Humanities Professors are True Conservatives

by Paul North

F796F54D-3E8B-471F-A8E9-37883A8B0484Humanities professors are the true conservatives. What is it to be conservative? A professor hunches over a podium and says, "well, … you know…." The lecture begins. Well you know: Chateaubriand's pro-restoration journal Le Conservateur started it all off in 1818, proposing a return to the society of orders after the revolutionary republic. For this lecturer, saying what something is requires saying what it was. A minimum description of a conservative is that. A conservative prefers what was to what is.

Humanities professors are way ahead of the curve on this kind of thing. A rambunctious student wants to debate current events: a humanities professor blinks and says "well…it wasn't always that way." Thank goodness for the delaying, retarding, preserving "well…"! Humanities professors use the opening that a strategic "well" gives them, in order to talk about how it was.


Why don't we ask what it was to be conservative.

A classics professor dusts off a volume of Cicero and finds these words:

pro di inmortales, custodes et conservatores hujus urbis atque imperii.
Oh immortal gods, protectors and preservers of the city and the empire.

It is a cliché phrase, really. Cicero repeats it from old political chatter.

Still, it's a huge claim—who is the conservative? The gods conserve the city and the empire. Cicero has heaven in mind, the classics professor a much smaller thing. Not gods or empire—words are what's important. Who conserves Cicero's words? The classics professor of course. a conservative of the highest order, the professor nonetheless is faced with a hard question. What do Cicero's words preserve? Here is the real crux of the matter. For there are two words here, "protectors" and "preservers." What is the difference? Something is being said in the contrast between the two. The difference will help us say what it was to be conservative. Conservatores differ from custodes, though here they are put together. To know what it means to be a conservator in old Roman republican wisdom then, we also need to know what it means to be a custodian. Gods are custodians: they protect the city from inside and outside, keep it safe from tyrants and from enemies, and they carry out this protection for the purposes of preservation. Gods protect the city in order that the city may endure as it is, as it was.

This all seems quite basic. If protection is for the purposes of conservation, that also means that conservation depends on protection, at least in this cliché. Looking at clichés is not a bad way to learn the opinions a culture holds about itself. Just because it is a cliché doesn't mean we don't believe in it. We believe in it so much and so uncritically it is painful to hear it repeated. Especially when it begins to clash with new realities. Cicero's cliché says: conservation depends on warding off threats. What it was to be conservative—philologically speaking—was to protect something from a threat. Not just one threat but clearly many. Who can limit the enemies, intriguers, historical forgettings, natural threats, insidious contaminations, and all the other infiltrators of the city walls? A philologist is a true conservative. But conserving the words includes conserving all the words, even the ones that don't seem to fit our view of the past. Not just conservatores but also custodes. And conserving all the words brings forward the multiplicity of highly unconservative factors in any act of protection. The threats and the protection go together. Without the threats, no protection, without the protection no conserving. What it was to be conservative was to preserve, alongside the good, safe city, also and at the same time all the externals and alternatives to Rome. Within every conservative is a lover and collector of alternatives in all their myriad forms. No one knows the loose, the lost, the fleeting better than the true conservative.

To be clear—to conserve the past you have to identify and cling also to what made the past that past, what made Rome Rome. That means every single drop of all that is not Rome. You love Carthage and the Gauls, Greece and Egypt, and the network widens ever so. A professor of classics secretly loves the moderns above all. A modernist yearns for Greece. A true conservative loves the whole past. It is a crazy dream, Don Quijote work; impossible, and yet every decision on what the past was leads you further and further into a wider and wilder context of cities and gods, friends and enemies, shifting alliances and values that shift along with them.

Conservator has to mean something else as well: to judge. From among the whole past, partially illuminated by their efforts, a true conservative decides what is to be protected and what is to be left out on the mountainside for the vultures.

Julius Caesar drives the point home.

Caesar… sese eos in fidem recepturum eat conservaturum dixit.
Caesar said … he would receive them into his protection, and would spare them.

Caesar judges. He will protect these new friends of Rome from their Gallic enemies. He also says he himself will not harm them, he will spare them, conservaturum. Conserve also means to spare something or someone from one's own violence, to judge it worthy of protection from the judge. The "friends" of Rome would be preserved—from their enemies and from their protector, the Roman Proconsul. Caesar is the protector here, whereas in Cicero's cliché it was the gods. It doesn't matter which. Everyone is a god with respect to a past to be protected. You hold the power of conservation and of dissipation, diminishment, abandonment, and destruction. We don't think enough about the power to consign whole tracts of material to oblivion.

A true conservative is a curator of oblivion. It is a much more difficult task than you might think. To say "yes" to one city, one regime of words, one way of life or set of values you have to say "no" to a vast labyrinth of other, incompatible things. The barbaric "no" of the true conservative rings out through history's halls, a cry of desperation at the mass of alternatives pressing down on them. Humanities professors by and large are used to this desperation. They know that decisions on the past are like the children's game "Ker Plunk." History as we see it is a precarious balance of marbles on top of thin straws. The true conservative pulls the straws out strategically one by one. One of them will be the wrong straw and the whole configuration will come tumbling down.

This is the point that separates true conservatives from false ones, humanities professors from dogmatists. We already know that in order to conserve something there needs to be at least two things, what is protected and that which it is protected from. And there needs to be the protector. So there are at least three. This, the triangle of true conservativism, has the form of a choice. Behind any triangle there has already been a judgment. You decide for Rome over Carthage. The professor decides for these words over those words. The city over the enemies, these gods over those gods, these texts over those texts, "values" over texts, and so on. What separates true conservatives from false ones is first of all whether they decide, and second of all how clearly they see the precariousness of this decision.

I am not saying it is a choice to believe that Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo. That is a matter of truth. We are talking about matters of plurality. Each point is a star, each star a system, each system a galaxy of events and changes, small and large, with small and large effects. 1815 was a great year for the Duke of Wellington, not so good for Napoleon. It was a pretty darned good year for George Boole however, the English logician without whose algebraic logic we would not have computers. He was born in 1815. Is 1815 the year of Napoleon's final defeat or the year of Boole's birth? Obviously it is both. But the year is cut in two by the two events. It is one year with two significances, which are largely irreconcilable. The events are as far apart in meaning and effects as the north and south poles. By any measure, the two belong to vastly different categories—let's call one political, the other technological, and eventually economic. However you categorize them, the events are of different kinds—one a biological event, birth, the other a military event; one a beginning which really predicted very little, the other an end which confirmed a trend in France and in Europe toward, well…, conservatism.

Most importantly, the first event, the birth of baby Boole, called out to a future not yet envisioned or envisionable. Boole's becoming important depended on many other factors in other systems with other stars. To be concrete about one of them: Claude Shannon read Boole in college, and just after, in 1937, he applied Boolean operations to switching circuits. This is one necessary condition of the micro-chip. You can see that the origin is split. The nobel prize would have to go to Shannon and Boole, and many others too, though decidedly not to Napoleon.

In any past there are multiple pasts and in any act of conservation of a this, a that is preserved along with it, and another that, and another, whether you want it there or not.

At its zenith, true conservatism welcomes into its theater, with no price of admission, the fleeting, the bizarre, the differently formed and the unformed, the oppressed and the excluded and the detritus without which nothing could come to stand, ringing out echoes through deep time, against the nihilistic frame, the only frame in which the maelstrom of history makes sense.