Alex J. Illingworth describes himself as British traditionalist and conservative moralist, political philosopher, student of Theology and Orthodox Christian. He is also co-founder of The Burkean blog and one half of the Traditional Discourse podcast along with Jacob Williams.
Following his The Conservation of Liberty: An Examination of the British Conservative Tradition in a Little Blue Book (CreateSpace 2016), in October this year (2018) Alex published Political Justice: A Traditional Conservative Case for an Alternative Society (Arktos 29/10/18). The premise of the book is described as the follows;
‘With a sound mixture of common sense and clear-sighted temperance Political Justice reconstructs classical philosophy through direct dialogue with modern liberalism, dismantling the fallacies and follies of the latter brick by brick, even while rediscovering the principles of a just political order. Neglecting neither our most cherished and deeper heritage, nor the best of classical liberalism, A. J. Illingworth guides the reader step by step through a lucid investigation of the political and social structure right for European peoples, culminating in a vision of a society which is capable as much of securing us in our liberties, as encouraging us in our virtue.’
In a review for Amazon entitled Move over Scruton I wrote that;
‘If, like me, you’re a liberal and looking to understand the honourable members to your right, this book is an excellent primer. Written by Alex J. Illingworth, co-founder of The Burkean political blog, the book is a concise exposition of British conservatism with the oak tree firmly rooted in Aristotelian soil. For those accustomed to, and after years of being bored by, the Kantian Toryism of Roger Scruton, this is a refreshing re-interpretation of conservatism that extends its thinking back beyond the Enlightenment to font of Western Civilisation.
The work is divided thematically into books with succinct chapters that reads like a practical guidebook for the little platoons of modern conservatism and for those who wish to understand them. Even if, like me, you don’t necessarily agree with the programme Illingworth proposes, you will certainly find yourself questioning your premises.’
To celebrate the books publication, and my return to writing after a summer of political and romantic distractions, I invited Alex to participate in the first, and hopefully not the last, Ten Questions interview.
Ten Questions: The Interview.
1) What inspired you to write the book?
I had long been planning to write a book on the subject of conservatism, and I suppose the influences can be traced back a long way to my first major philosophical readings, which were of Aristotle and Plato. In particular, I had always found Aristotle’s political theory to be superior to Plato’s, and I wanted to express the consequences of this to the modern world in an original way. The fact that the end result aligns with the like of Roger Scruton and the ‘traditionalist conservative’ school is no coincidence either.
In terms of the style, the methods of argumentation from Cicero, and Schopenhauer’s The Art of Controversy, rubbed off on me no end.
2) I found it amusing in the Preface that you once had a lecturer who described himself as ‘revisionist Godwinian’. Do you find it difficult being a conservative/traditionalist in a typically left-liberal academic environment?
I’ve been able to go through my studies relatively untouched in this regard, but that’s only because I go to a university which is more intellectually tolerant (on the whole), and because relatively speaking I am intellectual small fry. I’m by no means a tenured academic who has suddenly expressed a series of controversial opinions to his students, so there is no reason why the leftist mobs in the student body, or the established liberal orthodoxies in the academic body, should discover and execrate me. That being said, I can’t say there’s much in the book which the former sort would like…
3) The book reads a lot like a guidebook of conservative thinking. Was that your intention when writing it?
Perhaps not initially, but I’m not unhappy that it turned out that way. It began as a series of notes I made upon reading Godwin’s Enquiry at the nudge of that lecturer you mention. I was also acutely aware that a book solely on Godwin would not be something the general public would most likely wish to read. As such, the notes gradually expanded and evolved until they resembled something more like a traditional conservative primer contra leftism. These were the first fruits of Political Justice.
4) In Book I you discuss Political Institutions and in a review I described the book ‘as a concise exposition of British conservatism with the oak tree firmly rooted in Aristotelian soil’. Roger Scruton, the most prominent philosopher of British traditionalist conservatism, typically looks to Kant, Hegel and Burke to bolster his arguments. What made you reach back beyond the Enlightenment to Aristotle? Without sounding too much like Heidegger, is there something you feel we have lost in modernity, or maybe need to re-learn from the Greeks in how we build and structure our societies?
