Patrick Deneen had an eloquent piece up this week at Front Porch Republic, a speech given at a student retreat held by the Tocqueville Forum. This speech is emblematic of many popular conservative (and I mean literal conservative) ideas, with implications that go wider than mere politics.
Deneen’s speech is a “defence of culture.” Following one Romano Guardini, Deneen understands culture in a specific sense that ties it essentially to nature, history and society. Culture thus defined is a tradition of interacting with nature and other humans, suspicious of change, deferring to the past and ready to pass it on to future generations. When defined this way, Deneen says, the enemy of culture is liberalism, the contemporary politics of individual choice and freedom at a great remove from nature, history and society. (In this sense, most of the libertarian American Tea Partiers are consummate liberals; liberalism is generally the ideology of both the modern left and the modern right.) Liberalism, Deneen says, endorses an “anti-culture,” or at least monoculture, in which the priority of individual over collective goods is everywhere enshrined. The particular kind of collective goods Deneen has in mind, I think, have above all to do with raising a family – for example, the ability to raise one’s children in an environment that is not thoroughly sexualized by scantily-clad magazine covers, Lady Gaga, Internet pornography and Bratz dolls. (The example is mine, but it’s true to Deneen’s position as I understand it.) Perhaps the most telling line in the piece, and the one that inspired me to write this entry, is this quote from Bertrand de Jouvenel: the political philosophers of liberalism are “childless men who have forgotten their childhood.”
I find Deneen’s definition of culture strange, but I won’t dwell on that point. I’m more interested in the essay because of the way it cogently expresses the critique of liberalism, as made by a literal conservatism rooted in nature and family. And I think there’s something missing from this analysis, something put in acute focus by a knowledge of South Asian traditions.
For liberalism, I submit, is not the only tradition that opposes “culture” in Deneen’s sense, wishes to free human beings against the bonds of nature and family. Rather, Indian “renouncer” traditions have been engaged in this project for hundreds of years. The Buddhist First Noble Truth, that all the conditioned things around us in the world are suffering, is relatively well known. But plenty of his non-Buddhist contemporaries said something very much like it. Classical Jain tradition, as expressed in the Tattvārtha Sūtra, aims to free the human subject from the material world and its bonds, into a liberated state called kaivalya (aloneness) – as do the Yoga Sūtras, often considered “Hindu.” One might hesitate to refer to early Buddhism as individualist, since it so readily deconstructs the self, but the same cannot be said about these other traditions – which, in some form in another, also survive to this day in India and its diaspora.
And these different Indian traditions find their social expression in monkhood – a deliberate rejection of family. Their thinkers and theorists are childless men by choice; it is not that they have forgotten their childhood, so much as they wish to transcend it. The fact of our past childhood should not be denied, but it should also not weigh down on our transcendent futures.
Now such traditions are of course far removed from the modern liberalism Deneen criticizes. Monks, more or less by definition, don’t have sex. To Jains and Buddhists and yogins, sex and related worldly pleasures are among the worst of the fetters that bind us to the world of suffering – to society and history and nature. Deneen’s conservative traditionalism has important commonalities with the Indian renouncers, most obviously a suspicion of open, or permissive, sexuality. And yet the renouncers share a great deal with liberal modernity that they do not share with the family-oriented culture embraced by Deneen. I tried to get at this point when I identified asceticism, libertinism and traditionalism as three distinct ways of life, but since then I’ve come back to thinking that the point is best expressed in Thomas Kasulis’s distinction between intimacy and integrity worldviews: modern liberalism’s integrity orientation is shared by the classical Indian renouncers.
More germane to Deneen’s points about culture, these renouncers also share modernity’s universalism. For the Jains or early Buddhists there would be no problem if everyone around the world adopted a common Jain or Buddhist culture, aimed at the renunciation of suffering. While Christians and Muslims would often believe a similar thing, their universalism is still self-consciously and essentially tied to particular historical events in a way that Buddhism, like modern liberalism, is not. Thus to the extent that Buddhists care about the “authenticity” of Buddhist teachings, it is only because the historical Buddha happened to be the only awakened one in our era.
Yet nevertheless Buddhists do look back to the Buddha’s teachings. The past great thinker is still treated as worthy of reverence. And this much, Buddhists do share with Deneen’s traditionalists, against modernity. For Deneen, if we look to the future as a place to be liberated from the past – as our increasingly science- and technology-focused education systems effectively do – we will lose something of the greatest human importance, our best guides to living well.
And on this score, if little else, I agree with Deneen. I have learned far more about living well from the Buddha and Lucretius and Aristotle than I have from contemporary philosophy or even psychology. At the same time, I do have one foot firmly planted in the universalist and individualist world of modern liberalism, to the point of not intending to have children. I suppose this all makes for a key reason Buddhism continues to hold such appeal for me: it allows us to return to the past for guidance, and yet in an individualistic way that does not bind us too closely to nature and society. (Stoicism and Epicureanism do the same things, in a way, but they have lost Buddhism’s continuity to the present day.)
No doubt Deneen and his colleagues would criticize such a view as shallow, an attempt to have one’s historical cake and eat it too. There’s a lot to such a view, and developing a critique of it would take far more than this one post. But I will start by saying that attempts at synthesis do not have to be shallow. Traditions change, develop and grow as they encounter each other – and such encounters are happening today to an unprecedented degree.