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Rediscovered: The Nation-State In The Western Tradition
[Recently by Chilton Williamson Jr.: Is Mexico's Constitution of Blood Coming Here?]
Peter Brimelow tells me that VDARE.COM readers have been kind enough to inquire about my almost total absence from this site over the past two years. The fact is, I signed a contract twenty-four months ago to write a book, and was hard at work writing it until last February—after which there were editorial queries to answer, corrections to make, proofs to read…
But the book is out now, in time for the November elections. Titled The Conservative Bookshelf: Essential Works That Impact Today's Conservative Thinkers, it amounts to my own personal canon in respect of conservative literature—which explains why I found the publisher's offer irresistible. (Dr. Johnson must have felt the same way about his Dictionary.)
TCB is a book of fifty chapters, each a critical essay evaluating one of fifty works I consider integral to the literature of conservatism, created over four millennia. The collection is deliberately eclectic, ranging from the Bible to Ann Coulter's Treason, covering theology, political philosophy, history, autobiography, social thought, economics, poetry, fiction, and contemporary journalism.
Included are such disparate works as City of God, by St. Augustine; Cicero's The Republic; Reflections on the Revolution in France by Burke; Joseph de Maistre's Considerations on France; The Federalist; The Liberal Mind by Kenneth Minogue; I'll Take My Stand, the manifesto of the Southern Agrarians; John Lukacs's Historical Consciousness; The Education of Henry Adams; The Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, by Albert Jay Nock; Hilaire Belloc's The Servile State and Hayek's The Road to Serfdom; The Waste Land; A Handful of Dust, by Evelyn Waugh and The Napoleon of Notting Hill, by G.K. Chesterton; William Faulkner's The Bear; The Camp of the Saints, by Jean Raspail; and contemporary writings by Peter Brimelow, Pat Buchanan, Samuel Francis, Joseph Sobran, Clyde Wilson, Thomas Fleming, and Joseph Scotchie.
I have included also a few choices whose "conservative" authors themselves might find surprising, such as Edmund Wilson's The Cold War and the Income Tax, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, and Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire.
"Do you really think you can find fifty conservative books to write about?" my editor asked me when we discussed the idea of TCB. I assured him the problem was not coming up with fifty appropriate titles, but selecting them from 50,000 equally worthy ones.
Choosing fifty books, evaluating them both in their own right and in the context of a tradition, and then committing my conclusions to paper was very much what the teacher's college crowd (the worms in the apple) call a "learning experience." But I'm pleased to be able to say that the learning experience was a pleasant—meaning, a reassuring—one.
I believe that conservatism is not, to use that overworked term, an "ideology." The conservative tradition is valuable because it is real, real because it is living, and alive to the extent that it cannot be precisely defined, identified, and transfixed with a pin to any fixed place within the political taxonomy. Oscar Wilde quipped that people who make fun of Society are the ones who can't get into it. Similarly, the neoconservatives—who insist on defining conservatism in ideological terms—are those who never were part of the conservative tradition in the first place, and don't belong to it now.
Working up the manuscript convinced me, finally, of two things.
The first is that we paleoconservatives are neither delusionary nor insane, or even ignorant. There is a discernible and coherent intellectual and political tradition in the West that traces forward four millennia, and ends, essentially, with us.
What is more, this tradition was accepted as rational, reasonable, and even commonsensible up until the time of Bacon, or thereabouts.
The second thing—-of vital concern to VDARE.COM readers—is that the nation-state, currently under assault by liberals, some libertarians and neoconservatives, is absolutely an integral part of the Western political tradition since the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Not only that, but the national principle has been sanctioned for two thousand years by the dominant moral system of the West.
Long-time visitors to VDARE.COM may recall my A Christmas Meditation: St. Augustine on the National Question, posted here on 23 December 2001. My argument (amplified in TCB, Chapter 3) was that this Father of the Church would have condemned out of hand modern notions of globalism, One Worldism, and the First Universal Nation. Saint Augustine held that, while "citizens of all nations" may indeed be united spiritually in God's church, they are divinely intended as citizens of this world to live as members of national communities—which, taken together, comprise a variegated international one.
Augustine wrote City of God between 413 and 426. Four and a half centuries earlier, Cicero, in The Republic (TCB, Chapter 4) had anticipated him in his enthusiasm for the national state in all its particularities.
"The good life," Cicero argues, "is impossible without the good state; and [so] there is no greater blessing than a well-ordered state."
Not, however, just "any kind of human gathering, congregating in any manner, but a numerous gathering brought together by legal consent and community of interest." For Cicero,
"a state should be organized in such a way as to last forever. And so the death of a state is never natural, as it is with a person….Again, when a state is destroyed, eliminated, and blotted out, it is rather as if…this whole world were to collapse and pass away."
Two thousand years later, Cicero's words were echoed by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn - TCB, Chapter 38 - when he spoke of nations "as the wealth of mankind…its generalized personalities: the smallest of them has its own particular colors, and embodies a particular facet of God's design."
"…He willed its connection with the source and original archetype of all perfection."
For Burke, each particular state entailed its own particular social contract, which
"is to be looked upon with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to a gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection….Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society…."
In Considerations on France (TCB, Chapter 8), Joseph de Maistre mocked the Revolutionary Constitution of 1795 as a being document made for "man."
"But there is no such thing as man in the world," he protests. "In my lifetime I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc.; thanks to Montesquieu, I even know that one can be Persian. But as for man, I declare that I have never in my life met him; if he exists, he is unknown to me."
In The Federalist (TCB, Chapter 9), John Jay makes his famous reference to the United States as
"one connected country [given by Providence] to one connected people, a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs."
Which was why, he argued, a free government could work here.
Also in The Federalist, James Madison states explicitly that the proposed Constitution is tailored, not to the French or Italian people, let alone to universal "man," but to what he calls the "vigilant and manly spirit which actuates the people of America" upon whom "the genius of the whole system [of 1787]" depended.
And then there is G. K. Chesterton who, in his wonderful first novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill—about a borough of London that establishes its independence from the greater city and then attempts to deny a similar autonomy to its imitators—makes an impassioned case for the federalist principle over the centralist one, nations in preference to empire:
"'The glory of Notting Hill in having achieved its independence, has been enough for me to dream of for many years….Is it really not enough for you? Notting Hill is a nation. Why should it condescend to be a mere Empire?… Do you not see that it is the glory of our achievement that we have infected the other cities with the idealism of Notting Hill? It is we who have created not only our own side, but both sides of this controversy. O too humble fools, why should you wish to destroy your enemies? You have done something more to them. You have created your enemies.'"
From antiquity through the early Christian world, British neoclassicism and the continental counterrevolutionary tradition, and into the early twentieth century, a direct line of descent can be traced to the paleoconservative writers of the present day.
To hear our critics, who believe that the nation to be purely ideological, you might think we had made this all up out of our very own heads! I don't doubt, of course, that we are capable, collectively, of that unprecedented intellectual feat. In point of fact, however, we didn't do it. We have adapted the great tradition to modern times while adding a few innovations of our own, as I hope I make clear in "The Present Day," my book's concluding section.
Beyond that, our Western forebears really didn't leave us much to do.
Chilton Williamson Jr. [email him] is the author of The Immigration Mystique: America's False Conscience and an editor and columnist for Chronicles Magazine, where he writes The Hundredth Meridian column about life in the Rocky Mountain West. His latest book is The Conservative Bookshelf: Essential Works That Impact Today's Conservative Thinkers.