Sometimes a look back few hundred years or so helps one’s perspective. I gained an appreciation for the socially concrete roots of the English word “worship” from reading Malory, and I sorted out the words fortune, fate, and fidelity reading Boethius. These last couple weeks I looked back a mere hundred fifty years to Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil.
BGE finally shed some light on a question that’s haunted me since I became aware of David Brooks, namely whether or not the phrase “conservative movement” was even an intelligible name. Nietzsche, because his historical moment is different enough from mine but participates in some of the same debates, made me realize that the intelligibility of movement presumes a prior metaphorical place from which something moves as well as a destination towards which it moves. In Nietzsche’s case, the starting point was the German liberalism that surrounded him, and in my own life’s moment it seems to be Roosevelt liberalism.
Conservatism for Nietzsche and for Reagan is not the same as the philosophy of a Thomas Aquinas or even an Edmund Burke. Both of these writers emerged at a moment when a certain system was ascendent, and they fended off (with differing degrees of success) movements that would radically change them by means of reaching out to traditions in the world around them. Instead, since time moves only forward, it’s more along the lines of a John Calvin or a T.S. Eliot. In both of these cases, the world around was corrupt as far as the conservative was concerned, and in ecclesiology and in poetry, both of these men reached beyond the current system, appealing to texts and to archaeology to forge something neither ancient nor modern.
Conservatism as a movement begins with a surrounding liberalism and selects certain elements, usually from books, from which to construct something new, post-liberalism. Thus the frustration of the “crunchy cons” and the disdain of Marxist leftists with capitalist Democrats like Clinton and Kerry and for loose Republicans like Giuliani and Schwarzenegger. Both “sides” seek to forge something new from the fragments of older things, and those folks who perpetuate the system as it stands must necessarily stand in the way such change.
In BGE, Nietzsche sees “slave morality,” the ordering of common life around the assumption that all are created equal, as standing in the way of the rise (resurrection?) of real men with real spirit. He does so by invoking Homer and Plato and the Romans, unapolagetically and persuasively arguing that indeed some men are meant to rule over others and that politics that assumes the equality of humans simply cannot forever stifle the great spirits of history. With the billionaires’ tax and executive overreaches on the news every night, the conservative movement looks more Nietzschean with every page of Nietzsche that I read. For now, though, I still stand with Augustine against Nietzsche, laboring still in behalf of the Civitas Dei over against the becoming imperium.