Descartes Rationalism Essay

My intention here is not to defend any particular code of honor, such as those that were accepted among English gentlemen two hundred years ago.Rather, I want to understand the place of honor in a traditional society—by which I mean a conservative society, one capable of conserving anything worthwhile from one generation to the next.But where a people is incapable of self-discipline, a mild government will only encourage licentiousness and division, hatred and violence, eventually forcing a choice between civil war and tyranny.

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If I wish to be able to play the guitar or piano, or to prepare cooked meals, or to defeat an armed opponent bare-handed using aikido, I gain the necessary skills not by insisting on my freedom, but through constraint: Through studying and practicing at length every day, even when I find it disagreeable and feel overwhelmed by the desire to be doing something else.

In the same way, my marriage, remaining faithful to my wife and bringing children into the world and raising them, involves a massive, daily curtailment of my freedom.

I am constrained to care each day for young people who are often angry, troubled, or sick.

Yet all of these constraints are the price of building up a family that can endure and flourish, contributing to my nation and to the things that I believe in, long after I am gone.

Yet it is never capable of consolidating a stable alternative.

Conservative political thought breaks with Enlightenment rationalism in that it is concerned not only with freedom, but also with its opposite, which is .But in the last three generations, this famous capacity for self-constraint has been disappearing. Because the British and American capacity for self-constraint was an inherited tradition, a tradition of how to think about things and how to live that was once called “common sense.” An individual who was guided by common sense enjoyed a broad range to think things through himself.But his own originality and deviations from the way others spoke and behaved were always powerfully balanced by a thick matrix of inherited norms, which included gratitude toward, and duties to maintain and defend, the place of God and religion, nation and government, family, property, and so on.“, Toward a Philosophy of Constraint In the first part of this essay, I criticized the idea that the exercise of “free and untrammeled reason,” which is the cornerstone of Enlightenment rationalism, is sufficient by itself to determine the political good of a given nation.Conservative thought suggests that such free reasoning about political and moral matters can produce no consensus and is in the end self-defeating: It progressively uproots and discards whatever has been inherited from the past.And the same can be said of serving in the military and paying taxes, observing holy days and sabbaths, and everything else that is of value.Constraint is, in fact, the key to everything productive or good that we do in life. It can come from the laws of the state and the commands of its officials, of course.In a free society, the overwhelming force of constraint comes, not from fear of the king, but from the of the people, who are able to provide the necessary constraint themselves.This point was emphasized by the English political theorist John Fortescue in the 15th century, and taken up by Montesquieu and the American founding fathers centuries later: Where the people are able to impose the needed constraints on themselves, the government can be “mild” or “moderate,” offering them greater freedom to conduct their affairs without interference.But if constraint is the key to everything productive and good, then Enlightenment rationalism’s emphasis on freedom has deceived us, and the only way to return to a life that is productive and good is by reviving the inherited norms that offered us self-constraint and the hope of escaping tyranny. What would be required to build up our national and religious common sense, rather than ceaselessly working to destroy it?A discussion of how to build up a people’s norms of self-constraint must focus on one key idea, which has largely disappeared from the schools and universities, and from the public life of Western nations, since the Second World War: The idea of .


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