Review: Feser – Part 1 [The Last Superstition – A Refutation of the New Atheism: Introduction]

So finally getting round to writing this and fair warning – this will take several posts and involves metaphysics and some odd conservatism.
It started when I sort of got sucked into a discussion about Aristotle here and then ended up buying a copy of book that looked like the source of all things Aristotlish in Puppydom. More after the fold…

The Last Superstition – A Refutation of the New Atheism: Introduction

There is an intellectual crisis in modern conservatism. Conservatism itself, as one of the broadest political positions, is not inherently anti-intellectual. It has often partnered with a sceptical outlook on fads and intellectual fancies but that scepticism was itself an intellectual stance that assumed common sense and clear thinking could provide a clearer view of the world. That isn’t to say that past conservatism was without blindspots or prone to indulging in its own fancies but it was an ideology engaged in the philosophical stream of Western (and later global) culture.

Modern conservatism, however, has found itself adrift without any sound ideological framework. It is hard to say when the crisis started but in immediate terms the failure of neoconservatism during the Bush administration can be seen either as the start of a recent crisis or a recent failure of conservatism to restore its intellectual fortunes. Arguably the collapse of the Soviet Union left conservatism adrift – Marxism provided a heady mix of economic, political and philosophical notions against which the conservatives of the US and Western Europe could easily define themselves against. Post the fall of the Berlin Wall conservatism’s intellectuals staggered around like a man who was pushing against a door that was suddenly opened. With the great counter-example to Marxism (the USSR) gone and with academic Marxism out of fashion, conservatism was on the ascendant politically but adrift ideologically.

Worse was the baggage that US conservatism had accumulated. Nixon’s Southern Strategy to woo formerly Democrat voting white men in the southern states of the US, tied the Republican party with a evangelical Christianity and associated causes such as creationism. A similar ‘culture war’ strategy tied the Republicans to negative attitudes towards homosexuality and long established ties between the fossil fuel industry and the Republican party tied the party to difficult positions on global warming. The Cold War had helped define US conservatism and US cultural hegemony put US conservatism at centre stage but events and short term thinking meant that US conservatism was now stuck on the wrong side of reality. With the ‘white male’ vote in decline demographically, with the evidence for global warming mounting, with social attitudes towards homosexuality shifting rapidly and saddled with creationism, US conservatism has become mired in positions that are at best fringe and crank-ridden. Consequently the US Republican party has retreated into a know-nothing populism and presidential candidates find themselves in a spiral of populist nonsense in which they cannot compete against a wealthy celebrity clown.

It is both suitable and inevitable that conservatives would look for a intellectual framework in the past. Of course for the US there are the sainted founding fathers but Jefferson, Franklin or perhaps Paine are each problematic in their own way and Washington didn’t have a lot to say. The arguments in the Federalist Papers provide some weight for how a US conservative might see the role of the US government but do not provide a broader ethical framework nor do they provide any easy way out of issues such as same-sex marriage or global warming/climate change. The issues tackled by the founders of the USA while couched in terms of natural rights, were to immediate and too fixed on a specific set of problems that do not translate easily to modern times.

For some the British 18th century writer Edmund Burke, notable critic of the French Revolution provides some intellectual basis but as with the Founding Fathers his concerns are perhaps too specific for a political movement that is trying to rationalise pandering to absurdities such as creationism or opposition to the science of global warming.

Other conservative pundit have looked back further and has attempted to rationalise his brand of conservatism using he writing of 17th century John Locke.

Edward Feser ups the ante. Why not go further back? Why not identify when the rot REALLY set in? Fewer finds his ideological saviour in one of Western histories great thinkers – a thinker so notable that he was canonised as a saint primarily for being one of histories greatest smart-arses. Fewer takes us back past the Enlightenment, back past the Renaissance and leads us to the late middle ages, Scholasticism and Saint Thomas Aquinas himself.

That itself has a charming audaciousness to it and as a kind of uber-conservatism that tracks the supposed decline in Western civilisation to prior to the Protestant reformation. Of course Feser does not argue that somehow the progress in science, democracy and freedom that occurred in the intervening period was all bad and that we should return to our monasteries but claims that the progress would have occurred anyway but if somehow we had stuck with Aquinas we wouldn’t have the intellectual problems we do today.

How so? Well, I’ll save that for the next post.