The Wisdom of Our Ancestors: Conservative Humanism and the Western Tradition
By Graham James McAleer and Alexander S. Rosenthal-Pubul.
University of Notre Dame Press, 2023.
Hardcover, 314 pages, $55.00.

Reviewed by Michael Lucchese.

Graham McAleer and Alexander Rosenthal-Pubul have written what will assuredly be one of the most important books of 2024. The Wisdom of Our Ancestors: Conservative Humanism and the Western Tradition is a triumph of political theory. Although the book certainly has shortcomings, our authors deserve praise for demonstrating that conservatism is not a mere ideology: it is a serious philosophical position. 

The West faces an “internal crisis” and “external threats,” they argue, because it has lost confidence in its civilizational identity. Liberals fail to understand our Abrahamic and Greco-Roman roots, and various “postliberal” movements at home and abroad fail to acknowledge the modern developments from those foundational principles. McAleer and Rosenthal-Pubul seek to outline a via media between these extremes, “conservative humanism.” 

Our authors deserve particular praise for their clear-eyed response to Aleksandr Dugin, the avatar they choose to represent postliberalism. Dugin is a Russian political theorist with considerable influence in both the Kremlin and global right-wing movements. He has been a staunch advocate of Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine because he considers it an attack on liberalism and the West. McAleer and Rosenthal-Pubul critique his “baroque metaphysics” for their postmodern relativism. The kind of politics Dugin advocates is a definitive break with the Western tradition, and, therefore, cannot be countenanced by conservatives.

At the same time, the authors are wary of the kind of universalistic liberalism represented by thinkers such as Francis Fukuyama. In “The End of History?” and elsewhere, Fukuyama embraces a “progressivist philosophy of history” that suggests all human experience culminates in liberalism. Earlier inheritances from Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and Christendom more broadly must be abandoned in favor of secular commercialism. Extreme liberals in this mold may even advocate achieving this kind of progress with the barrel of a gun.

In the face of these twin threats, our authors identify a “trinity of traditions” that must be conserved: religion, family, and education. The goal of these institutions, they write, is “to reconcile universal moral values with particularist loyalties.” As such, conservative humanism must be both a “political middle between individualism and nationalism” and an “ontological middle” between Dugin’s particularism and Fukuyama’s liberalism. Western metaphysics has “thoroughly affirmed the individual,” and this has been reflected in the political constitutions and mediating institutions of Western regimes.

Modernity, however, is in some sense a rejection of the Western metaphysical tradition. McAleer and Rosenthal-Pubul argue that a reverential faith in providential order has slowly replaced a progressive confidence in human will. Attempts to uproot the individual from the context of tradition will not liberate man for a new epoch of universal peace and happiness—they will only lead to totalitarian nightmares. 

Ancient philosophy was characterized by the search for the “best regime,” that is to say, the highest way of life. That search became the foundation of the Western tradition, as McAleer and Rosenthal-Pubul understand it. Christendom embraced this philosophic project Socrates began in the Athenian agora, embedding these deep questions in institutions such as the great medieval universities.

Conservatism became self-conscious, they argue, in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Fueled by Enlightenment thought, revolutionary upheaval threatened every institution and establishment within Christendom. In many ways, Edmund Burke is our authors’ ideal conservative, and for him, “conservatism is a doctrine of crisis.” It is a defense of the old order against modernity and rebellion.

But none of this means that our authors reject representative government or commercial society as such. Burke himself saw Britain’s democratic institutions and the free market as a flourishing of the old order. He often used the metaphor of a garden to describe the good society—what our authors refer to as the “careful cultivation of an inheritance.” Without encasing social arrangements in amber, conservative humanists should reject “experiment[s] with fundamental, sweeping change.”

For markets and democracy to function properly, they must be restrained by the rule of law. McAleer and Rosenthal-Pubul argue that liberal ideology subverts the law, however, and allows the “creative destruction” of unbounded markets and limitless democracy to run roughshod over society. “Liberalism’s promise is that humanity produces its form of life,” they assert, “without deference to a rule or criterion set by nature or reason.” It culminates either in a technological transhumanism or a quasi-Nietzschean vitalism, neither of which can properly affirm the moral law written on each human heart. The conservative humanist believes just constitutions must acknowledge the natural law, without seeking to “manage all the demands of communal life.” 

It is our institutions, more than our laws, that must do the work of cultivating civilization. Our membership in bodies such as the family, the parish, or the school teaches us to love the things worth loving, including human virtue. “The life of virtue can be called a more complete form of liberty, in the sense that mastery over the passions frees the will from their compulsive force,” our authors write, “and therefore enables a positive liberty—the power to live the good life.” Only by reinvigorating institutions can we return this wisdom to the center of Western civilization.

If The Wisdom of Our Ancestors has one major shortcoming, however, it is its insufficient treatment of the American regime. Russell Kirk often noted that the United States had become the world’s preeminent conservative power and once wrote that “Americans have become, without willing it, the defenders of civilization against the enemies of order and justice and freedom.” In many ways, America is the natural home for the body of thought our authors articulate. 

For the most part, the American Founders saw their revolutionary struggle not as a break with the Western tradition but as a culmination of it. They carefully designed the institutional arrangements of the U.S. Constitution—separation of powers, federalism, a bicameral legislature—precisely to reconcile universal principles and particular loyalties. George Carey, one of the great interpreters of Publius and The Federalist, called this “constitutional morality.” The humanist assumptions about the person McAleer and Rosenthal-Pubul seek to bring to the forefront of conservative thought are the dayspring of the American way of life.

While it is certainly not desirable to export the particular arrangements of the American republic to every nation around the world, the basic assumptions of our regime can inform the global response to emerging postmodernism. The Founding’s rejection of absolute power, for instance, and the importance it assigns citizenship should inspire those contending against the tyrannies of both radical particularism and universalistic liberalism.

Our authors’ best treatment of America comes in their discussion of early American education and the revival of Great Books programs in the 20th century. Christian humanism’s philosophical project was a lived experience on the frontier. Even while they eked out a meager existence, the pioneers sought to understand their roots by learning about Western history and studying the foundational classics of our tradition. 

Today, conservatives should aim at restoring a regime in which such liberal learning can thrive again. McAleer and Rosenthal-Pubul have outlined a theory of renewal—but it is still clear that the task ahead is immense. “The decline or renewal of the West depends,” McAleer and Rosenthal-Pubul conclude, “on whether a politics of conservative humanism is able to reclaim the wisdom of our ancestors and rejuvenate the religious, familial, and educational-intellectual traditions of our civilization.” Their book itself is an important step towards that rejuvenation, and conservatives everywhere should be grateful for their efforts.

Michael Lucchese is the founder of Pipe Creek Consulting, an associate editor for Law & Liberty, and a contributing editor to Providence.

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