book cover imageVirtue and the Promise of Conservatism: the Legacy of Burke and Tocqueville,
by Bruce Frohnen.
University Press of Kansas, 1993.
Cloth, 264 pages, $25.

Conservatism lives. It continues to exercise its power over bright young minds. It also shows us a way of life, how to live. For these assertions there could be no better evidence than Bruce Frohnen’s Virtue and the Promise of Conservatism. Conceived as a doctoral dissertation at Cornell University and midwifed by a university press, this book holds a promise of its own to find a long life on the short shelf of indispensable landmark studies of modern conservative thought. Frohnen’s fresh articulation of conservatism, telling old verities to a fin de siècle audience, does for his generation something akin to what Russell Kirk in The Conservative Mind did for his.

This phenomenon is all the more remarkable in that there is scarcely a more outré word in today’s academy than conservative. It is used almost uniformly as a term of opprobrium to castigate anything that offends against our day’s regnant intellectual orthodoxy. (Latest flash: Jeffrey Dahmer, Milwaukee cannibal, represents conservative backlash against subversions of patriarchal family.) Frohnen gives our orthodox intelligentsia something really to hate with a whole heart; this is the real thing. One can scan university-press catalogs a long time without finding a single book having the rhetoric of this one. (And it is, in passing, a wonder of wonders that a university press has allowed into print a book routinely using the generic masculine; perhaps someone there knows what our Politically Correct do not: that sometimes there is no “gender-inclusive” translation which keeps the nuances of meaning exact.)

Here is a quick sample of Frohnen’s unfashionable rhetoric. In opposition to the academy’s studied avoidance of anything religious, Frohnen avers, “To act rightly, to do as God wills in one’s own life, is to act virtuously,” and for this “[o]ne needs the guidance of revelation.” In his view, “The French Revolution, like its Marxian progeny in Russia and elsewhere, was essentially an attempt to substitute man’s will for God’s.” One who embraces the sandal of conservatism will not shrink from the scandal of the cross. But how alien will this line of thought be to my friends on the so-called Christian Left, who think that their faith requires cozying up to socialism and who look almost exclusively to the right to locate their enemies. And how this next sentence will rankle our classracegender intellectuals: “Nature dictates a hierarchical structure for society.” Why, Frohnen even resorts to the ancient imagery of the Great Chain of Being. But this move comes readily to one who thinks that, “rather than trusting independent wisdom, we should trust the wisdom of the ages.”

This book is clearly organized. Its argument is consecutive and smooth. After a very helpful introduction of overview and anticipatory summary, Chapter One, entitled “Natural Law and Virtue,” provides historical background, definition, and classification. Then come two chapters on Edmund Burke and two on Alexis de Tocqueville, Frohnen’ s avatars of modern conservatism. The final two chapters focus on three modern conservative spokesmen, who “share a common attachment to a recognizably conservative vision of human nature and the good life,” yet who hold “seemingly divergent views on the nature of man and society, and on the proper role and nature of politics.” These three are Michael Oakeshott (“libertarian,” or “liberal-conservative”), Irving Kristol (neo-conservative), and Russell Kirk (traditionalist). Michael Novak, a Christian neo-conservative, receives a substantial aside. The conclusion is fittingly entitled “The Material and the Eternal.”

As this outline may hint, Frohnen’s primary audience is political scientists (or, better, political philosophers). Though the lucid prose makes the book accessible to a wider audience, the content is dense, too tightly packed for a brief review to summarize adequately. It begs for (the virtue of) slow reading.

Frohnen opens his introduction at exactly the right place: with the collapse of Communism. What he most wishes to conserve is the Great Tradition of the West, and the best hope for perceiving its value today may come by looking eastward. For the great dividing line in our political thinking comes with the French Revolution, and the most militant form of Enlightenment-spawned ideology, Marxism-Leninism, conquered great stretches of Central and Eastern Europe. As been observed by Václav Havel (whom Frohnen does not cite, though he well could have), the death of the Soviet empire signals the end not only of our century’s great socialist experiment but also of the whole Modern Era set in motion by the Enlightenment. With its “fallacious notion” that history drives toward “the achievement of human perfection” seeming no longer tenable, we may now well be at a watershed moment in history. That some major historical change is afoot, has become a widespread intuition (resisted most strenuously by some of our establishment Sovietologists), and the time seems as right as it ever will be for a new consideration of the promise of a conservatism which posits “the sovereignty of God” and recognizes “man’s God-given limits.”

