This review appears in the Winter 2022 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe to the journal, click here.

The Reactionary Mind: Why “Conservative” Isn’t Enough
by Michael Warren Davis
Regnery, 2021

This is a stonkingly good book, well-written and funny. It’s also quite mad, but that’s what makes it so compelling.

There’s been a rash of recent publications arguing that modern conservatism doesn’t go far enough: rather than seeking to preserve a liberal status quo, Rod Dreher, Sohrab Ahmari, and Tim Stanley (yes, me) believe that we need to turn the clock back to an older order, to rediscover the benefits of traditions that are at-risk or extinct, re-rooting the individual in history and community. All of us have tried to pitch this experiment as being “in the world but not of it.” Michael Warren Davis just wants outta here. The traditionalists, he argues, should retreat—from technology, from the city, and from modernity, all the way back to the Middle Ages where honorable knights pursued “friendship and happiness, service and charity,” and serfs “paid their little taxes to their lairds and were otherwise left alone… There was very little for the king to do.”

Mankind, he says (meaning Christians in Europe) was happier then than now because people were dedicated to God and in harmony with nature. They had less choice, but meaningless choice is a tyranny—and they had what they needed. This was spoilt, we read, by the re-paganization of European elites during the Renaissance, the anarchy of the Reformation, and the invention of ideology during the Enlightenment (“much of what we call philosophy today is nothing but word games played by men with too much confidence in their own rational powers”). We were promised liberation—from superstition or monarchy—but what we got was an overmighty state acting in concert with capitalism to crush the individual and reduce us to cogs in the machine (“the nearest we come to genocide in the Middle Ages is the Spanish Inquisition, which executed nearly half the number of people a year as the state of Texas does today”).

Modern man is like an overbred dog: deracinated, soft, pointless. At the end of his tour of history and philosophy, Davis concludes with lists of heroic reactionaries (Charles I, Viktor Orban) and of things the reactionary should or shouldn’t do. Yes to: “Sing good songs. Read good books… Hunt, fish, and hike. Drink beer. Smoke pipes. Laugh.” No to “ball sports” and “travel.”

Well, tell that to T.E. Lawrence, the imperial wanderer, or the English upper classes who love tennis and find it much easier to be themselves when abroad. (If you want to see a “reactionary” in action, watch my English mother lecturing American waiters on the proper way to make tea.) Davis’s definition of reaction is subjective. “A reactionary would build his own darn bookshelf, not buy one from Ikea!”, he jokes—but in my country, reactionaries inherit their furniture, because I come from a class-based society where conservatism has typically been about keeping the toffs in charge, whereas Davis comes from America, where the ethic is egalitarian.

Reaction in the United States is rugged; in England, it is effeminate. In Japan is ritualized, violent, and erotic; in parts of the Islamic world, it is abstemious and chauvinist. (Davis thinks women entering the workforce was a big mistake—well, Al-Hakim, ruler of 11th century Egypt, agreed so strongly that he banned the manufacture of women’s shoes to prevent them from leaving the house.) When I wrote my own recent book Whatever Happened to Tradition? I made the decision to explore the benefits of living traditionally, but my peers instead chose to defend one tradition in particular—namely the European and Christian—which is absolutely fine, but the idiosyncrasies of Davis’s book demonstrate the risks. What is considered “traditional” varies enormously from one society to another. In the West, we bury or cremate our dead. In a corner of Indonesia, they keep corpses propped up in the house for months at a time, entertaining them with food and gossip.

When Davis says something you happen to know is wrong, it casts the general thesis in doubt. He doesn’t understand dogs, for instance, claiming that they don’t want to be raised like a human—on the bed, showered with kisses—but like a dog, outside, preferably in a barn.

Poppycock. In my experience, they want to do whatever you happen to be doing, including sleep on your pillow and eat from your plate. Dogs ideally should hunt and work, says Davis; “toy” breeds are a sign of civilizational decline. Yet my Cavalier King Charles spaniel was bred to work as a toy, to sleep at one’s feet in order to attract fleas, or on one’s lap on a long carriage ride to provide warmth. And it was so popular with reactionary Stuarts that the King Charles bears a royal name. Davis puts the Pekingese on his list of ignoble dogs, which is ignorant: the Pekes, adored by Queen Victoria, were highly favored by the Chinese imperial family, who bred them small so they could carry them about in their sleeves. P.G. Wodehouse, an even funnier reactionary than Davis, was besotted with them.

