[Since the essays addressed in this series were all published in 1964, it might have made more sense to call this series "What Was Conservatism?"]
My goodness, but conservatism can get very complicated.
That, at least, is my reaction to Father Stanley Parry’s “Reason and the Restoration of Tradition,” found in Frank Meyer's 1964 collection WHAT IS CONSERVATISM? Father Parry was head of the Political Science Department at Notre Dame, so it’s no surprise that he suggested the key to righting wrongward modernism was by returning to our Christian roots. As he explained it, “Since ours is a Christian civilization, the only adequate response to our crisis is an authentic revitalization of divine revelation in the soul of every man. Reason’s contribution to this is negative. It must purge itself of the arrogance that is an integral part of the crisis of tradition itself and return to a humble questing in the real world of being for whatever wisdom it may be able to wrest from that world.” And that’s not even the complicated part.
Father Parry did not instruct us on how to revitalize “divine revelation in the soul of every man,” perhaps because divine revelation is no more at our beck and call than is the weather. Instead, he focused on the purging of arrogant reason, which is (in theory) a task we can humanly handle. In order to do this, he first distinguished between “moral reason” and “practical reason,” then claimed that the former can only be discussed by people united by a common pre-rational understanding of good and evil. That understanding is precisely what tradition provides, but since tradition has been discarded, our moral reason is now ungrounded; individuals have become, as far as morality is concerned, estranged (alienated and atomized) from one other, and cut off from common understanding. Or, as Bob Dylan would later put it, “We’re idiots, babe, it’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.”
As I said, it's complicated. Why has modern man discarded tradition? Ironically, asserted Father Parry, because the civilization for which tradition provided the framework has succeeded all too well. You see, civilization begins when men recognize their fragile situation in the world and in the cosmos; that is, they have “an experience of danger…in the face of a threatening reality”. This experience is then merged with an intuition of the divine and of reality’s “transcendent intention”; the merger leads to “the experience of religion as conferring on man the power to cooperate with the divine to meet the danger…” But as civilization progresses (and Father Parry did not deny the idea, or the fact, of progress) and learns to master man’s earthly surroundings, the sense of danger passes; man begins to feel capable of facing reality on his own. “Crisis occurs,” wrote Parry, “when men no longer experience the need to be rescued from some cosmic dilemma that defies their own meager resources.”
We are victims, it seems, of our own success. “It would seem that the principle of pride is latent in every civilization, just as by implication the experience of humility and helplessness marks the beginning of every civilization…In proportion as a civilization is viable it develops. As it masses its achievements, it realizes more success and gains greater security for its members and greater control over its environment and destiny. Thus, by the very process of flowering, a civilization will tend to erode the sense of need and helplessness on which it is based. It begins to think of itself as autonomous…and herein lies its time of troubles…As the sense of danger and threat from a cosmos, now nicely organized, declines, the tradition [that emerged] from this same sense and experience begins to lose its relevance to the life man now thinks he has made for himself. Not only does its relevance weaken (there is no danger), but also its sanctions grow less persuasive and authoritative.” Whom the gods would destroy, they first make civilized.
Practical reasoning and the scientific method work in ways that the religious tradition from which they (arguably) sprang does not. So who needs priests when a flick of the switch provides light at any time of the day or night? Who needs to invoke the gods when water flows reliable and clean from the tap, and when the indoor temperature can be controlled from a thermostat on the wall? Father Parry did not address such questions; he merely assumed that, since the “tradition” itself was in crisis, we had to do something about it. He did say that modern man “becomes aware that autonomy is simply a form of alienation [and] experiences the need to be re-united with some source of meaning.” Even if that claim were true, it provides no reason to think that meaning could be found (and alienation overcome) by returning to the past; one could as easily argue that it’s time for alienated man to find new sources of meaning, having outgrown the old ones.
Father Parry, a Catholic priest, was obviously motivated to direct readers back to the tradition and to the God of his own faith; but his essay, philosophically and metaphysically reasoned as it was, didn’t provide anyone not already convinced with a single reason to do so. Modernity has plenty of ills, and I for one am well aware of them, but when push comes to shove, it keeps my lights on, my apartment heated, and drinkable water coming from my faucet; I’ll need something more than metaphysics to convince me to return to the Middle Ages.