Chapter One begins with Augustine’s view that “one must believe in order to understand”—the polar opposite to our modern inheritance of “the primacy of reason.” The conservative shares with Augustine, and Aquinas, “a recognition of the unbreakable bond between God and man.” Conversely, modern men “reject their duty to accept God’s will because they have come to identify the good, not with the holy, but with the pleasant.” It is through natural law that we can know our duty. Here Frohnen offers no technical or sectarian definition. Natural law, rather, he declares, “is based on certain principles that are self-evident to sane men—most fundamentally that man should do good and avoid evil.” It is, most pithily defined, “That body of standards for human conduct best summed up in the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself.” It is to be discovered, not invented. All meaning in human life has its source in the transcendent realm.

Virtue, Frohnen’s word among words, “is the proper goal of man.” One who obeys the dictates of natural law will develop it, for it is “the habit of choosing correctly.” Frohnen continues, “Virtuous, moral action, although not sufficient for salvation . . . , is pleasing to God and necessary if salvation is to be possible.” If here he sounds more Catholic than Protestant, the Calvinist teaching of common grace approaches Frohnen’s use of natural law. And this consanguinity implies that, if Christianity has given normative shape to that Western civilization which is above all to be conserved, neither virtuous living nor conservative thinking is to be understood as available to Christians only, even from a Christian point of view.

Does all this seem rather removed from politics? It should. For “[c]onservative virtue is more social than political. It is concerned with promoting a way of life rather than a formal structure.” Conservatism is not an ideology. Nowhere is this better clarified than in Frohnen’s distinction between conservative virtue and republican virtue. The republican prizes civic virtue, of which the legislator can be the greatest practitioner. “Virtue for the republican is inherently political and overtly active.” Because conservative virtue “is concerned principally with fostering right conduct in the given circumstances of this world,” the conservative “would, whenever possible, eschew political action itself in favor of supportive social action within already existing communities.” And that is why, in case you ever wondered, conservatives do not go in much for marches and demonstrations.

To view Edmund Burke as a fountainhead of modern conservatism is familiar enough. Burke recognized that “[m]an is by his constitution a religious animal” and faulted the French revolutionaries for rejecting this fundamental understanding of human nature. He valued the practical experience of history over “mere reason” as a guiding force for society. He saw the role of government not as creating a virtuous people but as “support[ing] the more capable guardians of human nature: tradition, manners, prejudice [Frohnen works to resuscitate this word], and the greatest embodiment of all three—religion.” It is from Burke, above all, that Frohnen learns to praise existing arrangements and to cherish local attachments.

Yet there is in Burke, as mediated by Frohnen, a strain which might seem to smack of excessive acquiescence in the way things are. Burke’s view of the Great Chain of Being includes this extension of it: “As one has the place of a man rather than of an angel or a beast, one also has the place of a peasant, a businessman, or a member of the landed gentry.” In defending “man’s natural religiosity,” Burke allows this extension of it: “Episcopalianism, like the mixed and limited monarchy, has been the established rule in Britain from time immemorial. Like the government, it must remain unquestioned.” One imagines reading such assertions through the eyes of an erstwhile soviet dissident, whose full energies had been devoted to challenging existing arrangements. Granted, the conservative’s temptation to complacency pales before the smug hubris of the (hard and soft) utopians on the Left. But is not conservatism often at its very best today in criticizing things as they are?

Actually, this is a problem of which Frohnen is not unaware. He includes appropriate hedges and qualifiers. For instance, he acknowledges “the duty to rejuvenate the old when facing new circumstances.” He cites this sentence from Burke: “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its preservation.” And he asserts, regarding government, “Conservatism entails the defense of all regimes (but only those regimes) respectful enough of customary institutions, beliefs, and practices to allow for a conservative good life.” So what we have here is a tension within conservatism, which is perforce perennial. What is at issue is the matter of emphasis. Defining conservatism entails articulating the proper balance between acceptance of and challenge to the status quo. Too much emphasis on acceptance is exactly what leads to the silliness of calling the remnants of the old guard in post-Soviet Russia, the left-most ideologues, conservatives! True conservatism has moral content, and this is always what must be (and in this book generally is) featured.