On more serious matters, the 15th-century friar Savonarola, presented here as a conservative art critic rather than a theocratic dictator, is described as a “martyr.” Perhaps. But it was the Catholic Church, the sun at the center of the Medieval world, that excommunicated him, and Martin Luther, the devil at the bottom of Davis’s latrine, who regarded him as a hero. We read that “genocide is the great vice of republics, not monarchies,” which made me spit out my pipe. Don’t tell that to the Armenians, butchered in the Ottoman Empire, or the Jews of imperial Russia. Davis might reply that these were modern monarchies, whereas in the Middle Ages there was “no standing army or federal police force” to carry out mass executions—but some contemporary princes tried their best. After a couple of centuries of pogroms, the Jews were expelled entirely from England in 1290. The captain onboard a ship of Jews fleeing to Europe pretended his vessel had foundered on a sandbank and ordered them to disembark; he then turned the ship back to the coast and left them behind to drown, cashing in on their cargo. (For this he got just two years in jail.) A king, Edward I, kicked out my country’s Jews. A republic welcomed them back in 1656, partly on the calculation that if England were the new Jerusalem and the Jews returned to it, the fulfillment of prophecy would trigger the Second Coming. Protestantism has its upsides.

Davis is right to castigate moderns for suggesting everything today is better than yesterday, but I struggle with the claim that most of yesterday was better than today. And if you peel back his fustiness, what the author is really arguing for is a greater commitment to the teachings of Jesus Christ, which in their own day were regarded as revolutionary. Were he a Roman in the 1st century, would Davis, like a good traditionalist, light his garden path with burning apostles? Or would he, as I suspect, embrace the newfangled ideas of the bearded Judean, i.e., that women have rights and slaves are equal to their master?

By some metrics, the 21st century is more Christian than the 14th. The welfare state, for all its sins, looks after the poorest and weakest without them having to throw themselves on the mercy of nobles or clerics. We have proved that hierarchy and mysticism aren’t essential for the maintenance of a humane society, and science, by curing disease and healing injury, can achieve what monks and witches hoped to do with fungi and spells. Like Davis, I’m instinctively attracted to tradition. We are both—irony klaxon—consumers of something that in previous generations was inherited or imposed, and this ability to choose to uplift oneself is a blessing of the free society. Growing up in an isolated tribe in the Amazon is arguably the closest you can get to the reactionary life, but without the corruption of outside influence—missionaries, books, TV, or internet—how are those people ever going to learn about Jesus, let alone Le Morte d’Arthur or The Canterbury Tales? Travel and technology can weaken tradition, yes. But they can also spread it around.

Nevertheless, for all his flights of fancy, Davis’s book is a fine exercise in what Stephen Colbert, when he used to be funny, called “truthiness.” It’s not technically accurate, but it feels right. Conservatism is a collection of prejudices, and Davis has many good ones. That science can’t explain all; reason is insufficient; too much choice is confusing; technology is infantilizing; journalism a waste of time. A section in which he advises how to hammer an iPhone into a million pieces is hilarious.

“The less you talk to other people,” Davis concludes, “the easier it is to love them.” Hear, hear! Communities “interconnected” by technology are engaged in a permanent state of “encountering,” but physical neighborhoods get on with the silent business of living and working among each other, hence true community “is about coming together” but also, by necessity, “leaving one another alone.” If I knocked on my neighbor’s door as incessantly as I text on my phone, he would set the dogs on me.

There is a lot of wisdom here; the author has a touch of Chesterton’s genius. This was the “turn back the clock” book with which I found the most fault but also most enjoyed because it captures the spirit of the movement better than anyone else has, proving that far from being sterile or self-absorbed, the reactionary life is sensual and eccentric. And enormously amusing.

Tim Stanley is an editorial writer for The Daily Telegraph and the author, most recently, of Whatever Happened to Tradition? History, Belonging and the Future of the West.