This article was published in Vol. 3 No. 2 of the print edition.
The origins of modern politics lie in the French Revolution and the movement that preceded it, the Enlightenment. The eighteenth century connected two important elements of political modernity, which ever since have typically been associated with the left: the promise and hope of liberation (an actualized version of the Exodus) and the Gnostic appreciation of knowledge.
During the religious wars and sectarian disputes that began in the sixteenth century—primarily in the Catholic world—a strong scepticism developed with regard to knowledge, while tradition (proven experience and/or the wisdom of the ancients) and authority were emphasized, i.e. a hierarchical institution that adjudicates in disputes, which inevitably arise (see Hobbes’s Leviathan). However, the Puritans broke with this, as did the Enlightenment, based on the confidence of Bacon (knowledge is power) and Descartes.1 In this view, certain knowledge is possible, and this knowledge, and the epistemological elite that possesses it, can solve humanity’s problems.
Belief in the saving power of knowledge became one of the most important characteristics of modernity. Or, as Voegelin argued, the direct perception and knowledge of the truth, resulting from the special abilities and talents of the cognitive elite. Through this knowledge, reality can be controlled, and one can finally take one’s own destiny into one’s own hands.
With the concept of biblical liberation, libido dominandi, the ancient problem described by Saint Augustine was reframed: according to the moderns, the desire for domination does not lead people to dominate or defeat others, but only to dominate themselves and their destiny. With the knowledge of the truth, one can be freed not only from political slavery, like the people of Moses in the story of the Exodus, but from all other external restrictions not resulting from the choice of the individual. The promise is a state—Rousseau first formulated this idea clearly in The Social Contract—in which individuals only encounter limitations that they themselves agreed to and took a hand in freely creating. One will only have duties that one has created or accepted oneself.
The modern hope is that—contrary to the lesson of Oedipus—mankind can take its destiny into its own hands, that there will be no limits, and that we can create and recreate society and reality ourselves, just as we desire. The elimination of barriers rejected by the individual—never contractually agreed to, thus dissolvable at any time, or not created by the person concerned, and therefore open to endless revision—is the emancipatory goal of modern politics and therefore of mobilization for the acquisition of power. These unpleasant limitations, generally seen as hostile, stem partly from human nature, the conditio humana, and partly from nature, today chiefly from biology. Accordingly, it is not themselves that members of the LGBTQ movement consider radical, but rather those who firmly resist them and adhere to traditional gender relations and concepts.2
‘The modern problem of politics is not simply unmanageable hyperpluralism, but rather the idea that there is no need to place limits upon humankind’
Through successful mobilizations, the moderns were able to achieve rule by some Gnostic emancipatory group, but not control by humankind over itself and its destiny, nor were they able to eliminate those limitations which were experienced as a restraint. Therefore, rather like during the era of religious wars, today countless claims of justice contend against one another, creating a hyperplural world, a world of warrior gods. The social tinkering (constructivism) of the moderns has so far only led to bad results, and the successive political Gnostic movements are typically created today not against the traditions and authorities of the old order, but against earlier, failed modern Gnostics.
Every cognitive elite that has ever come to power has introduced countless new restrictions and constraints as part of the construction of their new world, the source and reference point for which has always been the cognitive elite’s direct access to the truth. This is especially true of the most destructive emancipation movement to date, postmodern post-structuralism. Both deconstructivists and social justice warriors claim such epistemological superiority. The basic characteristic of modern Gnostics is incoherent intellectual imperialism: they treat their own knowledge differently from that of their interlocutors, thereby justifying their claims to rule.
The ideology of the modern—according to which it is both desirable and possible for humankind to control its own destiny—is promoted by various intellectual, economic, and political groups that shape modernity. Part of this ideology is also the demand for more and more extensive control in the name of liberation, with reference to the necessary knowledge. Meanwhile, the desire to dominate is seen as a problem only if held by resisting groups. It is not held by the moderns to be inherent to humanity as a whole. The desire for domination is acceptable in the thinking of moderns if it serves a plan that promises the abolition of domination.
The desire for domination—which since the time of Saint Augustine we have seen as a moral problem to be overcome, a problem of social life—has been re-evaluated by the left in the modern era and made morally noble: for the left, the desire to dominate is the desire for liberation, thus making it both right and just, and those who fight for emancipation can destroy the existing world, can do anything they please to those who hinder them, and can rule over them with moral justification. The morality of their goal justifies their immoral, often violent actions. Terrorists, or those who do not comply with their obligations—from students who do not do their homework to fare dodgers or tax evaders—are morally justified in opposing the limitations and frustrating duties they encounter.
