Radical Traditionalist

What is my “political stance”? Students often ask me this question, especially around election time.

It’s clear to them, of course—as I’m sure it is to you—that I’m no liberal, or not at least in the way that describes the overwhelming majority of my fellow academics, whose opinions on such subjects as “diversity”, to pick only one especially egregious example, often strike me as complacently fatuous if not demented and diabolical. But the students are also reasonably sure that I’m not a conservative, or not at least in the sense in which this word is typically bandied about in the media—though, if pressed, I happily embrace the label with the meaning given it in Titus Burckhardt’s important essay “What is Conservatism?” (see The Essential Titus Burkhardt: Reflections on Sacred Art, Faiths, and Civilizations [World Wisdom, 2003], pp. 181ff). And in the same vein I’m often heard to commend Gai Eaton’s superb little book King of the Castle: Choice and Responsibility in the Modern World (Fons Vitae, 1990).

In any case I generally respond—much to the chagrin of my earnest and often “socially conscious” young charges—by saying that I’m strictly apolitical and deliberately uninformed as to most current events, so that I have no opinion as to the relative virtues of who may be running for office. Sometimes I add a few words about Plato’s eventual disappointment with Dionysius (Epistle VII, 332d), in whom he had had such high hopes, a disappointment by no means unrelated to Socrates’s admission, near the end of the Republic (591e), that while “there is a pattern [of justice] set up in the heavens”, there can be no such thing as a just commonwealth on earth. A few more remarks as to the deplorable pressures of marketing and polls on contemporary “debates” between political candidates usually bring the brief discussion to a close.

A recent discovery, however, has finally given me an answer of the sort my students are likely asking for: something short if not sweet! I find that I’m a “radical traditionalist”, and I base this claim on the delight with which I’ve been reading a collection of pieces by the British essayist John Michell, Confessions of a Radical Traditionalist (Dominion Press, 2005). In order to deflect the criticisms that might otherwise come my way from the readership of Anamn?sis, let me add at once that I don’t necessarily agree with this author’s take on everything. (I’ll leave it to you and others, if you wish to undertake an investigation of this book, to figure out for yourselves where I probably part company with him). But much of what he says is excellent. Here’s just a taste:

“However many programmes you were to ban, you would not get to the root of television’s evil, which is the overall, insidiously degrading tone of the thing. This derives from the lugubrious, one-sided world-view which now prevails, fostered by the education system and faithfully upheld by the broadcasting authorities. Its influence is most apparent in the ‘serious’ TV items, from the crassly politicised, trivialised news to the dollops of Darwinian propaganda doled out with the nature programmes. The violence and vulgarity are merely by-products of that established world-view, which denies the existence of true standards or principles of life, thus confining communication to the level of opinion and empiricism” (pp. 157-58).

“I can’t stop wondering why the dealers and curators who comprise the art establishment believe in a world of ugliness and chaos, and encourage only those painters who see it that way. The answer, I think, is that these people are creeps. They are anxious to keep in step with the academic establishment, with Hawking of black hole fame, with Dawkins the zealous God-basher, with the disappointed Marxists, pandering politicians, pettifoggers, grievance-mongers, and atheistic bishops who set the tone in modern society. Instead of opposing these vulgar types by exhibitions of artistic beauty, the art professionals run along with them. I suppose they have to in order to get funding” (179).

“Talking the other day with a friend of west African descent who works for the Race Relations Board, I remarked that her activities seemed largely to consist of seeking out grievances and giving them a good airing. Could she not, I wondered, find a more idealistic basis for racial harmony? Sensing my drift, she told me about an old-fashioned book she had found in a library, the authoress of which compared the different races of mankind to the variety of flowers in God’s herbaceous border. My friend said that she found this distasteful and patronising and had recommended that the book be ‘de-shelved’.

“I looked up the lady’s book and enjoyed it, particularly her emphasis on the beauty of hybrids. Her perception was similar to Plato’s likening of the world to a dodecahedron made up of twelve differently coloured, pentagonal pieces of material. By that image he represented the traditional, orthodox belief that the twelve tribes of humanity, each placed under a different sign and with the corresponding tone, style, colour, temperament, and so on, form an ideal unity…. I could go on about this forever, but the point I want to hammer home is that every race, tribe, family, and human being has a particular aptitude and mode of praise, and this should not give rise to apologies but to joyful thanks for whatever gifts we have been allowed to bring towards the full expression of our common humanity” (243-44).

“People with a reputation for intelligence are often so misled or incapacitated by the false and elaborate doctrines they have been able to master that they might as well be stupid. Look at Bertrand Russell, for example. His clever reasoning led him to conclude that despair is the only justifiable attitude to life. H. G. Wells was clever enough to reach the same dead end and moaned about it in his last book, Mind at the End of Its Tether. Wells was a victim of Darwinism, that virus of the intellect that afflicts so many good minds and displays its symptoms in the modern mind generally. I have broached this subject before, and readers do not always like it, but I write this column for the sake of truth rather than popularity….

“There is a secret behind this, but it is only a secret because modern science cannot live with it and the modern mind cannot bear to hear it: The universe has no particular form or character independent of human imagination. As Charles Fort put it, nothing will ever be explained because actually there is nothing to explain. There are an infinite number of ways in which you can see the world and an infinite range of data to support, or discredit, any of them. You can believe in black holes if you like, or you can believe in angels. I am not a believer, but if I had to choose I would take the latter because, unlike the holes, their influence has generally been for the good.

“The universe is like a reflector, so your experience of life depends largely on how you choose to see it. You can prove that for yourself by a dose of paranoia, when your fears and suspicions seem to be confirmed by everything that happens. The same can be observed, more usefully, through practical idealism. Use your cleverness to the advantage of yourself and others. Turn off the television; ignore the world-view of spite and confusion broadcast by the media; forget the grisly theorists; summon up the data which indicate that here and now is our natural paradise; establish that model in your mind by reason and then go out and test-drive it in the street. You may not achieve the vision of the Holy Grail in one day, but at least you will begin to see that there is such a thing, that happiness is the normal human condition, and that heaven on earth is not merely a religious delusion but signifies the natural order of the mind and of the world around it” (318-20).

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