A Call to VirtueOn Conservatism — By Rachel Motte on September 1, 2008 at 2:10 pm
Author’s note: This is a slightly edited version of an article that was published a few years ago at California Republic . -Rachel Motte
Today’s young conservative activists often lack a clear idea of what conservatism means. Drawn by the excitement generated by a popular candidate or policy, many accept conservatism because it has been presented to them in an attractive way, not because they understand that the principles it promotes are true.
This is an easy trap for young people, and calls to mind a passage in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. The passage describes a man who was so serious about a cause that he was willing to sacrifice even his life for it; yet even with all his fervor, he was unwilling to do the hard intellectual work that would train him to think well and thus defend his cause most effectively.
Students are no longer given a sound grounding in the Liberal Arts in school, so it’s no wonder they don’t know how to grapple with difficult ideas properly. Like so many other young people throughout history, they fail to think through their decisions and end up fighting fiercely for something they cannot always fully define.
Many college students get involved in politics because they enjoy the social interaction and stimulating environment, not because they fully understand what they are getting themselves into. Those who genuinely do want to make a difference in the world are often like the man described above; they are willing to make sacrifices, but are unwilling to make the most effective sacrifice. Conservatism would benefit tremendously if its young workforce would spend a little less time networking and a lot more time studying the great ideas that define the western civilization they will someday be responsible for protecting.
It has been said that a return to the intellectual rigor that characterized conservative groups in the 1960’s is needed to ensure the unity and effectiveness of the movement. There is a lot of truth to this; however, there is also some danger. Student-led campus groups and conservative training organizations have done much to educate young people in the philosophies of conservatism, but fail to get at the root of the real problem facing the movement: Lack of virtue.
The most rigorous intellectual training program in the world is worth nothing if its students do not learn virtue, because it is useless to study the truth unless one is transformed by it. The brightest, most loyal conservative will not be able to make a significant difference in the culture unless he first makes the sacrifices that are needed to learn to live well.
The moral conduct of a leader affects the conduct of those under him. He teaches others how to live — if he is a righteous and virtuous man, many who support him will follow his example. If he is a corrupt man, his followers may be corrupted. Those who followed the Clinton impeachment proceedings know well that intelligent, well-educated people in positions of power can be very dangerous if their personal lives are characterized by bad conduct. Bill Clinton’s affair made it easier for others to justify their own sins, and marital unfaithfulness became even more acceptable to the general public.
Both liberal and conservative leaders have been found guilty of adultery in recent years. I was in high school when I heard of Newt Gingrich’s affair, and was shocked that one of the “good guys” had made such an enormous mistake. I know now that such things are no less common among conservatives than among those with whom they disagree.
Conservatives will never be able to make a significant cultural impact if they continue to live badly. Each new generation of activists looks a little less like the one that came before, and a little more like the enemy it opposes. What does it mean for the future of the west when those who love it most are little better than those who want to see it destroyed? ‘