Virtue and the Promise of Conservatism: the Legacy of Burke and Tocqueville, by Bruce Frohnen

Conservatism lives. It continues to exercise its power over bright young minds. It also shows us a way of life, how to live. For these assertions there could be no better evidence than Bruce Frohnen’s Virtue and the Promise of Conservatism. Conceived as a doctoral dissertation at Cornell University and midwifed by a university press, this book holds a promise of its own to find a long life on the short shelf of indispensable landmark studies of modern conservative thought. Frohnen’s fresh articulation of conservatism, telling old verities to a fin de siècle audience, does for his generation something akin to what Russell Kirk in The Conservative Mind did for his.

This phenomenon is all the more remarkable in that there is scarcely a more outré word in today’s academy than conservative. It is used almost uniformly as a term of opprobrium to castigate anything that offends against our day’s regnant intellectual orthodoxy. (Latest flash: Jeffrey Dahmer, Milwaukee cannibal, represents conservative backlash against subversions of patriarchal family.) Frohnen gives our orthodox intelligentsia something really to hate with a whole heart; this is the real thing. One can scan university-press catalogs a long time without finding a single book having the rhetoric of this one. (And it is, in passing, a wonder of wonders that a university press has allowed into print a book routinely using the generic masculine; perhaps someone there knows what our Politically Correct do not: that sometimes there is no “gender-inclusive” translation which keeps the nuances of meaning exact.)

Here is a quick sample of Frohnen’s unfashionable rhetoric. In opposition to the academy’s studied avoidance of anything religious, Frohnen avers, “To act rightly, to do as God wills in one’s own life, is to act virtuously,” and for this “[o]ne needs the guidance of revelation.” In his view, “The French Revolution, like its Marxian progeny in Russia and elsewhere, was essentially an attempt to substitute man’s will for God’s.” One who embraces the sandal of conservatism will not shrink from the scandal of the cross. But how alien will this line of thought be to my friends on the so-called Christian Left, who think that their faith requires cozying up to socialism and who look almost exclusively to the right to locate their enemies. And how this next sentence will rankle our classracegender intellectuals: “Nature dictates a hierarchical structure for society.” Why, Frohnen even resorts to the ancient imagery of the Great Chain of Being. But this move comes readily to one who thinks that, “rather than trusting independent wisdom, we should trust the wisdom of the ages.”

Read the complete article in The University Bookman

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