Conservative s in Pursuit of Truth by Frank S. Meyer

Frank S. Meyer

A correspondent in the May 16 issue of National Review, commenting upon Russell Kirk’s article on John Stuart Mill and my rejoinder thereto, raises an issue of the most serious moment. My difference of opinion with Mr. Kirk on the place of the concept of liberty in political thought, he sees as representing a “fundamental-and irreconcilable ideological division among those who call themselves conservatives.”

That this issue is fundamental I agree, but I do not think it is irreconcilable. There is no question but that in the ranks of those who are dedicated to the conservation and revitalization of the great tradition of the West, there exist diverse emphases upon different aspects of that tradition. More particularly, there is a very sharp division between those who emphasize continuity and authority and those who emphasize reason and the autonomy of the person as the basis of their opposition to the prevailing relativism and ·value nihilism, collectivism, and statism. But these emphases are not irreconcilable, even if they are sometimes so one-sided as to lose sight of their mutual interdependence.

The one emphasis, traditionalist and authoritative, stressing the values expressed and maintained in the tradition of Western and Christian civilization, tends to regard economic and political forms as comparatively unimportant, and to underestimate a great insight of that tradition, that those values cannot be compelled, that they can only be freely chosen by each individual person. Or, to the degree that it does recognize the importance of freedom, it tends to assume that freedom will automatically prevail and that the economic and political forms necessary to safeguard it will spontaneously arise if only the moral ends of human existence and the traditional prescriptions in which they are incorporated are maintained. Deeply aware that truth and good are the ends of man’s existence, it too easily loses sight of the essential condition of man’s pursuit of those ends: he cannot choose the good and the true unless he is free to choose, and that must mean as free to reject as to accept.

The Other Extreme

The other emphasis, individualist and libertarian, puts at the center of its consideration the prime condition of the search for truth: freedom. Concerned by the fearful threat to the pursuit of value that concentrated power constitutes, particularly under the circumstances of modern technology, it stresses the political and economic prerequisites of freedom. It insists upon the limitation of the state to its essential functions of defense, the preservation of order, and the administration of justice and upon the untrammeled operation of a capitalist market economy as the incommutable foundations of that freedom in an industrial society. Concentrating upon the safeguards of freedom and the power of reason to arrive at any understanding of freedom, it sometimes tends to forget that reason is well-grounded only when it operates within tradition, that is, in the light of the accumulated wisdom of the generations; and, in its concern with the preservation of the freedom of the individual person, it can lose sight of the philosophical values which are at the same time the ends which freedom serves and the very foundation of that respect for the innate dignity of the individual person upon which the defense of freedom rests.

Although these two emphases in conservative thought can and do pull away from each other, and although there is serious danger of their so doing when the proponents of either forsake their common heritage of belief in immutable value as man’s proper end and his freedom under God as the condition of the achievement of his end, it is precisely because they mutually possess that very heritage that their division is not “irreconcilable.” Extremists on one side may look with equanimity upon the recrudescence of an authoritarian status society if only it promulgates the doctrines in which they believe. Extremists on the other side may care not what becomes of ultimate values if only their political and economic individualism prevails. But both extremes are self-defeating: truth withers when freedom dies, however righteous the authority that kills it; and free individualism uninformed by moral value rots at its core and soon surrenders to tyranny.

A Confusion of Levels

Such extremes are not the necessary outcome of the principled pursuit of the truth. Discussion or dialectic between different emphases based upon the same fundamental understanding is the mode by which finite men have achieved much of the wisdom contained in tradition. Through it they can attain today a common position to which “the wise and the honest may repair” – if only the protagonists, in pressing that aspect of the truth which they regard as decisive, do not totally exclude from their consideration other and complementary aspects of the same truth.

The essence of the problem is, in my opinion, the confusion of the metaphysical with the moral-political levels. Thus, the aforementioned correspondent accuses me of being “in love with the ‘freedom to choose, ‘ not with the truth that that freedom may lead to.” But the point is that the “truth” is a metaphysical end and “the freedom to choose” is, so far as human beings are concerned, the moral-political condition of achieving that end.

There is no more logic in the conclusion that a love of freedom implies a disbelief in, a lack of enthusiasm for, ultimate values than there is in the Liberal canard that a belief in ultimate values makes impossible a belief in freedom. The reverse is the case: the belief in ultimate values and the belief in freedom are dependent one upon the other, integral aspects of the same understanding. The love of liberty and the love of truth are not the hostile standards of irreconcilable parties; rather they form together the twin sign of any viable conservatism.

National Review (June 6, 1956), 16

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