by George Panichas
“If you don’t stand for something, you’ll get knocked down by anything.” Anonymous
It is now more than half a century since the publication of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, and during that time the word conservative has undergone diverse changes in meaning and value. For some it is a word that has been diminished to the point where its distinctions are unrecognizable. For others it is a principled word savaged by the modern media elites and by theorists and ideologues: in short, a word reduced in quality of character and integrity. It can be remarked that what has been befalling the word conservatism mirrors the fate of language itself when it is corrupted. Too often, then, a word like conservatism becomes another saleable commodity, subject to constant alteration by theorists and ideologues loyal not to first principles but to specious schemes and policies that mould standards of definition and use.
Desanctifying words and meaning of permanency becomes an increasingly common practice embodied in behemothian attitudes and emboldened by an accommodating Zeitgeist. When there are “no fixed significations” in our dialectical vocabulary, as Richard M. Weaver, rhetorical theorist par excellence, has stated in a penetrating essay on “Relativism and the Use of Language” (1961), we are no longer “receptive to true meanings…[and] may accept wrong or perverted ones.” Quite appropriately, Weaver uses as the epigraph to this essay a passage from John Milton’s letter dated September 10, 1638, in which the English poet and essayist warns that when “language becomes irregular and depraved, it is followed by…ruin and degradation. For what do terms used without [style] or meaning, which are corrupt and misapplied, denote but a people listless, supine, and ripe for servitude?” Coupling Milton’s warning and Weaver’s anxieties helps to explain what is happening to the term conservatism in our present situation, auguring a fate, as Weaver reminds us, similar to that of “liberalism”: “beyond any hope of rehabilitation.”
Clearly, the term conservatism needs in these early years of the twenty-first century to be rescued if it is not finally to “be viewed as a naturalistic phenomenon,” and if we are to believe with any degree of confidence that “meaning cannot be judged as relative simply to time and place”—even though meanings “do shift over a period of time.” And clearly, for Weaver, “the power of the word affirming to define and compel” is dependent on “affirming that language is a humanistic creation.” More than forty years later, Weaver’s essay has for us even greater relevance in a technologico-Benthamite society in which logos, no less than spiritual convictions and moral criteria, is visibly receding from the “roots of order” and “order of values,” with all the entailing consequences.
Read more here: www.theimaginativeconservative.org