Luri, G. (2019). La imaginación conservadora: una defensa apasionada de las ideas que han hecho del mundo un lugar mejor [The conservative imagination: A passionate defence of ideas that have made the world a better place].

Luri, G. (2019).
La imaginación conservadora: una defensa apasionada de las ideas que han hecho del mundo un lugar mejor [The conservative imagination: A passionate defence of ideas that have made the world a better place].
Barcelona: Ariel. 344 pp.


At the present time, saying you are a conservative or support conservatism is not easy, especially in Spain. To do so is an act of bravery and a statement of intent, which exposes you to being considered illiberal by a society that is, in many cases, both libertarian and very vociferous.

 

Conservatism is nothing less than the fruit of history, of the passage oftime and of the events that have a special significance in the life of the people of a country. A conservative is someone who chooses not to forget the past, who wants to learn from what has gone before to be able to face up to the present and build a future with more certainty and strength.

 

Some revolutionaries and reactionaries see this as a backwards step, as a regression of society, something that is neither true nor objective. Conservatism has a close relationship with revolutions. Indeed, it exists thanks to revolutions; it is the counterrevolution to revolutions. While revolutionaries seek to change everything that is established and fight against power, conservatives prefer to feel that they are the heirs to tradition and shape the modern world from a past.

 

Gregorio Luri’s book, reviewed here, revolves around these questions, as the author, who is aware of the current paradigm in which we live, has decided to attempt a well-argued defence of this position.

 

Circumspection is a vital term for understanding this idea. Changing what is established is of no use to us; we have to travel to the past to understand what we see and name, and what better way of travelling to the past than reading great books?

 

There is a tendency to believe that innovation is the future, that we must innovate to move forwards and that this is a clear sign of progress, but innovation and progress do not always go hand in hand. The conservative, Luri states, believes in progress but not innovation. While progress flourishes in parallel with the advance of our intelligence and focuses on content, innovation runs ahead of intelligence and focuses on the speed of improvements. We might tend to think that conservatives spend their lives anchored in the past, but this is not the case. Conservatives are also modern (accepting that the modern does not necessarily have to be innovationist), but they refuse to be only that. They want something more; they want to enrich tradition, to feed it, to continue making it.

 

This discourse often runs into the ideas of the left, who claim that they are the progressive parties, the parties of change, when on too many occasions, all that they achieve is to be innovationists, revolutionaries, and afraid of losing their connection with the world.

 

In contrast, conservatism is not just a lifestyle, as some people call it; it is an ideology like any other. It interprets the world, it has a view of nature, a moral outlook, the outlines for a programme of government, rhetoric, and coherent criteria.

 

The great enemy of this ideology is nihilism, which appears when people put aside the prudence that is characteristic of conservatives and give way to science as the sole reference point for thought, something which subsequently leads to nihilistic thinking.

 

These ideas cannot be separated from the political, and so a large part of the work reviewed here revolves around the polis and everything surrounding it. In particular, the concept of politeia has a privileged place. Politeia, as the author states, is the reciprocal coordination between all of the people of a city that enables them to act. It is not a law; it cannot be written down (if it could, it would be a constitution). Politeia includes the desire and need to live that the inhabitants of the polis have, the thing that unites them and makes them different from others. This inalienable politeia is the fruit of the past, of good examples, of a tradition shaped by a slow process of change. It is clear why renouncing this is not good, since concentrating on Politeia can teach us a great deal, but in Spain, for some time now, this conscience has gradually been disappearing. The politeic is lost when the great writers of antiquity are forgotten, when we forget what has shaped us, when we stop paying homage to the ≪illustrious dead≫, as Ramon y Cajal put it, something that leads us ever more towards political backwardness.

