The illogical creed of Krauthammer’s hopeless, agnostic conservatism

The noted columnist urges readers to reject "despair", but without offering good reasons

Charles Krauthammer is a very smart man. He majored in political science and economics at McGill University, was a Commonwealth Scholar in Politics at Oxford, and then graduated from Harvard (M.D.) in 1975. He practiced medicine and was chief resident in psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital before finally turning his attention full time to politics and commentary in 1980, working for Democrats (Carter, Mondale), before eventually embracing the descriptive “neoconservative”. He is well-known to regular viewers of FOX News (I’m not one of them, for the record; I don’t watch much news at all on television), but I know his thinking mostly through his many columns, which I’ve read and often profited from for many years.

His recent column, “Are We Alone in the Universe?” (Dec. 30, 2011), is both short and quite strange. Actually, I’m tempted to describe it as rather tortured—both metaphysically and logically. It’s as if Carl Sagan had tried desperately to become a traditional, Kirkian conservative, but could only go a few steps in the process of conversion. Writing of the recent discoveries of planets some 1,000 light years away, Krauthammer laments:

As the romance of manned space exploration has waned, the drive today is to find our living, thinking counterparts in the universe. For all the excitement, however, the search betrays a profound melancholy — a lonely species in a merciless universe anxiously awaits an answering voice amid utter silence.

What struck me upon first reading the column is how Krauthammer imbues the “merciless universe” with something of a personality, albeit cold and uncaring; this is then turned back toward man with a nearly baleful gaze of despair:

In other words, this silent universe is conveying not a flattering lesson about our uniqueness but a tragic story about our destiny. It is telling us that intelligence may be the most cursed faculty in the entire universe — an endowment not just ultimately fatal but, on the scale of cosmic time, near instantly so.

A few questions come to mind: by what measure and means do we gauge what is “tragic” and “cursed” if the universe is indeed cold and empty, without meaning? That is, why this frustration that meaning should indeed be meaningful if, in fact, there is no meaning? And how does a cold, impersonal universe “tell us” anything at all unless there is meaning, which must, logically, point to a source of meaning beyond or beneath the universe? From whence comes the qualitative judgments about both moral virtues and intellectual value?

While Krauthammer reportedly describes himself as a non-religious Jew, he surely must be passingly familiar with this passage from the Psalms, which sees glorious majesty where he sees a dark maw:

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes forth like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and there is nothing hid from its heat. (Psa 19:1-6)

The opening of the column is interesting enough, but it is Krauthammer’s solution, so to speak, that really grabbed my attention:

Rather than despair, however, let’s put the most hopeful face on the cosmic silence and on humanity’s own short, already baleful history with its new Promethean powers: Intelligence is a capacity so godlike, so protean that it must be contained and disciplined. This is the work of politics — understood as the ordering of society and the regulation of power to permit human flourishing while simultaneously restraining the most Hobbesian human instincts.

There could be no greater irony: For all the sublimity of art, physics, music, mathematics, and other manifestations of human genius, everything depends on the mundane, frustrating, often debased vocation known as politics (and its most exacting subspecialty — statecraft). Because if we don’t get politics right, everything else risks extinction.

We grow justly weary of our politics. But we must remember this: Politics — in all its grubby, grasping, corrupt, contemptible manifestations — is sovereign in human affairs. Everything ultimately rests upon it.

Fairly or not, politics is the driver of history. It will determine whether we will live long enough to be heard one day. Out there. By them, the few — the only — who got it right.

There you go: the meaning to life is found in … politics. Wow. Sign me up for a trip on that Train to Sure and Spectacular Despair! No thanks. Because while Krauthammer obviously believes that politics can save us from despair, I say the religion of politics alone is a sure path to despair, misery and ruin. If politics is our true hope and final end, then our final end is subhuman, even anti-human, because we cannot find our proper end in outselves. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, wrote, “There is no leisure about politics, for they are ever seeking an end outside political practice, for instance power and fame. Political life neither provides our final end nor contains the happiness we seek for ourselves or others … The purpose of temporal tranquility, which well-ordered policies establish and maintain, is to give opportunities for contemplating truth.”

If there is no transcendent, eternal truth and meaning, we are left with two essential, ultimate—temporarily speaking, at least—goals: power and pleasure. (Money, I would argue, is simply a means to one of those two.) Politics is not merely about power, but much of what passes for politics in the modern world is, in fact, only about power.  Yet there are those who claim the mantle of “convervative” who believe—or at least act as if—politics is the means, the end, and the goal. It is the cat, the meow, and the reason we should delight in petting the cat. But that is pure silliness. The great irony, to boil it down to basics, is that this reflects a perspective rooted in Enlightenment-era anti-religious sentiment; it is contrary to the sort of conservativism articulated by one of my heroes, Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind and many other exceptional works:

At the back of every discussion of the good society lies this question, What is the object of human life? The enlightened conservative does not believe that the end or aim of life is competition; or success; or enjoyment; or longevity; or power; or possessions. He believes, instead, that the object of life is Love. He knows that the just and ordered society is that in which Love governs us, so far as Love ever can reign in this world of sorrows; and he knows that the anarchical or the tyrannical society is that in which Love lies corrupt. He has learnt that Love is the source of all being, and that Hell itself is ordained by Love. He understands that Death, when we have finished the part that was assigned to us, is the reward of Love. And he apprehends the truth that the greatest happiness ever granted to a man is the privilege of being happy in the hour of his death. (A Program for Conservatives, 1962)

Kirk, of course, was a convert to Catholicism, and a firm believer that the universe was not filled with cold silence, but mystery and wonder. He knew that politics will never be practiced perfectly because men are never perfect; he repeatedly pointed out the need for politicians who were prudent—”judicious, cautious, and sagacious. … A prudent statesman is one who looks before he leaps; who takes long views; who knows that politics is the art of the possible” (The Politics of Prudence, 1993). This, by the way, is what is also found in the book of Proverbs, which articulates a practical guide to statescraft rooted in a fear of the Lord and a desire to be virtuous in all ways.

Thus, Kirk’s first principle (of ten conservative principles) was, “the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order.” He later notes that those “ideologues who promise the perfection of man and society have converted a great part of the twentieth-century world into a terrestrial hell.”

Krauthammer desires a perfectibility in politics that is not possible; he also longs for meaning in a cosmos he apparently thinks came from meaninglessness, exists in meaninglessness, and moves ever toward the same meaninglessness. The logic of this position escapes me, mostly because it is illogical. He laments being part of “a lonely species in a merciless universe [that] anxiously awaits an answering voice amid utter silence”, while seemingly ignoring the Judeo-Christian tradition, and its many and varied records of the Creator speaking to man and even becoming man. And yet, in the midst of the silence and meaningless, he extols human genius and calls for an active faith in politics. I’m all for faith, but that sort of completely blind and baseless faith, without any reason to embrace reason, is beneath the dignity of man and his call to enter into the divine life offered by the One who “fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et spes, 22)

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About Carl E. Olson 1233 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.