23 Mar 2009

Russell Kirk Meets Bashō

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Mu Ch’i, Six Persimmons, 13th century, Japan, ink on paper, Daitoku-ji, Kyoto, Japan

Andrew Sullivan, with an air of pious approbation, yesterday linked and quoted an interesting essay by Stewart K. Lundy which proposes to define Conservatism as a form of Zen. It seems a bit odd to me that the perennially agitated and volatile Andrew Sullivan, notorious for combining vehement certainty with rapidly shifting positions, thinks he finds some reflection of his own philosophy or personality in Lundy’s mystical quietism, but there you are.

Mr. Lundy is evidently a neighbor of mine in Loudoun County, Virginia, a senior at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville.

Ignorance is the source of knowledge, silence is the source of noise, and stillness is the source of change. The emptiness of the future provides the possibility for movement. This is the principle of conservatism: preserving not only possibility, but the very possibility of possibilities. This impulse is conservative, but never at the expense of future generations. Conservatism is the art of living.

    “The best people have a nature like that of water. They’re like mist or dew in the sky, like a stream or a spring on land. Most people hate moist or muddy places, places where water alone dwells. . . . As water empties, it gives life to others. It reflects without being impure, and there is nothing it cannot wash clean. Water can take any shape, and it is never out of touch with the seasons. How could anyone malign something with such qualities as this.”

— Ho-Shang Kung in Red Pine’s translation of the Tao Te Ching.

Why the example of water? Water is inherently conservative, conforming to its conditions yet remaining essentially the same. Water prefers stillness. If it is a stream, it runs downhill until it finds a resting place; but it is always in the process of changing, yet it is always only water. In the same way, the essence of conservatism is always the same, even though its conditions constantly change. Were conditions to cease their perpetual flux, conservatism comes to rest as a tranquil pond. The goal of conservatism is tranquility.

In itself, conservatism is tranquil. In relation to the ever-changing human condition, conservatism is always adapting. Conservatism is “formless” like water: it takes the shape of its conditions, but always remains the same. This is why Russell Kirk calls conservatism the “negation of ideology” in The Politics of Prudence. It is precisely the formlessness of conservatism which gives it its vitality. Left alone, the spirit of conservatism is essentially what T.S. Eliot calls the “stillness between two waves of the sea” in “Little Gidding” of his Four Quartets. Conservatism is both like water and the stillness between the waves—the waves are not the water acting, but being acted upon; stillness is the default state of conservatism:

    Not known, because not looked for
    But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
    Between two waves of the sea.
    Quick now, here, now, always—
    A condition of complete simplicity

Like the Greek concept of kairos—acting in the right way, for the right reasons, at the right moment—this sort of waiting is simply careful conservatism. Conservatism is responsive, reactionary, reserved. Conservatism waits. Perhaps this is why conservatism is most needed in the modern age of mobility. Being careful, and above all patient is crucial to doing something right. Realizing that one does not know the best way of doing anything guarantees not that one will find the best way, but that one might not find the worst way. The same principle applies to knowledge: conservatism (hopefully) does not pretend to know the definitive way, but rather professes the virtue of ignorance with the quiet hope of finding knowledge.

Read the whole thing.

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