 

Maintaining the health of the polis is no easy task, but people must live in a community and this involves being subject  to laws. Laws are a need as natural as sexual desire. The law does not seek to express the nature of the human being, but rather to govern human conduct in order to create political animals. Human beings, like the animals we are, tend to give in to our passions and instincts, but we must repress and overcome them. As the author notes: ≪The law represses our animal side and allows us to aspire to be political≫ (p. 113). Therefore, it is vitally important to create institutions to mediate between the individuality of people and the state. We cannot permit ourselves to be completely autonomous; this would be impossible. For individuals to be fully autonomous, they would each need their own particular language, science, and critical self-distance. Attempts at anthropotechnology to free human beings from the political have been in vain. Although individuals cannot stop being political, they can allow themselves to be political to a greater or lesser extent. That is to say, there can be degrees of being political. Being more or less political largely depends on the collective education people receive. Without a suitable collective education, people become degraded, turning into wild animals.

 

Centuries ago, Plato warned us of the dangers of ignoring these laws, going beyond natural limits and creating a feverish city. To prevent this, it is necessary to impose limits, laws that govern the political health of the city and make it a theatocracy where the viewers of the polis and of themselves are the people themselves.

 

In the last section of this book, Luri dedicates a series of chapters to analysing the current socio-political situation of Europe, as the politeia we form part of, and of Spain.

 

Freedom is one of the most recurrent themes in the social and political panorama. We all advocate moral freedom to undertake actions, but the freer we seem to be, the more we are slaves. In Europe, we have gone from a moral authority belonging to the Church, to a moral authority of therapists, Luri observes. We demand more of ourselves morally than we can bear. This causes us shame and, as there is no established morality and everything is valid, nothing surprises us. Making something morally and socially accepted is relatively simple; one simply has to show that there is victimisation, to show that something or someone is suffering because of what is being demanded, this being the best way of making a case.

 

Something else that has been turned into a burning stigma in modern society, and which is considered in depth here, is belonging to the elite, something that must be hidden at all costs. The meritocracy that exists in our society, is something that, according to some politicians, must be eradicated; hence the class-based diatribes against the rich… But this argument is relatively new. Until relatively recently even a socialist like Fernando de los Rios, defended aristarchy, the selection of the best for the highest posts. Nevertheless, just as it is important to facilitate the advancement of those who have earnt it through their effort and work, it is also necessary to facilitate the demotion of those who have not honourably reached the pinnacle.

 

Citizens sometimes do not seek what is politically neutral but rather seek out what they want to hear, the power of persuasión and lies. We trust in democracy to solve the problems of citizens without them being fully aware of what is really happening. People live a constant healthy lie, but without these lies, no democracy would exist at all. For a polis to maintain itself, it is necessary to create an emotional superstructure that makes all citizens part of a common truth, even if this does have an element of democratic lie.

 

Finally, analysing the question in Spain, Luri notes this country’s distinctiveness as a nation. After a brief historical overview, in which he cites numerous politicians and thinkers, he shows how Spain has gradually been losing its feeling of nationhood, if indeed it ever really had one, as ≪there are countries that know how to love themselves … but in contrast we are either inflamed with passion for ourselves or we are scourging ourselves≫ (p. 297); Spain is perhaps one of the only countries that does not love its homeland. Every nation has an unchangeable DNA despite changes in political and social fashions, but over a period of 20 years we have completely changed our nature. In my view, this point should perhaps be developed more in the book, given the current situation, to seek the reasons that have led Spain to have this feeling.

 

Every country has its defects, no patriotism is perfect, but to compensate for this, they make an idealised version of patriotism; this is how to demonstrate self-love. It is important to remind a country of the reasons it should feel pride in itself, without forgetting the grounds for it to feel shame.

 

As Luri says in his last paragraph, ≪this book has turned out to be a book of echoes≫ (p. 329) and the fact is that, like the good conservative and teacher he is, he has attempted to draw on numerous authors of all types to support his position, and we cannot but think that he ≪preaches by example.≫

 

As well as its great philosophical, historical, and analytic weight, this book is able to outline the importance, once again, that education has in any polis, to preserve tradition and educate collectively and so make us political creatures rather tan savages. Educating about the past does not have to mean being a reactionary, but simply increasing one’s field of vision,  enabling the circumspection that can help us avoid repeating past mistakes.

Enrique Alonso Sainz