However, the hopes of the Gnostics have so far failed to materialize: to date, no single theoretical approach—from the Enlightenment and positivism to Marxism, and most recently to post-structuralist Marxism or Wokery—has been able to bring about the hoped-for effect. In past decades, the emancipatory promise of the new cognitive elite—since they either created most of the institutions themselves or had already gained control over them—was primarily aimed at interpersonal relations and the subject. They promise to liberate not the economy, nor the state, but society and individual subjects from internalized oppressive structures, i.e. from distinctions—such as male/female, good/bad, black/white, etc.—that limit and thus frustrate the individual, since they were received not of one’s own free will, but independently, during one’s upbringing, from the surrounding world. What is more, there are still limitations, which the oppressors call natural, concealing the fact that they are man-made, arbitrary, and tools of domination. The mobilizing power of promises of liberation is based on the idea that all constraints which feel uncomfortable are man-made and can therefore be eliminated.
The modern problem of politics is not simply unmanageable hyperpluralism, but rather the idea that there is no need to place limits upon humankind, or, more precisely, that it is possible and desirable for us to obey only those limitations that we ourselves freely created or accepted. Conservatives, by contrast, have long argued in favour of the acceptance of duties and limitations independent of individuals, not chosen by them. They insist on relationships based not on free choice but on prescribed duties. They do not find such duties onerous, and also see their functional utility from the point of view of human coexistence. Because ‘most of what we are and owe has been acquired without our own consent to it’.3 Contract theories and the concept of freedom associated with them are contrary to the conditio humana. Therefore, the main task of political conservatism represented by Burke, de Maistre, and Hegel is to ‘put obligations of piety back where they belong, at the centre of the picture’.4
The determining characteristic of conservatives is not their requisite political knowledge and epistemology, but their anthropology. According to their conception, a human being is not an ens completum. We need other people, institutions, and authorities to limit, teach, and admonish us—this is how we are formed. If it is true that humans must have limits, then in the case of emancipation, it is important to consider what kind of limitations and compulsions we wish to be freed from. Merely the fact of something being a limit or constraint—such as natural constraints, gravity, biological endowments, etc.—is unpleasant for some people; it frustrates them, but that does not mean that a person can be freed from them. As such, the question of whether to recognize or eradicate biological endowments has become an important battleground of our time. However, even if it appears that a constraint could in principle be eliminated—such as in human relations, laws, customs, and many institutions—it is still by no means certain that the elimination of these restrictions would in fact be desirable. Here it is enough to refer to Freud’s remark that the malaise resulting from the repression of sexuality is the price we have to pay for civilization, and the coexistence of a large number of people.
The disadvantage of conservative politics in terms of mobilization has been that they emphasize pietas, the acceptance of limitations, rather than freedom from limitations. (See: Romans 13:1–5.) However, with the success of the moderns in gaining and wielding power, new limits have been created, against which conservatives are happy to use emancipatory rhetoric.
Limitations and Conflict
The section of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit that has been cited a lot in recent decades, especially notby conservatives, traces power back to interpersonal relationships.5 Hegel builds the master–servant relationship on the old idea that man longs for recognition. The expectations of a person who is recognized are taken into account by others in their actions. Even if one does not or cannot conform to the expectations of a recognized person, one still tries to find explanations for them. Depending on the degree of servitude, the servant must meet the master’s expectations, while the master is not obligated to explain those expectations, nor to consider the expectations of the servant. Servants are servants because their expectations are not recognized. The servant is limited by the master’s expectations, while the master is not limited by the servant’s expectations, or at least, is limited to a much lesser degree. Despite this, the master may ultimately have more constraints than the servant, but these are not relevant in the relationship between the two. They do not play a role, because for Hegel what is important is the tension built into the master–servant relationship. According to him, this asymmetry of recognition, and the resulting emancipatory (recognition) will of freedom of the servant are the source of conflicts.
After the emancipatory struggles of the last two hundred years, it seems that today’s emancipators see the biggest problems as existing in interpersonal relationships. Today, they see the other’s moral and functional (performance-related) expectations as the main limitation. Today’s emancipation struggles in the world of equality are not directed against the moral or functional expectations of the master(s), but of the other, as they set limits and can create bad feelings (shame) in the groups recognized as victims. In order to compel recognition from others, entire societies have been turned upside down and brought under their control. This can be exemplified, for instance, by György Lukács,6 who like Voltaire demonstrates that recognition is not, or at least not primarily, a matter of wealth.