Scruton is very much a Kantian in his ethic. Now, there’s nothing explicitly wrong with that per se, but through Aristotle I arrived at the virtue ethicist’s position myself. A firm distinction between Kantian deontology and Aristotelian virtue ethics is not always possible to make, but I think what Aristotle gets right which Kant overlooks is that natural human behaviours will always have as much of a limiting as an exalting influence over ethical praxis. With Kant ethical judgements are very black and white – your actions are either oriented towards the summum bonum, and are therefore necessary, or away from it, and are therefore vicious. Aristotelianism strives to find a more natural path between extremes towards temperance. There are black and white virtues and vices in Aristotle too, of course, but Aristotle understands that our ethical choices are as much rooted in a kind of aesthetic as they are in brute terminology like ‘ought to’, ‘right’, and ‘wrong’. This idea also appears in Schopenhauer’s placement of ‘compassion’ at the centre of ethics. I wanted to rediscover ‘virtues’ and ‘vices’ and place them in their proper contexts. ‘Compassion’ is a word which is used a lot these days in the context of conservatism, and I wanted to dispel the myths about it: what is real ‘compassionate ethics’, and what sort of ethic will serve a political order best?
Another, not unrelated, consideration is the role of the transcendent, even in the use of language. The Greeks had abstract concepts, such as τὸ καλόν, ‘the noble and beautiful’ which English simply cannot exactly express. Kant accepts transcendence in a passing manner, but modernity has neglected God, and indeed any conception of transcendent moral order, and with this has also disappeared our ability to place a value-judgement on actions of all kinds. Malice, for example, once a cornerstone of legal theory, is now a dirty word. So long as you are a human being, it seems, you cannot be described in terms of your relationship to the moral order, because moral ‘truth’ does not exist. This is clearly an extremely harmful view to have. I’m with Elizabeth Anscombe on this one: it means that most ‘secularised’ approaches to ethics will fail.
5) In Book II you discuss the Principles of Society. Do you think it is possible to find a stable definition of virtue in a globalised and multicultural society?
Of course it is possible, all that needs to happen is that the members of a polity embrace some sort of common value-system. That said, you are right to suggest that globalisation and multiculturalism (at least in its current state) make this very difficult to achieve. If the overwhelming majority of people in a nation share a common religion, this is much easier to achieve, because no matter what personal differences in opinion or lifestyle might be present, they can agree on certain fundamental issues. For example, whilst a high church Anglican and a Baptist might differ on the theology of the Eucharist, both can agree that there are certain behaviours which constitute ‘good Christian virtue’.
6) In Chapter XVII you view Christianity, and in particular the figure of Jesus himself, as the basis of Western morality and progress. How important is Christ to you personally and what key values has he bequeathed to humanity?
The figure of Christ is inseparable from Western heritage, if for no other reason than the longevity of the presence of the Christian religion within Europe. More importantly, I think that Christianity is the truth. For me personally Jesus Christ is not only ‘my Lord and my God’ to quote St Thomas, but a moral exemplar for daily life.
In the West, we think we know Christianity, having lived with it for so long, but we don’t really, because for at least 100 years if not more, whilst we may well have lived with Christianity, we have not lived Christianity. The consequence of having had Christianity survive for much of the 19th and 20th centuries as a purely political and cultural institution, and its dramatic decline (at least in Britain) following the cultural revolution of the 1960’s, has been that people remember Christianity only in those terms. This is why I personally found Orthodoxy to be a more natural expression of ‘the ancient faith’. For me, Orthodoxy has more in common with Eastern practices such as Buddhism insofar as it places utmost importance upon the life of its central figure. To be an Orthodox Christian, therefore, is to strive to live the life of Christ. We all probably fall short of this, but the virtue lies in the striving.
As for key values that Christ left for humanity, I think the most important values are those expressed by his face in the famous icon of the ‘Sinai Christ’: redemption and judgement. On the one hand, he reminds us, particularly those of us passing through the vale of tears of this human existence, that God understands and cares for us in our suffering. On the other hand he reminds those in authority, and the wicked, that they will not escape judgement for their behaviour in the next life, even if they manage it in this one. Personally, I see there is no greater hope extended to mankind by any other Master.
