from the Claremont Review of Books a review of George Will’s Conservative Sensibility, one of the most important books released this year, Sensibility as Soulcraft:
And at the heart of the Declaration’s principles is the central contested issue of our time: human nature. Progressives and their allies consider it unfixed, malleable, and therefore raw material that invites endless progressive social engineering. Will doesn’t equivocate here: “If there is no sense in which there is an eternal human nature, there cannot be eternal principles—certainly no self-evident truths—of political organization and action.” Throughout The Conservative Sensibility, he returns to human nature’s centrality. “Civilization’s enemies attack civilization’s foundational idea,” he writes, “the proposition that human nature is not infinitely plastic and therefore that people cannot be socialized to accept or do whatever those in charge of socialization desire.”
Will still believes that “measures must be taken to make virtue less rare and more predictable,” but whereas his earlier book treated our deficiency in promoting virtue as a political failure, his new one understands it primarily as an educational failure. His chapter on the wreck of American education today, a subject absent from Statecraft as Soulcraft, notes the continuity between the founders and the classics, a subject usually missing from the “low but solid” rendering of the founding. “[Madison] and his fellow Founders conceived of happiness as Aristotle did, as a durable state of worthy satisfaction with life…. Happiness, therefore, is an activity.”
And what is the primary “activity” of America? Here Will pivots from Madison to Alexander Hamilton, and we see another significant revision. The commercial society that Will had mildly disdained in Statecraft as Soulcraft he now sees as an incubator of civility: “In fact, the nature of life in a commercial society under limited government is a daily instruction in the self-reliance and politeness—taken together, the civility—of a lightly governed open society.” The subtitle of the chapter where this appears is “Capitalism as Soulcraft.” Will doesn’t neglect or deny the arguments of Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell and others that dynamic capitalism undermines some virtues necessary for ordered liberty and human flourishing, but regards the welfare state as social decay’s more significant cause.
While politics dismisses ideology, it still underlies our differences. The belief in permanent human nature and governing principles is what distinguishes the conservative from the progressive.