Tocqueville, like Burke, cherished the religious instinct, emphasized the limits of human rationality, and disapproved of the French Revolution. He opposed both tyranny and revolution. If he was “perhaps the greatest theoristand exponent of equality,” he knew also that the possibility of virtue depended upon liberty; and he remains a key resource in grappling with the abiding conundrum of harmonizing equality and liberty. Recognizing the vice of egalitarian tyranny even as he resisted individualism, he urged “only an equality that was moderate and limited in its scope and application.” At the same time, “he worried that democracy might destroy liberty.” What was crucial for Tocqueville was not what sort of government a society might establish but “that the political regime be fitting, so that it may allow for the possibility of virtue.” The two chapters on Tocqueville are a good antidote to our contemporary religion of democracy in America.

The final two chapters discuss modern heirs of Burke and Tocqueville, namely, Oakeshott, Kristol, and Kirk. Frohnen distinguishes among them, as befits his scholarly task. Given the beleaguered status of modern conservatism, however, I am grateful for his emphasizing that his chosen three “share the bulk of the philosophical vision and the moral desire of these two giants of conservative thought.”

For some readers, I suspect, these chapters will be the most interesting, because contemporary. Oakeshott mistrusted rationalism and valued tradition, yet insisted upon individual autonomy. His great failing, according to Frohnen, lies in his distancing himself from the idea of “the existence of a transcendent natural law.” Kristol has a clear-eyed awareness that the “rationalistic theorizing of our intellectual class has undermined the inherently precarious moral underpinnings of our society.” Yet, in a bourgeois society that rejects transcendent values, he can find refuge in nothing sturdier than self-interested materialism. But this is to abandon the very question for virtue. (It is this acquiescence to which fellow neo-conservative Michael Novak refuses to succumb.) Therefore, says Frohnen, “Kristol’s vision is truly tragic, for he recognizes that a people bereft of virtue is less than fully human.” Both Oakeshott and Kristol, in Frohnen’s view, suffer from excessive skepticism.

The dilemma of contemporary conservatism is “the question of how to accept unvirtuous horizons” imposed by our society. The possible solutions are these: “to attempt to construct a life of virtue on a nonreligious basis (Oakeshott), to accept the loss of transcendence and virtue and attempt to make the best of a life that is not truly good (Kristol), or to attempt a reconstruction of the tradition of thought and belief founded on God’s law (Kirk).” It is no surprise by now that Kirk’s approach is the one that Frohnen finds fruitful.

For Kirk, human society, if it is to foster the pursuit of virtue by its members, requires standards, norms. These have been set by God. However decadent our society has become by having “fallen away from the eternal standards of natural law,” they remain there, for us to reclaim. The permanent things, transmitted to us through the Christian religion and our historical experience, abide. There is therefore always reason not to despair but to hope.

For those who are, in Kirk’s mold, both Christian and conservative, this question remains: Which comes first, their Christianity or their conservatism? This is not quite a chicken-and-egg question, however integral they understand their world view to be. Sometimes, it seems to me, conservatives speak kindly about Christianity because they find it, almost after the fact, compatible with their intuitions and dispositions. Perhaps it is no more than a personal testimony when I say that, for me, Christianity comes first. It is the sine qua non, the summum bonum. I am a conservative because first I am a Christian. Augustine is right: first belief, then understanding. Conservatism fittingly broadens and deepens the cultural, social, and political implications resident within my Christian faith. This seems, as well, the logic of Frohnen’s book.

Reading Bruce Frohnen has helped me meditate anew on this nexus. I recommend it heartily to fellow conservatives. But others, too, stand to benefit from reading it, even those who wish only to get a clear fix on their enemy! At a minimum, it is a rich enhancement of the cultural conversation of our time.  

“Unrestrained exercise of the human will, even if limited by contract, degrades the soul as it warps the mind and corrupts the body by sanctifying the pursuit of a life of sensual pleasures. Even those who seek to defend their community, to love their neighbors as themselves, degrade themselves and those they seek to serve when service is rendered only in material terms, toward merely material ends.”

—Bruce Frohnen, Virtue and the Promise of Conservatism

Edward Ericson is the author of Solzhenitsyn and the Modern World (Regnery Gateway).