An Instinct for Virtue
I came across Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra as a teen and read it unsupervised, time and again, for the next couple of months. Words can be dangerous things. That book hijacked my worldview for the next three decades. In all that time, I never imagined that I would one day identify as a conservative.
Nietzsche demanded a revaluation of all values. To accomplish such a feat, I attempted to reject all values, especially outdated notions of the West that began with Heraclitus and Plato in ancient Greece. I wandered the wasteland armed with the notion that I alone might raise new values out of the ash heap of the old.
Thus Spake Zarathustra is a religious treatise of sorts. Zarathustra, also known as Zoroaster, was the Iranian religious figure who is arguably the founder of the first monotheistic religion. Nietzsche thought Zarathustra got it wrong and wanted to give him a chance to correct the record. He employed the ghost of Zarathustra to create a new religion, a faith in man bereft of gods, monotheistic or otherwise. In this brave new world, for those who dared enter it, the individual became responsible for creating values ex nihilo. Here, everything is reduced to power. The strong survive and the weak perish. Nietzsche’s is a metaphysics of power. There is nothing else. This is not nihilism. Abandon all hope, you who enter here.
Thus Spake Zarathustra was issued to German soldiers in World War I. Nietzsche was blamed for both World Wars and the rise of relativism that has now dominated universities for over three decades, the same relativism that has leaked into the culture at large. Nietzsche was a trickster. Tricksters tend to lie. Relativism is a gift from the prince of lies.
My turn to conservatism is not, however, merely a reaction against Nietzsche. Neither does it fit into the cliché of those who were once progressive growing conservative over time like whiskey in a barrel. It may be partially due to both of those causes, but the main impetus is a looking back, not through the centuries to Plato and Aquinas, but to childhood. I was raised on the high plains of Wyoming. Cell phones were nonexistent, as were personal computers. We didn’t have cable television, let alone video streaming. The closest thing I had to a podcast were radio dramas like The Shadow. That was less than fifty years ago. It seems now like I hail from an alien world.
The turn is not merely nostalgic either. Caring for horses and cattle, sheep and goats, chickens and geese in below-zero blizzards and blazing summers does more than fuel memories. It also instills what I call natural virtue. The livestock depended on me. The well-being of our family depended on them. Hunting antelope and deer, rabbits and duck, along with fishing and trapping cemented these values. Taking the lives of living creatures is no small thing. The blood did not just stain my hands. It got inside my head. Those experiences gave me a reverence for life and profound respect for the finality of death.
The virtues bestowed by nature have been all but covered up in a culture dominated by technology. Electronic fish-finders are common. Hunters employ wildlife cameras and other technology to locate game. Backpackers use GPS to find their way out of the woods. The cost of convenience is a covering up of virtue. My turn to conservatism, however, is not primarily a Romantic notion of reconnecting with the primal, though there may be a bit of that as well. It is a turning back to virtue. It is an attempt to preserve that which has been obscured in the fog of cognitive dissonance generated by technology. We have all but surrendered our individuality to the machine. In a country founded upon protecting individual liberty, we have lost our way. Instead of striving for excellence always just out of reach, we succumb to the group and allow it to label us as it pleases.
Nietzsche was wrong. Virtue is not based upon a will to power where the strong impose their brand virtue on the weak. True virtue presupposes both concrete individuality and transcendence. The practice of virtue engenders a natural longing for the Good. Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Voegelin, and others have cultivated the concept of virtue and protected it. For me, the greatest teacher of all has been nature herself.
Humans are fallen creatures; we tend to screw things up. This is self-evident. Virtue is the instinct that longs for the heights. My turn to conservatism has been an instinctual act. I am tired of mucking around in a wasteland where the only value is the ego. An ego devoid of virtue except for that it can generate on its own is a paltry thing. In many ways, conservatism has become a sanctuary for the liberals of yesteryear who located virtue in the “laws of nature and of nature’s God” where men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”