7) Capitalism is under a lot of criticisms just now from left and right. In Chapter XXI you discuss economic theory. Do you feel capitalism can be reformed or is it beyond redemption? ‘What is to be done?’ as Tolstoy or Lenin would say?
This is a difficult question, and I’m not an accomplished economist. I’m with Scruton here, insofar as I can see no effective way to avoid market theory, and if that makes me a ‘reluctant capitalist’ then so be it. The models of ethical capitalism which I praise tend to be of two kinds: one being where the entrepreneur shows great respect towards, and rewards his workers so as to promote a benevolent relationship between the employee and the employer (as in the cases of Josiah Wedgwood and George Cadbury for example – both radical Christians in their own right). The other is that demonstrated by John Spedan Lewis, where every worker is to some extent a registered partner in the entire business enterprise.
Do I think the entire economic system can be reformed along these lines? Probably not. At the moment the particular form of capitalism we have in the West, which is little more than a series of centrally negotiated oligopolies, is too well entrenched to be seriously displaced. I think the financial system is of more importance here, because its very fundamentals are founded upon wickedness: lending at usury, irresponsible banking, and debt-valuated currency. This system weakens itself everyday, and I fear it is unsustainable with a view towards the future. A collapse of the system may be a good opportunity for restructuring along the lines of something resembling Catholic distributism or the Guild model, but I’m by no means in a position to judge how that might come about.
8) In Books III and IV you discuss the Principles of Government, Revolutions and Legislative and Executive Power. Do you think the current populist uprisings across the globe are an existential threat to the status quo, or merely a short term reaction in a longer term socio-economic and political reconfiguration? A ‘bone in the throat’ of liberal democratic capitalism as Hegel would say.
Most populist movement are as you say, little more than a distraction for the establishment, serving little purpose than to hammer at the gates of power. The events of the mid-20th century instilled (possibly quite a healthy) scepticism of populism in the minds of Europeans. The populist movements which you allude to today only become dangerous when they start to break down the gates. I am put in mind of the 2014 European Parliament elections in the UK where UKIP came out on top of the polls, and the panic with which established parties responded. There seemed to be a real sense of change in the air at that time. Distilling political ideas such as ‘conservative values’ into populism can be dangerous, but perhaps that is a case of picking one’s battles strategically; I am certainly no political strategist. If you look at something like Brexit, though, you will see what the problem is: a decent movement with good intentions for real changes that the country probably needs, but it has lost all of its momentum since the referendum. Herein lies the problem with populism: it can storm its way to success, but the fickle nature of popular will makes it difficult to sustain in the long-run.
9) You have also created the Traditional Discourse podcast along with Jacob Williams who is a recent convert to Islam. Do you find the interfaith discourse fruitful and what would you hope viewers will learn from it?
Britain is in need of some degree of interfaith dialogue at the moment, not least given our political and social anomie. I don’t think Islam is true myself, nor do I believe that an Islamic ‘religious revival’ is what Britain needs or deserves, but given that we do have so many Muslims in Britain, it seems a good policy to engage with them positively. I have long suspected, as I lightly suggest in my book (which is in no way theological), that many of the problems that have arisen in Britain surrounding tension and criminality within Muslim ‘communities’ is more a consequence of the failure of multiculturalism and the prevalence of moral dissolution amongst the youth than it is a failure of Islam. If British Muslims, especially converts to Islam, can find some way to express their faith in a culturally ‘British’ way, then they could prove to be great friends in reviving our national traditions.
10) Finally, I know from personal conversations that you are buzzing with ideas. What can we expect from you in the future?
I don’t want to give too much away! I’m trying to formulate a coherent philosophy of history of the French Revolution, but I suspect that may be a long-term project. For now my studies are focused on metaphysics and the philosophy of religion, which will, all being well, be the subject of my next book. At some point I should like to return to where my project in Political Justice left off, and continue my critique of men and morals. All I can say is, if you are interested in my work, be sure to stay tuned to my updates on twitter, and my publisher!