Today’s left therefore aims to transform the other so that it no longer has expectations, at least towards some groups recognized as victims. In other words, it does not set limits, as in the story of the American warship and the lighthouse.7 According to Hegel, an individual’s self-respect and freedom derive from recognition. The left would deny this self-respect and freedom to certain others, who in fact need to be transformed and re-educated, so that the groups recognized as victims can receive it.
In accordance with their image of humankind, conservatives, believing in humanity’s necessary limitations, expect people to strive to meet the expectations placed upon them. That is, one must grow to maturity. From this point of view, it does not matter whether the expectations, obligations, and limitations which arise are asymmetrical or not, but that they are stable and reciprocal, having developed over many centuries.
1. Face to Face
The anger of the emancipators first turned against the forum externum, and instead of the usual political discussion and reflection—what laws are just, how should a good ruler behave—first the heretics, and then, after 1789, modern political movements, began to emphasize an antinomian hope: that a social order free from law, governance, the state, and any kind of hierarchy, obligation, or constraint, might be possible. Humanity could return to the Garden of Eden. By the beginning of the twentieth century, this had been supplemented by the need to live without the forum internum, and indeed this is true freedom, since the internal tribunal is only the internalization of external oppression. Today, as traditional institutions are largely dominated by emancipatory aspirations, and the majority of institutions and laws were created by a generation of emancipators, attention has largely been turned to the destruction of the limitations that can still be found in human thinking and interpersonal relationships. Instead of acquiring the state, the principal goal of the emancipators has become the state-sponsored shaping of social relations.
‘In certain political situations, it is very appropriate for the conservative to take the risk and reject expectations in whole or part’
With the end of the traditional, hierarchical, sharply delineated society and the emergence of mass society, as well as the fact that positions are based on agreements and performance instead of status, we are now exposed to continuous competition and the need to prove ourselves. Thus also to the possibility of failure. The man of the masses does not necessarily like the masses of humankind, largely because of the crowding, since in social traffic jams caused by equals, everyone obstructs everyone else’s progress. Each individual creates limitations and obstacles in the path of others.
The ambitions of modern humanity were whipped up by emancipation, together with the elimination of visible institutional and legal obstacles, but new limitations swiftly appeared, arising precisely from the aspirations and expectations of others.
The purpose of Wokery, which has risen to a position of dominance in the last decade, is broadly to liberate people, or at least some groups recognized as victims—which typically accept the leadership of those promoting emancipation—from the limitations they encounter in their interpersonal relationships. These limitations are always formulated by others, though the individual may internalize them. A process, called ‘deconstruction’ in the language of Wokery, aims to eliminate the moral or functional expectations formulated by others, which, even if accepted by the individual, are experienced as a limitation.
The declared desirable state, becoming a sort of Gyges, stands in opposition to the millennia-worth of experience emphasized by conservatives. In Plato’s story, an ancestor of Gyges found a ring in a cave, which, when he put it on his finger, made him invisible. Soon he realized that he could do anything he wanted, since no one could see him, and thus his limitations were removed: he did not have to meet the limiting expectations of others, since he did not have to fear responsibility, the disapproval of others, embarrassment, or the burden of having to explain his actions. He used this tremendous ability to sneak into the royal palace, rape the queen, and kill the king.
Frodo, the chief protagonist of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, rarely put the ring on his finger, because it belongs to the Evil One, but the promise of the postmodern left is to produce the Gyges-type individual. A world made up of such figures is unbearable for others, but is enjoyable and satisfying to those freed from the expectations of others. A world of people freed from all societal expectations would be unendurable without Hobbes’s monster, the king of the rebellious and proud, Leviathan.8 However, freed from the strictures of Saint Augustine or Hobbes, this ‘liberated’, or in other words uninhibited person is extremely unpleasant. Of course, there have always been and always will be those who disregard social boundaries and do not take into account the expectations of others: ‘guilt, shame and remorse are necessary features of the human condition’, wrote Roger Scruton.9 What is different about the modern phenomenon is that the liberators want to eliminate norm violations and crime by eliminating norms—or at least those that cause problems for them. According to the left, only the uninhibited individual, both liberated and protected from unpleasant consequences, is truly free.
