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 Lee Trepanier.

The controversies in our country’s school systems—such as LGBTQ+ policies and woke ideology—have had the unintentional effect of bringing private schools’ classical and Christian humanist education as an alternative for parents to school their children. For those on the right, this is a welcomed antidote to a progressive curriculum taught in schools; for those on the left, it is a step backward that neglects minority voices and contributions to America. But before delving into this debate, the question that first needs to be asked is, “What is classical and Christian humanism?”

Graham James McAleer, Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University Maryland, and Alexander S. Rosenthal-Pubul, Lecturer at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Data Analytics, Policy, and Government, have written a book to address this question. In The Wisdom of Our Ancestors, McAleer and Rosenthal-Pubul argue for “conservative humanism” to be taught in our schools and embraced more broadly in society. But what do they mean by “conservative humanism”?

The first part of “conservative humanism” is an ideology that is distinct from both liberalism and nationalism. If liberalism is the transcendence of all national and particular loyalties for a global governance that embraces a universal humanity, then nationalism (or what they later call primitivism) is the belief that ethnic groups have the right to maintain their own culture and character against homogenizing universalist claims, even if they have to violate other people’s rights. Conservatism represents a middle ground between a cosmopolitan liberalism and a tribal nationalism. Within this middle ground, particularist loyalties to the family and nation exist but within a Christian framework where all human beings are ultimately valued and accepted.

The second part of “conservative humanism” is an educational movement that is classical and Christian, but not modern. Classical humanism is from the Greek and Roman world of intellectual, moral, and aesthetic formation, while Christian humanism recognizes that every person has an intrinsic and transcendent dignity since humans are created in the image of God. The classical and Christian combination of humanism stands in stark contrast to its modern counterpart which starts from the Enlightenment and reduces human nature to materialism, whether biological or technological. For McAleer and Rosenthal-Pubul, the “humanism” in conservative humanism is the cultivation of the individual in the Greek, Roman, and Christian sense where the person “affirms an obedience to a moral order transcending our will.” By recognizing a moral order outside of the individual, the conservative humanist accepts the limitations of the human condition and attempts to live a flourishing life within them.

This understanding of conservative humanism is the thread that connects the chapters in McAleer’s and Rosenthal-Pubul’s book, which, the authors admit, are a commentary on the themes found in Roger Scruton’s The Meaning of Conservatism. These themes include humanism, conservatism, the establishment, natural law, free enterprise, and freedom. In the first two chapters about conservatism, McAleer and Rosenthal-Pubul emphasize its associational aspects—the family, the church, and private schools—as well as the value of humanism which is “the master idea of our civilization.” According to the authors, conservatives are to defend humanism, the transcendent dignity of the individual person, against the ideologies of totalitarianism, tribal nationalism, and transhumanism.

This defense of humanism is to occupy an analogical position which is between those who claim a univocalism (all people are of one mind, as in commercial liberalism) and equivocalism (only particularist traditions manifest truth). The conservative thus must balance his or her loyalties to particular institutions and place them against the universalist aspirations of human dignity. This middle ground between tribal nationalism and universal liberalism is an uncomfortable one for the conservative because he or she is pulled by both sides. Yet it yields a humane form of politics that does not seek to trample differences nor reject the fundamental equality and dignity of every human being.

Conservative politics is to sustain a society’s self-image of itself—its laws, traditions, and customs. These are built around and justified by ideals and myths; and people assume both the freedom and responsibility in their society to preserve them. This in turn requires a hierarchy of privileges and values. But this only raises the question about those in power and how they achieved it. Is it through meritocracy? Equity? Or something else? Unfortunately, McAleer and Rosenthal-Pubul do not explore this question. An answer could have benefited conservatives in politics today as they are confronted with questions of DEI.

For McAleer and Rosenthal-Pubul, conservative politics is ultimately based on natural law. Natural law is a necessary corrective to the irrationalities that flare up from time to time in a purely technocratic and scientific view of the world. It directly deals with the problem of human desire by valuing reason above the passions. The rule of law is not sustainable “when persons are reduced to an existentialism of risk (as seen in Heidegger”); rather, “communities are surrounded by nature dense with value, and from which they derive universal moral orientation” as known and articulated by reason.

McAleer and Rosenthal-Pubul next turn to free enterprise, or what they call “humanistic enterprise,” which is Smith’s theory of capitalism. Smith’s identification of the division of labor as the cause of the wealth of nations is essentially a conservative insight because it affords humans dignity. The workplace is no longer a place of drudgery for the authors but “a place of work, a property that fosters a standing in the community: it provides a role of self-regulating human effort.”

The authors close with the conservative account of freedom as one of self-control of the passions and giving priority to virtue over autonomy. This account of freedom is contrary to the liberal’s definition where autonomy is unfettered, even to the extent where people can choose their own biological and ethnic identities. It is also contrary to tribal nationalists’ view that the collective is superior to the person and thereby individual dignity becomes erased. Conservatives understand freedom as a duty to oneself and others in the exercise of virtue, and that respects the dignity of each individual person in the pursuit of the common good.

The Wisdom of Our Ancestors is a thoughtful contribution to the studies of conservatism. McAleer and Rosenthal-Pubul demonstrate what the western classical and Christian worlds contributed to our understanding of human flourishing and how liberalism and tribal nationalism threaten it. For them, the decline or renewal of the West depends upon whether a conservative humanism can be recovered, whether the wisdom of our ancestors will be rejuvenated and whether we are willing to look back into the past in order to move forward in the future. The fact that classical and Christian humanist education—conservative humanism—is being discussed in our educational debates is a hopeful sign that such a recovery has begun. 

Lee Trepanier is the Dean of the D’Amour College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Assumption University in Massachusetts. He is an author of numerous books and is the editor of the Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film. His X handle is @lee_trepanier.

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