Jon Askonas’ Compact piece does not bury the lede. Conservatism has failed, in his view, and it has failed because it mistook the problem at hand. It mistook the seismic shift of technology for a simple lack. Askonas writes that while a notion of tradition has always been used to unify disparate groups, it was a “usefully empty category” referring alternately to scriptural wisdom or constitutional claims.
While tradition once functioned as a lowest common denominator that unified when necessary and guided individual beliefs, it no longer does so. Tradition no longer functions in this way because technology has rendered traditions obsolete. The “real problem…is that the conservative defense of tradition has failed- not because the right lost the battle of ideas, but because technological change has dissolved the contexts in which traditions once thrived. A technological society can have no traditions.”
Technology has replaced tradition, according to Askonas, because the tool of a single technology can render the knowledge and practices of a tradition unnecessary. He refers to new agriculture methods, which in adopting new technologies “shared some virtues with the old but discarded careful attention to the land as a whole, self-reliance, thrift, and adaptive re-use. Instead, it became of paramount importance to master the relationship between soil, fertilizer, water, and other inputs.”
So new technologies discarded traditional ways and with them the practices that such traditions accumulated to them. New dangers also accompanied such technologies, as did new skills. The dangers were the misuse of the technologies, and the skills were characterized by a narrow mastery that even if achieved afforded little sense of the “good” associated with the tradition. “Mastery” itself became the one ring to rule them all.
Though agriculture never determined character, traditions once generated both knowledge of what made a good farmer and what made farming a good. One might have an impetuous farmer, who rushed the sowing on a day of poor weather, or a greedy one who over-borrowed and ended up at the harvest owing more than he produced. But note that in both examples, bad character yielded bad outcomes. There was in traditional agriculture a direct relation of sorts between virtue and crop yield. It would be an overstatement to say that such a relation always pertained. And yet there is a suggestive relation between those virtues that make a good man and those that make a good farmer.
This can of course be taken too far- examples of mean farmers who became rich and virtuous ones who barely scrape by certainly abound. But we might at least say that the traditional form of agriculture offered a persuasive account of what might be considered traditional virtues. Diligence, patience, generosity, attentiveness to one’s animals and their needs and even crop rotation and its virtue of right use of the land likely yielded a productive harvest.
New technologies, on the other hand, demanded only mastery. One might master knowledge of chemical fertilizers as an impetuous farmer or a patient one- it matters not at all. Such new knowledge also quickly became obsolete as it was replaced by newer, disruptive technologies that carried with them no account of what made agriculture a good, beyond narrow conceptions of profit.
Askonas writes of even more critical outcomes associated with such use- reduced family size, for one, changed the shape of the local family as well as settlement patterns and offspring moved to pursue other, non-agricultural opportunities for work.
In sum, then, the postwar availability of cheap ammonium-nitrate fertilizer dramatically reshaped what it meant to be a farmer, but also brought with it a host of other material and ideological changes. I don’t relate all of this to lament the loss of an older way of life, but to highlight how extensive the social impact of a single technology can be, and how little the conservative defense of tradition offers in response to this sort of change.
“A tradition is at an end”, he writes, “when the wisdom of yesteryear no longer obtains.”
Though Askonas writes about the effect of technological disruption on the traditions that conservatism depended on, the shift is related not simply to how we do things but who we are. The language of technology’s effects is theological language. Askonas notes how technological innovations have changed our perceptions of human nature, of human flourishing, and the telos of a human life.
Long before Jon Askonas’ piece, Alastair MacIntyre wrote of the way traditions nurtured and generated human virtues. For MacIntyre human virtues are necessary for constituting and sustaining the “good life” for man.
The good life, instead of being displayed by a set of acquisitions or hobbies, is instead “the life spent in seeking for the good life for man, and the virtues necessary for the seeking are those which will enable us to understand what more and what else the good life for man is” (219).
Traditions are the means whereby we name what a good life is and sustain the practices that form such a life. These traditions are never uncontested; indeed institutions that bear traditions are “constituted by a continuous argument as to what a university is and ought to be or what good farming is or what good medicine is” (222). A living tradition is an argument and what strengthens traditions is the exercise of virtues (222).
