Reflections on the Causes of Human Misery and upon Certain Proposals to Eliminate Them
Intellectual “moods” are mysterious. How they arise, how they spread, we cannot easily say either at the time or afterward. Yet who would deny that they affect intellectual life with enormous intensity while they last? We knew such a mood in the 1950s—bland, self-assured, pragmatic; again in the 1960s—violent, self-lacerating, visionary; and if I am to judge by the tone of those writers with whom I feel a particular sympathy (and indeed, by my own tone), we are experiencing the onset of a new mood in the 1970s. This new mood is conservative, although not in the usual sense in which that word is used in political debate. I would describe it as the rediscovery of a perspective on human events that highlights certain aspects of history—of “human nature,” if I may risk the term—to which both the liberal mood of the 1950s and the radical mood of the 1960s paid insufficient attention, if in fact either paid it any attention at all.
The aspect of human experience to which this new conservative view directs our eyes is sobering in the extreme. It dwells on the persistence of human folly in the face of heroic efforts to enlighten it with reason; on the perversity and cruelty that provide an insistent basso ostinato to the melodies of progress; on the extraordinary ease with which human sacrifice can be marshaled for war and the tremendous difficulties of adducing it for the tasks of peace; on the susceptibility of men and women at all levels of society to the delusions of nationalism or organized religion, and their virtual immunity from any sense of human “brotherhood” with men and women of another territory or faith.
This view of human history is surely not peculiar to our time. We find it in Asian legend and epic, in Greek and Roman drama and history, and elaborated in “modern” times in such diverse writers as Burke, Nietzsche, Spengler, Weber, Freud. Yet the contemporary mood of conservatism has a tendency that sets it off sharply from that of the past. Indeed, in two senses of the word, it is a radical conservatism. It is radical, first, in that it sympathizes with large-scale institutional changes designed to lessen the evils of the human condition. This differentiates it from the conservatism of the past, much of which seems an effort to comfort those who benefited from the existing distribution of misery, to paraphrase a sentence from Barrington Moore’s new book.
Second, it is radical in that it goes to the root of things. This latter reason is why it departs so markedly from the liberal or conventionally radical moods of the recent past, for it asks terrible questions before which these other views are mute: Why does mankind refuse to make the changes, often within easy grasp, that might rid it of the oppression which it has known from earliest times? Why do human beings display the laziness, the cowardice, the stupidity, inertia, or indifference that allow things to…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.