Intemperance and lack of manners in interpersonal relationships can be understood as a function of the freedom desired by today’s left, but in a society of legal equals it equates to a striving for an asymmetrical position of power: the impolite person does not accept the expectations of the other and does not feel any need to justify that disregard. This effort to free oneself from the limitations set by others is, in essence, a striving for domination. From Tocqueville’s description of democracy, it is clear that in a world of ambitious, striving equals, average individuals try at all costs to demonstrate superiority in relationships, to prove that they are cut from a different cloth, and can do what others cannot.
One specific consequence of this effort is betrayal, when an individual turns to authority for help in settling or preventing a conflict, or perhaps to gain some advantage in the struggle. It typically entails invoking an external power, just like young children arguing with each other about whose older brother is stronger and will beat up the other child’s older brother. One example of this in the political realm is Polyneices asking for help from the king of Argos against Eteocles. In today’s world of equals, becoming a victim recognized by authority—the public, public institutions, etc.—carries certain advantages, since the recognized victim does not have to take into account or adapt to the expectations of others, while on the contrary it is obligatory for others to take the victim’s expectations into account.10
2. Public and Political Uninhibitedness
Politics, however, is different, with opposing interests facing each other in a conflict of some intensity. The nature of the conflict is that the politician does not take all, or at least part, of the opponent’s expectations into account. When liberators want to change private life and interpersonal relationships, eliminating expectations and constraints, they wish to politicize these relationships by encouraging people to reject the expectations of others. This kind of politicization of personal relationships has been going on for sixty-eight years and reached its peak in Wokery.
Politics has always required a certain amount of personal courage, because one political actor contradicts the other, rejecting in whole or in part the expectations of the other, and the other in turn condemns this (or if not, then a master–servant relationship is established). Of course, this courage can have many sources.
A complete rejection of the other’s expectations is rare in a political community, and an individual who does so is traditionally called either a tyrant or a religious or ideological fanatic who rejects the expectations of others based on a claim of righteousness or justice.
But even though in private life we do not value a lack of inhibitions, in politics we tend to value courage and a willingness to engage in conflicts. In politics, conflict selects out those afflicted by cowardice, laziness, insecurity, or pathological risk avoidance, and ends not in defeat, but in political death. A brave person interprets the situation as presenting obstacles to overcome and sees that overcoming them involves confrontation and risk-taking. It is possible to lose in conflicts, which, in addition to unnecessary and wasted resources, may result in penalties. Whoever loses loses twice.
3. The Conservatives
In stating the problem of libido dominandi, Saint Augustine made no distinction between private and public life, or the personal and the political, when it came to rebelliousness, lack of restraint, and tyranny. In both public and private life, people tend to behave unscrupulously, i.e. dominating others where possible, and disregarding others’ expectations. However—and this is part of the moral obscurity and absurdity of the conditio humana—political rule, no matter how bad the intention of the actor, does maintain some public order in the civitas permixta. In the case of face-to-face relationships, the libido dominandi does not have any unintended positive effects, but in public life, it can have a positive effect by generating a degree of public order, as the ruler restricts and sanctions the behaviour of the majority.
Conservatives traditionally place a high value on moderation, restraint of the libido dominandi, and in general a pious acceptance of the given limitations, in contrast to revolutionaries and radicals, whose political style is often preceded by a lack of restraint in private, non-political life (see, for instance, Joseph Stalin, or even Lajos Kossuth).
Some conservatives, especially—it would appear—in Central Europe, idealize courage and conflict in public life, alongside moderation in private life. Modern conservatives are expected to be temperate in interpersonal relationships, polite, lenient, and scrupulous, but to reject the expectations of their political opponents, in whole or in part, and even to take part in conflicts.
In The Statesman (311 bc), Plato argues that it is necessary for a leader to have prudence, moderation—an English translation here reads conservatism—and courage. He does not attempt to determine the relative degrees of these, or when each is most important, and neither do conservatives. However, courage in private and political life, risk-taking, and conflict-acceptance were systematically purged from European culture as a whole after 1945. Even more so from conservative political actors. The principal virtues of conservative thought and practice after 1945 were adaptation, conformism, and submission to radical left-wing political expectations.
Burke extolled prudence against the radicalism of the French revolutionaries, but at the same time, the traits that characterized him were not caution and moderation, but courage and risk-taking. The pretence and rhetoric of prudence, circumspection, moderation, and caution in politics are often nothing more than a cover-up for cowardice. In his Letters on a Regicide Peace,11 Burke draws a sharp distinction between ‘a false reptile prudence, the result not of caution but of fear [and] courageous wisdom’. The correct course is to take appropriate action. Moderation and prudence may at times be appropriate in politics, but when they are only a cover-up for cowardice, risk avoidance, and weakness of will, then it is not appropriate, but false prudence. We saw the latter in the behaviour of the French aristocracy in 1789, and the Hungarian aristocracy in 1918.
