, , , , , ,

I’ve written a fair bit lately about conservatism, of both literal and innovative (reactionary) varieties. There is much I find admirable and valuable in conservative views; but I would be quite hard-pressed to say I agree with them. Certainly I do not live a life compatible with them, as I am frequently reminded when I read them. One of the reasons I have been drawn to these worldviews is precisely because they are so alien to me. I can see the consistency and power in these views, but my own temperament is typically far away from them. And that’s part of why I see them as such an important counterbalance.

The point really struck me when I was reading a piece by Rod Dreher about his late sister Ruthie Leming, in reference to Asian supermarkets:

I think of my late sister, who would sooner have crawled over glass than go to an Asian supermarket, not because of any particular animus towards things Asian, but because it would never occur to her to eat anything that our people don’t normally eat. She was a Burkean at the supermarket: If what we have here is working for us, why would you want anything different? What’s wrong with you? Why do you seek innovation when none is necessary?

The form of literal conservatism that Dreher attributes to his sister here is one I have difficulty even imagining. Regular readers will be familiar with my passion for trying ever newer and more different foods, in the sort of panoply that New York City makes possible. A mindset where something is wrong with seeking that novelty is as hard for me to grasp as a mindset where the world really rests on the back of a turtle. But there is nothing unusual about such a mindset; it is found widely in ancient Indian thought, perhaps more so than the turtle. Wilhelm Halbfass in India and Europe points to numerous Indian brahmanical (“Hindu”) texts – Upaniṣads, dharmaśāstra, Mīmāṃsā – that argue it is improper for a well born Indian to leave the continent, or even to socialize with foreigners.

These conservative ideas fascinate me. The irony is that they fascinate me because to me they’re a change; their admiration of the old and existing appeals because it’s new to me. It’s almost the exact inverse of my attitude toward Wittgenstein. I respect him only for the most un-Wittgensteinian of reasons: because he is a philosopher of the canon, admired by many whom I respect, and I believe one should have respect for any such thinker – the exact belief Wittgenstein himself opposed. Wittgenstein sought to overthrow old traditions and I respect him because he’s now part of the old tradition. Ruthie Leming, on the other hand, sought to remain grounded in the old and avoid seeking out new things; I want to know more of her conservatism because to me it’s weird and alien, and I believe one should seek to explore weird and alien worldviews in exactly the way she opposed.

As it turns out, though, my interest in these alien worldviews has started to become more than curiosity, respect, the desire to learn about those who are different. I also think there’s something very important and valuable there. I’ve referred regularly in these pages to Dreher and to Front Porch Republic, and it’s surprised me how often I’ve kept coming back to those sites. There always was, and remains, a great deal that I disagree with in their worldviews, but I have seen more and more that there is also something I admire. (In this respect they are very different from, say, libertarians, with whom my differences are equally great.)

Dreher wrote an article and has been writing a book about his sister and her struggles with cancer because he found her admirable – happy, exemplifying patient endurance (and not only in the face of the disease), and above all loving and loved. He was amazed by the degree of support given her in the small town where they grew up, enough that after she died he chose to remain there.

A life like Leming’s, spent almost entirely in a rural place where one grew up with a suspicion toward innovations like international food, is the direct opposite of the life I associate with New York City – which, in turn, is by some measures the unhappiest place in the United States. She was the consummate satisficer, happy with what she had and what had been given to her in life, well and truly off the hedonic treadmill. And her suspicion toward international food was of a piece with this: there was something wrong with always trying new things, rather than being happy with what one already had. The attitude is much like the one I found so hard to teach at Stonehill, but similarly part of what made Stonehill students so happy – or at least what made them believe themselves so happy, which is a part of happiness.

This is not to say that Leming’s conservatism was the best way of thinking and being for all people, or even for her. I suspect many readers will be ready to jump in and proclaim the problems with her life and worldview, one that I would agree could justifiably be called narrow-minded. You read a blog that reaches out to the ideas of faraway times and places, and attempts to combine them in new ways; it makes sense that you will have a lot of reasons, many of them good, to oppose the sort of view that says a brahmin should never leave India. I do too. But it is for that very reason that I am making a case here for the opposite side: it too contains a important truth.