Socrates and the Cultural Conservative



For many denizens of the twenty-first century, it’s no longer obvious that the conservative temperament is a particularly nice one. Putting policy concerns aside, the conservative instinct reduces to a sense that older things are better—which sounds reasonable in political affairs but fairly dour in matters of culture. Today, it’s unpopular to cling to old forms of beauty, and Burke’s recommendation that “instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree” does not impress youthful writers, musicians, or painters. The guardian of traditional art has a troubled reputation. People see him as a curmudgeon; they label him an elitist. It’s unclear, in fact, what should become of the conservative temperament in matters of culture, or whether today’s cultural conservative can promote tradition without looking like a grump.


But I’d like to suggest that the conservative temperament does have a place in modern cultural debates, and that lovers of ancient art-forms are peculiarly suited to begin acting as stalwart, virtuous citizens. To make this argument, I’ll turn to Socrates, that most curmudgeonly of cultural conservatives.


Plato’s Socrates argues that art and politics are inseparably linked. In the Republic, Socrates tells a group of young men that the way music makes them feel will change the way they think about virtue and vice—and, therefore, will alter their perspective on law. Calm, orderly music encourages a calm, orderly attitude, the sort that preserves good institutions rather than breaking them down. Disordered music, on the other hand, inspires frenzy, passion, and a desire to upend the laws. Socrates recommends a state-organized system of education with good music at the forefront, but his point need not extend to dictatorial extremism. If Socrates is correct, and art influences human emotion and the moral imagination, then individuals can simply regulate their own engagement with the arts.


But is Socrates correct? How seriously can we take this putative connection between our emotional experience of art and our moral and political leanings? On the one hand, Socrates’ perspective is laughably simplistic. One ribald song will not transform me into a bad person, nor will a Dvorak symphony conquer my moral shortcomings. In morality and politics, individual choice often overcomes the transient emotions experienced in movie theaters, art exhibits, or concerts. Reason picks through our emotional reactions, discarding some as useless or silly, and selecting others as valuable guides to action. The bravado I feel during Holst’s Mars may not always be useful; the love I experience during the final bars of Mahler 1 very well may. As a free person, I possess the option of choosing which experiences to value and which to forget.


At the same time, however, Socrates does have a point. Human choice is limited because choice is itself bound up with emotion. We will not discard our reactions to an art-genre if constant interactions with that genre have conditioned us to find it and any concomitant emotions acceptable. What if certain songs do in fact encourage certain opinions about sex, power, and violence? What if books and movies teach us to believe particular things about good and evil, freedom and slavery, courage and cowardice? Such a concern isn’t foreign to modernity. Today’s parents still monitor what stories and TV shows their child consumes precisely because they believe that art shapes the moral imagination. Fairytales teach children to love good and hate evil; books glorifying robbery, cowardice, or oppression would not. And lessons learned in the library or the movie theater don’t vanish easily. The moral imagination, once shaped, remains to influence choice and action at home, in the church, and in government. Art matters because it teaches children (and adults, too) how to think about morality and politics.


Thus, if Socrates is correct, connoisseurs of great art can be a valuable asset to the public; they love those art-forms which tend to encourage a steady, virtuous adherence to the institutions of a free society. It remains to be seen, then, whether such connoisseurs possess the conservative or the liberal temperament.


The conservative temperament tends to privilege old art over new art. According to the cultural conservative, historic art-forms—the concerto, the sonata, the linear story, the tightly regulated poem—extend beauty to the human mind in a way that less structured, more popular art-forms do not. This does not imply, of course, that contemporary styles cannot be beautiful, with a modern loveliness of their own. But contemporary art is only beautiful because it adapts, rearranges, and alters traditional elements: harmony, balance, dissonance and resolution, the singable melody, narrative coherence, well-arranged colors. Only by stitching together such components does the modern artist produce something rich and complex—the sort of art that teaches awe, reverence, hilarity, proper fear, righteous anger, delight, joy, love. Preferring more traditional aspects of art, cultural conservatives invite beauty into their souls. This beauty does not make them moral citizens, of course, for morality involves free choice. But it may encourage them to feel the sorts of emotions which influence human choice and rationality for the better. In this way, the cultural conservative is a modern Socrates, with a Socratic take on the moral and political ramifications of art.


A final note on curmudgeons. Cultural conservatives are not curmudgeonly by nature and are elitist only by accident. Socrates champions old art-forms not because he despises other people for their artistic taste but because he loves his city and its laws. Love—not arrogance, grumpiness, or disdain—is the conservative watchword. Conservatives prefer old things because they value traditional notions of beauty, they appreciate the way beauty influences their thoughts and feelings, and they love their nation. In culture, as in politics, love is and ought to be the conservative goal and the conservative legacy.