There is a section of Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus—the great Spartan founder and lawgiver—I’ve been thinking about recently. It happens right at the beginning of the chapter, when Lycurgus, still young, is in Crete. There he encounters Thales, from whom he learns the importance of culture to the stability of a regime.
Now Thales passed as a lyric poet … but in reality he did the work of one of the mightiest lawgivers. For his odes were so many exhortations to obedience and harmony, and their measured rhythms were permeated with ordered tranquility, so that those who listened to them were insensibly softened in their dispositions, insomuch that they renounced the mutual hatreds which were so rife at that time, and dwelt together in a common pursuit of what was high and noble. Thales, therefore, after a fashion, was a forerunner in Sparta of Lycurgus and his discipline.
What Thales understood, I think, is that laws, alone, are insufficiently strong to maintain a healthy polity. What they need are cultural supports—good and proper supports, I might add—constantly reinforced. When mores become corrupted and culture degraded things start to fall apart. Put in modern parlance, the more craven and tyrannical the American soul becomes, the less suited it is to democratic government and the better formed for any variety of authoritarianism.
Conservatives understand or at least intuit this, which is why we go on about tradition and turn seemingly small things into battle scenes of the Neverending Culture War. With all this practice and insight, one would think we would really have our stuff down pat, that we would have a string of significant victories notched on our belt. That a large share of major cultural institutions—from universities, to museums, to arts, letters, and music—would be ours.
And yet…what is it, exactly, that we own, that we dominate? What does our success look like on paper? A lot of people that make up Conservative Inc., and who have made a great deal of money supposedly standing athwart history, yelling Stop, seem content that we’ve somehow won something. Have we?
I’m beginning to suspect, frankly, Conservative Inc. does not know just how bad things on the cultural side of the ledger have gotten or are poised to get. If they knew, and I mean really knew, they would do something—to the extent their enervated bodies are capable—to fight back. Because they cannot or are unwilling to do so means that, sooner or later, a full-blown regime crisis will befall us. And if you think this is theoretical, read your Plutarch.
Because Conservative Inc. is inoperable, who does one look toward as the next lodestar? Well, this is precisely the question most animating the editorial discussions at The American Mind, the whole of the Claremont Institute, and especially our new Center for the American Way of Life.
In the coming weeks and months these words will become flesh. We hope what results proves inspiring, actionable, and of lasting consequence.
Otherwise, some future punk little David Bahr will write a Substack article criticizing me for being ineffectual. And I wouldn’t want that.