are originally the Greek theory in which superior men, whether by Platonic or Aristotelian means, gained knowledge which the rest of us were simply unfit for. Christ, by contrast, comes for the gentile, as well as the Jew, the sinner and the saint, and builds His church out of those who are last instead of first in the world. He makes the wisdom of the World system, foolishness. And, finally, He takes complete control of the world, not through the elites, but through his humble, obedient disciples.
The purpose of conservatism is to save aristocracies, political parties, governments, and their mythological esoteric knowledge — the “noble lie.” The purpose of Christian Neopopulism is to get elites, political parties, governments, and their feigned knowledge, out of the way.
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