In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre diagnoses a crisis in morality of catastrophic proportions. Imagine, he writes, in his colorful opener:
that the natural sciences were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe. A series of environmental disasters are blamed by the general public on the scientists. Widespread riots occur, laboratories are burnt down, physicists are lynched, books and instruments are destroyed…Later still there is a reaction against this destructive movement and enlightened people seek to revive science, although they have largely forgotten what it is. But all that they possess are fragments: a knowledge of experiments detached from any knowledge of the theoretical context which gave them significance; parts of theories unrelated either to the other bits and pieces of theory which they possess or to experiment; instruments whose use has been forgotten; half-chapters from books, single pages from articles, not always fully legible because torn and charred. Nonetheless all these fragments are reembodied in a set of practices which go under the revived names of physics, chemistry and biology… Nobody, almost nobody, realizes that what they are doing is not natural science in any proper sense at all. For everything that they do and say conforms to certain canons of consistency and coherence and those contexts which would be needed to make sense of what they are doing have been lost, perhaps irretrievably.
In MacIntyre’s estimation, we are living after the catastrophe. We are miming traditions and moral judgments but doing so out of context- not only do we not know what such things mean, but we cannot even understand the fragments we hold. What has been lost in the catastrophe of his metaphor is the traditions that give an account of the good life and how to live virtuously within them.
After Virtue was written in 1981. So it was written before the advent of all of the technologies we so fret about, before the disruptions in manufacturing were in place, before social communities had been thoroughly reformed through technological means. Even then, MacIntyre saw the need for traditions to communicate virtues and form individuals in the practice of them. It is only the maintenance of such traditions that allows individual human lives to have a coherent shape. The degree to which these traditions disappear is the degree to which our actions simply mime their meaning. Truth, goodness and beauty become mere approximations, fragments of words on a page taken out of context. “Nobody, almost nobody, realizes that what they are doing is not natural science in any proper sense at all.”
Askonas claims that traditions are incompatible with technology, and sees us as all holding fragments. It is the fragmentary nature of our communication and knowledge of our shared project that is the demise of conservatism. If the shared traditions that bolstered conservatism are gone, what is needed is not further hand-wringing but active building to restore traditions through technological means. But the problem is that his solution is that we must build, using new technologies, in order to bolster the traditions that will restore conservatism:
As new technologies enter a society, they disrupt the connections between institutions, practices, virtues, and rewards. They can render traditions purposeless, destroy the distinction between virtuous and vicious behavior, make customary ways of life obsolete, or render their rewards meaningless or paltry. If the institutions that shepherd traditions aren’t regenerated, and if no one adopts their practices, traditions will fade into nothingness.
If MacIntyre has named the problem Askonas identifies- the dissolution of traditions that will ultimately render the coherence of the moral life obsolete- Askonas has taken it one step further, claiming that “a technological society can have no traditions” and yet calling for the restoring of realities that sound, well, like traditions:
The radical alteration of the social environment and the strange new potentials offered by technology have rendered received wisdom obsolete, such that translating it into the new environment requires a deeper prudence than mere reception of tradition. Because the tools for modifying and mimicking humanity are getting better every year, and because all traditional cultures have been consumed by modern dynamism, we must once again return to the question of what constitutes human flourishing, and what is required for it.
Alastair MacIntyre in 1981 did not have in mind the massive technological disruptions that Askonas is responding to. His conclusion in After Virtue, however, resembles Askonas’ own. In MacIntyre’s inimitable words:
What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another- doubtless very different- St. Benedict (263).
St. Benedict was for the Christian West the inheritor of both Rome’s excesses and the Christian tradition’s eremitic instinct. Out of this tension he forged a new means of engaging the world, forming cenobitic communities that were guided by a rule of life that determined the Christian monks’ relation not only to prayer and labor but to time itself.
MacIntyre’s call for a “another doubtless very different St. Benedict” resounds with Askonas call for the furtherance of human flourishing and the transformation of wilderness into garden”, and “the forging of wild new technological practices, the equivalent of vertical farming or hydroponics, if the result is revitalizing.”
But what kind of Benedict can lead us? Can technologies, which are themselves at the heart of tradition’s unmaking, be tradition’s savior? The question is not merely a mechanistic one- it is a question of the narratability of the modern life, governed as it is by technological realities that mitigate against narrating a life.
The problem that Askonas does not raise is whether traditions can be remade. My concern is that he has left us with a call for technological practices that will further human flourishing, where the two have time and time again shown themselves incompatible. If the new and stranger Benedict turns out to be Elon Musk, I think it’s time to withdraw to the desert.