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The Existentialist Case for Conservatism

Thomas Hart Benton, "The Music Lesson," 1943

829 words

Usually, as if there were anything usual about this time other than that it has happened before and will again anywhere a civilization gets ready to die, you don’t think of existentialism as conservative.

When you think of conservative you think of fundamentalist religion, rock-solid proven formulas, social restraint and a seemingly religious need to punish the bad and have some heroes we praise above all else.

But existentialism, or the idea that we grow as we interact with life and therefore that life should involve great beauty and promise, is actually a conservative concept. (I’m setting aside theological existentialism, or “existence before essence,” because science has basically replaced predetermination with genetic determinism.)

In my mind, existentialism is a way of saying that we cannot live for either (a) a central authority or (b) an obsessive morality of helping others. Instead we must live through reverence for life, and through celebrating its beauty, transcend its ugliness. In other words, we don’t exist to fight evil; we fight evil so that we have more beauty, more pleasure, more adventure!

But people pervert those terms. They translate beauty from “meaningful moments or insights explaining reality as beautiful” to a crass materialist gluttony, where more of the symbols and signals of beauty are seen as desirable. You want love? Have lots of consequenceless sex. You want adventure? Have lots of tame danger, like bungie jumping. You want beauty? Have some mass-produced versions of things that were beautiful once.

What’s lost is the core of existentialism, which is a sense of adventure. Adventure requires danger. It requires uncertain outcomes and yes, some tragedies. It requires us to see all of life at once, warts and all, and to find it in a seed of transcendent reverence by which we realize that at the end of the trail, there is a great satisfaction in having prevailed. In having made ourselves better and through accepting the bad and triumphing, in having discovered beauty.

Here’s an existentialist conservative take on some modern issues:

  • Politics. We should spend as little time as possible managing other human beings. It forces us from living for something good to be caught in a cycle of living to manage others, and then fighting back for time for ourselves.
  • Conservation. Nature is pure beauty. Sometimes horrifying in method, it always achieves a good end. It will not make you rich or morally good to fight for nature. It may make you respect yourself again for defending voiceless beauty against the dumbing-down that sees it only as a source of material wealth.
  • Chastity. Sex is fun, so more is good, amirite? Sex is a means to an end, and the only end that is truly beautiful is a happily-ever-after with someone you adore, respect and admire. Not just find compatible: revere. Marriage is holy, family is divine, spouse is a sacred role, and these provide greater beauty than sex by the pound and an alienated, lonely existence afterwards.
  • Religion. Do you enjoy being here? Do you find it beautiful? Get down on a knee and pray. I’m not sure to whom. I guess all the religions of the world, including the atheists, are describing the same thing, whatever the source of all of this is. I don’t know what to call it. But pray to it, and thank it, and pray for your own soul so that you do not violate the order of beauty it has created.
  • Art. We make such a muddle of art. We assume that it is all decorate objects, and what matters is finding unique combinations. It’s more sane to say that art is a process that occurs in our heads when we view certain combinations that, like language, communicate with us. Find art that strengthens beauty and resolve in you.
  • Quiet and solitude. Our society is filled with neurotic people who are only happy when they can hear traffic noise, the shouts of the drunken, and factory machines. Instead, aim for a society of low visual stimulus but orderly and beautiful architecture. Aim for low noise, ceremony and ritual, a place to everything. Aim for order, not the furious signals of activity.

I imagine that with each blog post, I say more things that make people uncomfortable yet are not taboo. The above are currently seen as heresy by most people, for the same reason that opposing liberal democracy is. “What, you don’t want freedom? Do you hate pleasure, because you’re against casual sex and gluttony? You want quiet, what, do you hate people?”

But at the end of the day, we know that it’s not having many moments of repeated “pleasure” that bring us pleasure, it’s having those significant moments where everything seems in balance, we feel our lives are going in meaningful directions, and we are merely thankful and content to in spiritual silence enjoy what life was brought us.


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  1. Martin Hatch
    Posted January 8, 2011 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    “But at the end of the day, we know that it’s not having many moments of repeated “pleasure” that bring us pleasure, it’s having those significant moments where everything seems in balance, we feel our lives are going in meaningful directions, and we are merely thankful and content to in spiritual silence enjoy what life was brought us.”

    I want to second Michael O’Meara. This is well said and exactly right!

  2. Michael O'Meara
    Posted January 7, 2011 at 12:44 am | Permalink

    This is very nicely said — and the saying, of course, being as important as the substance — the two together forming the effect of the beautiful.

    In Jordan’s exquisite “Ondine,” there’s a line explaining much of the comic-epic-tragedy that motivates the characters: “They were starving for some beauty in their life.” When it was found, there was redemption.

    This is the truth of myth. This is a truth found in Heidegger. And the truth found more often in traditional than modern life. It’s the truth, I think, that you call existential conservatism.

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