The combination of courage and moderation in politics must be complemented by moderation in private life, no matter how much success conservatives enjoy in the political arena. Although conservatives may see political courage, conflict, and risk-taking as necessary—in reaction against progressives—they reject intemperance and arrogance in interpersonal relationships. The ideal is the maintaining of limits in personal relationships, while their occasional rejection is a sign of courage in politics.12 The conservative is not the lord of the castle who gives orders to the serfs through the castle window, directing them as he pleases, but the one who stands up to the Turks, thus accepting the battle and the possibility of defeat.
And not only because arrogance and a lack of restraint in interpersonal relationships would weaken support for the lord of the castle in his conflicts with the Turks. At the same time, it is true that many would prefer to avoid political conflicts, precisely so that they can maintain their lack of restraint and arrogance towards the underlings of the castle. But this is not the conservative ideal.
Political courage does not justify intemperance in interpersonal relationships. Belonging to the political mainstream protects one from political failure, and this sense of security typically results in a lack of self- discipline in one’s private life, not taking into account other people’s points of view. The worst combination is opportunism in public life and a lack of restraint in interpersonal relationships. The personification of this most intolerable type was the party secretary during the Kádár era, who behaved like a wild boar in his interpersonal relationships, yet combined this lack of scruples in private life with political conformism and cowardice in the political sphere. More tolerable are mainstream politicians and bureaucrats of various party affiliations who accept modernity while also accepting other people’s expectations in their private lives. However, this devout careerist is quite rare. The worst combination is more common, but at least more visible. Absolute power can indeed corrupt absolutely.
Uninhibited individuals are an eternal part of the human condition, as are the problems they cause, though they are disproportionately represented in the political and economic spheres, where ambitious people tend to congregate. At the same time, public life is subject to different moral expectations than private life. What is desirable in one is not necessarily desirable in the other. Such traits include moderation, conformity, belligerence, and risk-taking. While in interpersonal relationships the received limitations and the acceptance of other people’s expectations are the ideal, in politics and public life this is not necessarily the case. In certain political situations, it is very appropriate for the conservative to take the risk and reject expectations in whole or part.
It takes courage to see which situations and expectations the conservative should reject. And it takes courage to say ‘no’. The dilemma of when courage is appropriate and when moderation is needed is not logically insolvable. In the words of Winston Churchill: ‘It is better to be both right and consistent. But if you have to choose—you must choose to be right.’
Translated by Thomas Sneddon.
1 Although Descartes was not as self-confident when it came to moral and political knowledge.
2 See also: https://vsquare.org/investigations/radicals- with-reach/.
3 Roger Scruton, ‘Piety, Purity and the Sacred’, in Harriet A. Harris, ed., God, Goodness and Philosophy (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), 116.
4 Roger Scruton, On Human Nature (Princeton University Press, 2017), 126.
5 Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford University Press, 2018), 100–107.
6 Lukács is an example of a wealthy banker’s son who nevertheless failed university, yet he remains a twentieth-century hero of the left because of his discovery of the Marxist concept of ‘false consciousness’. Just as Voltaire’s generation found in the superstitions and prejudices of Christianity the error of thought that prevented others from recognizing them, and which must therefore be destroyed, so Lukács and the members of the Frankfurt School discovered ‘false consciousness’. Today, post-structuralists hope to do the same by overcoming ‘structures’.
7 This is a radio conversation that took place between US naval personnel and the supervisors of a lighthouse in Galicia, recorded on Maritime Distress Channel 106 off the coast of Galicia, Costa de Fisterra, on 16 October 1997. (The conversation did in fact take place and was first made public by the Spanish military office in March 2005. Every Spanish newspaper reported it, and all of Spain laughed itself to death.)
8 https://docplayer.hu/18569144-Leviathan-es-a- buszkeseg-szelleme-forditotta-demeny-dorina-es- katona-peter.html.
9 Roger Scruton, The Face of God (London–New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010).
10 Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars (2018).
11 Edmund Burke, Selected Works, Vol. 3 (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999).
12 Daniel J. Mahoney, The Statesman as Thinker: Portraits of Greatness, Courage, and Moderation (New York: Encounter Books, 2022).