Contributing editor Rod Dreher, over at the Crunchy Con blogsite, recently wrote an essay attacking the point of view, coming from Jeffrey Hart (alas) and Christine Whitman, that Republicans will never again be the majority party in the United States unless they press the ejector-seat button and sends evangelicals flying into oblivion. The article should have been, I think, not terribly controversial to people who call themselves conservative, as those people, unless I am deeply mistaken, believe that no political organization can solve the human problem, which is essentially spiritual, and which is sometimes called Original Sin. Therefore conservatives have affirmed the legitimacy of law as moral teacher, even as they have cast a cold eye upon the bureaucracy of beneficence. The primary function of law, among such creatures as ourselves, is not so much to build a heaven on earth, a project which usually ends in blood, as to keep our own tendencies to vice from pitching us all into the garbage dump of Gehenna. There are, besides the use of law to curb vice, secondary functions of law. All of the great conservatives of the last century, I think, agreed with Thomas Aquinas that it is in the nature of man to form communities, and that such communities, though they must and perhaps should focus mainly upon temporal goods, are good things in themselves and not simply necessary evils. So we have law not only to prevent or punish murder, theft, and adultery, but to attain for ourselves something of what we see as the common good.
In any case, it is impossible -- whether we are talking about curbing vice, or securing the common good -- for any conservative to discuss what a society should do without also talking about what it is good for human beings to be. To put it more practically: if you are talking, let's say, about poverty, or about corporate responsibilities to the community -- about people defaulting on their mortgages, or company executives trekking to Washington with patches on their knees and holes in the finger-ends of their gloves -- and you do not bring up virtue, then I must conclude you are not discussing the creatures among whom I live. Perhaps you are dwelling on an alien planet, whose inhabitants never overgo the fickleness of Lady Fortune, ruining themselves and others, in case bad luck has not visited them already, with self-indulgence, cowardice, shortsightedness, and injustice.
The responses to Rod's article, though, were most discouraging. It seems as if we have flattened our discussion of liberty to two dimensions, namely, what I feel like doing, because I am what is called an "individual," and what large government machines want me to do, in order to secure some ideal like equality or the End of Poverty or Peace in our Time. Gone is all notion of the community, and of those small groups -- families, fraternities, school boards, volunteer firemen, whatever -- that are essential to a fully human life, and that themselves are the means for the exercise of, and enhancement of, liberty. We don't have a notion of what I've called in these pages an Individualism of Responsibility, an individualism built upon my competence to perform the duties expected of me by my neighborhood and my community. That is, we don't have an individualism founded upon the shared expectation of virtue. If Richard Weaver was right about this, it's because we have inherited the spiritual and epistemological inversion of subjecting the intellect to the will. For it is impossible to talk about virtue without searching, with the intellect, for the Good that does not change from age to age, although our circumstances from age to age may require us, in prudence, to seek that Good under different forms and in different ways.
We do not then really believe either in liberty or in the pursuit of happiness, in any way that Aristotle or Aquinas would have understood it; or the semiskeptical Cicero or (even) Montaigne; or the stoical moralists Seneca or Marcus Aurelius; or the republican Tocqueville. Or the great poets -- name any. Even Jefferson, I'd argue, could not have written the phrase "pursuit of happiness" without assuming that his readers would have understood the classical connection between virtue and happiness, to be found among all the ancient pagan thinkers and poets almost without exception. If Jefferson later described himself as an Epicurean, we should be aware that if Epicurus himself were now alive, or his most able disciple Lucretius, he would be the first to recoil from the madness of our vices; the pursuit of some kinds of pleasure brings nothing but misery.
None of this requires the considerable insights of Christian revelation. Boethius would say that because we are ignorant of the end for which things exist, we think that stupid and wicked people are prosperous and happy. Boethius was a Christian, but that statement could have come from Marcus or Epictetus or Plato. The corollary is just as potent. We can never find happiness, or enjoy liberty, if we are stupid and wicked. It isn't simply that a wicked and stupid people will lose their political freedoms. They will; but only because they have already lost their last shreds of liberty within. What good is the franchise, when we are slaves all the same?