Commotion in the Winds

“Everything which has power to win the obedience and respect of men must have its roots deep in the past . . .”

James Bryce, The American Commonwealth (1888)

Men and women naturally think and do what they are used to thinking and doing, and this is why they naturally respect and obey things that have roots deep in the past.  To do otherwise would be unheard of, because everyone they know has though and acted in this way for as long as they or anyone else can remember.  Thus long usage makes culture into “second nature,”deliberate choices evolve into established prejudices, and custom becomes the cushion that protects men and women against chaffing under obedience and galling under subordination.

The essence of conservatism is a conviction that a happy society is one in which the greatest possible number of questions have been “settled” in this way.  An unhappy society is one in which just about everything has been “called into question.”  As Edmund Burke famously said of the settled society of Britain at the end of the eighteenth century,

“Instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree . . . we cherish them because they are prejudices; and the longer they have lasted, and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them.”

These words appear in Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), and of course serve to contrast the settled state of Britain with the decidedly unsettled state of revolutionary France.  In Burke’s view, the French cast away one old prejudice when they asked themselves why it is that Frenchmen should obey and respect the King of France.  And once they asked that question, they quite naturally went on to ask why Frenchmen should obey and respect anything at all.

* * * * *

“Commotion in the winds, frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixture!”

Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida (1602)

Conservatives aim to preserve a settled society that is characterized by what Shakespeare describes as “unity and married calm.”  This is why they discourage the habit of endless questioning.  Conservatives understand that raising settled questions can only result in division and discontent.  Ordinary people will undertake debates they cannot possible resolve and unhappy millions will be plunged into an anomic wilderness from which they cannot possibly find their way home.

A conservative intellectual therefore defends his people’s faith in the hope of preventing this calamity, and his people’s faith takes in not only their religious prejudices, but their moral, social and aesthetic prejudices as well.  All of these prejudices are linked, and taken as a whole they are the “culture” of his people.

Like cunning Ulysses in the lines just quoted, a conservative intellectual defends his people’s faith with the knowledge that the prejudices of their culture are like a row of connected townhouses on a street, and that the habit of questioning prejudices is like a fire that begins in the basement of one of these houses, but then quickly spreads to all the others.  This is what Burke saw in revolutionary France.  French revolutionaries began by raising the question, why should Frenchmen obey and respect the King of France.  But they were very soon asking why should Frenchmen obey and respect the Church of Rome, the God of Abraham, the Law of Nations, the Marriage Vow . . .

“Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! Each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy . . .”

By “degree” Shakespeare means the accepted scale or hierarchy of value.  Ulysses in his speech lays stress on the need to preserve the social order of rank and degree, but makes clear that calling this order into question is dangerous because doing so calls all other orders into question.  A disturbance in the social order thus necessarily spreads to the economic, moral and religious orders because doubt casts a very long shadow once it has been raised.  Doubt leads to division, discontent, discord—until “each things meets in mere oppugnancy.”

In other words, they meet to fight it out in a test of strength.  Shakespeare’s Ulysses goes on to say:

“Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then everything includes itself in power.”

* * * * *

Now progressives take the opposite view and aim to perpetually unsettle society by endlessly questioning its prejudices and settled opinions.   Trotsky called this the “permanent revolution.”  They do this because they believe that a settled society is a stagnant society, that discontent is the goad of progress, and that wandering in the anomic wilderness is the glory of a liberated man.  Sometimes they call a thing into question by demanding to know why it must be done in this and not some other way.  Sometimes they do it with offensive deviance and heterodoxy that is calculated to épater la bourgeoisie.  But when they shock the middle class on any particular point, the shockwaves spread out to loosen bolts and weaken welds throughout the entire bourgeois system.

* * * * *

Thus there are no isolated outrages, since every shock is a shock to the system.  These shocks are what Shakespeare in the character of Ulysses describes as “commotion in the winds, frights, changes, horrors,” and their effect is to “divert and crack, rend and deracinate the unity and married calm of states quite from their fixture!”  And then, as Ulysses says a few lines later,

Each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy . . .

Oppugnancy means fight, as you may have guessed from its resemblance to the word pugnacious, which means looking for a fight.  The deeper root of both of these words is pugnus, which is Latin for fist.  Thus if Shakespeare can be taken as a wise and perspicuous man, as many believe he can, we must see that “fist-law” (faust-recht) must follow any unsparing and comprehensive cultural critique.*

I have already said that when the critical attitude is popularized, ordinary people will undertake debates they cannot possible resolve and unhappy millions will be plunged into an anomic wilderness from which they cannot possibly find their way home.  But to this general bewilderment must be added the misery of descent into civil war, cold or hot as the case may be.

One does not have to be a pacifist to observe that war does not bring out the best in men.  For every act of honor, there would seem to be ten of treachery.  For every lightening flash of glory, there would seem to be endless hours of dismal, dripping degradation.  Hobbes said,

“Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues.”

So this is what happens when a culture is not conserved.  There is universal bewilderment and a descent into fist law and civil war.  And the party that wins the civil war will be composed of men who were the most brutal in their use of force, and the most base in their use of fraud.


*) “The traditions of faust-recht were deep in him; if he could not by reason convince his adversary, he would knock his head off.”  John H. Treadwell, Martin Luther and His Works (1888).

3 thoughts on “Commotion in the Winds

  1. Pingback: Commotion in the Winds | Reaction Times


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