Tradition, Place, and Things Divine

What brand of conservative are you? There are the nationalists. And the post-liberals. And the MAGA populists. And the paleos. And the reactionaries. And the neocons. And the “groypers” (hopefully you’re not one of those). And the conservative libertarians and all other varieties of “right liberals.”

Some of us, though, aren’t taken by the fads or the labels thrown around by the “very online.” We’re conservative in sentiment and skeptical of politically branded ideologies of all forms. We typically hold the same general principles conservatives believed ten, twenty-five, fifty years ago: that it is far easier to destroy good things than to build them up, that tradition and custom are better guides than reason, that we ought to be wary of political monism, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in any political philosophy.

For this kind of conservative, “tradition, place, and things divine,” is a rather attractive motto. And it might seem vaguely familiar because it has been used by the interdisciplinary Ciceronian Society since its formation in 2012. But it might be only vaguely familiar, as the organization, along with its Voegelinian-titled Anamnesis journal, went dormant around 2018.

But the Ciceronians are back together, under new leadership, and trying to create a home for conservatives for whom the latest brands have no charm. On March 11-12, the organization hosted its first conference in four years at Grove City College, and a new peer-reviewed journal, Pietas, is in the works, as well as a podcast. I was able to attend the conference and talk with several of the organization’s new leaders about their hopes for the future.

The Chairman of the Board Bill Batchelder described the Ciceronian Society as “an island of misfit toys.” It consciously attracts conservatives that might feel homeless in the current intellectual structure of the right. It is a Christian organization, but ecumenical and not inclined toward a political religion. Most conference attendees would consider themselves traditionalists of some sort, but there is ecumenism in that as much as there is in the Christian identity.

It reflects a decidedly unpartisan conservatism—Donald Trump and the GOP rarely came up at the conference, either in panels or in social discussion. Conference attendees were primarily interested in politics insofar as politics ought to protect more important things. Most would feel more at home tending a backyard garden than attending an event at the White House Rose Garden.

In short, the Ciceronians are looking to establish a community rooted in friendship rather than the pursuit of a specific shared goal. The organization is unlikely to change the world, but may serve as a help to those trying to care for their little pocket of it. The papers presented at the conference, accordingly, ran the gamut, connected mostly by the fact that they were focused on things conservatives value: constitutionalism, Aristotelian philosophy, the patterns of local community, a humane economy, friendship, the church, and country music, to name just a few.

This kind of conservative sentiment is not common for either academic conferences or the large spectacles put on by various conservative movements. It makes sense, then, that the organization hopes to extend its efforts outside of politics and the academy to members of the clergy, schoolteachers, businessmen, and others. These people have as much (or more) influence on traditions, places, and our engagement with the divine as academics do. They also have the same need for intellectual stimulation and support. In addition to encouraging conference participation by non-academics, several Ciceronian Society leaders mentioned new potential projects like the development of curriculum guides or instruction aids for classical Christian schools and educators.

Things like the love of home, respect for authorities (plural), and a preference for the old ways had once seemed like a second nature. Now they must be defended in speech and consciously pursued.

All three of the core principles—tradition, place, and things divine—are under stress in the modern world. But none, perhaps, more than place. The transportation and communication technologies that have transformed daily life in the last century have created what Brent Waters described in his paper as a generation of “nomads” with no connection to the places they live and work. Instead, we are increasingly obsessed with “space”—both physical and online. Space is something we often define for ourselves with the precise purpose of avoiding obligation to others. Place teaches us limits; space makes us impatient with them.

The recovery of place doesn’t mean everyone must pursue the Wendell Berry option, though. Waters went on to suggest that the love of place in today’s world must be more self-consciously developed around the roles and obligations we hold in whatever place we happen to be. In the words of Stephen Stills, “If you can’t be with the one you love (honey), love the one you’re with.” That idea came up several times throughout the conference. We may not be able to live an agrarian life, live in a monastery, or even have architectural or natural beauty close by (though those things are all good). We can still “love the one we’re with”—the place where we are. As President James Patterson noted in his conference-concluding remarks: “A place does not need to be grand for us to have a sense of it. It can be small, local. It can also be portable. When I mentioned Prof. Waters’s talk to a friend, he reminded me that the ancient Israelites first carried the Tabernacle before ultimately resting it in the Temple. “

Perhaps because of its particularly tenuous position in the modern world, and because it is hard to cultivate, the sense of place seems to be the most defining of the three Ciceronian principles. It was announced that at future conferences (the next one will be held at Belmont Abbey College) an award will be given to the best paper on the topic of place. The planned podcast, in addition to more traditional academic themes, will also highlight people who exemplify the way we moderns may still love the places where we are, featuring interviews with people who are “living local” in thought, word, or deed.

We often trace conservatism back to Burke, because it was through his engagement with the radicalism of the Revolution that conservatives were forced to become self-conscious about their sentiments. Things like the love of home, respect for authorities (plural), and a preference for the old ways had once seemed like a second nature. But suddenly their value had to be defended in speech, and they had to be consciously pursued.

That necessity has only become more acute in the last two hundred years, in part due to political revolutions, and in part due to technological ones (think of the frictionless world the Silicon Valley titans would like to create) and social ones (the conference keynote speaker, Carl Trueman, spoke of the extreme damage that a revolutionary understanding of sex has wreaked on the social landscape).

As the society’s self-description observes, the “liturgy” of the modern world habituates “fear, contempt, rage, rootlessness, and despair.” In any self-conscious attempt to counteract these tendencies, one of the most powerful allies is simply having allies—others similarly inclined with whom to break bread and exchange ideas. The Ciceronians’ community is contributing to the sowing of hopeful seeds in a world full of thorns. Here’s to a plentiful harvest in the years to come.